O, To Grace, How Great a Debtor

In 1758, Robert Robinson, a one-time barber’s apprentice turned preacher, wrote the words to a hymn that set me on the brink of tears almost every time I sing it.  His immortal hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” is steeped in personal reflection, from the torment of battling sin to the exultation at the thought of grace; from the sacrifice for atonement, to the need for constant guidance.  There are only a few, perhaps no more than two other hymns that affect me in such a way, because these songs sing my life, my struggles, my hopes and my soul’s deepest desires.

The hymnal I use has only three highly edited verses to this wonderful meditation.  I was surprised to find that Robinson’s original had five verses that focused as much on his own foibles as on the immense goodness of a forgiving God, the counterweight to the burden each must bear.      

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,

Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

Sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,

Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,

Till released from flesh and sin,

Yet from what I do inherit,

Here Thy praises I’ll begin;

Here I raise my Ebenezer;

Here by Thy great help I’ve come;

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,

Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,

Wandering from the fold of God;

He, to rescue me from danger,

Interposed His precious blood;

How His kindness yet pursues me

Mortal tongue can never tell,

Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me

I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,

I shall see Thy lovely face;

Clothed then in blood washed linen

How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;

Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,

Take my ransomed soul away;

Send thine angels now to carry

Me to realms of endless day.

What have we missed by allowing such great thoughts to be edited, maybe for nothing more than to fit the space in a hymn book?  In the third stanza of the hymn book used for the past two or three generations by many of the congregations of my tribe, the words have always rung hollow to me, and now I know why:  where the version in Sacred Selections reads, “Never let me wander from thee, Never leave the God I Iove,” Robinson actually wrote of his own weakness.  He wrote, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”  Rather than place the responsibility on God for maintaining the relationship, Robinson recognized he was imperfect, prone to wander.  By freely giving his heart, he would be bound to his God. 

Second, Robinson wrote of his inability to adequately express his wonder and gratitude for the grace he had accepted: “How His kindness yet pursues me, Mortal tongue can never tell. Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me, I cannot proclaim it well.”  He realized after a brief career of what was once called “dissipation” that God had not given up on him, that his kindness pursued him.  The overwhelming realization of that kindness, that wonderful grace, was more than he could truly explain, at least while trapped within the fleshly bonds of mortality.

Finally, perhaps outside of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” Robinson penned the greatest hymn focused on God’s great gift.  From the opening lines, he implores God to give him the ability to sing of his grace.  He says he is daily constrained to be in the debt of grace, and then in the closing stanza, he looks forward to being freed from the constant threat of sinning, to shed his weak flesh and be in God’s presence.  There, he says, “How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace.”  The grace that he praised from the first verse, to which he was indebted each and every day, would be the subject of his eternal gratitude and praise.

It is that understanding and elemental appreciation of grace that is so lacking in so many today.  For too many among those with whom I have been associated, grace has become little more than a greeting and benediction in Paul’s letters or smugly considered a byword used by those in other denominations to evade the five steps in the plan of salvation.  And yet, it is so important of a concept that Paul spent a large portion of his letter to the Ephesians explaining just how important grace is to salvation, and that a salvation by works would only lead to boasting.      

Eph 2:1  And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—3  among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

4  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7  so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9  not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

By grace you have been saved.  For by grace you have been saved through faith.  It is the gift of God.  A gift is no gift if it must be earned or bought.  But a gift does require an expression of gratitude, which we can provide in pledging our lives to God’s good purpose: good works.  To helping others.  To righting wrongs. To seeking justice.  To becoming true stewards of a very good creation in need of restoration to its intended state of beauty and equity and perfection.

His children by petition and adoption are allied to that purpose.  We cannot bring back Eden.  But we can model Heaven until all is made new.  That should be worth a few songs of loudest praise.

Advertisements

Refurbs

I am an electronics addict. Well, “addict” may be too strong of a term.  Maybe “avid enthusiast” would be better, less of a negative connotation.  Anyway, I love to tinker with electronic devices, learn about new products with enhanced capabilities, play with productivity packages…. In short, I am a middle-aged geek.  At one point, the term “geek” was considered to be somewhat derogatory.  However, with the dawn of the realization that tech is cool, being a geek became cool as well.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Electronics can be expensive, and if I paid full price on some items, I would feel a little—well, a lot—guilty.  It turns out that few of these things are actually essential.  Most are luxuries that 99+% of the world can and does do without.  But I tell myself that many of these things will make me more productive.  I’ll get more done by keeping track of things on the go.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

In order to curb my expenditures on my purchases, I often buy refurbished products when they are available.  Some people would have none of this, thinking that a factory refreshed item is really poor quality, or is damaged, or is not up to original equipment standards.  I’m sure that can be the case sometimes.  But with good companies, the factory refurbished products are returned to perfect working order.  In some cases, they get a new shell, repaired internal parts, and are restored to brand new condition, matching the specifications of the items rolling off the assembly line.

In a sense, when we are born, we are in perfect working order, spiritually speaking.  We have no flaws.  But as time goes on, we may start to demonstrate behavior that is different from the original specifications.  It may be that some of our parts have become corrupted, and we are in need of repairs.  What if after some experience of living, we become broken in some way.  What if we begin functioning differently from how we should.  We are no longer operating at peak efficiency, and we are no longer functioning as intended.

But we can be refurbished.  Like the wayward son in Jesus’ story, we may leave the family and seek fulfillment elsewhere.  Like that erring son, we may think that there is a good life to be lived in the wilds of looser society.  In the end, we may find that where we were originally is better than where we may have wandered off to.  Like with that loving father who patiently waited for his son’s return, we can be welcomed back into relationship with our Heavenly Father.  We can be restored to our original specifications.

I like refurbished products.  And I’m certainly glad God is okay with them, too.  He said so in the closing thoughts of the Revelation, when he declared, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  A heaven and earth that are new again, populated by remade people, free from incidental flaws and accidental imperfections.  What was broken will be made whole. What was empty will be filled to overflowing.

Being refurbished is not a bad thing.  I’m glad it was always part of the plan.

Racism

Every church has a history, and the churches of Christ are no different.  Anyone who has even passing acquaintance with this wing of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement has heard of many of the names of the great leaders of the past, including the father/son Campbell duo, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, David Lipscomb…the list could go on for quite a few lines.  In the 20th century, there were other famous personalities that were part of a definitive period of doctrinal debate and fellowship lines drawn in the sand.  Names like N.B. Hardeman, B.C. Goodpasture, Fanning Yater Tant, Roy Cogdill and Foy Wallace come to mind.  While these men wound up on different ideological sides of the institutional schism that would forever split the churches of Christ after World War II, through their voluminous writings, their voices still ring with fervor and more often than not, some variation on the theme of righteous indignation and/or condemnation for all who differed with them.

I recently came across a reprint of an article in the Bible Banner by Foy E. Wallace, Jr., dated March, 1941, in which the great warrior for the non-institutional faction poured out his venom on the horrible, soul-damning mixing of the races.

“The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings leads one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes or negroes out of the white folks. The trend of the general mix-up seems to be toward the latter. Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it will make fools out of the negroes. For any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity, and lower herself so, just because a negro has learned enough about the gospel to preach it to his race, is pitiable indeed. Her husband should take her in charge unless he has gone crazy, too. In that case somebody ought to take both of them in charge.”

He went on later in the article to relate an incident experienced by the great N.B. Hardeman:

“When N. B. Hardeman held the valley-wide meeting at Harlingen, Texas, some misguided brethren brought a group of negroes up to the front to be introduced to and shake hands with him. Brother Hardeman told them publicly that he could see all of the colored brethren he cared to see on the outside after services, and that he could say everything to them that he wanted to say without the formality of shaking hands. I think he was right. He told of a prominent brother in the church who went wild over the negroes and showed them such social courtesies that one day one of the negroes asked him if he might marry his daughter. That gave the brother a jolt and he changed his attitude!”

In another memorable illustration, Wallace drew from his own experience at a gospel meeting:

“In one of my own meetings a young negro preacher was engaged by the church as a janitor. He made it a point to stand out in the vestibule of the church-building to shake hands with the white people. When I insisted that it be discontinued some of the white brethren were offended. Such as this proves that the white brethren are ruining the negroes and defeating the very work that they should be sent to do, that is, preach the gospel to the negroes, their own people.”

Now before you go off on the “It was a different time” speech, I’ve already thought of that.  And there is still no excuse for any of that sort of thought in any Christian, of any tribe or splinter group.  But I’m pretty sure that some of it is still there.

I am shocked at the apparent disgust that these preachers held for even shaking hands with a black man.  Were they so worried that the black would rub off?  Did they see dark skin pigment as a kind of inverse leprosy that required one not to touch?

I remember standing at the doorway of a church building one evening while two elderly white gentlemen were talking about the old days, and liberally using the “N” word.  I was shocked.  I was disgusted.  But I held my peace, to my own shame.  Both of those men are dead now, and I never rebuked their racism.

But I will not hold my peace any longer.

Wallace was wrong.  Hardeman was wrong.  Every person who listened to their racist diatribes and agreed with them was wrong.

Why would I say that?  It’s that pesky little old book called the Bible.

Maybe Wallace and Hardeman and every other racist church member had read the account in Acts where Peter was having his moment of doubt about delivering the gospel message to the Gentile.  In Acts 10, Peter’s vision culminates with the pronouncement from on-high: “15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”  (emphasis dlr)  Peter was perplexed by the vision, but the meaning finally dawned even on an uneducated Jewish fisherman.  “And he said to them, “28 You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” When Cornelius relates his story of answered prayer, Peter says, “34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35  but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (emphasis dlr)

Yes, they had read it.  And they had read into it, too.  They had read “separate but equal.”  But that is not what God had said.

In Galatians 3, Paul—whose Jewish pedigree and training were second to none, who should have known that associating with another race was wrong if indeed it was wrong—wrote,

“23  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  24  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  27  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  28  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  29  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”     

If we indeed believe the words of the Bible, we must not be so selective in our readings as to allow institutionalized racism to continue in our churches.  The bile that Wallace spewed was truly disgusting.  The attitude of Hardeman in not shaking hands with an African-American was loathsome to the point of contemptible.  That Wallace would hide behind the Jim Crow laws in another part of the same article was despicable, and placed him on the wrong side of Peter’s declaration in Acts 5.29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

There is no way around it: racism is sin.  But as I think about it, while it may have been danced around in a discussion of James 2, I’m not sure I can recall if I have ever heard it specifically called such from a pulpit.  I do not know if Wallace or Hardeman ever repented of their overt racism.  I can only hope they did.  I know their influence likely had far reaching and very negative impacts on the African-Americans who were by choice, by faith and by the acceptance of a color-blind God their brothers and sisters.

In the tiny congregation where I maintain my membership, I have seen good and Godly African-American brothers come to be a part of our family—come to be accepted, loved, respected and honored as any brother should be.  One of those men was paralyzed, but not in his heart and mind.  One wanted more than anything to preach the Gospel and serve his God in the best way he knew how.  Both of those men died well before their times.  I cried many tears when they passed away.  I would love to hear their strong voices again, shake their hands, and worship together with those gentle souls with no regard for color or disability.  We were brothers.  I loved them.  I miss them.  And I look forward to a time when we shall all be together again, though not in imperfect bodies in this fallen and decaying world.

I hate the thought of racism anywhere.  But in the church, it must not, it cannot be tolerated.  There is no “separate but equal” in the body of Christ.  There is only equal and precious.  Let there be no whispered epithets.  Let there be no “us” and “them.”  In God’s eyes, we are one.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.”  Physics tells us that visible, “pure” white light is actually composed of all the colors of the spectrum.  Without all of them shining together, the world could never look quite right.  As I see it more and more every day, this tired old world needs pure, bright, unified light, maybe more than ever.  Maybe we should really listen to Jesus, take our place in that great spectrum of light and shine on.   

A Brief Meditation on the Tragic Fall and Triumphant Rise of Humanity

From ancient times, the human condition was degrading.  We were created in innocence and ensconced in a realm of perfection, never having been polluted by sin or evil.  But humanity was not content with perfection.  There must be more.  That one prohibition given to those innocents in the Garden was too restrictive, that forbidden fruit too tempting, that soothingly nagging voice too convincing to let the line go uncrossed. 

But perhaps the far-reaching effects of that one fateful decision were too cosmically cataclysmic for two innocent hearts, too inexperienced minds to fully contemplate or comprehend.  How do you know evil unless you have seen it face to face, heard its voice, felt the intensity of its burning cold emptiness?  How do you know loneliness without separation?  How do you know safety without danger? How do you know peace without conflict?

With that one decision, a curtain fell.  With one thought that traveled through still learning synapses, guiding a hand upward, reaching for something that should never have been considered; with one touch of something as apparently innocuous as a fruit, this universe was destroyed.  Not all at once.  But even as entropy patiently, inexorably claims order, the rift between eternal and mortal, soul and body, God and man had begun.

Through countless years of calls to order, pleas to return, invitations to reason, the rift continued to fray until perhaps this failing, corrupted creation reached a tipping point beyond which there could be no hope of redemption.  Whether that was the case, only God knows.  But it was then that God lit a candle in the darkness to guide us home should we choose to see it.  He opened the realm of the divine and let slip the hope of a restored creation.

He sent us Jesus.

Jesus’ earthly ancestry was a jumble of rogues and royalty, like most of us.  His birth was into humble circumstances, like most of us.  That birth was a miracle of life, as any birth is, but was even more miraculous through its circumstance.  His life was unremarkable in terms of worldly accumulation of wealth, like most of us, but the riches he imparted through his teaching were far from ordinary.  He was challenged with every temptation that humanity can face, like every one of us, but stood firm in his resistance, to show us it can be done.   

His message was one of hope.  It was the echo of the creation call to perfection.  It was the challenge to rise above the gathering corruption of a fallen humanity bent on self-destruction and breathe the clean air of a restored Eden, now in heart, but one day in reality. 

His life was one brief but eloquent demonstration of what humanity can and should be: thankful, gracious, appreciative, selfless, loving, caring, passionate, compassionate, giving, forgiving, strong, courageous…in a word, perfect.

When the darkness claimed Jesus’ earthly life through his own willingness to lay it down, its victory was short-lived.  He arose from a borrowed tomb to unsurpassed glory: he was re-created, now more in God’s image than any before him.  He was the new Adam, rising above the bonds of mortality to show us the way to what was always planned for us.  The candle in the window now blazes as a watch-fire, a beacon on the hill of Heaven, a lighthouse to guide us safely through the straits of this fallen creation and on to perfection.  Through his life and example we have the pattern of what humanity was meant to be, what we can be if we choose.

Whether you call him Jesus, Yeshua, Immanuel, the Lamb of God or the Lion of Judah, there is no mistaking who it is you are talking about.  He is the central figure in the Christian scriptures, and some would say all of history.  His life changed the course of history, the echoes of his teaching ringing still through 20 centuries.  His message, though twisted by some and denied by others, will never be extinguished.  He continues to change hearts.  He is the son of God.  He was.  He is.  He ever shall be.

…and another thing: further thoughts on the dangers of extreme conservatism

As I was thinking about my recent posts on conservatism, I remembered I had written a few short pieces as Facebook notes during the 2012 election cycle, and I dug one out that seemed particularly relevant.  It may become more so as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is likely weighing a run for the White House in 2016.  Only time will tell if his twisted philosophy will play well with what I hope will become a more enlightened and compassionate public.  What can I say? On the other hand, this is a lightly edited but shameless attempt to create blog content in my race to 100 posts.  

The following are two quotes from Ayn Rand, whom the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee has credited with being instrumental in the formation of his beliefs.  Mr. Ryan even helped organize the 2005 “Celebration of Ayn Rand” in honor of her 100th birthday, by securing the room for the Atlas Society gathering.  As late as 2009, he made video clips praising her work and for what he called the best case for the morality of laissez-faire capitalism.  In 2012, he began distancing himself from his ideological mentor when he began to be considered as running mate to wealthy business man and former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney.   

 “If I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil.”  

 “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” –Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The book is chock full of other vicious, spiteful, hate-inspired, self-centered comments that are being hailed by some conservatives–especially of the Tea Party persuasion–as great virtues.  However, for those who are adherents of the Christian faith, so much of the Randian philosophy that has recently invaded the conservative leadership and trickled down to the rank and file is completely and utterly opposite to Christian teaching.  In fact, this may be the only part of trickle-down theory that actually works. 

Perhaps the most directly practical book of the New Testament is the Letter of James.  He put a fine point on what it takes to actually live by a Christian standard.  The following excerpt from James 1:27 – 2:17, I believe, is in direct opposition to Rand’s Virtue of Selfishness.  The emphases are all mine, and serve as an outline of the central arguments of the text.

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to visit  orphans and widows in their affliction, and  to keep oneself  unstained from the world.

2 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,  the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,”  while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become  judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers,  has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be  rich in faith and heirs of  the kingdom,  which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you  have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who  drag you  into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable  name by which you were called?

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture,  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you  show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point  has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said,  “Do not commit adultery,” also said,  “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under  the law of liberty. 13 For  judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith  but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

We each have responsibilities to help others as we can.  However, the first of Rand’s quotes above is a complete rejection of loving one’s neighbor (what Jesus referred to as the second great commandment behind loving God) and seeing to his or her physical needs.  Government, in a time of tremendous economic upheavel, stepped in to help support the elderly and the poor.  Many see these as good things, others as contemptible.  Are there abuses of the system?  Of course.  Does it need review and revision?  Constantly.

But back to the clash of philosophies and to draw one more conclusion: You cannot accept the selfishness of Randian Individualist/Objectivist position and still hold to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Remember the story of Satan’s temptation of Eve?  He simply said, “You will NOT surely die.”  A simple negation to supplant authority and plant doubt.  Rand does the same thing: “Money is the root of all good.”  Rand says, “You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” (vs. Ecc 12:13, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” ) You could go on for pages finding the contradictions to Christianity, but they’re apparently OK, since this is economics and culture, we’re talking about and not religion. 

Well, I cannot separate my faith from my life.  It informs me.  If I now embrace the objectivist teaching in whole or in part, I have achieved nothing but dissonance with the principles of my faith.  And Jesus said, no one can serve two masters. 

Many people will try to cast this individualism as the ultimate expression of American patriotism.  They will say that we are taking back our country if we follow the Rand-inspired Pathway to Prosperity.  They will turn every bit of vice in the Randian “scriptures” into virtues.  In the Old Testament, Isaiah 5.20,21 raised an alarm that is as true today as when it was penned:    

 20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness,who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!

I have spent many hours reading, connecting, trying to make a case that this form of self-centered philosophy is far from the character of a Christian.  I have found numerous links that demonstrate the diametric opposition of these opposing worldviews.  I have shown how some of these things are being played out.  I don’t want to live in Ayn Rand’s laissez-faire dystopia.  I would rather live in a world where I could depend on my neighbor, and he can depend on me. 

And contrary to what some people think, money isn’t everything. 

Speaking for Those Who Have No Voice

 “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:3-10

Advice is a good thing.  And when the advice comes from your mother, it’s usually worth listening to.  This passage from Proverbs is reportedly an oracle from the mother of King Lemuel.  Some think that Lemuel was one and the same with Solomon.  At any rate, the advice was sound and the thoughts worthy of consideration.

In this teaching, the wise man relates to his listeners and readers that anything that might cause a distraction or detract from sound judgment must be avoided.  The wise woman tells her son that women can be a problem if he pays them too much, ahem, “attention.”  If Lemuel were indeed Solomon, he should have listened to his mother—as numerous modern day leaders should have, as well.

She continues on to say that alcohol can muddy the mind and should be reserved for those with woes to forget.  Seems reasonable.  However, this has been used to exclude any and all use of alcohol outside such “therapeutic” uses.  That is not what the rest of the Bible says.  As we have observed before, drunkenness is condemned, not all use of wine.  Use is one thing; abuse is another altogether.

As I have often reflected on many passages, the first part of this teaching is remembered frequently and given general observance as it specifically warns against some things that we wish to warn against: ill-advised sexual relationships and alcohol.  The latter part of the passage is too often forgotten, and yet it is as applicable if not more so to general teaching and the general public.

Lemuel’s mother tells him to speak for those who have no voice: the destitute, the poor and the needy.  Then as now there are those who would seek to forget the poor and those who have needs of various kinds, not only those lacking in wealth and goods, but those with conditions that limit their abilities.  Too often, those who are most guilty of doing these things are the ones who wrap themselves in a shroud of religion, touting family values and traditional morality.  I have nothing against family values and morality.  I would only hope that anyone who holds to these ideals would not just cling to those that are politically or socially expedient at any given moment and forget the rest of the package.

In past essays, I have explored the commands to see to the needs of those in distress and those less fortunate.  It is inescapable, although many religious people have done a pretty fair job of ignoring the issues.  If we are to live our faith, we must not neglect even those teachings that make us uncomfortable.

So here goes another attempt to speak for those without a voice.

It’s time to change our attitudes about people with mental illness, developmental disorders, and intellectual disabilities.  Maybe I’m more sensitive these days than I used to be, and for good reason.  I have a son with autism.  It is hard going some days just getting him ready for school and getting him on the bus.

That would be the “short bus” that so many people joke about.

It’s time for that to stop. 

To use that expression is to demean the people who ride that “short bus” with the “SE” number on the side.  The intent is to say that a person on the short bus is sub-standard, is not as valuable, or is less important than anyone else not riding that particular bus.

But when I step aboard that bus in the morning to get my son strapped in his seat, I am greeted by beautiful children with smiling faces.  Some are tired and catch up on some sleep as they make their early morning journey to school.  Each and every one is like every one of the rest of us in a very important way: we are all God’s handiwork, and we were meant to look out for each other.

I have been impressed with businesses and institutions who hire people with developmental or intellectual disabilities to perform specific tasks.  These are not glamorous jobs.  But they give these wonderful people a sense of worth.  I remember a young woman with Down Syndrome on the serving line at the local primary school.  She seemed to take pride in her work.  At the university cafeteria, there are people who appear to be autistic or may have other intellectual disabilities who work at cleaning the tables and other things that many people would not want to do.  I applaud these places for taking the chance and letting these people contribute in whatever way to their organizations.

So, plus one for the employers, but minus a big one for some people I have heard who have made remarks about these workers.  That’s right, I have heard several disparaging comments about these very individuals.  And it breaks my heart to hear it.  Mocking the speech of a disabled person is not funny.  It is demeaning.  Making fun of their performance is not funny.  It is petty and small-minded, even if the person making the remarks is highly intelligent.  And what is so sad is that–like every one of us–the person who makes that sort of comment may be only a head injury away from a similar condition.  There but for the grace of God….

I remember a sketch on Saturday Night Live years ago when someone was giving directions, and one of the landmarks was to turn left at the “retarded kid selling fireworks.”  I hear people lightly use words like “retarded” to describe a thoughtless act or remark that they themselves may have made.  They may easily joke with friends, calling each other retarded, or simply “retard.”  I know people do these things because I did those very things in my younger and far more foolish days.  Are such comments really that different from the recent report of a bunch of young punks who doused a stripped down autistic teen with a vile concoction of human waste and cigarette butts in a mockery of the “ice bucket challenge”?

There is no humor in making fun of someone who cannot defend himself, whether by some premeditated cruel and heartless prank or by a derisive remark in passing.  There is certainly no humor in belittling an entire segment of the population.  Or in running down someone that I love.

Several years ago, country music singer Mark Wills recorded a song by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin titled, “Don’t Laugh at Me.”  The lyrics are worth exploring.  They touch on many different human conditions, from physical differences to unfortunate circumstances that lead to depression.  The bridge challenges, “I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall / I’m deaf, I’m blind, hey, aren’t we all?”

The chorus admonishes,

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

 We have a responsibility to speak for those who cannot, who have no voice at the table of society.  In Isaiah, the Lord asked what almost seemed like a pair of rhetorical questions, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  Isaiah spoke up, and said, “Here am I.  Send me!”  When the moment arises that someone disparages the intellectually disabled or a person with autism or a person with a mental illness, remember Isaiah.  Stand up and speak out.  Ignorance is only forgivable when there has been no chance for enlightenment.  Beyond that, such behavior is merely rude and boorish.

There may be no direct profit in shutting that sort of juvenile bad-mouthing down.  It may lose you a friend or two.  But you will have done the right thing.  Ask Lemuel’s mother.

The Great Deficiency of The Bible

I’ve been thinking about why so many people have trouble with getting past things like pattern and organization when it comes to religion, when Jesus stressed changes in heart and life and action. As I thought about this earlier, I was reminded of something a dear friend once said to me. It went something like this, “You people in the church of Christ only pay attention to the letters of Paul. You should be called the church of Paul.”

In a sense, he’s right. We spend more time dealing with the details of Paul’s interactions with and instructions for the early churches who were experiencing specific issues from growing pains, to poverty, to inertia, to misconduct the likes of which was not even tolerated by the pagans of that day.

When we were children, we heard the stories of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Every child in Sunday school knows about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Joseph, Jacob and Esau, Elijah, David, Solomon, Samson, Daniel and the other exciting stories. In the New Testament, children hear about Jesus and the apostles. And this is well and good. But somewhere along the way, we read about needing strong meat, and not milk and we get the idea that the gospel story of Jesus is just milk, maybe because we tell the stories mostly in Sunday school. Paul serves up the meat in the New Testament. All the other stuff is just background. That seems to be the perception, at least. And I was told by a wise dean once that perception becomes reality.

I believe with all my heart that we have gotten things turned around.  The gospel message of Jesus is as strong a meat as any in our practice of religion.  We need to tear apart every story about Jesus in the gospels, every teaching he presented, and get every bit of truth and meaning from each and every one of them. Jesus is the focus of the gospel message. His life is the one Paul said he was emulating.

So what is the deficiency I am talking about? First off, that was just one of those “made you look” phrases. Writers call them hooks. If you’re reading this far, the hook has been set, and I hope you will continue through the conclusion of the essay.

The deficiency is not so much with the Bible itself, but in our understanding of it. The Christian life, or the Way as it was called in those days after the Crucifixion and that first Pentecost after it is not an organization. It is indeed a Way of Life. It is Jesus, translated into the life-language of every follower.

What did Paul say in Philippians 1.21? “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Contrary to what some seem to think, Paul never said, “To live is church….” So what did he mean? I think he was saying that it was needful for his friends that he not die at that juncture, but carry on and teach and serve and encourage them. To live is to act.

Paul’s writings are rich with truth. Make no mistake. But many of his letters were addressing specific issues experienced by the groups to which he was writing. Personally, I have never been tempted to eat meat sacrificed to idols. I don’t think I would be offended by it if anyone did. I have never known of a case of step-mother/step-son incest in any church with which I have been associated–not that there cannot be such. Certainly, principles applied in dealing with those situations have value and merit and are instructive to us.

But the letters are not histories, either. They tell us precious little about how people lived and what they did. Paul alluded to some of these things throughout his letters, and a rich cache of comments praising the actions of many of Paul’s friends and associates is found at the close of Romans and in other letters.

While there are those who would squeeze the scriptures to find commands and patterns to follow and bind them on all, there is a wealth of examples that we have rarely ever considered, at least not in the light of “living Christ.” So who did “live Christ” in the New Testament? In Acts 9, there is the story of Dorcas, or Tabitha of whom it was said, “…she was always doing good and helping the poor.” Sounds like Jesus to me. In Romans 16, Phoebe is commended as a servant of the church at Cenchreae. Later in the same chapter, Tryphena and Tryphosa and Persis, all were praised as women who had worked or were working hard in the Lord. Rufus’ mother had been a mother to Paul–that takes action, not words. Urbanus was a dear co-worker. Mary worked very hard for the Christians in Rome. Sounds like Jesus to me.  What about Paul’s description of Timothy as showing genuine concern for the Philippians’ welfare like no other: it was not just spiritual welfare.  It was  their physical, temporal well-being, as well.  Epaphroditus was commended as one who saw to Paul’s needs, and was distressed for his friends at their concern over him in his recent, near-fatal illness. Sounds like Jesus to me.

In these examples and in many others, the emphasis is on action, not perfect, lock-step conformity.  In Matthew 25, at the scene of the great Judgment, the separation of sheep from goats was based on acts of service and mercy, not doctrinal purity and organizational correctness.  I am in no wise saying that those things are not important.  They are.  But they must not be pursued to the exclusion of justice and mercy. 

 Jesus addressed such issues throughout his ministry.  Work on the Sabbath was forbidden by Jewish law, but Jesus and his disciples plucked heads of grain and winnowed the kernels in their hands, working for a bite of sustenance. Jesus gave relief to the suffering on the Sabbath in direct violation of the Law, and made the point that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In each of these examples, an action was taken to address a physical need. He reminded the Pharisees of the prophecy, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His brother James reiterates that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy, in any time and in any culture, carries the connotation of action in service to another.

So to set the record straight, The Bible is not deficient. We are. When we fail to see the shadow of Christ in the merciful actions and service of every disciple mentioned even in passing, we are deficient. When we plow the field searching for shards of buried commands and cover over the precious jewels that are the wonderful characters who lived Christ, we are deficient.

We should always remember Paul’s comment, “To live is Christ.” We should internalize it, and live Christ, too. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life that leads to a better and unending life. Let the world see Jesus in us, not just Peter, or Paul, or Martin Luther, or Alexander Campbell or any other reformer who tried to light the way back to Jesus.

To live is Christ.

That should certainly give us a lot to think about.

And much more to do.