Cutting Down God’s Image

I’ll be honest. I’ve tried writing a blog every week for the past few weeks (except for that camp week, and VBS.) Each time, however, I found myself at a loss for words. And for as wordy as I get on this thing, some of you are probably wondering how that even works. Most of my reluctance to publish has been a nagging question at the back of my mind: “Haven’t you said this already?” I freeze, and wonder what else there is to be said.

Then I remember an idea C.S. Lewis (I think) tossed into my worldview a while back: that the moral thinkers and prophets we remember weren’t writing anything new, just reminding their time period of what we all know is right. I can certainly see his point with the biblical prophets – they seemed to be stuck on repeat. And, yet, I still see people ignoring them, plugging their ears and pretending that certain passages aren’t in the Bible.

As Rabbi Sacks points out, the greatest single idea that the Bible has given to modern society is that every human being is created in God’s image. And, might I add, no status or action can take away that truth. For example, a convicted felon in prison is no less made in the image of God than a minister boldly proclaiming the word on a Sunday morning. Please mull that over for a moment.

Why use the example of a prisoner? Well, because America has one, if not the, largest prison population in the world. And I am so happy to say that my church family is highly involved in prison ministry. Our kids even make cards and notes for the prisoners each semester. Dominique Gilliard pointed out in a recent interview on Seminary Dropout that, “without prisoners, we wouldn’t have the Gospel.” Peter, James, Paul, John the Baptist and others were all prisoners at some point. (Also note that nearly every one of them ended up on the “death row” list as well.)

I bring this up because for years the language surrounding prisoners, the poor, and foreigners has been, frankly, dehumanizing and ungodly and unworthy of a child of God. Words like “animals,” and “predators” have been tossed around by both ends of the political spectrum, so neither group is let off the hook. For generations, children have heard these terms applied to different people, and I don’t have to wonder what the effect has been.

Jesus, in particular, was very clear about humanizing the enemy, going so far as to pray for them as he was being killed. He also spent a large amount of his time and energy with the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the “sinners.”

Can you imagine Jesus teaching an ESL class? Can you imagine Jesus volunteering at the local community kitchen? Can you imagine Jesus leading a prison ministry? Sure, right? We can all agree these things are what good people do. But, remember, Jesus was lumped in with the sinners. He was called a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus also lived a life of an itinerant, traveling everywhere, and calling nowhere “home.”

So can you imagine Jesus sitting at the bar in your local drinking establishment? Can you imagine Jesus sleeping in the homeless camp out in the woods behind the subdivision? Can you imagine Jesus at Burning Man? Can you imagine Jesus mingling with people at a gay pride parade? Can you imagine what people would say about this Jesus? You don’t have to! Read Mark, or Matthew, or Luke, or John! We know exactly how people responded: the sick, poor, and sinners rejoiced at Jesus’ message of the Kingdom; and the church people, community leaders, and government felt their power and status quo threatened and reacted with violence.

Remember, when Jesus arrived at the party, lives changed. Hearts melted and were remade. People found themselves transformed in the radical love, firm challenge, and life-altering compassion Jesus exuded. Jesus saw each and every person as being made in the image of God, and it clearly affected the way he interacted with others.

Have we been transformed? Do we really see the world as it should be: flipped upside down in the new Kingdom worldview of the first being last and the last being first? Do we truly see the image of God in every human being? Can we evaluate the way we act, speak, and listen based on the Kingdom of God rather than this kingdom of air?

Let’s work on this next generation now. Let’s change the way we speak about people, particularly the vulnerable and those who need a hand. Let’s model how to speak about others by offering respect and compassion. Let’s teach our children that respect doesn’t mean agreement. Compassion doesn’t mean signing on to someone else’s beliefs. These things are what we should offer to everyone.


Your Racist Language

You know, language and words have a life of their own. Some words can change meaning drastically, taking on so much weight, baggage, and connotation that they become nearly unusable unless prefaced by a huge contextual aside to clarify the meaning. The common example here is “thong.” Now, a certain age group will see that word and picture a sandal to be worn on the foot. Before then, a group would have seen a strap to tie town luggage. Now… well… the artist Sisqo had a very particular type of underwear/swimwear in mind when writing his famous “Thong Song.”

That said, there are so many other examples of words that have changed or evolved over the course of history. English is a living language, meaning that new words are added and definitions can change over time as words are used. I ran square into this my first time through “The Lord of the Rings” as the Hobbits and others would regularly refer to bundles of sticks as faggots. Now, my middle-school brain had a hard time with that one – until the context clued me into what was actually being said. I have since come to discover that this particular word which is a slur used for a particular minority group, also had connotations with smoking.

Some words have subtle meanings to certain groups – which would be referred to as coded language. You may have heard the term “dog whistle” to describe some of these terms – the metaphor being that these words are indistinguishable to anyone without the code or specific knowledge.

For instance, the term “Nazi” has a very specific meaning. We, as Americans, have probably overused the term for a joke’s sake (“grammer nazi,” for example) but that may have been an attempt to degrade the power that the Third Reich held for a short, but devastating period of history. The term “Fascist” also has a very particular meaning, also bandied about a bit too much and has probably degraded in its descriptive power over the years. Now, individuals and groups who ascribe to the social policies of Nazism and Fascism would prefer the terms “alt right,” “white racialist,” “white nationalist,” etc. America didn’t do as good a job ridding the world of these groups as originally thought or celebrated at the end of WWII. (And on the other side, America has such a checkered past with “communist” that the word hardly has a meaning in today’s society. It could almost be defined as “enemy of the U.S.” for the way its used in common speech.)

That said, there are some coded phrases that are used, even by well-meaning people that tend to mean something other than the textbook definitions. I’m a believer in clear communication. If we’re going to speak to one another, let’s try as best we can to use the same meanings so that we can both walk away with the same impression of a conversation. Let’s take “urban” for example. Urban can mean, simply, “of the city.” However, it’s often really just code for “black,” as is “inner city.” Take a moment and think about the picture those words conjure up for you. Do you see a diverse group? Or one color of skin? And the word “diverse,” what picture does that draw in your mind? Is it multicolored? Does it include lighter and darker shades? Does it include age, gender, or ideas? What about the word “immigrant?”

Take this verse, for instance, and replace the word “stranger” with “immigrant:”

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34 (JPS)

Or maybe replace “stranger” with “refugee.”

The problem with the world is that it tries to paint human beings as objects, often using language to accomplish tat goal. In some ways, we are fighting against our own minds to keep this from happening. Between racism, sexism, porn, abuse, politics, and misconceptions of religion, the idea that human beings are all made in God’s image gets lost. People are not problems… they’re people. It’s very easy to sit or stand in a place of privilege, and point a finger at a group, dehumanize them and see them as an object, or a problem. It’s much harder to look into the eyes of another human being and see the face of Christ there.

There is a sentiment often attributed to Joseph Stalin, though it has been stated many times in many eras, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” This, sadly, has often been the case in history. Jesus, though, did the opposite, he approached the individual, dealt with the human aspect of any situation. He praised a Roman for his faith, interacted with women, welcomed foreigners, and accepted people as they were. (He never left them there, but did accept them as they were.) Jesus didn’t see numbers, he saw human beings.

Until we see others as people, as being made in the image of God, we will be lacking that love of God so crucial to life in the Kingdom. As long as we see numbers, problems, statistics instead of faces, stories, and suffering, we will ultimately miss the work God has set out for us.

Our language needs to reflect God’s love. We should all look at our language and ask what we mean when we discuss with others. When someone challenges us and points out our racist language, we need to be humble submit to one another in love and change our habits.

Your children listen to what you say and what those you respect say. What are they learning about how to speak with others? Are they learning love? Respect? Peace-making? Humility? Are they learning to speak of others as human beings, loved and cherished by the God who made them? Or are they being trained in the world’s mindset – to see people as numbers, statistics, problems?

May we speak truth, love, and peace to our children.

Words You Can’t Take Back

There has been so much bile and venom spit during this election, I’m kind of hoping that everyone has run out for the next decade. That’s probably a lot to hope for, but I did want to say a few words on Election Day.

Remember, once everything is over, we will all have one president. We’re called to be a people who pray for the leaders of this country. And, honestly, I’m not sure most Christians have taken that to heart the past 8 years. Either way, a little under half of the country will have to eat their words with some roast crow and humble pie for dessert.

Once the election is over, we’ll need to reconcile. We’ll need to apologize. We’ll need to work all the harder to make sure that we stay “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Let’s work for justice, let’s protect liberty – all of it, yours and the other persons you don’t agree with.

Pray for this country, its leaders, and its people. Pray for peace, for justice, for unity. And then, most importantly, be a peacemaker, a seeker of righteousness, and a force for unity.

(And remember, your kids will hear what you shout at the TV tonight.)

Photo Credit: Election 2016 | by DonkeyHotey Election 2016 | by DonkeyHotey vi Flickr

Free Speech Doesn’t Exist

Bills. I hate them. If I had realized what a drag paying bills would be when I was younger I would have… well, I would have enjoyed the lack of responsibility more, I guess. Since no one has found a way to reverse aging or time, I am continuing on the inevitability train further into adulthood. And, again, I figured people at my age, and certainly older had things all put together. The older I get the more I realize no one has any idea what’s going on and some people are much better at faking it than others.

A couple of days have passed since the first 2016 Presidential debate and I have been puzzling over the debate itself (of which I watched only 20 minutes before vomiting a little in my mouth and switching it off) and the resulting flurry of analyses – oh and the Facebook posts and tweets, let’s not forget them. People feel as though free speech has been under fire now for several years, what with “political correctness” (whatever that actually means, now) and different movements pushing for understanding, justice, and inclusive language. Speech has never been free, nor will it ever be free.

Don’t tune out. This isn’t going where you think it’s going. You’re expecting me to launch into how men and women have fought and died for your ability to say what you think and feel. And I am happy to shortchange that expectation. You know that already, none of us need that lecture again.

No, so few of us consider the cost of our words. Jesus pointed out, rightly, that we will have to answer for every careless word we say. Our words interact with a kind of budget, and eventually we will have to have a divine audit to see what we did with our budget. I say cost in that whatever we say takes or gives. Consider that we are capable of saying whatever we want, but not everything is helpful, productive, or worthwhile. (Everything is permissible, but not all things are beneficial, to be Biblical about it.)

When we carelessly, or intentionally, say hurtful things we pay a cost in two ways. One, we carve off a bit of our own humanity to pay for that comment. Causing pain to others is not how God designed humanity, and when we go against that design, we remove, little by little, those things which make us most human. With each hurtful phrase we carve off compassion, mercy, empathy, understanding, and we become less. Secondly, when we say hurtful things, we also carve off a bit of the person we hurt to pay for our words. We carve off bits that make them human as well: dignity, self-worth, identity. As my family has always said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Meaning, no matter if it seems free, someone had to pay or work to make that free-ness possible. This is what Jesus is talking about when he talks about contempt in Matthew 5:21-22, contempt doesn’t just damage the abused, it also damages the abuser.

On a more positive note, though, we can make investments. in others, and ourselves, by using language that is uplifting, helpful, and thought-through. There is so much venom and hatred being spewed out like some nasty sci-fi monster on the internet today, why add to it or share it? Instead, why not pray for one another, use kind language, and listen to others when they speak? When we listen, understand, and think through our words, we give ourselves and others the dignity they deserve as images of God.

And here’s the kicker… and the scary part. If humans are made in the image of God, any abuse or violence, physical or verbal, directed toward them is also directed toward God. Just sit with that for a moment and let it sink in.

What words do your kids hear you use to describe others? Do your children see you listening and using understanding, or leaping to conclusions? How can you better model a Jesus-like example of using constructive, beneficial language?

Manly Fruit

Ok, as an artistic, not-so-macho man, I may not be the person to write this particular post. On the other hand, I’ve heard lately that some people consider the Fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians to be a list of very soft traits. I’d like to correct that.

For one, it was written by a man’s man: Paul of Tarsus. This, if you recall, is the same man that regularly confronted people who were slacking off or missing the mark in the church family. He also dealt with things like shipwreck, beatings, philosophical meetings, and church board meetings. So for all intents and purposes, this guy, on top of being a tent maker, managed to punch several points into his “man card.”

So what would make anyone think the list of wonderful traits in Galatians might not be the manliest of qualities? Let’s see here… we have “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” Oh… ok. Yeah, the wording here isn’t exactly the cover of a gearhead magazine.

Ok, so let’s go through these and see if we can’t see the deeper meaning here.

First off, love. Sure. Men sometimes have a hard time with this word. Getting a guy to say, “I love you,” can be a bit of a task, even if he genuinely feels the sentiment. But what is the sentiment in the first place? It’s the “I’d take a bullet for you” sentiment. In action movies, when does the guy say he loves the girl? Right before or just after the near-suicidal rescue attempt. Love, in this case, isn’t a mushy feeling, it’s a statement of putting someone else’s needs, safety, and survival above my own. It’s self-sacrifice. And, dang it, men aspire to be the kind of guy that would do that kind of thing. We ask ourselves that question when we watch movies or the news, “Would I be the guy to stand up and protect everyone else?”

Also, just to add on to love and the rest of the following traits. Love doesn’t mean standing back and watching someone destroy themselves. Sometimes, like Paul, like Jesus, like Peter, it involves reaching into someones life and (literally or figuratively) slapping someone awake to reality. Confrontation is a part of looking out for someone’s best interest, especially when they cannot see the harm they’re doing to themselves. Love contains courage, truthfulness, and a desire to pick people up and watch them succeed. This is what motivates teachers, coaches, generals, and squad leaders. We call it different things, but it’s a sense that we can help people by watching their backs and helping them succeed even when they don’t believe they can.

Second, joy. No, this isn’t a “happy-go-lucky” smile plastered across our face. Joy is the expectation of good even in the face of defeat or disaster. In other words: hope. And what person could face off against the likes of evil empires, destructive tyrants, or gross injustice without a sense of something good coming down the pipes? What man could face the loss of a job, the loss of a friend, or an impending disaster without the hope that things will turn out ok in the end? Joy is necessary to the soldier, the rescue worker, or the corporate climber – it’s looking at the end product and working toward that good after all the work has been done.

Third, peace. It doesn’t just mean calmness. It’s a clarity of mind that comes from being connected to something bigger and more powerful than we could ever imagine. It’s the kind of clarity that allows a person to see the wrong in the world and fight against it. It’s the clarity that allows a person to have their lives in order to the point where they can begin pulling others out of the line of fire. It’s the sense of letting go of daily worries  so that the job at hand can be done with excellence.

Next, patience – it’s not just for dealing with annoying people anymore. It’s also connected with joy. It’s being able to play the long game, to outwit, outplay, and outlast whatever obstacle is in the way of victory. Patience is necessary for knowing which risks to take, and which ones will just waste time and energy. Great generals, and people of history had this kind of patience when they were setting up to change the world.

After patience comes kindness. Kindness isn’t weakness. It isn’t letting someone walk over us. Kindness is being capable of voluntarily “giving the shirt off our back.” It isn’t a demanded kindness, it is an offer of help from a place of strength and assurance. It’s like being a safe port during a storm for another human being. It’s sharing rations with survivors of disasters or giving a car to someone in need.

Goodness. We’ve missed this one a lot in the past few years. This isn’t goodie-two-shoes stuff. This is the deep integrity of character we admire out of great men like Lincoln, Washington, Socrates, Churchill, and many more. The great men of history who changed the world for the better, but also maintained a sense of virtue when not in the public eye. We value integrity, honor, and loyalty, and goodness contains all of these things and more, especially when connected to the goodness of God.

Faithfulness. Loyalty. Who are the most hated men in history? The cowards, the betrayers, the disloyal. Many of them have their names become synonymous with the act of betrayal: Judas, Brutus, Benedict. Loyalty goes with integrity, as stated above. Men who stay loyal, who stand their guard or man their post in the face of overwhelming odds are celebrated. Faithfulness may be one of the most honored traits on this list because it does require so much courage to remain faithful as the ship is sinking.

Gentleness. This one probably gets the worst rap of all of these. “But gentleness is weakness.” Obviously you don’t understand the English language. Gentleness is power under control. Consider this example: a sick horse lying on the ground in pain and whimpering and a Clydesdale, gigantic muscles rippling as it leans its muzzle down slowly for a child to pet it. Which one would you say is gentle? A baby is not gentle, but that baby’s gigantic, ripped father with plate-sized hands cradling the tiny body is gentle. Gentleness is being able to wield power (physical, mental, financial, or political) in such a way as not to crush those around us.

Self control. Call this one weakness, and I’ll ask you to find your way to a martial arts training facility. That’ll change your mind quickly. See above for explanation, but suffice it to say, many of our honored men of history were self-controlled. They maintained a constant work ethic and disciplined mental activity to accomplish great feats – whether those be military, artistic, literary, culinary, or politically. Guided effort over time can create the greatest change.

So, in short, the idea that the Fruits of the Spirit are all weakness and not power – kind of a false illusion. In a way, the world has tried to strip away the powerful attributes of Jesus and use particular words to tone him down. As said in the following verse, “against such things there is no law.” Again, these are some of the highest human traits – the pinnacle of what it means to be fully human -to be fully alive!

Which trait most speaks to you? Which one is the hardest for you? How are you helping to train your kids into using the power we have through Jesus to build the Kingdom and change the world for the better?

“Oh yeah? Bless you too!”

In the beginning God created… and he spoke… and it was. And he said it was good. (Or in the case of one of our adorable little ones at church, “It was dood.”)

We all have a sense of the power of words, but sometimes I think our modern minds have tried to over rationalize things. “Sticks and stones” and similar sayings play down the effect words can have. The individualization of America has taught us that we shouldn’t care what other people think… but we still do. (Which is why people say that phrase to begin with, to create a persona of aloof courage, all the while painfully nursing the wound. Much like me getting hurt doing something I wasn’t supposed to when I was younger: “I’m ok. It doesn’t hurt at all. Oh, sure, my leg always looked like that.”)

Ancient magicians in Egypt and Greece had a healthy respect for words. They believed words themselves held power, creative power given to humanity by the gods. We often associate words with magic with spells, incantations, hexes, curses, etc. All of these are words – words that are believed to have the ability to actually impact the physical world. And, albeit in a strange way, they latched onto a truth about the world.

Words do have power. They have the power to heal, hurt, encourage, depress, inspire, or manipulate. Tones have the ability to change the meaning of entire phrases, and can undermine even the kindest of words.

James, the brother of Jesus, took some time out of his day to write a book of wisdom, of practical religion. You know what he spends nearly a whole chapter on? Words. James 3 is a whole treatise on the use of our words. Paul talks about it. Proverbs has many verses on words and how to use them. Our own experience shows us that words can have powerful effects on the people around us. And in all of human experiences there are two opposite ends of the spectrum.

Negative first, since I like ending on a positive note. The curse has been for most of human history feared and taken as the utmost offense. And back in the olden days, they really knew how to curse. Nowadays most cursing involves a simple 4-letter Saxon word and a pronoun (you.) Curses could be long, calling down poor crops, poverty, sickness, pain, and many other undesirable effects. And here is where James says is the problem with Jesus disciples using this. How, he says, are you seriously going to let such an awful thing come out of your mouth? Your mouth is supposed to be a life-giving spring connected to the life-giver Himself, and you’d allow such hateful sewage be sprayed onto another human being, who is also created in the image of God?

On the positive side, think about that image of a spring of water. A spring refreshes, heals, cleanses, and cools. That’s the goal of the blessing. The blessing is a prayer for goodness, health, wealth, gifts, and many good things directed at another human being. There are some wonderful blessings in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. We even see God blessing humanity with fertility, authority, and responsibility. Paul includes a blessing or two in each of his letters to the churches.

If you’ve never considered what the blessing could do, I’m recommending a book. This book is titled The “B” Word. Catchy title, huh? It’s written by Robert Strand, a pastor and writer. In it, he uses Scripture to highlight the benefits and the ins and outs of blessing someone, especially children. See, he has a tradition in his family of blessing every grandchild when they reach the age of 13. The entire family gathers together and each member prays a blessing over the child. The effects of these blessings has been a wonderful thing to watch unfold over the years as these children live into and experience the fullness of the blessings they may not have understood at the time.

So, what’s the point? Well, consider changing your language. Instead of, “[insert word of choice here] you!” Maybe try praying blessings over others. “But, that’s ridiculous,” you say, “that sounds like weakness and extremism!” Maybe, but the man I follow, Jesus, did that very thing while soldiers were beating him and while the crowds jeered and mocked him. Saying a blessing over someone who cuts you off in traffic instead of cursing them seems like a small step in the light of Jesus’ example.

How does your language reflect your walk with Jesus? Do your kids hear blessings from you, or only criticism and curses? Do your children hear you bless others or curse them? What’s one situation this week where you can intentionally make an effort to control your words and use them in Jesus’ name.