Saturday, October 17, 2009

Unconditional Love? Maybe not so much!!! (Part 2)

I know, I know, I promised to post part two of this blog yesterday, but if I’m being completely honest I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this concept of love that is selfless and unconditional. I simply wasn’t ready to conclude this idea yesterday and I’m not even sure that I’m ready now. But, I guess I’ll probably never be ready so I’m just going to dive in head first. Here are a couple of quotes from the book "Blue Like Jazz" that struck a chord in me:

“The problem with Christian culture is we think of love as a commodity. We use it like money…. With love, we with(o)ld affirmation from the people who d(o) not agree with us, but we lavishly finance the ones who d(o)…. When we barter with it (love), we all lose. When the church does not love its enemies, it fuels their rage. It makes them hate us more.”

“Nobody will listen to you unless they sense that you like them. If a person senses that you do not like them, that you do not approve of their existence, then your religion and your political ideas will all seem wrong to them. If they sense that you like them, then they are open to what you have to say.”

This brings me to a very personal story I’d like to share with you. I will warn you in advance that if you don’t follow this story through to the end you might conclude that I’m being arrogant and self-serving, but if you’ll patiently endure the details of the story, I promise you that the point will be well made. One more disclaimer: I must also warn you that it will make some of you uncomfortable, as these are issues we’d rather pretend aren't there because it's not politically correct to talk about such things.

I’ve never liked Winn Dixie. Maybe it’s because it always struck me as a “poor man’s” store, and since I didn’t like the way it made me feel I just didn’t shop there. That is until I was forced, for, shall we say reasons of convenience, to shop at the Winn Dixie nearest my home in Lake Mary. I don’t know if it’s an official policy, but Winn Dixie hires a lot of handicapped and disabled people and this store appeared to be trying to win a competition for how many such people they could have on their team at one time.

Each time I went there I would notice how many disabled staff people wandered around and would throw a friendly wave in their direction then pat myself on the back for being such a ‘good’ Christian. After all, most of the other folks in the store simply ignored them and went about their business. One day I decided to introduce myself to a quadriplegic that I’d often noticed in an elaborate recumbent wheelchair. He would often position his chair strategically by the store entrance looking stone-faced at busy shoppers going in and out in a hurry as they lived out their busy lives. Ostensibly his job was to welcome people as they entered the store but his demeanor made most shoppers look the other way. I walked up to him and said, “My name’s Joseph, what’s yours?” “David” he replied, beaming from ear to ear. Then he continued, “I’ve often noticed you coming in here but you always looked so scary and mean.” Ouch!!! My Christian ego had just taken a deflating beating.

It turns out that in addition to being a quadriplegic, David also suffers from a mild case of cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. Down’s syndrome is associated with some impairment of cognitive ability and physical growth as well as facial appearance. I proceeded to have one of the most amazing conversations with David, all the while thinking how smart and well spoken he was. I’d made a judgment about David the first time I laid eyes on him. I assumed he wouldn’t be coherent and he’d be severely mentally handicapped. The ‘single story' of people afflicted with Down’s syndrome not being smart or intelligible, had led me to believe that David had nothing to contribute to my life. The funny thing is, I know the feeling of back-handed compliments, yet I was doing exactly the same thing as I expressed my surprise at how well David spoke and processed ideas.

All my life living in the West I’ve been judged on the single story: The story that black Africans generally speak with thick, heavy accents and are definitely not as smart or intelligent as their white contemporaries. When people have a conversation with me, they are ‘shocked’ at how well I communicate and process big ideas, and they are quick to tell me how much they love my voice and my “accent.” Now I know that these people are well meaning and all, but the truth is their ‘compliment’ is based on a set of preconceived ideas they have about what people like me should sound like. After all, you won’t find people paying compliments to a white Englishman for sounding English.

I wonder if David feels judged by the single story every time someone walks into the store and completely ignores him, hence his stone-faced expression. Many of us define people by the single story and miss out on so much more. There are numerous dimensions to every person and the more we unconditionally love a person, the easier it is to find out their multi-dimensional stories. As I’ve built a relationship with David, I’ve learned that he was in hospital for three months because he broke his hip trying to move from one wheel chair to another, and the pain is still excruciating as the doctors have told him it will take two years to fully heal since he can’t rehab it. Yet David is at work everyday because that’s the place where life happens. His eyes light up every time I walk into the store and he’ll tell me exactly how many days it’s been since I was last in. We’ve had conversations about the NBA Playoffs, the Superbowl, college football and every thing under the sun, and he is remarkably knowledgeable. David cusses like a banshee (whatever a banshee actually is) and has really pungent breath, but David is a delight to know and talk to. He forces me to put my life in perspective and to be thankful for the things that I can do, especially on the days when I’m throwing a tantrum because I’m mad at my circumstances.

David’s outlook on and approach to life humble me and make me realize that, in the human context, unconditional love may well bring a greater benefit to the one loving than it does to the one receiving love. You see, knowing David has changed my paradigm about the way I view and judge people based on the single story, and so it makes it easier for me to deal with each person on their own individual merit. I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you because I know it’s my journey, but I’m truly thankful for Winn Dixie, David, and unconditional love.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Unconditional Love? Maybe not so much!!!

The idea that we Christians love unconditionally is about as true as the notion that the sun is a warm fuzzy ball. Any one who believes either of those ideas is clearly deluded. The very notion that the Church is exclusionary in its gatherings is in itself proof that our love is conditional. It’s conditional upon you accepting what we believe to be truth, as truth. It’s conditional upon you looking, speaking, and acting in a manner that we deem acceptable by our measuring stick. It’s conditional upon you living your life by the same set of values by which we live ours. Why, sometimes it’s even conditional upon what color the statue of Jesus or the picture of him above your mantelpiece is. If that’s not conditional love then I don’t know what is and I’m the deluded one!

Much of the way we express our faith reflects this notion: If you accept all the things we accept, and live exactly the way we live, then we extend our ‘hand of fellowship’ and welcome you warmly (That’s why in America we think being Christians and Republicans are part of the seven sacraments). If on the other hand, you are a non-conformist and insist on questioning everything we believe, then you’re an outsider and we generally extend to you the “left-foot of fellowship.” Oh, don’t get me wrong, we definitely pay lip service to the idea that we love, embrace, and welcome everyone, but that is the theory. In practice the reality is much different as evidenced by the clear lines of demarcation along racial, denominational, and various other ‘measurables’ during our Sunday worship hour. I realize that I’m generalizing and there’s always a danger in doing that, but the larger point is clearly found somewhere in the middle of these ideas.

I recently read a blog post by Brad Johnson that chilled me to the core because of it’s simple but profound truth. Now I could paste the hyperlink here and go on to restate the same ideas, but that would be redundant. Instead I decided to directly quote some of his observations since he stated the big ideas more succinctly than I ever could. The writer made the following observations:

“I can’t shake it. It’s a phrase that haunts my thoughts at night, like some ethereal creature floating just out of my reach, taunting me.There is this on-going debate going within me about this phrase.

It’s a war. My soul says, “Yes, this CAN be.” My heart says, “I so WANT this to be.” My logic and observations declare, “This will NEVER be.”The troubling phrase? From the lips of Jesus: “Father, let Your will be done on earth…JUST AS IT IS…in heaven.”

What does that mean? What would life on earth be like, if even parts of Jesus desire came true?Questions lifted my thoughts to heaven. What is heaven like? What will relationships be like? Heaven will be filled with pure love and freedom from shame, and acceptance and peace with our selves, peace with others, and peace with God.In heaven, we will live life with no reservations about others, where love prompts us to hope and believe the best about one another, expect the best, cheer for the best?

There, perfect [unconditional] love will cast out fear; fear of being rejected, judged, disliked, hurt.I can’t get this thought out of my mind, this angst out of my heart. Jesus EXPECTED that we could have some of the attributes of heaven, right here on earth. I could. You could.So, why don’t I, in my life, in relationships, in interactions and conversations?

Why don’t we in our sanctuaries, our cathedrals, our churches, our services of worship?Why isn’t the rule of heaven…well, the rule of the day?To have heaven’s love existing between us would be a vision of revolutionary grace and mercy. To have heaven’s love would find odd-pew partners side by side, engaging in conversation and laughter and hugs and worship.

There would be wounded marriage partners, bathing each other in forgiveness. There would be adulterers and adulteresses, now clean, walking in the freedom of new life, free to experience new, honorable love and meaningful love. Addicts would be healed from shame, embraced by Christians, moving sober into a wonderful new day. Republicans and Democrats would lay down agendas of their parties and find common ground under the rule of heaven.” (emboldened word in parenthesis above is mine)

I have a few more ideas about this that I’ll conclude with tomorrow (yeah, really. I’ll actually blog two days in a row), see you then. :)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Immeasurable Grace!

Yesterday my wife, Sola, and I had lunch with our dear friends Ted and Gayle Haggard (yes, that Ted and Gayle Haggard). It was a really good time of connecting and catching up even though it’s the second time this year that they’ve visited with us in Orlando. We love what God is doing in and through them. Now I know that they’ve been somewhat pariahs to many people over the last few years and that there are many who think that Ted has no right to be in ministry any longer considering his past sin, but I’m so grateful that God makes those calls and not men. What I find most amazing is that people fail to recognize that Ted is better equipped to serve the Body of Christ now more than he ever was before his sin was publicly exposed.

Some would have preferred that he give up ministry, hide in a hole somewhere and continue to sell insurance for the rest of his life. Now before you begin to vilify me, there’s nothing wrong with selling insurance if that’s what you’re called to. However, if you’re called to something else then you’re underachieving. Our meeting affirmed something in my heart that motivated this blog: God is faithful even when we are not! God sovereignly decides where, when, and how He will use you (or not) and how that will be accomplished. Our conversation amplified the fact that God is speaking to Ted and Gayle and birthing in them ideas for ministry that will impact lives significantly. Because of the ‘pockets’ of grace and love their family received during their ‘wilderness’ season, they are developing an idea that speaks to the very heart of serving and loving people.

My heart leapt in excited anticipation as they shared the formative stages of the big idea with us. Sadly, I cannot share the details as they are still being incubated. In fact, I liked the idea so much, I resolved to ‘steal’ it and implement it, but Ted ‘threatened’ me, and since Gayle is a real hero to Sola and I, and since I’d like to maintain my friendship with the Haggards, I’ve decided to hold off on stealing the idea… for now. But, so that I don’t leave you feeling totally cheated, here are some paraphrases of some great nuggets that Ted shared during the meal.

  • The only place where the Gospel cannot be communicated is a place where there is an absence of human conflict and pain.
  • Until someone demands that you walk a mile you can’t offer to go two.
  • You can’t turn the other cheek until someone strikes you on the first.

I’m truly thankful for God’s immeasurable grace and redemptive purpose in Ted and Gayle’s lives. For those of you that think it’s improper that we even consider that God can use the Haggards even more powerfully in this new season of their lives, well, all I can say is I pray that one day you might be the recipient of the kind of grace that alters your perspective.