You Have Heard it Said: Oaths

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne;  or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.  All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 5:33-37, NIV (emphasis mine)

“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.” 

Matthew 5:33-37, The Message

What do you think of when you hear the word “oath?” The most common usage of the word these days is likely in reference to testifying under oath in a courtroom. But what does it mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary, an oath is “a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior.” It is similar to a vow and stronger than a promise.

When we look at the Hebrew scriptures (what we often refer to as the Old Testament), we see that honesty was held in high regard. Pastor John shared that their communities were built on three pillars: justice, truth, and peace. Oaths back then acted as a guarantee of one’s word. But they had become more than that, and the use of them had created a toxic climate for the people. Enter: Jesus.

As we have seen over the last several weeks, Jesus had a lot to say about the traditions and teachings that had become lists of laws for the people to keep. Each time that he has said the words “You have heard it said…” in the sermon on the mount, his “…but I say…” has been seemingly more demanding than the original. But as we look deeper into his words, we find a common thread:

It’s all about the heart.

The way of the kingdom, the way of love, will always take us farther than the limits of the law. We have discussed this at length during this series. This week’s subject does not deviate from that course.

Pastor John shared a lot of information in his message about the history of oaths and their severity in the community of the people of God. He shared that oaths are frivolous and evasive and that they add nothing to who we are–in fact, they diminish us and the person(s) we’re giving the oath to. He said, “Who we are strengthens what we say.” It’s our character, consistency, integrity that back up our word. Again, he took us back to the heart.

John encouraged us to look at our hearts and identify what’s inside; to be pure in heart–living lives of connectedness within, undivided, whole–so we can see God; and to then reflect the heart of Jesus–to understand him, look at him, see him and mirror his life to others.

Psalm 24:3-6 in The Passion Translation says this:

Who, then, ascends into the presence of the Lord? And who has the privilege of entering into God’s Holy Place? Those who are clean–whose works and ways are pure, whose hearts are true and sealed by the truth, those who never deceive, whose words are sure. They will receive the Lord’s blessing and righteousness given by the Savior-God. They will stand before God, for they seek the pleasure of God’s face, the God of Jacob.   (emphasis mine)

Jesus is saying this same thing in the sermon on the mount. If truth lives within us, truth will come out of us, out of undivided hearts committed to Jesus, hearts that are becoming more and more like him. Pure, whole hearts, unclouded by the burden of being divided among many gods, can see God. And what we see and gaze at, what we take in, is what will be reflected out to others as the kingdom comes first to us and then through us. I love the way Psalm 24:7 calls to us:

So wake up, you living gateways! Lift up your heads, you ageless doors of destiny! Welcome the King of Glory, for he is about to come through you! (TPT, emphasis mine)

Throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus unveils what his kingdom looks like, what it demands, and how we are to be--from the inside out–if we choose to follow him. Every bit of it comes back to our hearts, to who we are and how we love. I don’t want to get too far ahead here, but a little later in our series, we’ll hear Jesus say,

“In everything you do, be careful to treat others in the same way you’d want them to treat you…” (Matthew 7:12)

I want to be able to take others at their word. If someone tells me they love me, I don’t want them to have to add, “by the moon, and the stars, and the sky,” or any other frivolity to convince me that it’s true. I would like to be able to trust that the people in my life mean what they say, period. Yes or no. Full stop. That said, there are people in my life I can’t trust because they have proven that their lives–who they are from the inside out–don’t match their words. They are also those who use oath-like language to try to convince me that I can believe them. This is hard. It’s hurtful. And there’s nothing I can do about it. If they choose to be dishonest and deceiving with their words, that is their choice.

What I can do, though, is choose my way of being in the world. I can listen to Jesus–invite him to search me and know me and plumb the depths of my heart–and allow him to cultivate the kingdom within me as I look to him as my model.

Jesus didn’t make oaths. He didn’t exaggerate or embellish the truth. He simply told it. Wouldn’t it be a better world if those around us did the same? Isn’t that how we would like to be treated by others? If so, Jesus says, “Then do that. Be that way. Let your life be changed first, and treat them in the ways you’d like to be treated.” We cannot change others, but we can be willing to be changed. It all begins in our hearts–they are the “living gateways” for the kingdom to flow through into the world.

I want my heart to be “true and sealed by the truth.” I don’t want to deceive. I want my words to be sure. I want my yes to be yes, and my no to be no. I want those around me to know they can trust me because my life speaks louder than my words, because who I am strengthens what I say. This is my work to enter into with Jesus. He is the Master Gardener, the one who sows the seeds of truth in my heart and grows them up to bear fruit that is solid, honest, and good. I can’t produce that fruit on my own–none of us can. But we can all fix our eyes on Jesus, let our gaze linger on the beauty of who he is long enough to let the vision of him change us, and then reflect what we have seen out to a world in need of truth, beauty, and goodness.

–Laura

Laura wrote above, and I want to reiterate Pastor John’s information that in Judaism, the three pillars on which a healthy community can be built are justice, truth, and peace. If one of those three is missing, the community suffers. This can be family community, church community, work community, national community, or global community. Based on what Jesus has been teaching, I believe he would say those pillars are foundational…period. Oaths weaken those pillars.

Laura did a beautiful job of expressing that our inner character is what determines whether or not our word is good, whether or not we are people of integrity, and whether or not we can be trusted because the fruit of our lives proves our character. Our word and our actions match.

I work with at-risk students in a public high school and I can’t tell you how many times a student will say to me about an assignment, “I swear that it’s almost done. I’m going to turn it in tonight.”  I will follow up with something like, “Fabulous! I’ll check with your teacher in the morning to make sure they got it.”  Sometimes students will go ahead and confess that they truthfully haven’t started the assignment and need help. That truthfulness gets us somewhere positive. Other times students will  give me a thumbs up and not be concerned at all. When I follow through with the teacher the following day, I learn whether or not the student was truthful. If they got their work turned in, it’s kudos all the way, and I know that student does what he/she says. If they didn’t get the assignment in, the next time they tell me that their assignment is almost done, I ask to see it. If they don’t happen to have it available, I ask them why I should believe them this time? Then we talk about why character matters.

It does matter.

When we say “I guarantee what I’m saying is true because of this oath I’m making”, we basically say…you can’t really trust just me, so I’m going to add extra weight to this promise. That way you’ll know I’m truthful.

The Jewish people had developed quite an elaborate “oath” system by the time Jesus preached his sermon on the mount. They had binding oaths and non-binding oaths. A binding oath invoked the name of God and could not be broken. A non-binding oath could be broken (what?!!).

So, not only could an oath reflect the wishy-washy character of the one making it, it could also be a poor reflection on the character of God. There is an Old Testament story that has always bothered me; Pastor John’s sermon helped clear it up. In Judges 11 we learn about Jepthah who is getting ready to lead a charge against the Ammonites. In verses 30 and 31 we read:

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands,  whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Notice that the Lord did not ask Jephtah to make a vow–he did that to himself, but because he invoked the name of the Lord, it was a binding oath according to their tradition.  And I’m sorry, but what a really poorly chosen vow to make…good grief!

So, Jephthah is successful in battle, he comes home in triumph and the first thing to come out of the door of his house is his daughter, his only child. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”  (v. 35)

She agrees that he can’t break his vow to the Lord, asks for two months to visit her friends and mourn the fact that she’ll never marry, and after the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. (v. 39)

Jephthah made a careless vow and used the Lord’s name as part of it. He carried his vow through, but do we think more highly of Jephthah as a result? I don’t.  There is also a danger in this type of vow because it could suggest that God somehow approved of this behavior–yet what could be further from the heart of God?

We must be so careful with our words! We must be so careful with our hearts. Jesus tells us that out of the overflow of our hearts our mouths speak. (Mt. 12:34) If we feel like we need to back up our words with oaths and other things, we need to check our hearts.

Jesus ends the oath section of the sermon of the mount by saying, let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.  Many English translations say anything more comes from the evil one; however, in the Greek it is translated more often as just evil, or wicked. 

Jesus isn’t condemning anyone in his sermon, but he is saying let’s get this figured out…if you can’t just say yes or no, it’s evil, it’s wicked.

Author Greg McKeown makes this point really clear. He writes “Remember that a clear no is more generous than a vague or non-commital yes. The medium yes or maybe is the worst. Stringing people along or delaying the inevitable decline is a thousand times worse than a polite but clear no on the front end. People know when they are getting a lukewarm placeholder. Further, they know when they are receiving wild, made-up excuses. We must stop doing this. We are fooling no one. It is actually better, easier, and more mature to say what you mean right out of the gate.” 

That’s true, isn’t it? Haven’t we all experienced it–that non-commital stringing along where we hang in limbo and our relationships get awkward as a result? And I imagine most of us have done it to others at some point.

Being a person of integrity is brave and worthwhile. Letting our yes’s be yes, and our no’s be no creates stronger relationships; the kingdom of heaven is all about relationships. Let’s lean into Jesus, let’s let him reframe some things we’ve misunderstood about what it means to be his people, let’s let him make us “whole” which is what integrity means. Let’s seek kingdom justice, truth, and peace because our hearts are his and our character matters. Let’s get rid of frivoulous oaths and be people whose lives are oath enough to demonstrate that we are trustworthy people of our word, and people of The Word...Jesus Christ himself.

–Luanne

Let your yes be yes. Quote | Quotes, Wise words, Let it be

You Have Heard it Said: Part 3

Today’s passage is a doozy. It’s a common “clobber” passage used to judge others and exclude them from full fellowship in some churches. Even before you read this blog, please know that we are not a shaming church; we believe that God loves us all and shuns no one. Pastor John shared that these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount almost kept him from doing the entire series. Yet, like the rest of Jesus’ sermon, we are  looking at the full context, looking at the heart of Christ, and exploring the deeper meaning of his words.

Here we go:  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31-32 ESV).

The Passion Translation words it like this: “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her legal divorce papers.’  However, I say to you, if anyone divorces his wife for any reason, except for infidelity, he causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

And the NIV like this: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I believe God’s original intent for marriage is that it lasts, is fulfilling for both husband and wife, and a healthy reflection of God’s relationship with us.  However, all the way back in the Old Testament we see that marriage didn’t look like this. And, in these two verses, Jesus is addressing the men. Why? Because in that culture they had power, and they abused their power.

Culturally, in that day, a woman had no rights. She was considered property and horribly undervalued. It was rare for a woman to be able to make it on her own; her chances for gainful employment were slim to none. Yet, a man could decide at any time to dismiss his wife, and send her out to fend for herself. His reason could be as simple as she over-salted his food. She had no value, and a hard-hearted man would not have a whit of care about what happened to her.

Let’s briefly recap what we’ve learned up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with the beatitudes–the inner character that drives the outward behavior of Jesus’ followers. Then he says his followers will be like salt and light in the world–our depth of character and our presence making a positive, kingdom of heaven difference in the here and now. After this, Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. We’ve studied how Jesus spoke of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery, yet jumped right over the action words and focused on the heart of the matter–anger and lust. Now we’re on these verses about divorce. Jesus has not changed direction; he is still concerned about the heart of the matter.

In the book of Genesis, when God created humankind, God said:

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and overall the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:26-27)

In God’s original design, male and female each reflect who God is, each bears his image, and each was given the same task–to steward well his created world. Nowhere in the creation story does God create a hierarchy. Yet, all throughout the Old Testament we see men marrying multiple wives, sleeping with servants, dismissing and mistreating women–even among the patriarchs and kings.

Jesus enters the scene and models something completely different. Even before Jesus’ birth, we see God highly esteeming women. There are five women named in the genealogy of Christ. Tamar who was wronged by her husband and had to trick her father-in-law in order to bear a child; Rahab, the woman from Jericho who resorted to prostitution in order to survive and hid the Jewish spies on their way to the promised land— she married into the Jewish faith and gave birth to Boaz; Ruth, the widowed foreigner who honored her mother in law and later married Boaz. Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) is the next woman mentioned. She was taken advantage of and then became one of the wives of King David who was the grandson of Ruth. A few generations later the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first–not Joseph.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry he gives women his full attention. He encouraged Lazarus’ sister Mary’s behavior when she chose to sit at his feet and learn, just like male disciples did.

When the teachers of the law tried to trick Jesus and brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?), Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he caused each man present at the scene to search his own heart.

Jesus interrupted his trip to the home of Jairus, the powerful synagogue leader, and gave his full attention to a woman who had been a bleeding outcast for twelve years. He gave her time to share with him her full story.

The account of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet shows us that he was not about to allow her to be condemned or poorly thought of.

The women present at Jesus’ crucifixion are named in scripture. The women are the first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first to share the news that he is alive.

The women are present with the men on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. They receive the very same power of the Holy Spirit, and together with the men share the news of Jesus in foreign languages to those within their hearing.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is probably my favorite encounter. Jesus was speaking to a woman who was from a people group considered inferior to his. Both of those things were taboo. Scripture even tells us that when the disciples returned from getting food, they wondered why he was talking to her. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. (Let me remind you–she couldn’t divorce a man, so she had been dismissed and abandoned five times). Jesus doesn’t condemn her, instead, she is the first person to whom he reveals his identity as the Messiah. Their conversation changed her life. She shared her story and his identity with those in her town, and they came to know Jesus as well. 

Back to this week’s verses…Jesus is addressing the men. The man divorces, he is supposed to give her a certificate of divorce, his actions cause her to choose someone else so she can survive, and his actions defile her next husband. It all begins with the man, his abuse of power, a power over her that was never God’s intent in the first place, and the ripple effect of his choices.

The Passion Translation offers a footnote that says the Greek word for divorce (apolyo) can also mean “to loose,” “to dismiss,” “to send away.”By serving her divorce papers, a husband was required to return his wife’s dowry. The divorced woman would then leave his house and receive back her dowry.  Think about that, he could dismiss her without papers and not be obligated to return her dowry, leaving her without means. 

I have a Lebanese Muslim friend whose marriage was arranged for her. Her family provided a dowry to the groom’s family. When we lived near one another, we asked each other questions about our lives and cultures, so I asked her about that. She told me that the dowry wasn’t a “bride price”, but that it was like an insurance policy. She said if anything happened to her marriage or her husband, the dowry was what she would use to live on. I’d never heard that before, but The Passion Translation footnote indicates the same thing. In other words–“Fellas, if you’re going to be hard-hearted and dismiss your wives, at least be honorable. Give her what is rightfully hers so she has something to live on.”  Jesus is addressing their hearts.

God shows us throughout scripture that he sees his relationship with us like a marriage. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was to be a model of his faithfulness and love to the nations around them. In the New Testament, the relationship between Jesus and the global church is supposed to show the world his love for us, our love for him, and our love for them as a result.

If you are divorced and have been hurt by the church, I’m sorry. Jesus’ words on divorce were never intended to be used as clobber verses, nor were we ever told to exclude anyone from fellowship with Jesus and his church. If you are divorced you are fully embraced and fully accepted by God. There is no condemnation in Jesus.

In the 1970s, my dad’s best friend was leading a weekend ministry event at a church in another town. He shared his testimony with the group, and part of his story is that he is divorced and remarried. A man came up to him afterward and asked: “What’s it feel like to be living in sin?” Pete responded: “I don’t know. You tell me.” It still makes me chuckle.

We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us. 

–Luanne

We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?

This is the question, the heart of the matter. It is what Jesus is getting at with every point he makes. You have heard it said… but what does Love require? This week’s passage applies the question to marriage and divorce. It might be the clearest, most straightforward distortion of God’s heart toward his children, because it addresses the stripping away of the inherent value of a woman–her identity as an equal image-bearer–and the reduction of a human being to property that can be used and disposed of at will. Can you think of other examples throughout history and even presently when the value of a human being was reduced to property? I can. Too many to list.

I think that’s part of the ache of these two verses. What Jesus was doing in his brilliant way, was lifting up the “leasts,” as he always did. In this case, the leasts are women. His words honor the value of a woman and, if followed, offer protection from systems that left so many displaced and destitute. Yet, somehow, these exact verses have been used to further abuse and devalue women and abdicate men from their responsibilities, at the hands of the Church. How did that happen?? It happened because, even as Jesus was reorienting the Law around the way of Love, those in power chose to make it about the words rather than the heart behind the words. It became about a list of dos and don’ts, and this short passage has been used against the very people it was meant to protect and left devastation in its wake.

Running the rules through the filter of Love makes all the difference. In regard to marriage and divorce, I’ve seen that difference firsthand. I’ve watched friends and family I love dearly choose the way of self-emptying, self-sacrificing love when they had every right to leave and never look back. I’ve seen people devalued and devastated choose to honor their vows even when their spouse has shattered theirs. I’ve watched, awestruck, as God moved through open channels of love to restore what was lost, as the pile of torn and tattered threads was woven into a tapestry more beautiful than should even be possible after such devastation.

I’ve also seen and experienced what can happen when a lesser love captures a heart. I watched my mom be discarded three times by the same husband, abandoned for other women and a brand new life, left with nothing but the bills and the children and her failing health. I watched her struggle to put food on the table as she worked long hours in multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. I watched as our church turned its back on our family while my dad was still allowed to attend with his girlfriend and her family. I saw my mom’s new church embrace her partially, but warn her that if she remarried, an adulteress she would be. I saw her ache for a community that didn’t really have room for a poor, divorced woman and her kids–one that certainly wouldn’t invite her to use the gifts she’d been given as a full participant in the kingdom within their walls. At best, she was a project, a charity case. She was marked.

Jesus didn’t want that for her. What happened to her was the exact opposite of what he called for in this week’s passage. What happened to her is what happens when we miss the heart of the matter, when we don’t process the law through the higher law of Love. And somehow, we all know there’s a better way. There’s a song that keeps running through my head as I write. Not some spiritual, worship song, but the chorus of a song I didn’t even know all the words to until I looked it up a moment ago. The song is Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, released in 1986. Here are some of the lyrics…

Think about it, there must be a higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
Worlds are turnin’, and we’re just hanging on
Facing our fear, and standin’ out there alone
A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me
There must be someone who’s feeling for me
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love (oh my Lord)
Bring me a higher love, oh (oh)
Bring me a higher love (my Lord)
It’s that higher love I keep thinking of…
We all know intuitively that there is a better way, a higher way. We crave that higher love  whether we know and believe in Jesus or not. We know, “there must be a higher love, down in the heart or hidden in the stars above…” And yet, we run after lesser loves. In our fear and desire for control and order, we forsake the way of love for the inferior substitute of a list of rules. That list of rules has served an insidious purpose. The Church that is the bride of Christ, meant to birth the fruit of that union–the kingdom on earth, has clung not to her groom but to the list, and abdicated her responsibility to the way of Love. It is heart-wrenching to see the results of our idolatry. Rather than embrace the extravagant way of love that Jesus modeled, we have too often looked to satisfy the minimum requirements.
Imagine what the world would look like if we processed everything through Jesus’s filter? If we looked for ways to exhibit the maximum amount of love rather than the minimum? It should change everything, friends! Because the love Jesus spoke about and modeled–self-emptying, humble, generous, gracious, compassionate, real love–is inexhaustible. There is actually not a maximum, because love never ends (See 1 Corinthians 13). The more we pour it out, the more there is available. It expands, enlightens, restores, and remakes everything it touches. Its power is in the laying down of oneself on behalf of another, the way that Jesus did for every single human being. What if we followed his lead and lived accordingly? We wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves because there would be reciprocity and mutuality and thriving for all. Love like this doesn’t need additional rules and regulations. It covers absolutely everything.
I believe with my whole heart that this is Jesus’s whole point. Everything he says in the sermon on the mount, all of the exhortations and insights he gives are expressions of love in action. This week’s passage is about divorce, but not only divorce. It applies to the way we are to embrace, cherish, and care for one another as we live out the love we share with our Abba. It was perhaps the clearest example Jesus could give in that day of what happens when the way of higher love is replaced by lesser things. When we refuse to live in the light of love, we reduce one another, treat each other as problems and projects, see each other as means to an end, expendable. We NEVER see Jesus objectify anyone in this way. 
The story that I held in my heart as I listened to Pastor John preach on Sunday is the same one Luanne emphasized above, the woman at the well. Jesus had every reason–and the teachers of the law may have said an obligation–to avoid her, ignore her, and condemn her according to the law. But love…
The law said not to associate with “those” people. The Samaritans were outsiders, people the Jews were not to mingle with. The law didn’t allow them to be alone together at the well–she was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. Forget about a conversation–that went way too far. It was against the rules. And Jesus knew more still about this woman he engaged at the well. She had been married five times, and was now living with a sixth man. The law gave him so many reasons to not only walk away from her, but to outright condemn her!
But love…
Pondering this passage in different seasons, I’ve cried many times over the tenderness of the moment. The story, much like our verses this week, has been used and preached in unkind ways. But the Jesus I know is always kind. Always good. Always loving. He knows the backstory to every story. When I read and ponder this particular story, specifically the part where Jesus lets her know that he knows what she’s been through, I hear his voice as gentle, quiet, empathizing with her plight. I see tears pool and fall from his eyes as he feels how brutally and repeatedly she’s been rejected by those charged to cherish and protect her. I have exactly zero doubts that in that moment, she experienced the love she’d searched for all of her life, love that saw to her core and called her beloved despite the labels she’d been given by the world. How am I so sure? First, because my Jesus has done the same for me. But also,  her reaction tells us everything we need to know. Hope overflowed as joy exploded in her. She left her jar and ran back to the village to tell everyone about this man who had set her free from her shame. His words to her did not condemn her. His words communicated that she was seen and known… and fully loved. 
The words Luanne ended her portion with seem appropriate to repeat here…
“We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us.”
Can you imagine what the world would look like if we loved like this?
–Laura

 

 

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You’ve Heard it Said… (Part 2)

After a couple of weeks elsewhere, we are back into our Sermon on the Mount series. We picked up where we left off, in the middle of Jesus’ “You have heard it said…” statements. This week’s passage is Matthew 5:27-30:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

These are strong verses that we’ve likely all heard before in one way or another. The words of Jesus in this passage (and all throughout scripture) are often taken out of context and misunderstood. As we have been discussing for weeks now, what Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is inviting his followers to go deeper, beyond surface-level, law-abiding living that stops short of transforming hearts. A few weeks ago, I wrote,

“He came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.”

And in our first “You’ve Heard it Said…” post, Luanne wrote,

“Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.”

It’s important that we keep these things in mind as we continue to explore passages that are sometimes difficult to understand.

Pastor John led us on a word journey through these verses on Sunday, explaining what they meant in the original language and expanding their meanings within the context of this passage. We looked at the words adultery, lustfully, hell, and stumble. I learned a few things… Let’s look at each word before we talk about the passage as a whole.

Adultery, John told us, is something we commit. It is a form of idolatry. When we commit adultery, we are satisfying ourselves; it is self-serving. It is something we first allow, and then give ourselves to. It is not simply about sexual misconduct–our lusts can lead us to be unfaithful and to sin against God, others, and ourselves in a multitude of ways.

Lustfully is a compound word that means to turn upon a thing. It relates to something we long for on the outside of us. It is passion or anger, heat or hate, that boils up and moves us toward what we eventually give ourselves to in the acts of adultery. Pastor John said, “The lust grows from within you, looking to find something to satisfy your heart.”

The word translated hell in this passage is the word Gehenna. Gehenna was a literal place, a garbage dump outside of the city that was always burning the waste and dead animals deposited there. There was no life or fruitfulness in that place of waste.

Stumble comes from the Greek skandalon (where our English word scandal comes from), meaning to trap or ensnare, to cause to offend.

With these definitions in mind, Pastor John read the verse back to us in reverse order, in his own words, that we might hear it from a different perspective:

“From out of your heart comes the action of committing adultery, because you are lusting, longing, desiring, placing all that is within you towards something outside of you. This is what I’m telling you,” says Jesus.

The people Jesus was speaking to knew what the law said. And their teachers had made clear to them what actions to avoid and what the consequences would be should they choose to break those laws. They lived disciplined on the outside, but Jesus implored them–as he implores us today–to look deeper. As we’ve discussed before, surface-level behavior modification is not what Jesus is after. He wants our hearts.

John told us about Saint Anthony of the Desert, also known as Saint Anthony the Great. He is revered for his disciplined life, as he spent 35 years in isolation, many of them living in a tomb. He sought to live away from any distractions, any exterior things that could draw his thoughts away from God. He desired that Jesus be his teacher and influence, and he lived in solitude on purpose. He found that, even while living such a disciplined life, he could not escape the temptations and bad thoughts–because they existed in his own mind. Even in isolation, he took himself with him.

Even without outside influences, the work of cultivating the soil of our hearts in the ways of Jesus takes commitment and a willingness to look deeper… 

So what do we make of how Jesus says to handle our adulterous thoughts and actions? Are we to take him at his word and gouge out our eyes, cut off our hands? Of course not. Jesus was speaking in hyperbole. We can look at the eye as the symbol of our thoughts that result from what we take in. The hand symbolizes the actions we take that flow out of the desires within us. Together, Pastor John said, they were thought as a pathway toward sin. The emphasis on the “right” hand and eye refers to what they saw as their “stronger” side. So Jesus may have been telling them to take the things they thought were their strength, and if those things led them to sin, remove them from their lives. What that means for each of us will look different, as adultery plays out in a myriad of ways.

Unfortunately, many of us have heard these verses taught this way,

“If you don’t cut off your hand or gouge out your eye, you’re going to hell.” 

Of course, most of us have never been advised to actually take these extreme physical measures. But there are other ways we brutalize ourselves and allow ourselves to be abused by others out of fear of eternal damnation.

Let’s look at Jesus’ words again:

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Taking the context and original words into consideration, here is another way to look at these verses:

If the way you’re seeing things, how you choose to look at them, is setting a trap for your mind and leading you toward sin, let that part of you go so you can see a new way. And if the things you choose to do are manifestations of the heated passions and hateful anger boiling up and spewing out from within you, causing you to turn upon something or someone for self-serving purposes, that part of you needs to be cut away from the fabric of your heart so you don’t lose all of yourself to your idolatry. It is better to change the way you see and to turn away from the things you think you want to do than to end up in the wasteland where nothing lives. 

Jesus wants his followers to live in such a way that brings his kingdom to bear on earth. That’s his whole point in the sermon he gave on the mount. Behavior modification wasn’t changing the world then, and it isn’t changing it now. Fear of judgement didn’t change hearts then, and it doesn’t change hearts now. Outward expressions of worship disconnected from the heart are not what he desired then, and he’s not impressed with them now. He wants us to know his heart for people, for the world, and to follow him so closely that his heart becomes our own. He wants undivided hearts that worship from the inside out, and undivided lives given fully to him and not split between other desires. He doesn’t want us to waste our lives on what will never satisfy, but to live in a way that makes a difference for his kingdom. It begins in our hearts and moves outward. It never works when we try to do that backwards.

How can your words be good and trustworthy if you are rotten within? For what has been stored up in your hearts will be heard in the overflow of your words!

(Matthew 12:34b, TPT)

As water reflects the face,
so one’s life reflects the heart.

(Proverbs 27:19)

You will find living within an impure heart evil ideas, murderous thoughts, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lies, and slander.

(Matthew 15:19)

So above all, guard the affections of your heart,
for they affect all that you are.
Pay attention to the welfare of your innermost being,
for from there flows the wellspring of life.

(Proverbs 4:23)

–Laura

You have heard it said…but I say…

I think it’s wise to sit with that phrase for a while. Jesus, in this sermon, doesn’t change what’s been said or what’s been written; what he makes clear, however, is his people– his followers, have misunderstood the intent of those words. He is taking them deeper and teaching the correct interpretation of the law. As Laura highlighted above, it’s not about behavior modification. It’s about the condition of our hearts. It always was, and still is about being rightly related to God and to others–loving God and others authentically, creating a world filled with God’s shalom in which all people can flourish and become all God made them to be.

Jesus began the sermon on the mount with the beatitudes–the heart condition and way of being of his kingdom people, leading to such a radically different way of living that they will be salt and light in the world. We mustn’t “chunk” up the sermon on the mount into verses that come under subheadings; the entire sermon is connected and built on the foundation of the beatitudes.

This week, just like in the previous “you have heard it said” sermon that Pastor John preached, Jesus again moves through the action word (murder, adultery) and goes to the deeper heart issue (anger, lust). Outward actions, outward words are indicators of our heart’s condition and our thought lives. Too often our way of being in the world is more a reflection of our own thoughts than the Spirit-filled beatitude way of being.

Adultery, the action of being unfaithful, begins within. We can be unfaithful to God and others in a myriad of ways, and each way is an indicator that our heart center has gotten off course.

The words that define the inner workings of lust are strong words: Passion. Anger. Heat. Hate. Without a doubt, if left unchecked these inner experiences and inner emotions lead to Gehenna where we burn up our own lives.

I can think of a few biblical examples of this right off the bat. I referred to Cain a couple of weeks ago, and will refer to him again…

God said to Cain “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen 4:6-7)

Cain did not rule over sin, murdered his brother, and was banished from his land and people. He lived in Gehenna and murderous violence became part of his lineage.  (See Gn 4:23-24)

King David (who was home when he shouldn’t have been) lusted over Bathsheba which led to sexually abusing her; she became pregnant, he tried to cover it up and eventually killed her husband. (2nd Sam 11-12). In Psalm 32 David recalls what it felt like to live in Gehenna when he wrote: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. (Ps. 32: 3-4)

Judas had an issue with money. Chapter 12 of John’s gospel informs us that after a female worshipper poured expensive perfume on Jesus,  Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (Jn 12:4-6) . As we know, he later betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (was it the money that he lusted after, anger at Jesus, or something else?). After Jesus’ arrest, Judas, in Gehenna, took his own life (Mt. 27:3-5)

When Stephen was stoned, Saul (Paul)–a defender of the Jewish faith approved of their killing him… Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8: 1 & 3). Paul does not give us much insight into his Gehenna; however, in 1st Corinthians 15:9 he says  I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Cain and Judas suffered hard consequences, King David and Paul acknowledged their sin, experienced God’s grace, left Gehenna and went on to live in the presence of God.

We learn from Paul, that staying out of Gehenna involves a thought battle and how to fight that thought battle so that our hearts and beings can be formed by the Holy Spirit. He writes:  So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2 The Message)

Written another way: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (NLT)

Paul also tells us: Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.  The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (Romans 8:5-7)

Our actions follow our thoughts; our thoughts reflect our hearts. We have heard it said don’t “do” certain things. Jesus says look deeper- it begins in your being, in your heart.

Jesus tells us A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (Luke 6:45 NLT)

God is the creator of new hearts. Every moment of every day he is willing to give us one. If our own thoughts, our own actions, our own words are showing us that we are headed to Gehenna, let’s look deeper. What have we given ourselves to? What are we lusting after, and why? If we’re currently in Gehenna, let’s repent, let’s change the way we think and let God restore us. If our way of being looks like our culture rather than God’s kingdom, let’s explore that.  If we are not seeing God, let’s investigate what it is we are seeking instead–what has our hearts? Let’s take the time to go deeper.

Heavenly Father, Create a new, clean heart within [us]. Fill [us] with pure thoughts and holy desires, ready to please you. (Ps. 51:10 TPT)

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God… 

God, we want to see you.

-Luanne

Account of the Soul - Girls' Brigade Australia

 

How Long, Oh Lord?

As I ponder how to begin our blog today, I’m asking the Holy Spirit to give me the ability to write with clarity–the chance of being misunderstood is great. On Sunday, Pastor John diverged from his Sermon on the Mount series to focus on the issue of racial injustice, and our (majority culture) silence that happens over and over in our nation. What makes this hard to discuss is the tendency among many majority culture people to bristle at the mention of racial inequity. Defenses go up, political assumptions are made, lines are drawn and division occurs. Conversations (or social media threads) get heated. Thoughtful, culture-changing conversations don’t happen. I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. I do know the polarization keeps us from healing, from becoming better and from experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

I’ve been on a journey for a number of years now trying to gain better understanding of the systemic issues of racism in our nation. One of the push backs that happen when this subject comes up is an immediate “I’m not racist”, so I want to clearly explain a couple of terms.

Pastor, seminary professor, and author Soong-Chan Rah wrote one of the clearest definitions of systemic racism that I’ve read thus far.  In his book The Next Evangelicalism he wrote: Central to our understanding of the sin of racism is our understanding of the image of God... we make ourselves the standard of reference in the determination of our values and norms. Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of referenceRacism elevates the physical image above the spiritual image of God given to us by our creator. Racism is idolatry…it elevates a human factor to the level of the ultimate.  

Systemic racism can be really subtle. It can be as subtle as “flesh” colored band-aids, and “nude” pantyhose, which are the color of my flesh. I’m “the norm”. I can walk into stores and not be deemed as suspicious or someone to keep an eye on because my very appearance doesn’t create any kind of stir. I’m “the norm”.  My education primarily highlighted the contributions of European settlers–“the norm”. Up until the last few years, most of the theologians and Bible study authors I’ve read have my color of skin–meaning even our church theology can be subject to “the norm”.

In speaking of church matters, Professor Rah writes: When the majority culture church continues to define and shape what the church will look like, those who are “the other” are …silenced and the multiethnic dialogue deteriorates to a white monologue.  

And yet…if we look at the New Testament, In Revelation 7:9 John shows us what the “C” church looks like:  I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. 

The Apostle Paul writes: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) and In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11)

In the book of Acts, Peter had this realization when God confronted him with his own racism ( the mindset that the Jewish people were “the norm” as God’s people) and he exclaimed I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) A few chapters later, Peter stood up at the Jerusalem Council and told church leaders that God made no distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, he gave them the same Holy Spirit without having to become Jewish– “the norm”. (Acts 15) 

In speaking of justice, I’m not talking about worldly social justice. However, the Bible speaks of justice from beginning to end; therefore, it is imperative that we pay attention to and understand biblical justice.

The Bible Project group says: According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.. most of the time the Bible uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. Taken this way, the combination of righteousness and justice that God dictates means a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are fixed. Is this something we see our churches addressing? 

A small sampling of scripture on this issue includes:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. (Isaiah 1:17)

He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3)

Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps 33:5)

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Pr. 21:3)

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)

The call of Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18)

So what are we to do? Acknowledge, listen, learn, act, influence…

I’ve shared before about my parents’ influence–my mother began a group in my hometown (a college town) for wives of doctoral students who were from other nations–they built community while learning from and supporting one another. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Love, fairness, justice, and respect are pillars of that group still today.

My dad had a KKK cross burned in the yard of his church in 1950 because he welcomed a black man in his church and visited him during the week. 15 years later my dad marched with MLK.

I am of the first generation of integrated schools; my friend group was highly diverse, which was encouraged in my home. I’m grateful for that legacy.

Our nation was founded by people escaping oppression who incorporated biblical principles in our early documents; however, a look at history shows they failed to see the image of God in the people who already lived here and brought with them the very oppression they were escaping from. They failed to see the image of God in their slaves and used scripture to justify atrocities.  These things are hard to face, but we must recognize them, do what we can to help heal centuries-old wounds and not participate in a culture that contributes to ongoing oppression.

A few years ago, Laura, another friend, and I attended “The Justice Conference” in Chicago. We didn’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to be spoken to so frankly. We didn’t like it at all (at first). However, I’ll be forever grateful that we stuck it out and wrestled it through. Our role at the conference was to listen and learn. We heard from Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, a Christian Syrian refugee, a Muslim Yemeni refugee, a Jewish rabbi, and others. We were confronted with our own cultural bias and lens. One of the things we became aware of was the individualism and silence of white culture America in matters that don’t personally affect us. A majority culture man in the audience pushed back against one of the speakers and he got called out on it. It was uncomfortable and we thought he was treated unfairly. The three of us went back to our hotel, and in our arrogance, we discussed how we thought the minority culture speaker was wrong.  Later that afternoon, we boarded a train and headed into downtown Chicago.

Our train car’s seats made it possible for groups of four to face one another– it also had an upper level of single row seats facing perpendicular to the lower level bench seats. We could look to the upper level and see the faces of the people seated there. At one station, an ethnically diverse group of young people got on the train and headed to the upper level. They were older teens, jovial, and enjoying their day. Most seats on the lower level were filled with people who looked like us, one group contained middle-aged men.

While we were en route, two testosterone-laden majority-culture teens came through our car. One of the youth on the upper level said something about a hat; the young men below thought the comment was directed at them and started verbally threatening the group. The upper-level group tried to explain, but the two young men were already escalated and were right next to the seat where the middle-aged white gentlemen sat. Those men looked down, looked at each other, but didn’t say a word to the angry young men. It’s what we had just learned at the conference; if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.

The angry young men turned, came right by us, and climbed the staircase to the upper level–they were ready for a fight. One young lady tried to block them from hitting her boyfriend. We were flabbergasted, jumped up, and spoke out. We said things like “Enough!” “Stop!” etc. And you know what? They did. They came back down the stairs and cussed their way out of our train car. 

We sat back down, all three of us shaking, and all three of us amazed at the lesson we had learned. We got off at the same stop as the young people, checked on them, told them how deeply sorry we were that they were treated that way, and went our separate ways.  It was life-changing. Our arrogance flew out the window and we were/are more determined to listen to and learn from minority voices. However, it is not the job of minority culture people to teach us. They are exhausted. It is our responsibility to learn about our own individualistic culture, what is helpful and what is not in seeking biblical justice, and how to come alongside (not take over) and work together to change oppressive systems.  

Could our experience on the train have gone differently? Yes. Could we have been in danger of being hurt. Yes. Would that have justified staying silent? No.

And we can’t stay silent when George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here are murdered, or incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or given longer sentences than those of “the norm” who committed the same crime, or not speak out about the disappearance of hundreds of Native-American women, or not pay attention to land that is still being confiscated, or not be deeply concerned by the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. These indicate serious, serious systemic issues.

We must stop judging peaceful protests because we don’t like the way they are done. We must pay attention to people in power who abuse their roles. We must advocate for arrests, for fair trials, for equity in our judicial systems. We must look beyond the surface to deeper issues, the things that don’t directly affect us as part of “the norm”. And when frustration spills over to rioting, we must remember the words of MLK from his 1968 “The Other America” speech who said:

Let me say as I’ve always said… riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…

…[but] I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis,a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity…

What do we do? It’s a complex issue that’s not going to be fixed quickly–so we commit to the long journey. We commit to listening, to learning, to looking deep. We commit to squelching our own defensiveness, exploring why we get defensive, and acknowledging our own fragility when this subject comes up. We commit to trying to see through a different lens. We commit to abolishing pre-judgment and suspicion based on the color of someone’s skin. We commit to not being discipled more by our preferred news sources than we are by the Word of God. We commit to paying attention to who Jesus valued, loved, saw, encouraged, and to treat others as he did. We commit to using our voices and standing with those whose voices are being ignored. We commit to paying attention to and changing oppressive political policies. We commit to the common good.

And, as the people of God, we humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face (even in the faces of image-bearers who look different from us), turn from our wicked ways (judgment, individualism, silence, contributing to the standard of “the norm, systemic racism) and God will forgive our sin and heal our land. (2 Chron 7:14).

Lord God, move us deep within. Help us to hear, to see, to acknowledge, to act. Help us to empathize, seek to walk in another’s shoes, care deeply. May your kingdom of total inclusion and equity come, may your will that includes the flourishing of all humanity be done right here on earth, through us, as it is in heaven.

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I have been revisiting the things we learned at The Justice Conference and remembering our experiences from that weekend. I’m so glad I have notes saved in the journal I took with me to Chicago–I come back to them again and again. As I have been reading back through the things I learned from so many wise presenters, some of their words stood out in new ways in light of what we are experiencing in these days. I want to share some of the quotes I recorded with you as we press into the holy work for biblical justice and equity that Luanne explained so beautifully and clearly for us. I’ll start with something she said above:

“…if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.” 
The story of what happened on the train drilled this truth into the three of us that experienced it together. If we are part of the majority culture, we have the option of entering in… or not. If it’s not convenient, if it feels unsafe, if we’re criticized for speaking up or standing up, if the cost to us personally seems too high… we can choose to opt out. This is what privilege looks like. It’s not about wealth or having an easy life. It’s about having the opportunity to choose whether we’ll be affected by injustice or not.
Many people don’t have that choice.
Injustice, prejudice, racism, violence–these things affect their daily lives. And until the majority culture, the ones holding the power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, chooses to listen, to speak up, to come alongside, the daily lives of those on the underside of the power dynamic will continue to be negatively impacted by a multitude of injustices. Our silence has consequences. Our silence allows things to remain as they are, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Many of the speakers at the conference we attended spoke directly into our silence, which is, as we learned, complicity with the systems that are in place.
Pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal said,
“How can we say we love our neighbor and not stand up against the systems that break them? We can’t say we “do life together” unless we actually do.”
We were challenged at the conference, and continue to be challenged in our day-to-day lives to do more than simply break the silence. It is a good and necessary first step, speaking up. But if our words never grow legs and move us into action, what good are they?
Justin Dillon, Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Made in a Free World, shared that,
“Participating in the problems of others is the path to purpose.”
He went on to describe something we’ve mentioned in the blog before: virtue signaling. Justin explained this as “lending a voice, but no action, pulling equity out of something we have no investment in.”
Virtue signaling is real and it can hurt the very people we long to come alongside. When we raise our voices, when the words we say make us sound like allies, but we are unwilling to move into action, to do the hard work required for change to come, our words are hollow.
But what do we do? I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly in recent days. The truth is, as Luanne highlighted above, it is a process. We are not experts, we are part of the majority culture, members of the societal norm. But we have chosen to take the posture of learners, to listen, to get proximate to the wise, faithful voices on the margins and follow their lead. Humility is essential. Acknowledging our own biases, coming to terms with our privilege, admitting our shortcomings and lack of understanding, owning our failures–these are all part of where we start. We heard the word “proximity” over and over again in Chicago. It’s important that we get proximate to the real people behind the stories we hear. As Reverend Gabriel Salguero shared,
“We have a seeing and hearing problem… the biggest fog is distance.”
He also talked to us about how our fears and beliefs about others, our implicit biases that we don’t even know we have impact our ability to see and to act:
“Fear of our neighbor must be overcome. Love is what overcomes it. You cannot love people you’re afraid of.”
He addressed our fears of feeling unsafe in this work. He said of God,
“He’s not safe, but He is good… To truly love your neighbor(s) is never safe. But it’s always good.”
He also reminded us that to truly love, there must be mutuality…
“You can’t be a neighbor to someone you’re trying to conquer.”
This is where equity comes in. There is a power dynamic that exists, and it is fiercely guarded. It favors the strong and powerful and further oppresses the marginalized. When it attempts to act on behalf on another, it does so with bravado, like a hero on a white horse, seeking applause and accolades that maintain and strengthen the dynamics rather than shift them. In seeking to be a neighbor, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we must actively choose to be quiet so that the voices around us can be heard. It’s not about being the voice for the voiceless–no one is voiceless. It’s about quieting down so that the voices of those who haven’t been heard can be elevated. They are speaking–we simply haven’t been listening.
We will never see the stunning mosaic of God’s kingdom come to life in our churches, in our communities until we intentionally elevate the voices on the margins. What they bring to the table is not a threat to our faith. No. They bring a feast we didn’t know existed because we’ve been eating the same meal for too long. So we invite them to bring the fullness of who they are to the table, understanding that sometimes it is necessary to let go of our limited understanding. Inviting, elevating, believing and honoring the voices of our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us to lead us expands us, grows us, helps us to see a more complete picture of God. We cannot think we have an understanding of who our God is if it only includes the narrative of the normative.
So we start with humility. We listen, learn, get proximate, acknowledge, give up our seat at the table, understand that we don’t understand and so we look to those who do, those who live on the margins. We engage in hard conversations with those in our own circles–our families, our friends, our churches. We choose love over fear, and we let our love grow into action. We do not lead out as heroes in the story. We follow the lead of those already in the trenches, fighting for change, and we leverage our privilege to magnify their voices. We don’t burden people of color with our questions, our guilt, our shame–we find resources (there are so many available!) and we do the hard work of educating ourselves. We repent and we let Jesus and his way mess in our business. We wrestle with our defensiveness, our fears, our selfishness, and our complicity with our God–we don’t lash out at others. We walk alongside our friends, as humble allies, not heroes looking for a pat on the back. We recognize that there’s much we don’t know, but we do know this: In Jesus’ kingdom, the marginalized are prioritized, loved, protected, and elevated.
These are some things we can do. But how we do these things matters just as much. As I was flipping through my notebook and praying about what to write here this week, I came across notes from a sermon that Pastor John preached in July 2017. Reading through the points I recorded from that message out of Colossians, it struck me that this is how we do these things that matter. The passage is Colossians 3:12-14:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Pastor John began his message with these words, “This passage is all about connection, it is transformational rather than transactional. The way we connect with others is a reflection of our connection with Jesus.”
We looked deeply into what the virtues highlighted in these two verses really mean, as they are all about how we relate with others. Here’s what we learned:
Compassion begins with seeing a problem, then letting what we see penetrate our hearts. It can literally be translated “co-suffering.” Compassion moves us beyond feeling pity into  action. It moves our hearts and our feet toward others and it always involves personal sacrifice.
Kindness is “a tender goodness that is useful.” It is all about community. It goes against independence and individuality. It cares for the well-being of all others and is willing to be a “last” so someone else can be a first. It leads us to see the needs around us. Pastor John called it, “the yoke of Jesus.” I love that.
Humility is defined in a multitude of ways, but John highlighted that it means “groundedness, earthiness.” Humility is not about cowering; it is not self-deprecating, pathetic, or downcast. It doesn’t minimize our individual gifts. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and taking our place, filling up only the space that is ours--not more, not less, so that everyone else can take up exactly their amount of space, too. To be humble means to have an honest, healthy perspective of who we are in relation to God and others and knowing our place in the kingdom.
Gentleness, what the translation above calls “quiet strength,” is exactly that. It is not voicelessness. It is the middle ground between too much and too little anger. It is a burning that stirs us to move toward something that needs addressed, corrected. It says what needs to be said, led by the Spirit. Pastor John said that gentleness is letting God out of the inside of you, saying the hard, difficult things with strength. It does not shrink, and it does not rage. It finds the space between the two and remains planted there.
The word discipline in the passage in more often translated patience. It is connected to gentleness because it also deals with anger. It is a restraining of anger, a very long wick. It is steady and keeps a little distance between us and the anger and swelling emotions. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on how we lean into this space, but in our dealings with others, this is what creates a little space, allows us to wait and process, restrain destructive rage and choose how to we will move rather than being led by our anger.
Forgiveness in this passage also carries the concept of forbearance. Both are important.
Together, they mean being tolerant of some things and releasing our “right” to get even. This means abstaining from attacking and controlling others because we value and honor the person. We choose to see every person as someone of value and we choose to be for them, not against. Forgiveness and forbearance are born out of grace, and leaning into this hard work takes us out of the role of judge and keeps us flexible and willing to engage with others to work toward the flourishing of all.
Love is what holds it all together. If love is not what drives us, none of the other virtues will grow in our lives. Love is where we start and end–everything else flows out of it. Love, according to what Jesus taught and modeled, is self-emptying. It “…never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it can’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, trusts God always, looks for the best, never looks back, keeps going to the end.” (taken from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
We must be willing to do something, to put actions behind our impassioned words about the injustices in our world. But we must choose how we engage. Wisdom reminds us that we always have choices. We must choose wisely. Our fight for restorative justice is born out of compassion–the kind of compassion that sees someone hurting, abused, silenced and, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, moves toward that person–regardless of the cost. Kindness leads us to be willing to prioritize the needs and voices of the marginalized and unheard.  Humility makes us aware that the space we’ve been handed by our world may not match the space that is actually ours to take up according to the kingdom. In the kingdom, there are no power dynamics at play, and no one gets more space than another because of their skin color, gender, education, or status. It recognizes the systems that have been built to uphold some and oppress others and it desires to set things right–to restore Shalom according to kingdom principles. This does mean those of us that have been given more than our share must choose to step back into the space we were created to inhabit so that those who haven’t been able to breathe, speak, grow, lead can expand into the space that is theirs to fill.
Gentleness moves us into the space where we say what needs to be said–not more, not less. It sounds like strength, but it’s controlled and measured. It is a healthy anger that smolders within–enough to move us into the work that needs to be done, but not so much that it engulfs what is good, holy work in flames that could burn the whole thing down. Patience creates the space we need to keep going. If we burn hot and engage from a place of raging anger, we will never see restorative justice come, and the flourishing of all will be inaccessible. Forgiveness is imperative in this work. It’s messy and not one of us will do it right all the time. We have to be willing to hang in, to keep working together in spite of our differences, and extend grace to others and ourselves when we cause and experience pain on the journey.
Love is the foundation, the source, the river that carries the work of justice. Without it, nothing we do or say matters. But when we’re firmly rooted in the love that gives and sustains life, grounded in the goodness of the One from whom it flows, there is nothing we can’t do, nowhere we can’t go. When we’re driven by love, we are empowered to do the work that needs to be done in a way that makes justice and equity possible.
May we remember that Jesus already brought the kingdom to earth. It’s here. But it needs channels to flow through so that everyone can be brought into wholeness and flourishing for the benefit of all of creation. The world will remember our response to the mounting injustices plaguing this generation. How we are remembered is up to us. What we do matters. How we do it matters. May we be found faithful citizens of the kingdom we carry within us.
–Laura
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