Right Before My Eyes

Rodeo ClownYesterday I went down to the basement level at First Baptist Church to greet the homeless men and women who come for hot showers, clean clothes, and the generous love of Jesus they receive from our faithful volunteers.

After I had offered a word of welcome and a prayer a man came up to me holding one of those little devotional guides that we keep on the tables.  He showed me something he had read that fit in nicely with my prayer and then we began to talk.

This man was bearded, dirty, smelly, and swarthy from being in the sun all summer, but his eyes were bright and intelligent and as we talked he told me that he and his wife were looking for work, and hoping to get on their feet.  “She’s got a place in one of the shelters,” he said, while he was sleeping wherever he could, most recently under a bridge.  He told me that they were both hard workers and that he used to work with the rodeo.  “Oh really,” I asked, “what did you do?”  “I was a bull fighter,” he said, grinning.  “You know…a rodeo clown.  I did that for 15 years.”

And that’s when it happened.  That’s when this man began to change right before my eyes.  No longer was he a homeless drifter; he was a former rodeo clown.  And then he began to tell me about the church he had belonged to in North Carolina, and what a wonderful church it was, and how he worked with the homeless when he was a member there.  “That was before I got laid off,” he said, quietly, and then told me about his work as a heavy equipment operator for a construction company.  Everything had been going great until the recession hit.  He and his wife had been living in a three bedroom house with an in-ground pool.  He was driving a Ford Explorer.  “Now look at me,” he said, embarrassed.  “My wife’s in a shelter and I’m sleeping under a bridge.  But if I could just get cleaned up—get a shower and a shave, some clean clothes—I might be able to find a job, and when I do I’d love to come help you out with this homeless ministry.” He swallowed hard and added, “God’s been awful good to me.”

I could hardly believe the transformation: where moments before this smelly, bearded, wreck of a human being had stood before me now I saw a brother in Christ, down on his luck but working hard to get back on his feet again.  I imagined him clean-shaven, well-dressed, and smelling like Old Spice cologne. 

But here’s the problem: it took me several minutes to see him like that, to hear the story of what he had been and to imagine what he could be again.  But God saw it in him from the beginning.  In fact, in God’s eyes, he was never a homeless drifter, but only always a precious child. 

Dear God: help me see people as you see them, as if the transformation had already taken place, and they were—already—what you had always dreamed they could be.


Blame it on Talk Radio

Old radioOne of my Facebook friends asked a question yesterday.  He said, “Somebody help me here. Didn’t Reagan and H.W. Bush make speeches at the outset of school years? Why the uproar over Obama doing the same thing?” 

The first few responses were positive.  People said things like, “Good question” or, “Yes, that’s true” or, “I don’t know what the uproar is about.”  But very quickly a fight broke out on Facebook, with some people affirming the President’s right to speak to children in our country’s public schools while others made comparisons to George Orwell’s “1984” and the educational policies of Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao.  26 comments later my friend wrote, “I think I’m going to wait a while before I ask another political question.” 

It seems to be that way these days, that you can’t ask a political question without starting a political fight, and the fights that break out seem to break out along party lines. It’s as if we’ve chosen up sides, put on our red and blue uniforms, and gone to war with each other.  It’s a civil war, but there is nothing civil about it.

The rhetorical attacks against our current president have been especially vicious, but long before Barack Obama people were ridiculing the person and policies of George W. Bush.   When did we get like this?  And how?  Who told us it was OK to disrespect the office of the president of the United States? 

Talk radio, that’s who. 

I don’t listen to talk radio as a rule, but the few times I’ve tuned in I have been shocked by the vitriol ( vit-ri-ol, noun: something highly caustic or severe in effect, as criticism) that pours out of my speakers.  And every attack leads to a counterattack, so that even without touching the dial on my radio the volume and intensity of the debate goes up, whether there is someone actually there in the studio or the talk show host is only reacting to what he has read and heard from “the other side.”  I feel my blood pressure going up when I listen to talk radio, my grip tightening on the steering wheel, and I wonder how it would affect me if I listened all the time.* 

What if we treated our brains like we treated our stomachs, and tried to put only good things in there?  What if we did “touch that dial,” and tuned in to a classical music station or listened to a good book on tape (maybe even the Good Book)?  It’s there, in the Good Book, that you find Paul saying, “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). 

I wonder how our public discourse might change if we did that.

*Incidentally, my dad had a fender-bender a few years ago, and when I asked him how it happened he confessed, sheepishly, that he had been listening to talk radio at the time.

If Not Us, Who?

helpingAt the end of my last post I asked you what it would take to make the move from Unchristian to Christian, which is just what the authors of the book asked some well-known Christian leaders.  Instead of having a reputation for being hypocritical, antihomosexual, judgmental, sheltered, too political, and too focused on making converts these leaders dreamed that in thirty years Christians might have a reputation for being loving, bold, gracious, authentic, courageous, admired, engaged, countercultural, focused on justice and—most importantly—focused on Jesus.  One of my favorite responses was this one from Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven: just a little of it leavens the entire loaf.

What if the church, over the next thirty years, truly lives the life that Jesus as taught us to live?  What if we love our enemies, pray for those who hate us, and offer our coat when our hat has been taken?  Are we ready to truly sacrifice and watch the world move toward the kingdom of God?

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who loses a pearl in a field and purchases the whole field to find it.

If Jesus is as valuable as we say he is, then what will we give up for him to remain alive in us?  Can we, the church, spend the next thirty years valuing Jesus Christ and whatever he asks of us above all else?  Can we even imagine what the world would become?

If the church will choose now to live this way, we can confidently look forward to seeing our culture influenced and changed.  My hope is that when I am seventy-two, I will have seen the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God.  I imagine a world lacking divorce, sexual promiscuity, and poverty, and overflowing with peace, mercy, and justice.

Isaiah prophesies that the old wasted cities will be restored.  He says that we shall be called repairers of the breach, the restorers of the streets.

And then there was this bold vision from Brian McLaren, a founding member of emergentvillage.com:

In thirty years research could tell us that when people think “Christian” they think things like this:

  • Christians are the ones who love people, whoever they are—gay or straight, Jew or Muslim, religious or atheist, capitalist or not, conservative or liberal.
  • Christians are the ones who have done more than anyone in the world to stop the HIV/AIDS crisis.
  • Christians are the people who gravitate toward the poor and who show compassion through generous action and seek justice so that the systemic causes of poverty are overcome.  They call the rich to generosity, and they call on rich nations to work for the common good.
  • Christians are people who believe that art and creativity are important, so they consistently produce the most striking, original, and enriching art.
  • Christians are willing to give their lives for the cause of peace.  They oppose violence in all its forms.  They will lay down their lives to protect the vulnerable from the violent.
  • Christians care for the environment.  They don’t see is as raw materials for economic gain, but they see it as the precious handiwork of their Creator.
  • Christians have personal integrity.  They keep their marriage vows and are aware of how destructive misused sexuality can be.  Yet they are compassionate toward people who make sexual mistakes, and they never consider themselves superior.
  • Christians build harmony among races.  You always know that you’ll be respected when you’re around a Christians.

It may be that neither of these visions is your vision for the future of Christianity, but isn’t it important to have one?  A huge, hopeful, vision of what Christians can do, what the church can be, and how the world can change as a result of our efforts over the next thirty years?  That’s what keeps me going.  It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.  A vision of how the world might be transformed by the followers of Jesus, and how through our feeble and fallible efforts we might really help him bring heaven to earth.

If not us, who?

From Unchristian to Christian

HuggingKidsSmall[4]I’m reading the last few pages of Unchristian and looking for the author’s conclusions.  OK, so we know that the younger generations have a negative perception of Christians, that they think we are hypocritical, judgmental, antihomosexual, too sheltered, too political, and too focused on making converts.  What do we do about that?  How do we change their perceptions?

Author David Kinnaman writes: “To shift our reputation, Christ followers must learn to respond to people in the way that Jesus did.  In other words, to reverse the problem of unChristian faith we have to see people, addressing their needs and their criticism, just as Jesus did.  We have to be defined by our service and sacrifice, by lives that exude humility and grace” (p. 206).  Kinnaman sums up with four suggestions for changing a new generation’s perception of us: 1) respond with the right perspective, 2) connect with people, 3) be creative, and 4) serve people.  “We have to respond to people in the way that Jesus did,” he says, and concludes by asking, “”What image of Jesus do people get from your life?”

Gabe Lyons, who commissioned the research contained in the book, writes: “It comes down to this: we must become Christlike again.  No strategy, tactics, or clever marketing campaign could ever clear away the smokescreen that surrounds Christianity in today’s culture.  The perception of outsiders will change only when Christians strive to represent the heart of God in every relationship and situation.  This kind of Christian will attract instead of repel.  He is provoked to engage instead of offended by a decadent culture.  She lives with the tension of remaining pure without being isolated from this broken world.  When outsiders begin to have fresh experiences and interactions with this new kind of Christian perceptions will change, one person at a time.  When they have catalogued enough experiences with this kind of Christian to outweigh the negative ones, the reputation will change.  In due time the name Christian will come to represent something refreshing and positive.  One new friendship, a compassionate hug, a kind word, a positive outlook, or a well-meaning affirmation will go a long way in seeing Christ’s reputation revitalized throughout our culture” (pp. 224-226).

What about you?  What do you think it will take to make the move from Unchristian to Christian?  And how soon can we start?