Our Thoughts and Words Matter

us2016Nobody said U.S. politics were dull.

Like most of the world, I watched the recent U.S. presidential race alternating between fascination, amusement, and horror. Sometimes all three at the same time.

It’s the kind of election that will be analyzed from every angle for years to come. I’ve been sorting through my own thinking on “what this all means,” and one of the things that I keep coming back to is this: our thoughts and words matter.

Even more pointedly: As Christians, called to love both neighbour and enemy, it’s not enough that we act in loving ways. We must also think and speak in loving ways.

I’ve often reflected that, if I were set upon by bandits and left for dead by the side of the road, there’s no one I’d rather have find my nearly lifeless body than an Evangelical Christian. Say what you will about Evangelicals, but pretty much every red-blooded Evangelical I know of would stop and help someone in such desperate need, even at great cost to themselves. Evangelicals make great Good Samaritans.

However, I have heard some of those same people speak demeaning, even downright cruel words about others. I have seen some of those good Evangelical Christians manipulate and deceive and aggressively coerce in order to achieve what they believe to be good ends. I have witnessed their haughty looks, their patronizing gazes, their holier-than-thou disdain, their puffed-up egos run amok.

I have been on the receiving end of this. I know whereof I speak.

I know also that this is not merely an “Evangelical Christian” problem. It is a profoundly human problem.

I’ve heard politically correct liberals speak horrendously about conservatives behind closed doors. I’ve seen poverty-advocating progressives walk right by a homeless beggar on the street with not even a flicker of emotion.

The disjunction between outward action and underlying attitude can be found among all of us in one way or another. I’ve seen this problem all too often in myself, across the whole spectrum of ways. We’ve all got a problem, and it’s a deep-seated, far-reaching human problem: a “sin” problem, to use the Christian lingo.

But what has struck me most profoundly over the past few months of observing U.S. politics is this particular disjunction: we don’t seem to get that our outward actions are rooted in our underlying attitudes and fuelled by our shared speech.

We men might never walk up to a woman we don’t know and “grab her by the p*ssy”—but we tell blonde jokes behind closed doors, or we mansplain in our work meetings, or we smirk the words “PMS” to our buddy with a roll of the eyes.

We white people might never lay a finger on a non-white person—but we chuckle at the “drunk Indian” or “lazy Mexican” comment, or we  brush off the brouhaha over “Redskins” for a team name, or we think to ourselves that African Americans or Indigenous people just need to “get over it already.”

We straight folks might never assault the LGBTQ folks among us—but we perpetuate lies about some universal “gay lifestyle,” or we speak about bisexuality as if it’s a fake illness, or we’re not really sure we can trust the lesbian math teacher with our children all day.

We Christians might never bomb the nearest Mosque—but we assume the hijab-wearing woman is living in suppressed silence, or we choose the seat at the airport furthest from the Arabic-speaking men, or we forward the latest “Muslims are Taking Over Canada!!!” email to our family.

I’m not talking about those random thoughts that pop into our head from time to time. I’m talking about those attitudes that we allow to settle into our brains and dwell in our souls. We harbor these fearful, demeaning attitudes toward others, we speak fearful, demeaning words about others, and then we are all shocked when people actually act out of fear in cruelty and violence toward others.

But these things are connected. Our thoughts, our words, our actions—they are all of a piece.

Maybe we’re right about ourselves, that we would never physically harm others. But when we nurture harmful attitudes about others in our hearts and minds, when we encourage hurtful speech about others even in private, these thoughts and words will inevitably bear fruit in action—either ours or someone else’s.

This is what’s behind some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. “Adultery” is not just about sexual intercourse, Jesus declares, and “murder” is not just about the act of killing someone: these outward acts are rooted in our thoughts and anticipated in our words (Matt 5:21-30). In other words, Jesus asserts, “Evil things come from within, from the human heart,” and this is what truly defiles us before God and others (Mark 7:20-23).

Image result for seed sproutingTo borrow another favourite metaphor of Jesus—and some direct teaching from the Apostle Paul—“we reap what we sow” (Gal 6:7-8). Our thoughts are like seeds that root themselves deep in the soil of our hearts, and they will shoot up in the words that we speak and bear fruit in the actions of our lives.

If we think otherwise, we are deceiving ourselves. We are mocking God; but God will not be mocked.

When we nurture harmful thoughts, even in the deep places of our heart, or speak harmful words, even behind closed doors, we sow seeds of harm that will bear the fruit of harm. This is true for us as individuals, as families and churches, and as a society.

But if we can instead develop settled attitudes toward others that are based on truth and love, and speak words that build up and don’t tear down, then we can sow seeds that will bear the fruit of goodness and truth and beauty in our lives and in the world.

Let’s stop pretending that our inner thoughts and private words don’t matter. They do.

For the love of God—with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves—let’s dig deep within ourselves and scrape out our stony hearts in repentance. After all, God has promised a heart of flesh ready and waiting for us, beating with the love of Christ.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

The Parable of the Good Muslim

The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Everyone knows the story. Or, at least, they know what a “good Samaritan” is. It’s someone who does a good deed, someone who helps a person in need.

Sure, but it’s more than that. The story is actually more jarring than that. Or, at least, it should be.

Jesus tells the story to describe what “neighbour-love” looks like, what it actually means to “love your neighbour as yourself.” This “neighbour-love,” Jesus says, is vitally connected to “God-love,” what it means to “love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” The Greatest Commandment—the One Thing God asks of us, the One Thing that encompasses all things God requires—is to love God and love others.

So what does this “neighbour-love” look like? It looks like a Samaritan showing compassion and extending care to a Jew in desperate need.

Simple, right? Just your everyday good deed, a random act of kindness, the kind of thing any decent person would do. Right?

Not quite. Read it again. And then again. And again—this time with feeling. (And maybe a little context.)

First note: As any first-year seminarian can tell you, the Samaritans and Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t really get along. Okay, that’s understatement. There’s one story of some Samaritans throwing human bones into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, defiling it. But then again, a century before that the Jews completely destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. You know, “eye for an eye” and all that. So a Samaritan and a Jew? We’re talking “despised other” here, like when Donald Trump talks about “Mexicans” or “Muslims.”

Note #2: The Samaritan shows compassion and extends care without reservation: no questions asked, no conditions to be met, no fine print to qualify the offer. He’s not concerned about his own safety and security. He’s not concerned about who’s going to pay him back. He’s not all, “Well, maybe if I help this Jew he’ll convert to my religion and come worship at my temple.” (Seriously, think about that a moment.)

A third note: The people who you’d think would most likely help the victim are exactly those who refuse to do so. A priest, a Levite. A Christian, a Canadian, a pastor. Nope. Instead, it’s the least likely person (from the Jewish perspective) who is the hero of the story, the “despised other” themselves.

There’s much more to the story than meets the eye. There’s much more to the story than even these three notes. But these three things have struck me recently as I’ve read and re-read the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Did I say “Good Samaritan”? I meant “Good Muslim.”

Now there’s an idea. Let’s try that out and see how it feels—and if this makes you uneasy, if it makes you all up-in-arms and red-in-the-face and furious with me, then maybe you’re starting to hear the story correctly.

Wanting to make himself look good, the expert in ethics asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Morden to Winkler by a back road, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead in the ditch.

“Now by chance a well-respected pastor was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a devout Christian, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

“But a Muslim immigrant while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having treated them with antiseptic. Then he put him in his own car, brought him to the hospital, and sat with him through the night. The next day he wrote a cheque worth two days’ wages and gave it to the nurse on duty, and said, ‘This is for any extra expenses he has; when I come back, I will repay you whatever more is needed.’

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The ethical expert said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

How Should We Then Love?

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

I started the week by getting up on my soapbox and boldly declaring: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

In our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we most desperately need.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I’ve spent the last three parts in this series making my case for this claim, and sketching out what this love looks like.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this. That was part two.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love. That was part four.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary. That was part three.

But what does this love look like in practice? In the nitty-gritty of the real world, where the rubber meets the road of life, what might it look like for us to love each other in the way of Jesus?

The New Testament itself gives some practical suggestions.

Here’s Jesus: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31). This has been analyzed and critiqued from every possible angle, but it seems to me this Golden Rule is simply Jesus’ rough-and-ready guide for putting “Love your neighbour as yourself” into action.

Before you speak or act, pause and think:

How would I feel if someone said this to me? If it would be a good or necessary feeling, say it. If not, zip it.

If I were this person, how would I react if someone did this to me? If my reaction would be positive, do it. If not, don’t.

What would I want someone to do for me if I were in this situation? Do it for them, if you’re at all able.

Then there’s the Good Samaritan story, Jesus’ own commentary on “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:25-37). In the story, the Samaritan shows compassion for the Jew—typically hostile neighbours, these—caring for one who was violated, left destitute, left for dead. He treats the man’s injuries, brings him to a place of rest and ensures his continued care, all on his own dime, irrespective of who this man was or whether he was “worthy” of such care.

In a similar vein, James connects this neighbour love with how the poor are treated—not just in terms of caring for their material needs, but also in terms of showing them honour and respect (Jas 2:1-9). And John asks this piercing question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-18).

“Go,” Jesus says after telling of the Good Samaritan, “and do likewise.”

That woman violated by her abuser—care for her in this way.

That family left destitute after a sudden job loss—love them like this.

That returning veteran dead inside from the trauma of war—show her compassion like this.

That whole mass of people without adequate health care, education, or even food for the table—treat them in this way.

That Muslim immigrant, that gay couple, that redneck conservative or that flaming liberal, whatever your “despised other” is—shower them with this kind of love.

Another angle on putting this Christ-like love into action can be seen in the many “one another” passages, mostly found in Paul’s letters. If “love one another as Jesus has loved us” sums up all the virtues and ideals for Paul, then all the “x one another” passages are expressions of this love.

“Love one another” means “patiently tolerate one another” (Eph 4:2)—yes, those people you dislike, or disagree with.

“Love one another” means “accept one another” (Rom 15:7)—welcome others with open arms, open homes, open tables, even those you might not normally associate with.

“Love one another” means “encourage one another” (1 Thess 5:11)—don’t tear down others with harsh or cruel words, but build them up with kind words (even on the internet).

“Love one another” means “honour one another” (Rom 12:10)—show respect to everyone, even the “nobodies” and “nothings” among you, those on the fringes around you.

“Love one another” means “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2)—we’ve all got them, those difficult burdens of life, so let’s lend each other a hand with them.

“Love one another” means “do not judge one another” (Rom 14:13)—unless you wear a robe to work and bang a gavel all day, that’s not your job, ever.

“Love one another” means “forgive one another” (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13)—just let it go, release them from the heavy burden of guilt and yourself from the choking tangle of bitterness.

And many more—all specific attitudes and actions that flesh out what it looks like to love one another in the way of Jesus.

The Golden Rule, the Good Samaritan, these “one another” commands—all of these connect to some ideas I’ve suggested already.

In my third post I described this Jesus-love this way: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so. This “flourishing life” that is the goal of love, I suggested, is at minimum having our basic, universal human needs met—and this, too, can give us a window on love in action.

Clean air is a basic human need—so love might mean pushing for tougher regulations on polluting industries.

Clean water is a basic human need—so love might mean giving money for clean water initiatives in developing countries.

Nourishing food is a basic human need—so love might mean volunteering at a breakfast program in your local elementary school.

Adequate warmth in clothing and shelter is a basic human need—so love might mean donating blankets and jackets to an inner city soup kitchen before winter hits.

Simple health and safety is a basic human need—so love might mean supporting restorative justice programs in your community. 

Positive relationships with others is a basic human need—so love might mean learning about the complexity of human sexuality so you can better empathize with LGBT persons.

A sense of belonging in a group is a basic human need—so love might mean inviting your new-to-town neighbour to your weekly bowling night.

A sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world, is a basic human need—so love might mean starting a community children’s choir or a neighborhood book club.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “How should I love others?” Each person is unique, each interaction between people is unique—and each person needs love, every single time we interact with each other.

We can’t do all these things I’ve suggested in this post. We can’t do everything we could ever imagine. We can’t love everyone. We can’t even love all the time.

But we can love this person. We can love in this moment. We can start with one act of love, however small, and let it grow from there.

That’s how kingdoms are born, after all.

Treat others the way you would like to be treated, in your attitudes, your words, your actions toward them.

Give yourself—your time, your energy, your attention, your compassion, your money, your things, your very self—for others.

Do these things, striving for flourishing life together: our basic needs as human persons met, all shared together.

And do these things for all others you encounter: neighbours and enemies, friends and strangers, family and foreigners, good and bad alike.

Sounds simple, and in a way it is. Love cuts through the chaos and confusion of our complex world, it slices through all our insistence on right doctrine or correct morality or proper ritual, right down to what matters most.

But it’s not easy. It is the most difficult thing we can do in life, loving each other.

It’s also the most important.

This kind of love is the foundation for true justice.

This kind of love is the basis for lasting peace.

This kind of love is the source of flourishing life.

This kind of love is the love that God is, the love that God has shown us in Jesus, the love that God calls us as followers of Jesus to live out, energized by the Spirit.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.