The Society Gap

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with my uncle in which he mentioned that Christians keep at an arms length away from society.  I started thinking about that comment.  It kept me up that night as I mulled it over.  For some reason, it didn’t quite sit right with me, but I wasn’t sure why.  And then I realized.

We talk about being “in the world, but not of the world,” based on Jesus’ words in John 17:14-17.  But I think we focus more on the latter half of that phrase — “not of” — more than we focus on the fact that we are, indeed, very much “in” the world, and I believe we are called to be right in the middle of society.

Why?

First, if we look at the life of Jesus, we find Him in all the places we would tend to avoid.  With Samaritans (Arabs?), tax collectors (crooked lawyers?), lepers (AIDS patients?), the demon-possessed (mentally ill?), and prostitutes.  Jesus didn’t keep an arms length away.  There was no society gap that His love didn’t cross, no barrier that wasn’t swept away by His indiscriminate tidal wave of compassion.

Second, we consider that we must separate ourselves from society in order to distinguish ourselves as upright, moral people.  But truthfully, Christians did not invent the society gap.  There are thousands of society gaps created by racists, sexists, politicians.  All of them want to separate themselves as wheat from the chaff.  Nobody wants to be associated with people groups that they consider in any way inferior; everyone is trying to make some sort of statement by their separatism.  People are very used to being excluded from various groups, and Christian separatism is no different to them.  We think we can make people change their behavior by not associating with them in any legitimate capacity until they conform, but it doesn’t work that way.  Instead, they simply think, “Another group who thinks they’re too good for me.  Whatever, I don’t need them.”  We want to be known by our reputations of high moral character — but Jesus said we would be known by our love.  Jesus wasn’t concerned with His reputation.  In fact, in many circles, He had a pretty crummy reputation, but He didn’t bother defending Himself to those who misjudged Him.  The outcasts who truly encountered Him were forever changed, and that was enough for Him.  It was worth the risk to His reputation.  You see, we think distancing ourselves from society will make us stand out, but it doesn’t, because everyone else thinks that as well.  Here’s the paradox: if we want to look different from the world, we have to plunge headfirst into it.

Why don’t we?

I think in a lot of ways, it’s far easier to distance ourselves from society than to wade through the gray areas of unconditional love.  You see, love is messy.  Really messy.  It gets into all these complicated issues of accepting people vs. condoning behavior, loving the sinner and hating the sin, etc., etc.

Do we throw a baby shower for a baby born out of wedlock?

Can we enjoy hanging out with an alcoholic?  Or do they have to be a project, a charity case?

How many times do we let someone mess up before they’re a lost cause and we cut them off?

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions.  They’re hard questions.  But I think we need to confront and work through the tough stuff instead of brushing it under the rug and pretending it’s not there.

Dean Barham from Woodmont Hills church of Christ once spoke on the parable of the sower, introducing a new twist I had never thought of before: the Sower didn’t plant His seed carefully.  He scattered it at random, without concern for what kind of ground it would land on.  It didn’t matter if it landed among the thorns.  It just mattered that He sowed it.  And it’s the same way with us.  We can’t be selective about who we love.  We’re not called to invest in the ones with the most potential.  Sometimes we just need to scatter the seed of Christ’s love without worrying about where it falls or how it’s received.  Really, isn’t that what unconditional love is all about anyway?  You can’t rein in the radical love of Christ.  Sometimes — no, all the time — we just need to let it spill out onto everyone around us, whether that’s buying a stranger’s lunch or being the only one to have compassion on the preacher who was fired for embezzling.  When justified scathing judgment is hemming him in, maybe a bit of unexpected, undeserved love is what will bring him to his knees.

Not only is it easier to distance ourselves, but it’s also a great deal safer.  As much as we talk about surrendering to God, I’m pretty sure that very few of us have actually surrendered our reputations.  A lot of it we excuse by saying, “I can’t be seen hanging out with this person because it will damage my witness!”  To you — and to myself, because I’m guilty too — I’ll say the following: first, that’s just an excuse.  That’s you wanting to be in control of what people think of you.  You say that you’re trying to protect Jesus’ reputation, but He didn’t care about protecting it, and He doesn’t need you to protect it.  Second, if you’re worried that people won’t be able to see a difference between you and the world, you’re probably not living right yourself.  If you’re all out for Jesus, it won’t matter who you hang out with.  They’ll see the difference.  They’ll know.

We also want to protect ourselves and our kids from the influence of the world.  With kids, I’m a little more understanding, because they’re like little sponges.  But if it’s about you, forget the fear and get your head in the game.  You might be introduced to some new ideas and difficult questions outside the security of your Christian bubble.  Good.  You can’t find truth if you never have to look for it, and you’ll never get answers if you never ask questions.  Being in the world turns theoretical discussions into practical ones and makes you think about why you believe what you believe.  It’s like being pushed out of the nest — it might be a little uncomfortable and a little scary, but that’s how you learn to fly.

What do we do about it?

Living in the world, in the gray areas, takes a lot of faith.  It’s not all black and white out there, and like I said, love can be really messy and really awkward.  So the first thing you have to do is rely heavily on Jesus.  You have to trust Him with your reputation and trust Him to guide you through the murky waters of messy love.  You have to feel your way through when to confront in love and when to let go in love, when to speak in love and when to be silent in love.

Pray a lot.  Love a lot.  Live a lot.  Read about the life of Jesus over and over.

See people as people, as beloved children of God.  We all have a common denominator; we’re all broken and we all need Jesus.  Some people may not be receptive right away, but they still need Him.  He loves them, and so should you.

He breathed the same life into that struggling addict that He breathed into you.

He counts the tears of the “slut” who cries herself to sleep trying to find acceptance.

He carefully formed each little finger and toe of baby Hitler.

No one is an accident.  No one is a mistake.

If nothing else, we must love people because they are His creation of whom He said, “It is good.”

And maybe as we start to strip away our own pride and complacency and see a lost, broken, hurting world, rather than a bad, sinful, malevolent world…

…maybe love and compassion will take over and the society gap will begin to close.

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Desperation and Disobedience

For my Old Testament Exegesis course, I was assigned to write an exegetical paper on 1 Samuel 28:3-25, a somewhat bizarre story in which King Saul requests a medium to bring up the spirit of the prophet Samuel.  It’s rather a long paper, and not for the faint of heart or short of attention span.  But if you can hold on through the historical context sections at the beginning, I think there’s some interesting application at the end.  Click on the link below to access the PDF.

Desperation and Disobedience — An Exegesis of 1 Samuel 28:3-25

For the Whole World

Next thought from the book of 1st John; this one kinda popped out at me in a way it never had before and really convicted me about the way I tend to look down on others.

1st John 2:2“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Honestly, it’s hard to remind ourselves of that sometimes. Too often, I think, we unknowingly pervert the gospel by making it about us. Our intentions are often fine, but it can easily become an attitude of self-centeredness. One such example of unintentionally stimulating this mindset is the popular phrase, “personal Savior.” It’s a good thing to consider the personal aspect of your relationship with Christ; still, too often repeating “Jesus is my personal Savior!” without reminding yourself that Jesus is everyone’s “personal Savior”, can encourage feelings of superiority. Because let’s be honest, we can get conceited really fast.

It rolls off the tongue very easily to proclaim that Jesus is your Savior, but is it just as easy to tell the less-than-wonderful members of society that Jesus is their personal Savior? Or do we want to keep Him to ourselves and away from the depraved people of the world? Do we invite Him to eat with us and then take offense when He socializes with the “tax collectors and sinners”?

Lest we develop a mindset of “it’s all about ME”, John saw fit to add a disclaimer: Yes, Jesus died for you. But He also died for every single person you’ve ever made eye contact with. And every person you’ve turned your eyes away from.

Realize that you’re no more precious to God than the least of these. Reread the verse, but instead of skimming over it, let it take you down a couple of notches and open your eyes to view others the way Christ does.

Published in: on April 12, 2011 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Price

Written November 23, 2010.

Value is an interesting concept. What is worthless to one man may be priceless to another. The value of an item, then, is subjective; its worth is equal to whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Thus it is not the quality of the item itself that determines value, but the opinion of the buyer.

It becomes routine for us to casually assign values and prices to various items, mentally sizing up and labeling everything that meets our eye. Yet this subconscious habit is not limited to packaged and shelved products; all too often we assign worth to human beings, attempting to fit them to our pricing standard. At first glance, we judge; and our judgments are as quick as the time it takes to forget that every human being is made in the image of God.

Have you ever seen someone and automatically felt in some way superior? If, as I did, you unhesitatingly answered “yes” to that question, I need prove my point no further; it proves itself. We are all guilty of split-second judgments. Are our judgments ever fair, though? Are we, in fact, superior to the depraved sinner who offends and disgusts our sense of propriety? To answer that question, another must first be answered: What determines the worth of a person?

Answer: The buyer. Not the appearance or the quality of a person, but the price paid. On a hill outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago, the worth of every person, from the beginning of the world to the end, was determined with finality. As the blood of Jesus stained the rough wood, it covered and obliterated the amounts on every man-made price tag ever pinned to a person’s soul. As it dripped to the ground and pooled at the foot of the cross, it became the value of every saint, of every orphaned child, of every incarcerated criminal and depraved sinner. It became the price for you.

Matthew 7:1Do not judge, or you too will be judged.

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 1:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Never Too Far Gone

Written 19 October 2010.

As humans living in a world defined by limitations, we tend to view certain circumstances with finality.  A moment, once spent, cannot be retrieved.  A day, once passed, will never come again.  And a life, once extinguished, is gone forever.  We can make technological advances that enable us to make better use of our time, but clocks continue to tick steadily.  We can treat diseases and prolong life by the use of medication, but death has always had, and will always have, the final word – except when Jesus Christ steps in.  God, who created nature, has the power to override its laws; yet we are so caught up in our expectations of the way things “ought” to work that we presume to attach limitations to God’s ability to accomplish the impossible.

When Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus was ill, he went to him but arrived four days too late.  Lazarus, teetering on the brink between life and death, had gone too far, and now he was dead.  The situation was final and irreversible – or so it seemed to all who saw him buried.  Jesus, defying everyone’s expectations, changed the reality and reversed the finality.  While everyone else stood around shaking their heads and saying “It’s too late for Lazarus,” Jesus was calling to him.  Reluctant to roll back the stone and smell rotting flesh that signified the unpleasant irrevocability of death, they stood back holding their noses in disbelief as Jesus proved them wrong.  The truth is, none of the mourners should have written Lazarus off as dead and gone.  It was not their place to assume; they never should have doubted the power of God to raise the dead.  They had no right to suppose their judgment was correct.  At least, that’s what we’ve been taught from this story: never to underestimate the power of God.  Because when Jesus called, Lazarus answered.

From our complacent view, it’s easy to accuse Lazarus’ friends and family of not having enough faith.  After all, this was Jesus they were doubting – Jesus, who had gained a reputation for opening the eyes of the blind!  Yet if we were to call them down for a lack of faith, we would have to blame ourselves as well.

Time is not the only thing we presume to be irretrievable.  How often have we, in our self-righteousness and smugness, written off lost souls that we considered too far gone?  So many times we look down from our elitist thrones scorning the prisoners, the drug dealers, the unwed mothers, and even the tattooed and pierced teenagers who we automatically stereotype as “no good.”  Yet who are we to judge when God is the only one who has the power to save or condemn?  We turn up our noses when we smell the scum of society, but we will stand back and watch in disbelief as God disproves our preconceived notions.  In the words of Steve Berger, “Drop the rocks, empty your pockets, and get down on your knees” – because the One who created people has the power to override their expectations.

No one is too far gone for Jesus to call.  They are not too far gone to hear.  And they are never too far gone to answer.

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 4:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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