(I’m considering doing a weekly bit where I offer a little commentary on contemporary goings-on or pieces of web conversation. Since this is the first stab at it, I don’t have the gall to add the word “weekly” into the title. I might next week.)
The past couple of weeks in this land have been marked by the political turmoil of President Trump’s executive order concerning refugees and immigrants from a handful of countries, and the beginnings of the court processes testing that order.
Generally, I think there’s room to improve just about everything that everybody does, and so it not possible to assert that the status quo regarding refugee vetting is already watertight. Immigration policy is remarkably complex, and the ideological divide is just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the issue is how well we staff the agencies that process the applicants, and how efficient the bureaucracy runs. However, I’ve heard nothing in the narratives of how that process works that makes me afraid of the small number of refugees we’ve allowed in the country. Policy-wise, I’d say lets look for ways to improve the process (including speeding it up!), and continue to make it secure. However, from the outside, I think it’s duplicitous to claim that this moment is a reversal of a previously soft process for refugees. The process is already heavily weighted towards security and against risk.
More problematic seems to be that the main defense of the ban is that it really isn’t all that different from things we’ve already done. That seems to me to be the tone of the response of David French from the National Review, for instance, which is a viewpoint out of line with my own that is worth your consideration. French’s article has three main points. One of which (the second) suggests that opponents were overreacting to a misreading of the order in one regard (whether the restrictions applied to current green card holders), though French did allow that the point was open for criticism if the popular reading was in fact the intention (which it seems it was.). The other two points, though, seem to me to argue that people were overreacting to Trump’s order because it did not in fact amount to much of a departure from normal United States policy.
That seems a curious point to me, and seems to miss the key of the whole issue. The fact that Trump’s action was targeted towards a very small slice of immigration governance is precisely what defines the action. It was meant as a piece of rhetoric, a demonstration piece. It was performance politics meant to make the ideological point without creating too many pain points.
That may satisfy Mr. French, but it does little to temper my own ire. I have a problem with it precisely as rhetoric, although the justice concerns would erupt further were this a large scale action. However, it’s the rhetoric of fear that bothers me the most in this case…and it’s even accented somewhat because of the small scale. By acting against a very small number of persons, personally unknown to most Americans citizens, Trump’s action furthers the villainization of “others”, making it difficult for some of our citizenry to really see them as persons. This action was less about stopping a real threat as it was about feeding the perception of a set of threats. The small scale isn’t accidental there…it actually is part of the rhetorical move, as it limits the possibilities of major problems with established allies or the economic impacts of the restrictions. This move doesn’t highlight the “most dangerous” people entering the country, but the most defenseless, the most vulnerable. The fact that the scale is small simply clarifies that this is a rhetorical move. I object not just to the policy, but to the furtherance of xenophobic rhetoric.
On the other side of the coin, I was quite moved by a poem that emerged online in the midst of the refugee debate by Warsaw Shire, who is of Somali descent and low living in England. It is a haunting poem, with sledgehammer images. The poem is entitled, “No One Leaves Home”, and it might be the best thing I’ve read this year. Hear these lines:
While I write this, the whole thing is caught up in the courts, so we’ll see soon what becomes of it. I did email my legislators about the executive order, and Senator Alexander responded with an email that I took as quite thoughtful on the matter, which makes me wonder how the tides of opinions they’ve heard from constituents have leaned. You can read his public statement here.
This sermon is from Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) on January 29, 2017. It’s a sermon about the healing of the paralyzed man, (“the Paralytic”, as the old translations say). It’s part of a sermon series on Mark. The video below is essentially the audio of the sermon with the slides. The manuscript below has been revised by evaluating the transcript of the recording.
How did you get here?
How did you get here?
I want us to stop and reflect on that question for a moment, despite all you smart-alecks who just said to yourselves, “In the car.” You know who you are.
I want you to think for a second about how you got here, to think about the story that led to you coming to Jesus. What led you to come into this community of faith, or to come to this place in your life? Everybody’s got a story.
There’s an old story in our family a about my great-great-grandfather who when he was a little boy had a head to parents who were ahead Ted serious respiratory illnesses were common back in those generations and they lived over on the east coast and they made the decision, under medical advice to make for their respiratory problems they would make these trips over to over to Texas and they made this journey several times. On one of these my great-great-great-grandmother fell so ill that she did not recover from her sickness and she died and her husband was so struck with grief and his own illness that on the journey back east he just laid in the back of this carriage that was pulled by the two horses.My my great-great-grandfather and his brother, even though they were young boys, were in charge of getting them back home, while their father just laid in the back of the carriage. They asked, “How will we get home? We don’t know the way.” And he said, “The horses know the way. Let them guide you back.” Well, the horses didn’t know the way, and so the next five generations of our family lived in North Alabama.
Everybody’s got a story about how you ended up where you are—that brought you to this moment. The text in Mark that we’re looking at opens with a crazy story about how a man came to Jesus. Jesus had been preaching around in the communities around Galilee but he comes back home to Capernaum. When he’s there people begin to gather. The house fills up, and there’s such a crowd there that it’s standing room only all the way out to the door, to the edge of the house.
Our story says that there was a man who was paralyzed. We don’t get a lot of details about how he came to be like that. Certainly would not have been unusual back in this time for somebody in normal work to suffer terrible injuries. Beyond that, people that have sicknesses and illnesses or birth defects, or for whatever reason their body’s broken. The text doesn’t really tell us how the man came to be like this, but we know his situation is such that he is paralyzed. He can’t walk.
Mark says that a group of people bring this paralyzed man to Jesus. Four of them each get a corner of the mat, but it’s actually a larger crowd with them. They want to get to the house where Jesus is they can’t get inside because it’s so crowded in there. They can’t find a place among all the people who are already there with Jesus—which is a sad little note in this story.
They don’t give up, so they climb up on the roof.The carve a little hole in the roof there, and they lower this man down through the roof. Can you imagine it? Jesus is there and all of a sudden the tiles of the ceiling or the thatching or whatever, it starts spreading apart, and you hear the ruckus. Then, all of a sudden, you see some light, and this man is lowered down right there in front of Jesus. What a story about how somebody got to Jesus!
Think about the things that brought this man to Jesus. Sicknesses, or injury or whatever it was that caused his paralysis. There’s also the the crowd of people. There were the determined friends who were carrying him. Often, that’s what it takes, right? How many of you came to Jesus because of the determination of a group of friends, a determined community of people who said, “We’re not going to rest until this person gets to Jesus.” Sometimes that’s what it takes.
Some of you came here by way of your own great-great-great grandfather who made a decision about a church, five generations back. Some of you got here because the church served you and your family in some way. Some of you are here because a coworker just kept getting into your ear. That’s just the surface of the story—there are all sorts of things at work to bring you to Jesus, to bring you to the place where you could be healed. To the place where you could be whole.
We might imagine the story going on from here something like this: Jesus sees them and he would say say to them “Be healed!”, but this story takes a turn that is unexpected. It is a moment that we would not predict. Jesus doesn’t look at the man and just give him the healing which he and certainly his friends have sought. Instead, Jesus looks at the man it says that Jesus sees the faith of the ones who have brought him. His faith, too, I’m sure, but Jesus notes “their faith”, in the plural. Then, Jesus says to the paralyzed man, “Son your sins are forgiven.” He seems pretty content to leave it at that. So what do we have now? We’ve got a man, still paralyzed, who has received forgiveness—not really the thing that he came for.
You know when I think about this story, I think that Mark wants to make it clear that Jesus knows more than we do. Jesus knows more about how the things that are broken got broken.He knows more about what’s really wrong, and he sees what really needs to be fixed. Jesus knows more about what it means to be whole for me than I could ever imagine. Jesus knows more about what it means for me to be whole then all those other people who were part of bringing me to Jesus might even imagine.
Jesus has a more of a perception about what our brokenness really looks like than we do. We have some understanding of it, but Jesus sees the full scope of it. Jesus gives the man a greater and deeper healing than he even realized he needed.
But you just know, it wasn’t just about the paralyzed man. Jesus also perceives some other level of brokenness in the crowd as well. I don’t really know how that man reacted to Jesus’s forgiveness, but the text does tell us how the other people in the crowd reacted. It says that they start muttering to each other, saying things like “Who does this guy think he is? We know that it is only God who can forgive sins so what is this guy saying? That’s blasphemy, for him to take on the authority that belongs to God alone—Who does this guy think he is?”
When they challenge each other in that way it says “Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these things among themselves.” See, it’s not just the man that has some kind of hidden unseen bit of brokenness that needs to be healed. Jesus perceived the brokenness in the community too. He sees that these people are more concerned about their standards about the way that people should talk about God than they are about whether this man actually receive forgiveness or not. He perceives that their religious sensibilities are more important to them than the man on the mat. And so, just like he offered the man the forgiveness that he didn’t understand he needed, he’s also going to offer to this community a word that they didn’t come to hear, either. He looks at them and he says
“Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:8-12, NRSV)
You see, there is a multiple healing taking place in this story. There is the man who is paralyzed, made whole by his body. The thing that he actually came for in the first place finally gets done. But it’s also the community’s perception of God and God’s work in the world that’s healed as well. Jesus takes their grumbling, stubborn religiosity and he shows them something new. He offers them a way towards something that’s a little bit more whole as well. Jesus, who knows more, is able to perceive exactly what it is that I need and what we need as a community. Jesus gives us what we need on the way to being made whole—very rarely according to our time frame or our expectations about the way it should happen—but Jesus does bring us along towards the journey of being made whole.
There is so much of what it means to be a follower of Jesus tucked inside of this story. This is a story about what it means to be laid open by Jesus and for Jesus in his own authoritative way brings us towards a complete and full wholeness, beyond what we could have even imagined. This man that comes in the story, he had people in his life that loves him so much that they were willing to do whatever they could to make his body whole again. He had an amazing group of people who were willing to do something outlandish, foolish for his sake. But in Jesus, he meets the one whose expectation about what it means for him to be whole blows their expectations out of the water. Jesus loves us deeper and has a greater vision for the wholeness and fullness of our lives in our humanity than even the people we know in our lives who love us the most. This man comes to Jesus broken in ways that he doesn’t even understand, and Jesus makes him whole in a way that he never could have imagined.
This story also shows us that sometimes grace comes to us in stages. A little forgiveness here, a bit of reconciliation there. Until the last day, Jesus is making us whole step by step. None of us have been made fully whole yet, and yet we can say that many of us have already tasted the grace of God. We’ve received things like having relationships restored back to us that we thought we lost. We’ve received forgiveness and the relief that it brings. We’ve received that taste of God’s grace that shows us that we are loved. We’ve received a part of it, but don’t we also all carry with us some bit of brokenness left? It’s easy for us to believe that all those things define us for who we are. What was the man’s name in the story in mark? “Paralyzed man.” The only way we know him is by his brokenness. If that sounds harsh, I’d suggest that for many of us that’s how we know ourselves, too.
“I am guy with an anger problem…”
“I am the woman with chronic pain issues…”
“I am the man who can’t get along with my brother…”
“I am the woman who carries a deep grudge against my father who’s long ago dead…”
“I am the person whose marriage is falling apart…”
“I am the person who doesn’t seem to be able to hold down a job…”
I am broken and for many of us that’s how we know ourselves. Jesus perceives us to be something more. Jesus perceives in us our value, our dignity, our life as the children of God—that we are images of the Divine. Jesus sees in us what we are, what we will be when we are whole—he does not know us only by our brokenness. Our brokenness maybe part of our story, it may be part of the way that we come to Jesus.It is not the whole of our identity.
Part of what i want you to hear in this story is Jesus’s vision for you as a whole person—in this story this man he has no idea what it means for him to coast or thick to go see Jesus but he comes to find out it comes to claim it comes to own it and then he at the end of the story walk away whole in body, whole in soul, in spirit. When the crowd sees it they see the man and they can’t help but say alright that’s amazing and we’ve never seen anything like it. The man who was at the beginning of the story just “the paralyzed man” becomes a living, walking, witness to the power of God at work in Jesus—and so are we.
This story challenges us on a lot of fronts, but one of the most profound challenges is that it invites us to think about which crowd we are. There’s at least three options. There’s the first crowd that is willing to do whatever it takes to get a person to Jesus. There is the other crowd that is so stuck on their religious knowledge that they resent Jesus’s healing of the man. Then, there is the crowd at the end— which I guess was partly made up of parts of both of the first two— the crowd that seea what Jesus is doing, is amazed, and then is more ready to experience it themselves.
If you permit me just a little bit of imagination, I think we can make up an epilogue to this story. The story leaves off with everybody amazed, but I bet we can trace it out a little further. How would you react if you had seen it? How would you react if you had seen it, and knew somebody else who was sick, who was broken? I bet everybody in that crowd that knew somebody at their home who was laying on a mat—I bet they went and found somebody else to help carry them to Jesus.
I’m grateful for the annual day marked off to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Racial reconciliation and justice is something always bubbling just beneath my consciousness, and MLK day forces it to the surface. It forces me to reflect specifically on the man’s legacy, but also on my own engagement with his cause.
I also try to spend some time reading some of Dr. King’s work, and this year I sat down with his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. It’s an amazing piece of work, and its power to convict holds today. The challenging letter calls out the White church for their silence in the face of the struggle for civil rights, and every paragraph burns. The letter is inspiring, instructive, and stinging throughout, and if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, it’s worth sitting down with for a half hour. Word for word, it’s one of the most important things the church produced in the last century.
I also spent a little time trying to reflect poetically on what it means for me, living more than 50 years later, to try and pick up the echo of Dr. King’s message. What came out was the little poem below, which I shared at the ceremony on Monday.
There’s much work to be done, my friends. May the Lord be with us.
The Prophet’s Word
Sent to us, the Nineveh next door,
He willingly went,
From you, with you
To us, at us,
With just the word we needed,
a word we could not hear.
We could only see it,
See its drama enacted,
While it called out the violence within us.
We could not hear the word,
but we could see it,
and be seen by it.
We could not hear it, but the word would not depart.
Its echo rumbles through the canyon still,
While the unseen water rushes on below,
like a mighty stream.
As the church explores the meaning of a missional existence in the world, one of the interesting aspects is the level of reciprocity we can tolerate. Will we be willing to listen and learn, or will we only practice speaking and be only willing to teach? The answers to that question probably fall on a spectrum more than that yes/no phrasing suggests, but it’s a serious question, requiring discernment and reflection.
Here’s the way I see the dilemma: the Church believes it has been given a special revelation of the identity and will of God, and has been charged with sharing that revelation in the world. In other words, we have something to say. We bear witness.
However, in the public forum, you always have to earn the right to bear witness. That can happen in a number of ways (being sheerly interesting or powerful perhaps), but in our moment one of the baseline requirements of gaining an audience is the willingness to listen to others. You have to demonstrate an authentic capacity to listen if you want to gain a hearing. If you don’t listen, nobody will listen to you. So if the church wants to speak, it has to listen to others in an authentic, vulnerable way. And that brings the possibility of change.
Change is a tricky word, there. It holds promise and threat, and the church has to figure out how to loosen its grip while maintaining its identity. That’s a complicated dynamic that can only be grappled with through a commitment to tough discernment.We also have to realistic navigate threats without becoming either naive or anxious, and that’s a tough thing for us to figure out right now in part because we already feel pressure.
The major complication for Christians in North America (and perhaps elsewhere) is the fact that the visible Church’s social position is shifting from a dominant majority. We’re not quite sure where it’ll land, but I’d characterize the position now as somewhere between “just another party at the table” and “a resented former cultural force”. Others view the church with a variety of attitudes. The church in different quarters is met with antagonism, apathy, respect, resentment, or curiosity—rarely with deference. For many, the grief and shock of being met with such negativity creates profound anxiety. Some Christians wonder what they’ve done to earn such antipathy, while others confess that the harshest feelings are a deserved consequence of regrettable former behaviors.
Regardless of how we got here, my instinct is that we won’t be able to put up our fists and fight our way out of it. We can neither assume people into the gospel or pound it into them without their having a word. Rather, I believe the church has come to a profound moment of listening. The age of monologue is over—we are going to have to humbly learn the art of dialogue. Our relationship with our communities will be fruitless unless we are able to accept the possibility of mutual relationships, where we both teach and learn. Thus, cultivating a spirit of reciprocity, where both sides give and both sides benefit, both sides share what they’ve learned and are open to learn from each other, is a key to our missional posture in the world.
I’ve been thinking about reciprocity a lot lately, and I’m going to share those thoughts over the next few blog posts, looking at the gifts and costs, how it shows up in the scriptures, some of the obstacles in our way, and strategies for how we can move forward. Stay tuned!
The church is at its best when it can easily see itself reflected in the stories of the scriptures, but it isn’t always that way. Sometimes the things that we face are alien enough to the scriptures that we struggle to perceive what it means for us to fulfill their calling. They were, after all, given to the church first of all in their own day, and were primarily meant to help those disciples find and follow the way of Jesus through their own world, which sometimes looks like ours, but not always. The witness they bear to the values and truths that could help those disciples are still critically important today, but we just have a bit of discerning to do if we’re going to be able to fruitfully unpack them. There still is a way of Jesus in our world, and it still anticipates the same climatic end as it did in the first century. However, the world has shifted itself around around us, and that leaves us with some work to do if we’re to fruitfully respond to the scriptures, or at least not become distorted by naive readings of them.
For example, take the church’s relative power position in its culture. Everything you read in the New Testament assumes a minority position in culture. The early church was faced with either apathy or antagonism from the dominant powers of its culture, seen as a fringe group with little clout. The writings of the N.T. give counsel and encouragement from the standpoint of that perspective, and here’s the rub—interpreting those text from a different perspective requires discernment.
For instance, one of the things required for that minority church to gain a hearing in the world that saw them as irrelevant or dangerous was boldness. The texts encourage that in a variety of ways, from the narrative depiction of the bold apostles in Acts 4 to Jesus’s polemic (a form of antagonistic teaching about opponents) in Matthew 10, or in Paul’s letters (Phil 1:14). For a marginalized, unknown people, boldness is a critical trait. However, without care that same spirit of boldness in an empowered people who make up the majority of the culture can easily turn coercive, becoming oppressive and condescending.
The big catch is that this sort of perspective change happens very gradually, and we don’t generally realize we need to shift the way we read the texts sometimes until it’s decades—or even centuries—overdue. We don’t leap into power or out of it, we drift into and out of power—at least culturally, although the formal structures of power can change hands more quickly and make the change feel sudden. Because the change is gradual, we don’t realize that our former modes of interpretation have lost their appropriateness, and continue to use them far past their fruitfulness. You read the story from the perspective of the Israelites, and keep doing so long after you’ve transformed into Pharaoh. You read the story from Israel's perspective, and do so long after you transform into Pharaoh. Click To Tweet
That’s why reading scripture fruitfully requires not only diligence (careful and persistent work or effort), but vigilance (careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.) It’s important not just to keep an eye out for those ways that our own perspective, and the subtle changes of our posture in the world, can distort the way we read the text. Occasionally, that can lead us further away from the way of Jesus, rather than further along it. Vigilance leads us to notice and recognize ourselves in new and different ways in the text, this allows us to hear the Spirit’s call to repentance and continual conversion. Paying attention to not only our own context when we read the text, but our position and posture within our cultural context, thus allows the word to have not only a static message for us, but one that is dynamic and alive, always calling us forward.
This may not be what you normally expect from an episode of Spiritual Steps, but I think it’s important to have a conversation about what it means to experience intimacy with God during prayer, and how we manage our expectations of such experiences.