Thursday, July 15, 2021

Teachable Moments

Yesterday, we looked at Paul's teaching on eating food offered to idols and how it centers around the idea that there is a time and place for teaching. If you are not able in the moment to explain the grace under which you're living, then it's a good idea to defer that grace for your brother's sake until you come to a more teachable moment - until you can put it in context and explain for him why it's not a stumbling block to the faith to do what you're doing. 

The problem - and anyone who lives in our culture understands this - is that just because you have a teachable moment doesn't mean your weaker brother wants to learn. All of the conditions could be exactly right for you to impart grace and to start teaching some solid food, but the truth is that we have persons all around us who don't want solid food. They don't want to learn. They don't even want to listen. All they want to do is shout you down. 

I ran into that trouble with my acquaintance when I used the word that she deemed offensive. The moment was certainly teachable - we were both calm and simply engaged on the issue. But as I began to explain that the word has meaning for me that is central to the story of who I am and who I am becoming, she was not interested in listening. She began simply to shout me down, to attack my character, to imply that I was self-centered and uncaring about others. No matter what I said, the only truth that mattered to her was that some persons are offended by that word; she could not fathom that there might be other offenses at play - like asking a person to edit their own story, even the meaningful parts of it, for the sake of someone who isn't even present and isn't in relationship at that time. 

For her, there was one truth and one truth only and she wasn't willing to add to it. She wasn't willing to expand it, not even on its own bases. She wasn't willing to consider anything outside of what she already understood and believed. Thus, the teachable moment passed by, the conversation stalled, and everything just went quiet. 

Now, the question becomes: do you eat food offered to an idol in front of a brother who has rejected the opportunity to learn about the grace that lets you do this? If someone else refuses to engage in the teachable moment, are you bound to their lesser common denominator forever? Must you always defer your life to them because they are obstinate?

This is tricky. On one hand, this puts all of the power into the hands of someone who is basically throwing a tantrum. All you have to do to to stop playing. And then, you control things forever. We cannot simply reward others for refusing to challenge themselves and to grow. We cannot let their unwillingness to learn grace hold us hostage to not living it. 

At the same time, most of the time, the offense that they feel is still very real. It still hurts them. It still angers them. It still riles them up. 

And still yet, we also still want to teach them. We who live under such grace know how freeing and wonderful it is, and when we meet someone who doesn't yet know it, something in us yearns to teach them. (Okay, sometimes, we just want to be right, but sometimes, we honestly want to teach them, to free them.) 

The answer is not as challenging as it seems, and Paul has demonstrated this for us, too. 

You see, what happens when someone refuses to engage in a teachable moment is quite simple: they are choosing not to be in relationship. They are choosing not to do the hard work of growing together. They are making a power play, and there's no room for power plays among brothers. So at the moment that your weaker brother tries to hold you hostage to his offense by refusing to be open to letting go of it (by being obstinate about it, by being stubborn, by throwing a tantrum), you aren't in fellowship any more. And when you aren't in fellowship any more, the rules change. 

That sounds harsh, but it's true, and the Scriptures are clear that we have different obligations to our brothers and sisters, to those we are in fellowship with, than we do to the world at large. When you're sitting at a table with someone who you know is a Christian who might be struggling with the food offered, it's different than when you're sitting there with the guy who comes to your house to worship and you know is struggling. 

Paul ran into this. He was preaching in a certain town and the people were starting to push back. There were a number of persons there who weren't interested in a teachable moment; they were doing nothing but shouting Paul down. They had broken fellowship. They weren't there to listen to Paul any more; they were making power plays. 

Paul could have dug his feet in. He could have insisted that if they'd just listen to his message, they'd live better, more grace-filled lives. He could have shouted louder still, trying to drown them out. But what he does shake the dust off of his feet and walk away. Just like that. Paul decided that everyone who wanted to listen had heard and no amount of his speaking would tune the ears of those who didn't want to hear. So he shook the dust off of his feet and walked away, going on to live his same grace-filled life outside of the fellowship of those who had broken it. 

It's a good lesson for all of us. Our lives are not held hostage by those outside of our fellowship, outside of relationship with us, who are not interested in engaging, in having a real dialogue, but only want to shout us down. If our brother does not want to learn grace, that's fine, but neither does he get to take ours away. We go on living our grace-filled lives with those willing to do the hard work of living and loving together, and we shake the dust off our feet for those who don't. Just like that. 

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