Friday, February 21, 2014

What Do We Do With People?

People drive me nuts.

I know, I know. Hardly a Christian thing to say, right? Probably the fact that I am so often annoyed by other human beings is one of my biggest failings (Which of the Seven Deadly Sins is that? Maybe Pride?) 

In any case, I only mention this because yesterday morning, nearly everyone around me drove me particularly nuts. Yesterday morning did not start out with a bang, since within fifteen minutes of waking up I slipped and fell - hard! - on my icy driveway. People problems just made my day worse: I got stuck behind slow drivers on my way into work, I got criticized, I found my students not following my directions. 

By the time I got home, the most glorious thing I could imagine was spending two hours reading a book, exactly what I did.

But sometimes, people are wonderful. 

When I got up this morning, the sun was shining. I did not slip on the icy sidewalks on my way to the gym. Then I got home, went to make coffee, and discovered that my roommate had left a Dove chocolate in the (empty and dry) coffeepot for me, with the note, Hope today is sweeter! 

Indeed it was: My students in Intro to Literature had a great, thoughtful discussion about colonialism; my students in Creative Writing invented some truly fine ideas for their short stories. The people driving in front of me drove at a normal speed. 

The Atlantic published an article tracking murder and suicide rates in large cities. Murder rates go up in big cities, but suicide rates go down. Their conclusion? Sure, people drive us nuts sometimes, but they're also there to pick us up when we fall, help us dust off our knees and carry on with life. 

This, I think, rings true at least with my experience. I am made angry, and disappointed, and upset, and frustrated with other people, but I am also comforted and encouraged by other people. They have sent me notes when I needed them; they have encouraged me when I needed it; they have been honest about what my faults are. (Where would we be without best friends who trust us enough to be honest with us?) My life may be more complicated because other people are in it, but it is also richer and sweeter because other people are in it. 

That got me thinking: I wonder what I can do to make other people's lives richer and sweeter? I am absolutely certain that I annoy other people; surely I can contribute something positive as well? 

When I was in youth group, we had nights that we called RAK: Random Acts of Kindness. Usually these involved picking up someone that hadn't been attending youth group for a while and taking them out for ice cream, hardly the kind of sacrificial love spelled out in the Bible. 

Yet the idea of RAK is a good one: showing kindness to other people, showing them the love of Christ, especially when their life (and the other people around them) might be everything but loving. 

The only question is, how? Putting chocolate in a student's mailbox seems a bit trite, but it's a start. Perhaps I'll try that this weekend. I have a note that I should write to a friend. Perhaps I'll do that. I sponsor a child in India through Compassion International. Perhaps I'll go through the rigmarole of figuring out what the heck my password is on Compassion's website and actually write her a letter. None of these are earth-shattering, but then, neither was the piece of chocolate I found in the coffee pot this morning. It was still very much appreciated. 

At least while we're here on this earth, we're never going to get to the point where people don't annoy us. The question is not, How can we get less annoyed? The question  is, How can we, though annoyed, show love to others?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Least of These

Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you really looked for the needs around you? When was the last time you saw the needy?

Honestly, I can't answer that question. I am far too blind to the real needs of my friends, far too likely to give offense instead of aid. I hesitated before writing this blog post.

But something needs to be said about how we talk about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, specifically about how much we're talking about his death.

On Sunday, I checked the New York Times and found it thoroughly covering Hoffman's death. On Monday and Tuesday The Atlantic covered concerns surrounding heroin addition. Today is Thursday, and at the gym this morning two separate channels had an announcement about the ongoing investigation; there was also a (presumably related) announcement about the rise of heroin. I hit my breaking point when I logged onto one of my favourite blogs, written by a pastor in Oklahoma who usually shows good sense, and found a post on the tragedy of Hoffman's death, as well as the deaths of other rich-and-famous from drug addiction.

You know what frustrates me about this? I'm not actually frustrated that the media is talking about Hoffman. After all, Hoffman's death was tragic. I'm frustrated that we're showering attention on Hoffman and sparing almost none for those who are not famous, and yet still suffer.

We are doing the very thing St James warned us against, lavishing attention on the needy rich and overlooking the needy poor, the ones whom Jesus remembers.

I write this post from New Beginnings, a center for moms in poverty where I volunteer. Some of our clients are facing the burden of an unexpected pregnancy. Some of them have only a few hundred dollars every month to feed a family of four. Some can't get a job.

Just down the street from us, the Maria House shelters women from abusive situations.

Last week, a colleague of mine lost a close friend and mentor late last week.

Last week, one of my students returned home to be with a deathly ill family member.

A few days ago, an elderly relative of mine had emergency heart surgery.

My point is, all around us real people are facing real troubles. Do we pay attention? Or can we not hear their cries, drowned out by the media hubbub of Hoffman's death?

Henri Nouwen, a world-renowned theologian and lecturer, lived out his final years caring for a mentally- and physically-disabled man named Adam. Adam was not famous; he was not rich. Yet in caring for Adam, Nouwen exemplified Christ. To Adam, Nouwen's caring hands were the hands of Christ, and Nouwen's love was the love of Christ, which reaches from heaven to the very humblest of earth's creatures.

Our Lord was not born in a palace, but a stable; he did not call the wealthy to himself, but the impoverished; he did not choose the Pharisees for his disciples, but uneducated fishermen. St Paul wrote that the very thing which believers were called to do was remember the poor.

Do we really remember the poor? Do we pay any attention to suffering, make any effort to relive it? Or do we only pull our heads out of the sand when the person who is suffering was wealthy?

To our shame, I think we have forgotten the poor. This is to my shame, as well: to my shame that I get more upset when I am stuck behind a slow car on the way to work than when one of my students is hurting, more concerned about how icy weather will affect my heating bill than about the people who are cold and hungry and homeless this winter. I do not write this as someone who has caring for the poor mastered, only as someone who is frustrated by our failure - by my failure - to care for the real poor.

Let us mourn Hoffman, by all means.

But let those of us who are Christians remember that he was rich and powerful, and that around us there are those who are poor, who are marginalized, who are powerless, and that it is these people who desperately need us to bear the light of Christ for them.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

For the Love of Teaching

I've learned, as a teacher, that some days rock; some days, really don't. On Wednesday, I had the second kind. On Thursday, with a good night's sleep between me and my mistakes, I thought of this verse:

Mark 10.17-22
17 Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”18 So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”[c]20 And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”21 Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”22 But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
What strikes me about this passage is that Jesus loved the young man.

In truth, the young man is not being very lovable right now. He's self-righteous, self-centered, and greedy. He asserts, probably loudly, how well he's kept every commandment; he keeps his wealth instead of giving it to those who really need it, and walking with Jesus. Jesus has every right to be frustrated, even angry, with the man, and we know from the incident at the Temple that Jesus could get angry. 

Yet Jesus does not get angry. He does not even get upset. All we are told is that Jesus loved the young man, for no observable reason whatsoever. He simply looks at the young man, and loves him.

No matter what the young man does, no matter how he hurts Jesus here, he cannot sin himself out of the love of Christ.

Graham Green writes in The Power and the Glory, "It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It  was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization - it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and corrupt." In the end, this is the message of the cross: that beyond all our expectations, beyond anything we have actually earned, Jesus loves us. 

This is a reassuring, comforting truth of the Gospel. 

It is also a challenge to me as a teacher. 

Sometimes, my students are easy to love, like when they write notes telling me that my class has changed their life, or purchase purple shoes as an in-class joke. Sometimes, they're not, like when I catch them on Facebook in class, or whey they blow off homework assignment after homework assignment.

How do I respond to this? Unfortunately, all too often I do the opposite of what Jesus does to the young man: I do not look at my students and love them; I look at what they are doing, and get upset.

This, I think, is the key difference between Jesus's love and my lack thereof: I get distracted by what my students do; Jesus, not one to get distracted, sees only the young man, created in the image of God inherently valuable, distinct from all his poor choices. Nothing the young man does can erase the fact that he was meant to walk with God, and nothing my students do should erase my love for them.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I should be a pushover. They deserve, and often desperately need, their teachers' love, but sometimes what they need most of all is tough love, the kind that doesn't take late homework so that they learn to respect deadlines, or the kind that gives out that F when needed so that students actually learn to write well. Nor does loving students mean I let them get away with whatever they want in class. A student using Facebook may be distracting to the other students, for instance; loving students means loving all the students, making sure that everybody thrives in class.

Honestly, though, reminding myself to be strict is really a reminder I do not need, like telling a child that it's okay to have a cookie every now and then, or like telling a couch potato that it's okay to have a day without exercise. The reminder I really need is this: The most important thing I can do as a teacher is love my students, regardless of whether their behaviour pleases me or frustrates me.

Because in the end, it's not about me.

This, I think, is what trips me up. I make class about me: need to rock this lesson, need to get them interested in this 1600s essay, need to earn their respect. Class is performance, and I am the starring character. How different from Jesus's love, which went to a cross on which he could win no glory, simply for the love of half-hearted and corrupt humanity. How different from what class is meant to be, a journey in which students become better writers, better readers, better and holier thinkers.

Sometimes, we Christians pour scorn on those who say they believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher. He was the Son of God, we exclaim!

True, but He was a great teacher, the very best. In the same way that humanity is made in his image and meant to be like Him, I want my teaching to be made in his image.

Teaching made in his image is not, ultimately, about doing thorough research or understanding Milton's Areopagitica; it is not about whether I have the students' respect or their attention. Teaching in the image of God is about whether I love the students. If I can do that, everything else will fall into place. Will every day be perfect? Absolutely not. Jesus was the perfect teacher, and yet Judas betrayed him. But regardless of what my students do, I will be doing what Jesus did: looking at my students and, by the grace of God, loving them.

May it be so.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Scandal of the Gospel

The great scandal of the Gospel is that God forgives people like Jeffery Dahmer.

I’ve recently been reading Philip Yancy’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? There, Yancy tells the story of Dahmer coming to faith in Christ. Whether Dahmer was sincere, no one can say but God. Yet the truth is, the gates of heaven are flung wide for people exactly like Dahmer.


When I was a child, I always heard there was something scandalous, something offensive about Jesus, but I never figured out exactly what the scandal was. I assumed it lay in how we presented Jesus. If people were meant to find the Gospel scandalous, surely that was because we were meant to be on the offense in witnessing, getting in people’s faces a little, berating them for their sins? A friend of mine, as a child, rode her bike up and down her neighborhood streets, yelling fire and brimstone at the top of her lungs. This, clearly, was the scandal of the Gospel.

No. The way we share Jesus with others may be offensive, but the real scandal is Jesus Himself. Too often, this is not the Jesus we talk about in church. Too often, the Jesus we talk about in church “offends no one at all”, as Michael Card sings in his song “Scandalon.” The Jesus we talk about is busy inviting children onto his lap, feeding the hungry, heading out for a fishing trip with his disciples – all true, but hardly scandalous. The Jesus we don’t talk about is the one hobnobbing with whores and corrupt tax collectors, the one who rescues an adulteress from her just punishment and sends her away, scot-free.

The truth is, the scandal of the Gospel is grace. Do we really believe in grace? Do we really believe in free access to God for anyone – anyone –who comes to him through Christ? We say we do. We name our churches something like “Grace Baptist Church” or “Grace Community Church.” We print the sinner’s prayer at the back of every church bulletin and post it on church websites.

Then someone like Dahmer cashes in on God’s unending grace, and deep inside we are shocked. How could God’s grace possibly stretch far enough to cover someone like Jeffery Dahmer? Deep inside, something whispers to us that we are more worthy of God’s love than Dahmer. After all, he murdered people; we do not. He ate people; we serve juice and animal crackers at children’s church. We take a summer missions trip, we hold back snarky comments about Aunt Ethel at the family reunion, and we vainly imagine that our actions earn us a larger share of God’s love than Dahmer could ever receive.

Yet this tidy little myth of our own goodness is blown to bits when someone like Dahmer is saved. In someone like Dahmer there is absolutely nothing that could merit God’s love, yet God loves him unreservedly. However many animal crackers we serve in children’s church, however kind we are to Aunt Ethel, such love cannot possibly be earned. This is the scandal of the Gospel, that we stand exactly where we have always feared to find ourselves: as sinners, desperately in need of the no-strings-attached grace of God.

Realizing that we are in the same boat as Jeffery Dahmer need not be a downer. On the contrary, to remember how greatly we stand in need of God’s grace is to take the first step towards tasting that grace ourselves.

Humility, according to G.K. Chesterton, is the central virtue of Christianity. Indeed, in the Bible humility marks nearly every person’s journey towards God. Naaman is cured because he lays aside his pride and bathes in the Jordan, David the great king dances before the Lord, heedless and happy in his tightie-whities, and Zaccheus apologizes publically and promises to restore four times what he has stolen.. Whenever people come to God, they come to Him on their knees. Whenever they see God, they see Him best when they are not blinded by the phantasm of their own goodness. Whenever people are blessed by God, they are blessed because they are humble.

When we are humble, C.S. Lewis assures us, “the Mercy will receive us.” I would add that when we are humble, we will finally allow ourselves to receive mercy. Yes, Jeffery Dahmer’s salvation is scandalous. Yet that scandal is our saving grace. In the face of such scandal we are at last able to let go of our collective fantasy that we are somehow worthy of God’s mercy, able to bend our stiffened knees and in humility discover the endless grace of God.