Saturday, November 21, 2020

Guarding Your Coat

It's common knowledge that the first time we meet Saul, later to be named Paul, in Scripture, most of us miss him. It's not until he reminds us that he was there at the stoning of Stephen that we flip back a few pages and realize that yes, he was. Saul was the one guarding the coats of the men who had stripped them off to pick up rocks. 

Which raises an important point. 

If the Pharisees and leaders in religious law were really the pillars of society that they thought they were, why did anyone have to guard their coats? If everyone loved them and was thankful for their service and their teaching and had true respect for their authority and wisdom, why was there a threat that as soon as they made themselves vulnerable, the people would take advantage of that? 

Perhaps their coats meant something special. Perhaps the coat of the Pharisee was an external marker of his status in society, and what they were really protecting against was imposters potentially getting their hands on this well-known symbol of awesomeness and pretending to be more authoritative than they were. But if that's the case, then it raises the question of why the Pharisee would remove his coat of honor and authority to exercise his judgment on the people in the first place. Did he not want to tarnish his public appearance by wearing his coat during a stoning? That sounds complicated. (Although, if we're being honest, no one's saying the Pharisees were not a complicated bunch. Just look at how they imposed their rules of everyone but themselves.) 

We know that the Pharisees loved to wear long tassels on their coats to show their status in society. Perhaps they were afraid that someone would steal their coats, remove their tassels, or at the very least expose them for the kind of flimsy, shoddy add-ons that they actually were. Or maybe someone would pick up a coat and discover there was nothing so special about the tassels after all. 

Or maybe someone just wanted a coat. 

The point is that these were men in an elevated status in society, by their own doing. They had made themselves the authorities on religious life, which was to say - all of life, and they set the tone for everyone else. They set the pace. They set the rules. They reigned from their place of authority, self-imposed - and the made it a point to make sure that everyone knew that they were in charge. They were above reproach. No one could question the Pharisees. Just look at what was happening to Stephen in this very moment because he spoke boldly against the kind of teaching they espoused. He was a threat to them, and threats to them must be squashed. Yes, the Pharisees ruled with an iron thumb, squishing the people like tiny bugs under the mass of their status. 

And yet, the people were not so afraid of them that personal theft wasn't a real possibility even while the Pharisees were exercising their authority and stoning someone to death for crossing them. Even while they were securing their position by asserting their power and absolute dominance, they were afraid that something about them was legitimately vulnerable to the people they claimed to rule, so much so that they had to have someone guard their coats while they stoned a Christian to death. 

Imagine if they had any real authority. 

No, really. Imagine if their authority came from the people themselves. Imagine if the Pharisees were known for their generous teaching, for their grace and their mercy. Imagine if there was any real love between the people and these religious experts. Imagine if they had invested their lives in ministering to the people out of their understanding, rather than trying to dominate them to secure power for themselves. Imagine if the Pharisees had spent their lives building a legacy of good instead of fear. Imagine if they were a group of men so honestly respected that they could leave their coats lying around without worrying that someone would take them. 

Imagine if they were the kind of guys who didn't have to be afraid of a little vulnerability. 

This changes everything. For them, and for us. Because we're the kind of people always trying to secure our legacy, always trying to build our influence, always trying to assert our authority or hold onto our power. The world tells us we're supposed to be this way. But ask anyone who's "made it" and there's a very real difference between having the kind of power that cannot tolerate vulnerability and having a soft spot in the hearts of the people. There's a very real difference between having a bunch of persons who are impressed by who you are and having persons who truly value who you are. There's a difference between a legacy built on power and fear and intimidation and false authority and a legacy built on love. 

A legacy built on love means we don't have to worry about taking off our coats. 

So that's really the question for all of us, the question we ought to be thinking about when we read this story of the stoning of Stephen. What happens when we take off our coats? Do we need someone to guard them? If so, perhaps we're not getting things as right as we think we are. And maybe we need to change our ways. 

As Christians with the confident assurance of grace, we should never have to be afraid of a little vulnerability. We should never have to guard our coats.  

Friday, November 20, 2020

Wisdom and Humility

If wisdom is the sum of all of our experiences and permits us to make decisions based on what we already know, it's tempting to think that wisdom would make us confident, perhaps even arrogant. And it does (and it can), but real wisdom also comes with humility. 

Because wisdom recognizes a couple of things about itself. First, it recognizes that it may not have all of the information it needs. It knows that it only knows what it knows, that it is limited by its own experience and that some of what wisdom decides is, basically, an educated guess. It knows this because wisdom has made these educated guesses before - sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. Wisdom has discovered first-hand what it has not known, but only by choosing without knowing and then finding out what that missing information would have contributed. 

I keep saying that wisdom chooses without knowing, and that is true, but I don't want to create the impression that wisdom always chooses to act without knowing. Sometimes, wisdom chooses not to act because of not knowing, and that is a choice, as well. Sorry - just a small interjection, but I don't want you to get the wrong idea. 

What wisdom also recognizes is that it's never going to make the same decision twice. That's because as soon as wisdom chooses (to act or not to act), it adds another piece of data to itself. It has another point of experience to draw upon for the next time. So when the next decision rolls around, it is a different consideration, a different set of wisdom that makes it - a wisdom that has been added to by what it did the last time. 

That's why wisdom requires such humility, on both of these counts. It recognizes its own limitations and thus, has to confess that it knows that it does not know everything. It also recognizes its own developing nature and thus, has to be mindful of what it may learn from acting on itself. It knows that it is never complete, that it never will be complete, but that it will always be adding one more thing, one more thing, one more thing to its understanding to the point that a wise decision today might not be a wise decision tomorrow. 

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't make it today.

That is why when asked whether, knowing then what I know now, I would do something differently, the answer is no. The answer is no for a couple of reasons: first, I didn't know then what I know now, which means I could not have used today's information to make yesterday's decision. Today's information comes from having made yesterday's decision, so the fact that I can even ask the question is a reflection of the nature of wisdom itself. 

More than that, however, to have made any other decision along the course of this journey would have required, every time, deciding that what was true this time could have been true at any other time and always living deciding based on the unknown and not the known. It would have required me to always choose what I didn't know as the basis for my movement in this world, and that's not wisdom. Wisdom confesses what it does not know, but it moves based on what it does know. Otherwise, we're all living some kind of paralyzed life where we're afraid to move at all because we don't know everything. (We know persons like this; it's not pretty.) Life is meant to be lived. Wisdom tells us how to live it. Fear keeps us from living it. That's why we always choose wisdom.

It's tough. I get it. It's not easy. We get a little better at it as time goes on (hopefully) by learning from our mistakes and our successes, from our failures and our victories. We add to our pool of wisdom every time we choose (even when we think we choose not to choose, which is a choice in itself). And in the meantime, there are very real consequences (good and bad) for us and for others in our community when we move according to wisdom. That's why we need humility. 

Humility and wisdom go hand-in-hand. Both are necessary for navigating our world, no matter what it throws at us. Both are necessary for living together, which is what we are called to do. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Fear and Wisdom

Like most of us, I have wrestled in the past seven months with my own decisions. I have struggled to decide what to do about masks and social distancing and working outside of the home. I have had to re-evaluate everything in a new light, and for one reason only: there are persons in this world I love. 

That's it. It is out of love for those that I love that I have tempered some of my decisions, that I have agonized over choosing between my own confidence and a need for concern. Between what I would do for myself and what I would want someone to do for me. It's hasn't been easy. It's still not easy. It's not easy for any of us. 

And then...

And then on Thursday of last week, I was tested for Covid. On Saturday, my test came back positive. And all of a sudden, my decisions have had a real impact on others. Not a possible impact or a suspected impact or a potential for impact; others have been affected by my testing positive for Covid. So the question quickly becomes: knowing then what I know now, would I have done anything differently?

The answer, for me, is no. I would not have done anything differently. Because at every step of the way, I have made my decisions on the best wisdom that I have. And that's really all any of us can do. 

Wisdom takes a lifetime. It's the culmination of every little experience you've ever had. You spend your whole story building this library of experiences that you can draw upon when something comes up, experiences that will point you in one direction or another. You spend your whole life reflecting on your experiences and deciding what you would do differently if the same thing happened again. You spend your life learning to live your life the way that you want to live it, to figure out the indicators that you need to slow down or speed up, pause for a minute or push through. You have a whole treasury of mistakes you don't want to make again and opportunities you don't want to miss and chances you're going to jump on if you ever get them again. You have a memory box full of things you almost missed, but you're so glad you didn't, of once-in-a-lifetime things you've done that you don't regret. And, of course, of things you do regret. All of this is wisdom. All of this is what it takes to have a life at all. 

When you have to make choices about what to do next, it's this wisdom that guides you. Now, we're living in an interesting sort of time where none of us have stories about this. None of us have ever done this before, and the virus itself (I can confirm, now having it) is a very unique, wicked sort of beast that introduces a lot more questions than answers. So we have the voice of wisdom, but we also have this little voice in our head that wonders if we're wrong. That wonders what happens if we're wrong. That is worried about the consequences if we make the wrong choice. As we should be. These are very real, legitimate concerns - what happens when my choice impacts someone else? What happens when my choice impacts someone else's opportunity to make their own choice? When we live in community, we cannot ignore these questions. 

But neither is it of benefit to anyone - ourselves or others - if we stop living our lives at all, afraid of the impact that they might have when we least expect it. We can't all just shut down. We have to keep going...somehow. Otherwise, we have no impact at all. 

And the only way I know to keep going is in wisdom. It's in the library of experiences that I've built up over a lifetime that helps me to know what path to take, which way to turn, which decisions to make at any given point in time. Not just for the life that I want to live, but for the life that I'm giving to others out of. The life that I want to be able to give to them. And we cannot let the fear of being wrong stop us. 

Because the truth is that we're going to be wrong. All of us. At some point or another, we are going to be wrong about something, big or small. That's just how this thing called life works. We don't know everything there is to know about it. We don't know everything that's going on right now, let alone everything that might happen tomorrow. All we have is the wisdom we've accumulated from both making it and missing it, from being right about something and from being wrong about something. All we have is the sum of our own experiences that can give us reasonable confidence in moving one way or the other, and the humility to know that at any given point in time, we may still be wrong about something. We may still make a mistake. 

If we let the fear of being wrong make our decisions for us, then we end up living a life of regrets, of missed moments, of missed opportunities, of failures. We end up letting others down, which is the very thing that we're often afraid of doing in the first place. They can't count on us because we're too careful to be confident at all. We live every day like we're new here, like we don't know anything about this life at all, about who we are, about who God is, about what's going on in the world. 

Do I regret my decisions? Sometimes. But all things being the same, I would make the same decisions again. Because if the only reason I have to not do something is the vague possibility, without seemingly any evidence at all, that I might be wrong...that's not enough for me. Not when wisdom tips the scales overwhelmingly in the other direction. Not when having actually lived my life for this many years seems so clear in guiding me how I should live it in this moment. 

We are a people, not persons. We are a community. Our actions and decisions are necessarily going to impact one another - sometimes in unfortunate ways, hopefully more often in constructive ways. But we don't live in bubbles and we can't pretend to. And we can't put ourselves in artificial bubbles, either. What we have to do is to let wisdom guide us at all times, the wisdom we have earned by having come this far - by ourselves and together. It's not by mere chance that we're here with this moment to have. When it comes, then, to what to do with it, let us choose wisely. It's all we can do. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The In-Group

Yesterday's post was one of the toughest that I have written in awhile. And it's because it strikes so near at the heart of the tension that we feel - at least, of the tension that I feel - so often as believers - the tension between the way the world thinks and the way that we are called to live. 

The aim of the post was to talk about how the Jewish believers so easily drew the Greek believers in when there was an issue to tackle that affected all of them. But in order to do this, we still have to talk in some depth about lines that are easy to draw between us. We have to create a distinction between the Jews and the Greeks in order to talk about how the early church got rid of that distinction with inclusion. 

And this is so hard. It's just so hard.

It's a tension that we feel in the world at large, particularly right now. We are bombarded with messages of inclusion and exclusion, of tolerance and intolerance, of equal rights. We keep being told to celebrate with these groups who are looking for a place in the in-crowd when they get one, and yet, there remains this tension. 

How do we celebrate real inclusion if, in order to do so, we have to first recognize what separates us? How can there ever be full-fledged oneness if it is grounded always in otherness?

Take a fairly non-controversial example from this week's news. They were reporting on a woman of color who is set to become the first woman of color ever to be a brigade commander at the U.S. Naval Academy. Now, we want this sort of thing to not be news. We want inclusion and oneness and the notion that the best man (or woman) gets the opportunity to be so routine that it's not news. And yet, in order to show how inclusive we are, we create the distinction anyway. In order to celebrate her most fully, because of the broken world that we live in, and to show that we really believe what we claim to believe, we have to recognize 1) her femaleness 2) her color. In order to show that we really are inclusive and that it's possible to belong no matter who you are, we have to show that we include a diversity of persons. Yet to do so is to create the very division that we claim to have just torn down. 

We are constantly, in our world, re-erecting the barriers we just tore down in order to celebrate having torn them down in the first place. And there's just something that feels...disingenuous? about that. There's something unsettling about it. Something that really bugs me. 

It's the same thing I felt yesterday when talking about the Jews and the Greeks. The story was about how the apostles embraced inclusion to settle a trouble that was affecting all of them, which is an example we should all strive for. But in order to talk about inclusion, I first had to create two distinct groups in the very scenario where the apostles themselves demonstrated that no such groups existed. They were one group of believers.

And I went on to talk about how the church is the same way, how we need to include those that we too often exclude, but here again, that requires first creating two groups out of a body that is called to be one...and then calling that body to be one. It's tough. It's just tough. It's precisely why these questions are so difficult. It's why for all of the conversations and protests and rallies and movements that we have in our culture, we never seem to get any closer to actually solving these sorts of problems. Because every time we claim that we are one, there is something in the same breath that betrays somehow our two-ness. Our otherness. Our recognition that even if we choose unity, we remain different in some very real ways. 

The truth is...I don't advocate the "in-group" going out an intentionally drawing in members of the "out-group." I said it because language is sometimes inconvenient and too often imprecise for these sorts of things, but it doesn't set well with me. I believe that in Christ, there is no in-group and no out-group. There is no slave or free. There is no black or white. There is no rich or poor. There is no Jew or Greek. I believe the apostles got this right by choosing faithful men from the group of believers to address the problem that was cropping up and by choosing a diversity of men that shows plainly that they believed this, too - that in Christ, there was no Jew or Greek.

And yet, I know that to continue to say that is to continue to draw attention to the very divide that we are saying does not exist in Christ. 

And that's why this is so tough. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Jews and Greeks

One of the hallmarks of the early church was their commitment to one another. Acts tells us early on that many in the church were selling what they had and splitting the proceeds with those who needed them. They held everything in common, each man and woman having access to the things that they needed by the grace of their brothers and sisters, who believed more in who they were as a people than who they were as persons. 

This extended to widows and orphans, of course, and this is where we see one of the first troubles in the early church arise. The Greek believers got the sense that their widows were not receiving the same kind of love and assistance from the church as the Jewish widows. The Greek-speaking believers even went so far as to say that their widows were being neglected by the church. So they brought this dispute to the apostles. 

The apostles decided to solve this problem by appointing a whole panel of men to oversee the distribution of charity and widows' benefits. Appointing a committee would introduce a system of checks and balances, where no single man's interests could run away with him, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Now, look at who they appointed:

Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, 'who had converted to Judaism in the city of Antioch' (Acts 6:5). 

The one thing that jumps out right away from this list is this: some of those are Greek names. And in case you're prone to miss that little fact, the Scriptures tell us as much about the last guy - Nicolaus. He was a convert to Judaism from a Greek-speaking city. 

The apostles' response to a seeming imbalance of power was to balance the power. It was to appoint a group of men that included a number of men from the group that felt outcast by the other. 

We can't afford to miss this. We can't afford to read right by this. We can't afford to overlook this. Because so often when we believe that our ministry is missing the mark, when we find out that we're not having the impact that we want to be having or that we thought we were having in our community, our response is to appoint a bunch of experts from within our own walls. We turn to our own to try to solve the problem of the other, that problem that there is still an 'other' at all. We want 'us' to be the ones who do it better, and so we turn to our own kind as our best resource. 

The apostles could have turned to the Jews. They could have turned to those who had invested the most in the history of the grace of God. They could have believed that if they just found the most faithful men, the men who had spent their lives living the generosity of Moses' Teachings and Jewish hospitality, then this problem would be resolved. They could have gone to their own synagogues and found the guys who had spent the most time studying the Scriptures, the most time praying the prayers, the most time offering the sacrifices. But the faith of the apostles didn't work that way. 

The faith of the apostles recognized something more than the investment someone had made in the faith; it recognized the role of the Holy Spirit. And as soon as the Holy Spirit came upon a new believer, he was just as much a full-fledged member of the community as any man who had invested his life in the scholarship of the Scriptures. In appointing these particular men, the apostles made very clear that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek; there are only brothers. And that if there is a problem in the church, it's not up to the Jews to fix it; it's up to the brothers to fix it. It's up to all of us to come together, whether we're the in-group or the out-group. Whether we're the fourth-generation members or the guy who just showed up last week to check things out for awhile. 

There's a tremendous lesson here for all of us, and that lesson is simple: when problems arise in our churches or in our communities or in our lives, we don't need a bunch of experts to fix them. We need a bunch of brothers (and sisters). We don't need to make the problem worse by trying to figure out who's worthy to be part of the solution, but we need to jump right in and realize that we are all part of the solution. When there seems to be an out-group, the absolute best thing we can do is to make them part of the in-group. 

If the Greek-speaking believers among us believe they aren't getting a fair shake, well, then, by golly, let's put a bunch of them on our team and make sure they get a say in how things are going. 

It's so simple. It makes so much sense. And yet, it's not what most of us tend to think of first. 

Why not?