Am I a Christian?

For many years, the easy answer would have been “Of course!”

Now…I find myself wondering just how to answer that question in a way that most accurately reflects my thinking. And it’s difficult.

First of all, let me be clear on one thing. I am a follower of the One called Jesus the Christ. I’m not a perfect follower…and I struggle sometimes with where I sense Jesus calling me to be and what I sense myself being called to do. But I have found in him the best example of the love of the Divine…the way to live with integrity…and the one who challenges me to do the best I can to create a world where diversity is welcomed, where people are seen as individuals and not classes to be demonized, where the worth of all people is seen as paramount–even those who seek to destroy me.

But a Christian? It depends on what you mean by that, especially in today’s political climate.

Many people I see being described as “Christian” hold values and attitudes that I find diametrically opposed to the one whose name they claim. If being a Christian means supporting policies that tear families apart with no empathy…or swallowing values in order to be close to the seats of power…or believing that one skin color is superior to all others…or that the poor deserve no safety net…that the rich are somehow supremely blessed by God and deserve everything they have–and everyone else be damned…that those whose gender or sexual expression is different from my own understanding makes them worthy of being killed…then no, I am not a Christian.

The term “Christian” began as an epithet. Then it became a positive descriptive title…and today, for many, it has again become an epithet. I would like to reclaim its positive values, but I am afraid that is going to take many, many years.

But again, am I a Christian? There’s a wonderful portion in the Gospel of Matthew that–in many ways–gives my answer. But for now…I think I’m more comfortable using an earlier description used by those who followed this path…”followers of the Way”…the way described in the passage below (Matthew 25:31-45 The Message).

“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

“Then the King will say to those on 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 the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’”

 

 

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I am not immortal

When I was younger–much younger–life seemed to stretch before me forever. Oh, I knew there would come an end…sometime. But that seemed so far in the future that I didn’t really worry about it.

Now, though, things are different. I know that I have fewer years before me than those behind me.

That really came into focus with the word that someone I went to high school with…whose wedding I played for…whose family has attended my congregation…had a massive heart attack and died last night. He was my age.

And now, even though I am not worried about death, I do wonder. Just how many years do I have left? and how am I going to use them?

I had so many plans…so many dreams. Some of them I’ve accomplished. Some have been left by the wayside as I realized they weren’t really what I wanted after all. But there are still some left unfulfilled–and still desired.

Yet life intervenes. It’s not all bad when that happens. Sometimes it helps us realize that some dreams need to be released in order to allow room for others to grow.

But I am still coming to grips with the realization that I am not immortal. The future that seemed to stretch so far ahead when I was younger has now shrunk. I still don’t see the end of the road, but I know it’s coming.

So what am I going to do with the time that’s left?

Sure, I can make my bucket list…and check off the items as I accomplish them.

But the important things on my list are these two items:

  • that the people I love know that I have loved them and continue to love them…
  • that I have done what I can to make the world a better place for everyone.

 

Taking a stand

I’ve been thinking recently about several people: Dietrich Boenhoeffer, Irina Sendler, Oskar Schindler, Corrie ten Boom, Immaculee Ilibagiza…ordinary people who made extraordinary decisions that changed not only their lives but the lives of many others as well.

Were they perfect people? No. They were like us–they had flaws. But when they saw something wrong, they made decisions to do something about it. Would I have done what they did? I don’t know…

They all lived during extremely difficult times…times when many others hunkered down to protect themselves. Why didn’t they?

They’re not particularly household names. Many have probably never heard of at least some of them.

Dietrich Boenhoeffer was a German pastor during World War II. He saw the glorification of Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party as a danger to the Christian church–and preached loudly and strongly against the church’s cooperation with the Nazis. To counter the nazification of the German church, he started a movement that ultimately became known as the Confessing Church. He had opportunities to live safely abroad, but he felt that his calling was to be with his people…to lead them in opposition to what he saw as fundamentally evil. He eventually became involved underground activities against the Nazis, culminating in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler…a decision that led to his capture, internment in a concentration camp, and ultimate death at the age of 41. Do I agree with everything he said and did? No. I think that some of his theology was flawed–but at the same time, he saw the danger in the church becoming an arm of the government and did what he felt necessary to try to bring the church back to its mission.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish nurse and social worker. Hallmark made a movie of her story–The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. When the Nazis came to power, she began doing what she could to help isolated Jews–offering food and shelter. But when the Warsaw Ghetto was created, she saw the future for Poland’s Jews–a dark future–and began doing what she could to change that. She (and others) began smuggling children out of the ghetto, finding them safe places to live until they could hopefully be reunited with their parents…a hope that could not be realized. She was eventually captured and tortured–her legs and feet fractured–but she did not give up names of her compatriots. Although she was sentenced to be shot, she was rescued and remained hidden until the war was over. At a time when the Nazis were creating hatred and division–creating propaganda that called the Poles to see their Jewish neighbors as “other” and “less than,” Irena saw them as people who needed help.

Oskar Schindler has become known to us through the movie Schindler’s List. He wasn’t a particularly nice person–an opportunist and a rather shady businessman. But something got to him, and he ended up being an unlikely rescuer of Jews, using them as factory workers in various situations…giving them the opportunity to survive. I don’t know that I would have liked him. I know I would not have liked some of his activities…and yet, somehow he was touched and instead of simply feathering his own nest, he used his connections to save some who were seen as “other” and “less than.”

Corrie ten Boom was the unmarried daughter of a Dutch watch maker, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church whose story can be found in The Hiding Place. When the persecution of Jews started, she and her family started hiding them, because she saw that persecution as injustice and as an affront to God. She and her family believed in a principle that also guides my faith tradition–the worth of all people. Their actions ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of Corrie and her sister Bessie in a concentration camp, where Bessie died. Other family members also died as a result of their actions. After she was freed from Ravensbruck, she began traveling to countries that had been impacted by the war, trying to bring reconciliation and healing. She found herself coming face to face with her own biases when a former guard asked for her forgiveness–and she was only able to do that through the grace of God. In many ways, I like her…but could I lived through what she did with the trust and confidence in God that she had? I don’t know.

Immaculee Ilibagiza is definitely not someone most of us have heard of…because she lives in a part of the world that is outside most of what we are familiar with. She was 23 years old when the Rwandan genocide began. People who had been friends and neighbors began to see each other as sub-human and turned on each other in a murderous spree that lasted months. Immaculee was sheltered by a local pastor, along with seven other women. They lived in a 3×4-foot bathroom for three months, hearing the murders going on…hearing neighbors on the hunt for people they wanted to kill. When she was finally able to come out, she discovered that most of her family had been killed…many of them by a man who had been in their home as a friend. When he was tried and found guilty, she was given the opportunity to respond to him–and she chose to respond with forgiveness. She tells her story in Left to Tell…but I wonder…how? How does one find the strength to forgive someone who has killed your whole family? Could I have done that?

I have been fortunate in that I have spent most of my life living in safety. I have not had to worry about how others have seen me…I have not had to worry about family members being killed. I have not been looked at as “less than”…

And yet I’m living in a time and situation where that is true for many people. So what is my responsibility? How/when do I take a stand? I consider myself an ordinary person as did these people. Yet their faith called them to what could be seen as extraordinary decisions and they could not be silent in the face of injustice and cruelty…in the face of some being seen as “less than”…so how can I?

 

 

 

Ugly American

Back in the late 1950s/early 1960s, a book titled The Ugly American became famous (and, in some quarters,infamous). It was an unflinching look at how Americans were often perceived throughout the world…and it was not pretty.

While not true of all Americans, nevertheless, it was true that far too many Americans working or traveling abroad came across as loud, obnoxious know-it-alls who were convinced that they were God’s gift to the world and had no need to listen to/learn about/be aware of any other culture’s history, beliefs, or perspectives. In practice, what this often meant was that rather than listening to what people said they needed, Americans rode in on their white horses with a predetermined set of policies to be implemented, regardless.

It has taken us 50+ years to move past that stereotype…and less than a year to slide back into it.

We now have a leader who has used shameful and obscene language towards those who are brothers and sisters in other lands. He has celebrated those who believe that the mere color of their skin makes them better than others of different skin tones. He has lied–and then lied again to cover up the original lies. He has bullied other world leaders…and refused to work with them in any way to help our planet. He has denied policies that were put in place to protect those who are vulnerable.

It would be bad enough if if were just him. But he has made it acceptable to be cruel to others…to be divisive…to bully.

The America he wants to create is not the America I want to live in. I have no desire to be one of the ugly Americans portrayed in that book–and being recreated in today’s culture.

The America I want to create is memorialized on the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I hope and pray that it doesn’t take us another 50+ years to understand what we have done to ourselves and our relationships in the world with our embrace of the ugly American stereotype…and that we will be able to again live the promise of Lady Liberty.

Light in the darkness

Although I’m not a fan of winter cold, I do like the month of December because of all the beautiful Christmas lights that are up. They provide colorful light in the winter darkness.

But then the Christmas season ends–and the lights come down.

The darkness then seems so much stronger. I wonder sometimes just how long it will last…and how long it will be before we see the light again.

It always comes. The darkness cannot conquer the light.

But even more than that, I am reminded of my responsibility to be a bringer of light into the darkness that is part of my world. At times it seems as though the darkness will never end…and at times it seems to be getting stronger and stronger.

But darkness cannot conquer light.

I loved the Harry Potter books and movies. They were a reminder of the constant battle between darkness and light–and the hope that light would eventually triumph (which it did). Sometimes the situation seemed hopeless…and what seemed to be light actually was darkness and vice versa. But, as J.K. Rowling said, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

So who are we?

The winter months give us a choice. We can increase the darkness…or we can be the light that shines in it.

As this new year starts, I am reminded of something that Martin Luther King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

May we be the light and love that drive out darkness and hate.

A prayer for a new year

Creator…

We stand at the threshold of a new year. The days stretch before us…clean, bright, waiting for whatever we will write on them. That is both an exhilerating and a frightening prospect; will we write things that will support others…bring us together? or will they be filled with division and hate?

There are so many possibilities!

Grant us the willingness to walk in the path you have called us to…a path of healing, of hope, of wholeness. Give us strength to persevere when things and people around us would conspire to call us to take the easy way.

Help us to look at those around us with empathy…to be willing to give others the benefit of the doubt…to listen with open ears rather than our preconceived notions. May we see you in the faces of “the other.”

Most of all, as we move into the future, give us the courage to truly mean this prayer…to live it, not just say words that disappear into the air.

It will not always be easy. But you promise to walk with us–and we claim that promise as we move into this new year.

We pray this in the name of the One who showed us how to live. Amen.