Wednesday, January 25, 2017

when to speak up

Last summer I had the privilege of participating in a class called Journey to Mosaic. The idea of the class was to develop a deeper appreciation for diversity, to learn to draw from the riches offered by intercultural relationships.

The class was memorable because we visited three sites each day, each one selected because of its distinctiveness. On day two we visited the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Our hosts were Bill Yoshira and Chiyoko Omachi.

The JACL defends the civil liberties of minorities, and especially Japanese Americans. They also work to ensure immigrants are given fair treatment by the political and legal system. 

During our visit, Mr. Yoshira briefly related the history of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2. The internment was the result of Executive Order 9066 signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942.

Mr. Yoshira cited three reasons that led to the internment: 1) racial prejudice, 2) wartime hysteria, and 3) a failure of political leadership.   Here’s a summary of what we heard from Mr. Yoshira on each of these three points.

First, racial prejudice. Japanese persons began migrating to the United States in significant numbers in the 1890’s. Many ended up working as farmers and became quite successful.  In fact, by the early 1900’s about fifty percent of the farming in California was done by Japanese people.
Still, Japanese Americans were marginalized. They lived in isolated settings and lacked equal opportunity in housing and education. In fact, at one time Japanese Americans could not practice law in the United States. Conditions for internment were ripe by the time the war hit.

Second, wartime hysteria. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, fear-mongering prevailed. Generally, the mindset was: “We must do something to control the ‘Japanese problem.’” Japanese people were viewed as both a security risk and an economic burden. It is telling that the first arrests of Japanese Americans were leaders: 2,000 in a short period of time.

Third, there was a failure of political leadership. Mr. Yoshira said that only one group stood up to voice dissent over the internment: the Quakers. Everyone else just let it happen, yet at least two-thirds of Japanese people in America were full-fledged citizens.

Ms. Omachi shared her story after this. She was born in the 1920’s in the United States. Her father had a successful business as a ship builder. They were Baptist, ardent Christians. Yet, when the time came to be relocated to the camp, they were told they had just 48 hours to vacate; she was fifteen at the time.

“We lost everything,” said Ms. Omachi.

She lived in the camp about a year and a half, then moved to the east where she finished high school and attended college. She ended up in Chicago where she worked for a textbook publisher most of her career.

A couple things struck me about what we heard on this visit.

First, we learned that the rhetoric used to justify the internment was that it was a matter of national security. In fact, Japanese Americans were told it was in their best interest so they could be “kept safe.”

Ms. Omachi said she hears the same rhetoric today. “It is fearful; dreadful,” she said. “We need to speak up about it.”

That’s the second thing that struck me—the “speaking up about it” part. It struck me that the Quakers were the only group to say something. It strikes me because the Quakers are known…for their practice of silence.

Maybe that is why they spoke up—because they knew how to listen. When they listened, they knew what to say. Quaker silence is full silence.

I think today we need to learn to practice that kind of full, listening silence.

To be honest, today there are many voices speaking up about violations to civil liberties and human rights, by comparison. And yet, I wonder how many of these voices are stopping to listen first? I mean, to really listen. 

And, I wonder, how many people are listening to those who are "speaking up"? Something tells me the intended audience is not listening because they, too, are preoccupied with "speaking up".

The result is: no one is really listening to anyone but themselves. 

I happened to be downtown the day of the protest march last weekend. I have to confess that I didn’t intend to be there for the march. It just so happened that we had friends visiting from out of town and I wanted to take them downtown to see Chicago. To be sure, we knew the march was going on and I thought, “Well, this could be an experience to remember.” So, we went.

In either case, I was eager to be present with the huge crowd because I wanted to see and hear what everyone had to say.

In some instances, I was glad to see what many were saying. In other instances, I was confused and troubled. Reflecting on the experience that evening, it struck me that almost everyone had something different to say. To be sure, many of the signs shared a common theme or proclaimed a similar message…but not all of them. There was a wide array of messages—and some were not necessarily compatible.

Now, I believe that diversity is good and much-needed, but sometimes I observe that in the midst of speaking out for what we believe in, we speak so loudly and so often we are unable to stop and listen to what others are saying. The consequence of it is: we want diversity, but we don’t really want to do the listening that is required to really embrace diversity.

We speak without listening first and, if listening enables us to be full and filled, to speak without listening is to speak from emptiness.

Imagine filling a pitcher with water and then expecting the pitcher to just keep pouring out water without filling it back up again. That is what it is like when we just speak, speak, speak, without practicing full listening silence. Somehow, our words keep pouring forth, in the form of naught but empty air. There is nothing refreshing about it and we will eventually die of thirst, our minds and souls parched, deprived of the fullness of meaning.

The Quakers have something to teach us all, but we won’t really learn it unless we learn to practice what they have to say; namely, that the best words we can speak spring from silence and return to silence in order to be filled again.

We have no shortage of words to share. These days there is no shortage of news articles and blog posts and videos to share with each other in our attempts to convince others of our political rightness. Heck, we could share continuously till the tips of our fingers turn bloody from all the clicking and till our sight became blurry from all the screen-gazing.

But what if we turned off our incessant “sharing” and “speaking up”…to just listen. To be fully silent.

Not forever, mind you. Just for a good stretch, like the Quakers do.

I think it’s worth a shot.

So, I’m going to shut up now. I invite you to join me. We’ll be better for it, I do believe. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Two Kings and the Golden Rule

Two Kings and the Golden Rule
reflections on laboring for a just society
by Troy Cady

“I believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.”  -Martin Luther King, Jr.[i]

These are the words of a man captivated by the vision of a just society. It is a society that, according to the quote, does “the will of God, come what may.” It is a noble vision. It is why we strive as we do. It is why we sacrifice. That is why today in the United States we remember and honor the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King worked for justice and we continue that good work. He was an imperfect man, to be sure, but the United States (and, indeed, many other places in the world) owe him a great debt of gratitude for the tireless, sacrificial way he put his life on the line for the cause of the oppressed. Though we remember him most for his efforts concerning the civil rights of black people in America, his work serves as a model for any endeavor to right the wrongs of injustice, in whatever form it appears. 

My theme in this essay concerns the source from which Dr. King’s work is derived and the scope of such work. At the close of the essay, I invite you to consider how we can honor Dr. King by following his example and I invite you to consider how his legacy is needed now more than ever.

It is well known that Dr. King was an ordained minister. As a minister myself, I’m especially drawn to that aspect of King’s work. In other words, I believe King did what he did because of his King. He made that abundantly clear in his writings, of which the quote at the beginning serves as a small sample.

The Basis of Dr. King’s Nonviolent Protest
All great reformers look to those who have gone before for their inspiration. When the going gets tough, they persevere because they have firmly fixed in their mind and heart a vision of the future that is derived from great moments and leaders of the past. King’s inspiration was Jesus and there is much in the account of Jesus’ sayings and actions that informed King’s nonviolent way of protesting injustice.

Many people are familiar with sayings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for example:
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:9-10)

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  (Matthew 5:11-12)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45a)

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

That last saying is an interesting one. Most of us know the middle phrase very well: “…do to others what you would have them do to you…”

We refer to this as the Golden Rule. It’s astounding, to be sure. It’s astounding because throughout history there has yet to come anyone to surpass this saying. If everyone kept this one rule, King believed, there would be no more injustice. It’s what Jesus taught.

That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that the middle phrase is encased by two other phrases.

Injustice Anywhere…
First, Jesus says, “So, in everything do to others…”

That is our problem. We don’t keep the Golden Rule “in everything.” That is really what Dr. King worked towards. He wanted to see us keep the Golden Rule in everything and he saw that we did not keep it with respect to the lives of black people, so he directed his efforts towards putting that right.

But we should keep in mind that, though King’s work had a particular focus, he once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[ii]

In that respect, King’s work was about much more than racism. It’s also about sexism, ageism and ableism, to name a few. Anyone, by virtue of being human, should be afforded basic rights, regardless of their race, sex, age or ability.

While King is remembered for his focus on the issue of race, Jesus addressed every one of the injustices listed above. Indeed, that is why Jesus was King’s King.

For example, in Matthew 15 (and the parallel account in Mark 7) there is a story that touches on the question of ageism. I will look at that text later in this essay, because it presents a fine case that demonstrates in action what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (and what King endeavored to do).

Before turning to that case, however, we need to look at the final phrase of the Golden Rule. It, too, is included in Jesus’ vision of a just society.

What is the Basis of a Just Society?
I have italicized the last phrase of the Golden Rule: “…do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

The word “for” indicates the rationale for “doing to others what you would have them do to you.” Though it is unpopular to say so, the end to which Jesus instructed us to practice the Golden Rule was so that we might honor the Law and the Prophets (that is, to live according to the vision of a just society as it is presented to us by them). Jesus believed, along with other Jews of the first century, that living according to the Law and the Prophets would form a world where humanity and creation would flourish.

Contrary to what many claim, Jesus did not simply come to jettison the Law. Rather, he sought to help us embrace the Law rightly, interpret it wisely, and observe it without hypocrisy. Jesus’ condemnation was not the Law itself. It was the way in which the Pharisees had twisted it and used it as a tool to enslave the populace. Put another way, Jesus sought to liberate the Law from its Pharisaical trappings, but he did not seek to abolish it.

He made this clear at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Indeed, in verse twenty, he directs this statement specifically with respect to the Pharisees when he says: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I do believe this is the one aspect of Jesus’ ministry that most modern-day people do not appreciate, including Christians. But, I also believe Dr. King understood the importance of this part of Jesus’ teaching because the work to which he dedicated himself indicated such understanding.

What I mean to say is: the last part of the Golden Rule indicates the value of working for justice on a systemic level, not just an interpersonal level. The Law, to the first century Jewish person, was a Constitution. It was systemically concerned, even if it needed to be practiced personally. It presented to them a way of life by which they would all be governed; more precisely, it was a vision of “the good life.” When the Law and the Prophets were fully kept, they believed, all would be well.

What Sets Jesus Apart in the Cause of Justice
What set Jesus apart as a leader in his day was the authority he exercised with respect to the Law. The priestly, rabbinic and scholarly community helped the people embrace, understand and observe the Law as it had been handed down to them. They were stewards, but over the years their interpretation of the Law and practice of it became corrupted.

And this is what Jesus addressed, specifically. In some instances, he upheld what had been handed down to them, seeking to illuminate the original meaning of the Law. In other instances, he modified the Law. In still other instances, he overturned the Law, teaching them those aspects that were no longer needed, no longer in keeping with the spirit in which the Law was originally given.

In any case, what informed Jesus’ ministry was a vision of a society where the good Law, as God gives it afresh, is cherished and observed so that people and creation might flourish.

But, Jesus was also set apart from everyone else because he wisely pointed out that this System of Law could only be fully embraced as the human heart underwent a transformation.

Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus quotes the Law “do not murder” while observing that the source of murder is in the human heart in the form of hatred. In a similar way, Jesus quotes the Law when it says “do not commit adultery” but he goes on to teach that the source of adultery is in the human heart in the form of lust.

Jesus taught that if we learn not to hate, we will not murder; if we learn not to lust, we will not betray trust. To transform society, we need to transform the human heart.

But, notice, that is not all Jesus taught. He taught that personal transformation was necessary to achieve the end to which the Law was directed; namely, the realization of a just and flourishing society—a world where God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”[iii] That world is a world of joy and freedom, hope and provision, love and honesty. It’s a world where no one kills, no one lies, no one cheats, no one steals and everyone is at peace with one another. It’s a good world.

That’s what the Law championed and that’s what Jesus championed; namely, personal and systemic goodness.

An Example: What’s Most Important?
Of course, another aspect that set Jesus apart from the religious leaders of his day is that he actually practiced what he preached. He truly upheld the Law and he was truly good from the inside-out. In him, there was no hypocrisy. Not so, the Pharisees.

In Matthew 15[iv], we read how Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount applied in a real, live context. We see Jesus’ concern for both personal transformation and systemic justice. The story shows us the nature of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and I want to look at it because we will be better able to grasp the nature and significance of Dr. King’s work through it (since Dr. King based his engagement of injustice on the values embodied by Jesus).

At first, you may wonder what the story in Matthew 15 has to do with the work of Dr. King but it has everything to do with it. It’s an excellent example of what it means to work for justice holistically (that is, both personally and systemically).

The story begins when the Pharisees and teachers criticize Jesus and his disciples because they don’t observe the custom of washing hands before eating. The custom was tied to their life of worship and rooted in the Levitical code.  Jesus answered them with these words:

“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’"

One can see at the outset that Jesus seeks to honor the Law and the Prophets. He does this by quoting the prophet Isaiah. Jesus bases his ministry on that of the prophets.

He doesn’t just quote the prophet, however; he asserts that the words of the prophet are being fulfilled even as they speak to one another. Jesus, therefore, serves the role of a prophet himself. He claims an authority that critiques the status quo. One could say he is not only the King of Kings, he is also a Prophet of Prophets.

In interpreting the prophet Isaiah, he goes on to say to the Pharisees: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:8)

Notice Jesus’ view that the commands are good. He does not throw them out. What he wants to critique are the “human traditions” that were entangled with the commands of God.

What is striking about this is that the Pharisees observed this practice of washing hands because of their adherence to the Levitical code, which they believed contained a detailed description of how to keep the Ten Commandments. To the Pharisees, the practice of washing one’s hands was a command, in that sense. Thus, they were unable to differentiate what was a command and what wasn’t.

This is where Jesus modified the Law as they knew it and this is what got Jesus into trouble. He was calling into question their very way of life (which, to them, was a vision of the good life, keep in mind).

Matthew continues the narrative by including a parable Jesus told them: “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11)

Peter doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying, so in verse 15 he asks Jesus to explain the parable. Jesus replies:
“Are you still so dull? Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:16-20)

Significantly, Mark adds this comment to the story: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19)

In a single short bit of teaching, Jesus ingeniously underscores the need for personal transformation and he overturns a key aspect of the Law so powerful it governs the lives of Jewish people still today: observing kosher dietary restrictions.

So far, in this interaction we have observed Jesus modifying the Law and overturning it. What of upholding it? That aspect, in fact, was the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth when responding to the initial criticism by the Pharisees. I skipped over it because I wanted to keep the best for last. Let’s look now at how Jesus initially responded to the Pharisees, for we will see in it how he upheld the Law and it will become more apparent how the work of Jesus links with that of Dr. King.

How Jesus Upheld the Law and Challenged the System
Certainly, it could be argued that Jesus can be seen upholding the Law in the exposition we’ve offered already. Even in the instance where Jesus overturns the Law, he does so because he wants us to embrace the spirit of the Law, not the letter of it. In other words, even when Jesus overturns the Law, his intent is to uphold it, to champion the Law’s vision of a just society.

In this respect, it’s telling what Jesus initially said to the Pharisees when they criticized him:
“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus, you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:3-6)

Here we see again Jesus’ concern for keeping the Commandments. To be sure, there is another story of Jesus where he overturns the death penalty as punishment for sin.[v] Thus, Jesus is not saying here in the text by Matthew that the Pharisees should put to death anyone who “curses their father or mother.” The emphasis in his reply is on their hypocrisy, that they do not keep the main part of the Law, which is the Fifth Word to honor one’s father and mother.

That is where Jesus upholds the Law, specifically. He reiterates the necessity of the Fifth Word of the Decalogue[vi] and asserts that the Pharisees, in their religiosity, broke the very commandment God wants everyone to keep.

Basically, the Pharisees were neglecting to bless, honor and care for their own elderly parents because they were withholding material support from them. In this way, they were increasing the suffering of the aged. The irony is that they were doing this because they wanted to give God more. They thought they were doing a good thing but, far from adhering to the Law, the Pharisees were breaking it—and thereby creating an unjust society.

In calling out their sin, Jesus addressed the issue of ageism, common in his time (and in our time, too). It is the practice of withholding basic human rights especially to the very old (but also to the very young). It is a matter that concerns society’s “margins” and it was a concern rooted in the original giving of the Law.[vii]

What Happened Next and How Jesus Responded
Jesus called out their sin and challenged their system. Predictably, the Pharisees take offense.

Jesus’ disciples draw his attention to this. They say: “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

And Jesus answers: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

I love the New Living Translation of this text. It renders the expression “leave them” as “ignore them.” It reads in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Because this piece is intended to highlight the work of Dr. King, let’s apply this exposition now to his work.

Concerning Dr. King
Above, I wanted to look closely at the work of Jesus so we can see how Dr. King followed his example. MLK followed suit in several respects, five of which I mention below.

As the work of justice is never done and wide in scope (and we still have a long way to go concerning race relations in America), I invite you to consider these principles as we honor the examples of Jesus and Dr. King by our words and actions.

First, to work for justice is to work for personal transformation. Both Jesus and Dr. King model this for us. In his lecture upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King said:

“There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.
“Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live…This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual ‘lag’ must be eliminated.”

Second, it is not enough to work for personal transformation. We must also endeavor to change the system itself that nurtures injustice.

In their book Divided by Faith (which concerns race relations in America) authors Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith document the propensity of white Christians to cite personal and interpersonal issues in fighting racism, but a reluctance (or inability) to see the problem of racial injustice in systemic terms.  White people often content themselves with stating “I’m not a racist” while at the same time ignoring there are other factors that make a society racially unjust beyond personal attitudes or behaviors.

Yet, the black church in America sees the inequity clearly—because they experience the injustice first-hand. A black person may experience an individual white person who is not a racist, but that does not mean the black community enjoys equity in the system.

Even as Dr. King worked to raise our consciousness regarding the dignity of every person, he worked practically (systemically) to secure the right of black people in America to enjoy the same liberties as white people. He sought to change the system, as did Jesus.

Third, we should follow the example of Jesus and Dr. King by simply speaking truth to power. That is what prophets do and today we are in need of such prophets.

Consider the power of these ideas. Dr. King (like Jesus) trusted in the proclamation of the simple truth. Notice how, like a prophet, Dr. King draws from the biblical tradition in this excerpt from his Nobel prize lecture.

“We still have a long, long way to go before the dream of freedom is a reality for the Negro in the United States. To put it figuratively in biblical language, we have left the dusty soils of Egypt and crossed a Red Sea whose waters had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance. But before we reach the majestic shores of the Promised Land, there is a frustrating and bewildering wilderness ahead. We must still face prodigious hilltops of opposition and gigantic mountains of resistance. But with patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”

These words are filled with inherent power because of their truth. Thus, in working for justice do not fight power with more power. Simply speak truth to power and simply trust in the power of truth.

Fourth, I believe that Dr. King’s approach followed the example of Jesus in exercising wisdom as to how to respond when faced with opposition.

“Ignore them,” Jesus said.

There were many who opposed Dr. King’s message and they were vocal and forceful in their opposition. But, what did Dr. King do? He ignored them and carried on proclaiming the truth, taking a stand for justice. Like Jesus, he paid for it with his life, but the truth prevailed and many were changed because of it.

This way of working for justice is especially under threat today, I do believe. But “ignoring one’s detractors” especially follows from the third principle of simply speaking truth to power. The two go hand-in-hand. If we really believe in the power of the truth, we don’t have to engage in a tit-for-tat regarding every bit of opposition we face.

Yet, far from exercising discernment regarding wise responses to one’s detractors, we nitpick at every jot and tittle someone offers in disagreement.  I find this is true especially on Facebook these days.

I cannot think of a time in the last three months when someone posted a political opinion that wasn’t met with counter-argument, counter-counter-argument and counter-counter-counter-argument…you get the idea. And in a most unwise and uncivil fashion.

I can’t help but feel those types of interactions dishonor the great heritage of civil discourse we have inherited from people like Dr. King.

The word of Jesus and the example of Dr. King to simply “ignore them” is in sore need of observance, I feel.  In the time it takes to answer our detractors, we could write ten times as much buoyed by a positive vision of hope, vision, freedom and joy.

If “the best critique of the bad is the practice of the good”, to maintain focus on writing and speaking the good comes in a close second. There will always be naysayers. Don’t worry about them. Just do and speak what’s true, good and noble. Trust in the power of truth.

A fifth lesson we can learn from Jesus and Dr. King as we endeavor to work for justice is this: don’t give up; persevere, even if it costs your life.

If you are ever faced with the choice to die for the truth or to live while hiding the truth, choose the former. Most of us will not have to die for the truth, thankfully. Most of us will simply need to persevere speaking truth to power, working for systemic justice, softening (and, simultaneously, strengthening) our own hearts.

We need to persevere, because, as we are aware, there is still much to be done in the interest of justice.

It is sobering that more than half a century after Dr. King received the Nobel prize many feel these words which he spoke in his lecture are apt for today, too, but in a different way. In speaking of the progress that has been made, Dr. King said:
“Another indication that progress is being made was found in the recent presidential election in the United States. The American people revealed great maturity by overwhelmingly rejecting a presidential candidate who had become identified with extremism, racism, and retrogression. The voters of our nation rendered a telling blow to the radical right. They defeated those elements in our society which seek to pit white against Negro and lead the nation down a dangerous Fascist path.”

Those words, and the fact that I include those words in this essay, no doubt will raise the anger of some of my readers. All I have to say is: when I read those words earlier today they struck a chord of truth in me that I cannot deny. The “extremism” of which Dr. King speaks presents a danger not only to America but to Europe and many other places in the world.

That is why I am a minister. That is why I write. I believe that, with God’s help, we are able to become more gracious and loving. I believe that trust in God engenders trust in each other. I believe we can lay down our weapons and defenses, open our arms like the crucified Christ and experience the freedom and resurrection that attends such forgiveness, compassion and mercy. I believe in a gentler way; I believe in the power of gentleness. I believe humility is strong and courage can be kind. I believe the lamb can lay down with the lion. I believe that with humans this seems impossible, but with God (with the Truth of God), all things are possible.

We honor Dr. King best by working for justice the way Jesus worked for justice. May we truly fulfill the Golden Rule by working for justice in everything we do: personally, systemically, speaking truth to power, captivated not by the opposition, but by a vision of love, even if it means ultimate sacrifice.


[i] from A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.
[ii] from “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” (italics mine)
[iii] Matthew 6:10b
[iv] In my exposition, I also draw from Mark’s parallel account of this same incident, since Mark includes a few additional (yet complementary) details. It’s found in Mark 7.
[v] That story is in John 8:1-11.
[vi] …which we refer to as the Fifth Commandment.
[vii] Originally, the Law to “honor your parents” was especially directed at adult children of elderly parents. The concern was the honor one grants a parent when the adult child cares for their parents who are no longer able to care for themselves. It’s a question of human dignity as we age and it represents a significant issue of social justice. Today, we interpret the Fifth Word mainly with respect to young children. This is the subject of another essay, but it is the very thing Jesus wanted to restore that had become distorted to his first century listeners. I include it here to demonstrate the need to work for justice on a systemic level, beyond the personal ramifications.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

thoughts on Philip Yancey's great essay

Philip Yancey is a best-selling, award-winning author of several books. He served as a columnist for thirty-six years for Christianity Today, a mainstream evangelical publication. This essay was written by him and I think there is much wisdom in it.

A friend sent me the link and asked me what I thought about it. Here’s what I said. I hope it helps.



Dear friend—

Thank you so much for sending this article! It is incredible! In fact, it is the best response to the election I have read thus far. Here are some thoughts that are prompted by it.

1. On Division.
The division in America and in American Christianity of which Mr. Yancey speaks is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for decades and some would argue it has always been that way. The division is simply coming to light in new ways. I’ve written more on this and will likely post it later.

2. On Extremism.
Mr. Yancey discusses “extremism” and its impact. I feel this hits right at the core of the problem of division. Learning to live graciously in the midst of tension is the key.  

From where does this tension spring? It is created by worldview clashes. Everyone has a worldview and it is in our nature (if not the nature of “a worldview” itself) to be self-convinced. This applies even to the worldview that subscribes to moderation in all things. Yes, it’s possible to be an “extreme moderate.” At least, that is how “moderates” appear to “extremists”—and vice versa.

Because of this, we are all, in a sense…extremists. We tend to self-reinforce our own perspective on life.

The key to live civilly with one another is to honor one’s own worldview while “giving space” to others of a differing worldview (and, better still, to “embrace” others of a differing worldview). Yale scholar Miroslav Volf calls this process: “pluralism as a social project.”

Yet, for some worldviews, the very act of “giving space” feels like a betrayal of one’s own worldview. In other words: to some, pluralism is itself an extreme view…and to the pluralist, such a person would be considered an extremist. What a conundrum!

Regardless, we can’t change the fact that we live side-by-side with others who have different opinions than ours. Everyone has the difficult task of learning to live with “the Other”. That is a fact. But this task creates a tension. That is why I feel that the process of “living graciously” is the hardest one we encounter in life.

It is hard because it is always under threat—and it is always under threat because anyone who lives as their conscience dictates will be seen as “extreme” by those whose conscience dictates otherwise. The question is: how to live with conviction, yet do so in grace?

This is only possible if we make grace itself our conviction so that there is no dichotomy between grace and conviction.  (This is what Mr. Yancey models so well, by the way. And we recognize its goodness in Mr. Yancey because it’s what Jesus did.)

But living in that kind of grace feels threatening to many who feel that that is taking grace too far.

Thus, the most extreme tension we face in life is that which is created between grace and ungrace, which begs the question: “How do we live graciously when others are ungracious?” That tension makes most of us so dog-tired we can hardly stand it. But it is truly the only life-work worth pursuing and the only one that will heal our world.

3. On Declaring a Truce.
Mr. Yancey cites Ross Douthat, an opinion writer for the New York Times. Douthat says the Democrats would do well to “declare a culture war truce.”

The same goes for Republicans. A truce has some effect if only one side practices it, but, of course, it is most effective when both sides honor it. In fact, if one side honors the truce but the other side doesn’t, it will only embitter the truce-initiating side…the pressure will build up until they feel compelled to punch back. Effective truces are bilaterally practiced, even if they are initiated unilaterally.

4.  On Christian division.
I fear that many Christians will read the article and see in it observations regarding Christian engagement with “the world” but really the article is about the divide within Christianity itself. How can Christians be “salt and light” when we effectively excommunicate one another…labelling each other as progressive/liberal and conservative/fundamentalist? Christians need to practice grace with one another. If we cannot do that, what hope do we have?

I have more written about the recent causes of Christian division but won’t include that here. Maybe tomorrow I’ll post it.

5. On Anger.
Mr. Yancey refers to “all those angry voters.” First of all, not everyone that voted for Trump can be labelled an “angry voter.” Second, not everyone that voted for Hillary can be labelled a “non-angry voter”. It is true that many voted for Trump because they were (and are) angry and it is true that many who voted for Hillary were (and are) also angry.

I’ll write more on anger later. For now, I simply want to note: anger sucks, even if it is necessary at times.  Anger may be the source of mustering one’s strength to put something right but it leaves in its wake…more anger.

6. On Voters…and Non-voters.
Mr. Yancey talks about the voters but “all those angry voters” composed less than 58 percent of eligible voters. In addition to inquiring why a certain segment voted for Trump (or Hillary), we should also be troubled why so many (42 percent) did not vote at all! In a country that supposedly enjoys its own freedom, this statistic is disturbing. The highest form of freedom moves beyond considering what we are free “from” so we may embrace what we are free “for”.

7. On the Church and Government.
Mr. Yancey writes: “[Christian] hopes do not depend on secular power.” Um…YES! That nails it.

Yet, there is a flip-side. For example, it stirs something in me when Mr. Yancey says that Trump is backing away from many of his most unsavory campaign promises. I hope so.

But we don’t know that yet. Many people feel that his cabinet selections indicate otherwise. Time will tell.

The point is: it matters what Trump will do. It matters a lot. Yet, Christian hope is not dependent on it. Thus, we have another tension. How to live graciously in the midst of it? Hmmm…..

Mr. Yancey cites J.D. Vance’s book (which many are turning to for insights as to why the Democrats lost in November) and Yancey observes: “Vance’s book shows how government policies in Appalachia did nothing to stop—and may even have abetted—poverty, unemployment, family breakdown, drug abuse, and a culture of violence.”

The question about the role of government and the role of the church in working towards a world that realizes a vision of human (and creational) flourishing is a tricky one.

What role may we expect government to play in combatting addiction, for example? What role does the church play? To what extent should the church look to the government to fulfill a role the church herself can play (and is better suited to play)? How can the church alleviate poverty and unemployment? When is it wise to look to the government to do this? How may the church and government partner in aid to the impoverished? Indeed, should the church and government ever consider themselves “partners”? What is the church’s role as a peacemaker and how should we expect the government to keep the peace?

These questions are specifically Christian and it is why the Christian often feels s/he is caught between a rock and a hard place. These questions should make us uncomfortable and challenge our assumptions about what we think the government should do and what we think the church is for.

At the very least we can say that the Christian should not look to the government as our savior. There is only one Savior for the Christian and his name is Jesus. Yet, we know that through the government much good can be done and evil/injustice can be put right. Mr. Yancey’s essay rightly shows the both/and side to this. On the one hand, our political system has the capacity to effect great good; on the other hand, it can provoke great evil. Government cannot be ignored as a Christian, but nor should it be enthroned as an idol and treated as if it is the answer to all our problems.

8. On the growth of early Christianity.
I love the list Mr. Yancey includes by Tim Keller concerning the features of early Christianity.  Christianity grew from thousands of adherents in the first century to millions in the fourth century. All the factors Mr. Keller cited are true and it is interesting to note that some of the features concerned “prohibitions” and the “exclusive” nature of Christian belief (that is, “There is but one Lord and his name is Jesus”).

But the latter features of Mr. Keller’s list concerned the acts of love practiced by the early Christians. They had liberating views towards slaves, women and children. They cared for orphans, widows, and the poor. They showed mercy to the diseased outcasts and they shared with others to such an extent they themselves became poor. The way I like to say it is: the early Christians cared about the people no one else cared about.

My conviction is that, if there is no differentiation in the weight of each item on Mr. Keller’s list, there is certainly a sequence. The fact is: most people were exposed to Christianity because of these acts of mercy, because of the community of love they shared. In other words, it was the practices of the early Christians, more than their prohibitions, that drew others to faith.

The acts of love demonstrated by the early Christians caused others to inquire about or come into contact with these “peculiar people” called Christians…to discover that everything they did was informed by a conviction so deep the word “creed” does not do it justice. The conviction, indeed, was more like an experience in which the early Christians were caught up helplessly, like the rapture of joy—you can’t help it! The experience was none other than Jesus himself and his total Lordship over every facet of their lives—whether in mind, body, or spirit.

Yes, the creed “Jesus is Lord” is exclusive by nature, but the early Christians showed it is a creed of love and mercy…so why not pledge allegiance to it? Yes, the creed meant the early Christians would refrain from participating in many things the world practiced (and even celebrated!) but they couldn’t help themselves because when you know that kind of love the prohibitions do not matter in the least—you’re too occupied with love, love, just love.   

My prayer is that we will commit to heal divisions, which is to say we will learn to live in grace, to love one another…to be healing agents. I, for one, will not give up hope. I will pray that the Master Jesus will give us all strength to carry on and that we will be truly one people, under the banner of God’s love.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

"Greetings, you who are highly favored!"

At Easter, many Christians practice a long-time custom when we gather for worship. A leader will say, “Christ is risen” and the congregation will respond, “He is risen, indeed!”

It’s a peculiar custom because we do not say “Christ has risen” as if Jesus’ resurrection is confined to the past. No, if Christ has risen, he is risen now.

The expression carries theological significance. By expressing Christ’s resurrection in the present tense, we declare his resurrection life in us today. It’s a mystery why this should be but Christians believe that we experience past events in the present by a dynamic called faith.

In a similar way, linguists who have studied the Bible refer to two ways in which we may understand the development of Scripture. One way to interpret it is synchronically; the other way is diachronically.

The first way is to simply study the Bible in historical sequence. More accurately, a linguist studying Scripture synchronically may pick any text of Scripture and study it on its own terms, without reference to past or future linguistic developments. A synchronic interpretation of Psalm 23, for example, would involve observing the verbal structure, flow and tone of the text itself, without referencing, say…Jesus’ last supper or his parable about the good shepherd.

The other way to approach the text is diachronically. In this instance, to understand the full significance of Psalm 23, we would bring to bear texts of Moses as a shepherd, David’s life, Jesus’ teachings, and the nativity text in Luke 2 where the angels appear to shepherds. This approach puts different time periods in conversation. We see more recent events in light of what came before and we are even able to glean insight on texts that came before in light of what came after.

That is how the past and present converse. The past doesn’t stay in the past. What’s past is present.  That is why we say “Christ is risen” instead of “Christ has risen.”

I am writing this on Christmas day and I do so because I wonder how this principle might play out with regard to Christ’s birth. And it struck me: at Christmastime, we say “Merry Christmas” to one another but there is no verbal analogue to the Easter greeting we exchange.

To be sure, many churches employ the liturgy in which the leader and congregation proclaim “The Lord be with you/And also with you.” I suppose this could be a Christmas exchange since the central theological tenet of Christmas is that “God is with us.” But, culturally speaking, I do not think this little dialectic carries the same weight as the Easter greeting. We tend not to think of it as a Christmas greeting, per se; we tend to think of it as a “common time” greeting, in fact.

At any rate, I am pondering this morning how to personally reclaim the diachronic sense of the Christmas story; how to let it speak to me now and guide my life now, as if my present life is in conversation with Christ’s birth some two thousand years ago.

Pondering this, I was drawn to the idea of God’s favor which both begins and ends the account of Jesus’ birth. The conception of Christ and his birth converse with one another diachronically so each can converse with us today. Notice:

When the angel appears to Mary she is greeted with the words, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!”

When the angels appear to the shepherds on the night Jesus was born, they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The first thing I take from this for today is this: God’s favor rests on the most unlikely people. In fact, God’s favor rests on all of us…men and women, rich and poor, young and old, no matter our station in life.

Notice that the first greeting is for one person and the second greeting is given to a group of shepherds (and their sheep!).

And, most importantly, the second greeting is for the entire “earth”; it is for everyone and everything. In the space of nine months, the blessing of God which starts as a seed, grows to a harvest of global proportions.

This is akin to the story of Abram/Abraham, to which the story of Jesus stands in diachronic continuity. Recall that God gave a promise to Abram that he would bear a son and through that “seed” all the nations of the earth would be blessed. In fact, God said this to Abram/Abraham on three different occasions (in Genesis 22:18, 26:4 and 28:14) and this same Abrahamic promise was repeated in Acts 3:25 (in Peter’s speech to the crowd after healing a lame man).

What begins as a blessing for one person grows to bless all persons. All persons…everyone.

But we do not treat everyone as if they are someone on whom God’s favor rests, do we? We classify others as blessed or cursed, but the birth of Jesus is for everyone. Because of Jesus’ birth, the curse is lifted.

And this is the diachronic knife that cuts deep, I do believe. Somehow, we are not really living the birth of Jesus—and maybe that is because we are not even living the conception of Jesus.

For Jesus to be born for everyone, he must be conceived in me. A Christian is one who hears God’s greeting to him or her personally, saying, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” The greeting is not just for Mary. It is for each one of us and if it is not for you personally, it cannot be for everyone.

A Christian is one who allows God to grow inside himself or herself. Notice that when the angel appears to Mary and tells her what God wants, she willingly responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, NRSV)

And notice that the response of Mary stands in diachronic continuity with Isaiah, the prophet we know best for texts that foretell the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. Many Christians are familiar with the text of Isaiah 6:8. Notice the parallel structure to Mary’s response. It reads:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

On this day when we celebrate the birth of Christ, it is an excellent time to consider whether you are responding with the same willingness as Mary and Isaiah: “Here am I, Lord! I am your servant. May your will be done.”

On this day, it is also an excellent time to consider how Christ is growing in you and how Christ’s growth in you sends you to be a blessing to all people. That is the message that flows between Abraham and Mary, between Isaiah and the shepherds, between Jesus and you.

To practice a Christmas faith like we practice our Easter faith, Christians should treat the remembrance of Jesus’ historic birth as occasion to start the story all over again—from within, by faith. Christmas day proves to be an excellent time to consider how Christ’s birth commences a season wherein Christ’s life grows inside us to share with all.

In this season I invite you to ask yourself: “How is Jesus growing in me? When his life breaks forth, how am I sharing his joy with everyone? When I see him growing in others whom I least suspect, how will I recognize it and will I join with God’s angels in celebrating it?”

I invite you to let the historic event of Christ’s birth truly speak to you today. To do that, I invite you to reflect on your own wondering questions…the questions of Christmas that simultaneously comfort us and challenge us.

May Christ grow in you and may Christ be born for others through you. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

simon and garfunkel's timeless classic

In 1966 Simon and Garfunkel recorded “Silent Night” with a dissonant twist: they overlaid audio from the seven o’clock news report.

Hidden between the lines of this recording are questions many may be asking this holiday season. If God fulfilled his age-old promises by sending us the Messiah, why is this world still so messed up? Is God’s answer to humanity’s suffering truly good enough? If so, why?

The video represents two conflicting realities. On the one hand, Simon and Garfunkel’s recording suggests that apart from truly living in the spirit of Christ, this world becomes a very complex place, impossible to navigate. It is riddled with violence, greed, politicking, pride, lust and the abuse of power.  This was the state of the world in 1966 and it is no less our state in the twenty-first century.

It should also come as no surprise that these societal stains were just as common in the first century when Jesus was born. Yes, he too was born in a world tainted by vice. Yet, on that night, in a world filled with sin and dominated by evil, the Messiah was born. And in that place, in the cave of Jesus' birthplace...there was only peace, perfect love, joy, and hope. If the cave was a complex place, it was not like the complexity of the world around it; it was only complex because it was filled with a mysterious kind of simplicity: a newborn baby, his mother and father, and worshipers from all walks of life, high and low. In that cave we see a vision of what this world needs. In that space, we see the promises fulfilled.
Until that day, when the entire created order will be renewed, may we continue to create pockets of heaven on earth where those enmeshed in the seemingly endless cycle of violence, pride, lust and greed can see God’s promise of redemption fulfilled in their own lives.

A prayer:

Father, thank you that sent your one and only Son into this mess. We confess that this world is still messed up because we have failed to place our faith in the rescue work of Jesus. Teach us now to understand the promises you have made in ages past; promises of watchful care, redemption and forgiveness. Show us how faith in Christ applies those promises to our heart and world today. And remind us that there will yet come a day when all of your promises will be completely fulfilled in your second coming. Help us, until that day, to wait patiently, to serve you with our whole heart, to believe in your promises, to be a light shining in a dark world. In Jesus’ Name, Amen. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

the other side of christmas

The Advent/Christmas season is a time of contrasts. Many churches use colors to express this. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas day, many ecclesiastical spaces will be decked with the color purple, and in the twelve days between Christmas day and Epiphany (January 6) the color changes to white.

The same juxtaposition occurs in the season of Lent/Easter. Lent is signified by the color purple and Easter with the color white.

In my ministry with children we tell a story during the four weeks of Advent that begins with these words: “It is now the time of the color purple.”[i]
The story goes on to explain that purple is the color of kings. In this season, we remember that a king came—and is coming again.

It’s a mystery. Most kings come and go—and that’s it. Most kings do not come-and-go-and-come-again.

But Jesus is not like most kings.

So, in this season, when we especially remember the birth of Jesus, we act as if he still has not yet come. It’s a strange sort of drama, to be sure. It’s strange because, if we really practice this mystery, it disorients us—in a good way.  It disorients us precisely at the time we feel we should be oriented. But the practice of such disorientation is good for us because through it we come to grips with the confusion of existence and the chaos in our own heart.

This confusion and disorientation is echoed at Lent, too. During Lent, when I describe the color purple to the children, I add the idea that “purple is a sad color, a serious color.”[ii] We say this because Lent is a time to remember the suffering of Jesus for our sin, it is a time to come to grips with our own internal chaos. In that respect, we understand why both Lent and Advent are “purple” and we wonder how we didn’t see the “purpleness” of Advent before.  

We typically don’t think of Advent as a sad, serious time because in our culture the weeks leading up to Christmas are happy, “feasting” weeks. But Advent was not always treated this way. Throughout Christian history, the four weeks leading up to Christmas were weeks for fasting that corresponded to the six weeks leading up to Easter. Then, Christmastide (the twelve days after Christmas day) and Eastertide (the six weeks after Easter Sunday) were treated as true feasts.

The contrast is apparent: fast for Advent and feast for Christmas; fast for Lent and feast for Easter. The two cling together because feasting means little if we do not know fasting. Yet our culture tries to make us believe that the best way to prepare for feasting is to simply scaffold our feasting. In America, we build up to Christmas day by going to parties and making extravagant purchases as if we believe it is in our best interest to work up a spiritual tolerance to engorgement. But to pile feasting upon feasting is foolishness. We need both feasting and fasting.

In my ministry with children we portray the two-sided nature of life with objects that are painted purple on one side and white on the other side. I invite the children to try to “pull apart the colors.” The kids and I always smile and shake our heads when each person gives it a go. But, try as they might, they cannot “pull apart the colors.”

I say to them something like: “See? When there is one side, there is always the other side, too. You can’t pull the two sides apart.” But I find it interesting that it is still in our nature to try. Advent, therefore, invites us to consider this paradox: “We do well to remember that all is not well.”

Despite our attempts to confine Advent to a Christmas-happy place, it nevertheless remains a suitable time, a spacious spiritual place, to wrestle with realities that challenge us here and now. Advent is the perfect time to face our own growing darkness, personally and collectively, yet hold out hope the light will indeed lengthen in time. In fact, the faith claim intrinsic to Advent is that such an acknowledgement of darkness plays a key role in ushering in the light. Scientifically, that makes no sense but that is why we need faith. In Advent’s lab, to spot the darkness is to see the light. Yes, it’s a mystery.

[i] The Complete Guide to Godly Play, volume 3 by Jerome Berryman
[ii] The Complete Guide to Godly Play, volume 4 by Jerome Berryman

Saturday, December 17, 2016

God's Tweet

*"The Faces of Easter" by Jerome Berryman (from Godly Play, volume 4). 
Artwork by Peter Privett, Godly Play UK

The great news of Advent is that when God wanted to speak with us he did not just send out a Tweet.

In fact, he didn’t use words at all, even shorthand. In one of the stories I tell children*, the first part contains this paradox: “The Word became a wordless child.”

Though we should have seen it coming, this is unlike anything humans had come to expect of God. By the time Jesus was born, the Israelite experience of God was mediated by the words of the prophets and the midrash of the rabbis. To know God was to meditate on God’s Word.

Though Advent does not negate the fact that God speaks, it unmistakably proclaims that the Word is so powerful he speaks without words. 

Advent thus invites us to practice silence before we presume to speak a single word. Advent is God’s way of taking the word communication and giving it an amputation to save its life. Advent reminds us that the best way to communicate is to commune, to dwell with and to abide. When God sent his Son, it was more messy than mere messaging.

The other day a friend said they have a feeling that, as they age, they have more to say, important things to say, important words to write.

That is likely true. And I believe it is true of all those who keep growing as they age. Anyone who matures in the process of aging will have more important things to say along the way.

But maturity also considers: “What is the most helpful way to say something? And how much needs to be said? And when? And to whom?” We all have words, many words. Maybe our words would carry more weight if we used fewer words, gentler words. And maybe one’s words should be first directed to oneself before presuming those words may be a gift to others. 

Advent gives us pause to consider: In what ways do our words, our many words, engender the wisdom of silence, the quietude of a trusting heart?

I am especially mindful of the great confusion we suffer because of the volume of words we are exposed to every day. It is telling that we need many words now to set straight what news sources may be trusted. It is even more ironic that most people are ready to offer their counterargument to such news stories about news stories. One wonders when there will be a news story about the arguments we have about news stories about news stories.

It is astounding that Twitter, a site predicated on the idea of brevity, overflows with so many sets of 140 characters that it is impossible for any single person to keep up with just .0000001 percent of its active-user content. Yes, that number represents real math.

Yet, this is the platform millions of people follow to hear from society’s media and political leaders, to hear what they have to say straight from the source, in real time. What’s even more sobering are the things these leaders choose to say when they Tweet, the amount of time they spend on words, words, words that will soon be so deep in the feed no one will care anymore what they said by the end of the day.

People often think of the Bible as a long book, but one can read it in its entirety with relative ease in the span of a year. When I consider that countless numbers of humans have been meditating on the same words for thousands of years now, it fills me with awe.

Consider the power of God’s words. We are familiar with them already, even if we haven’t read the Bible lately (or ever).

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

“The Lord is my shepherd.”

“Love your enemies.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

“Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

That verse about Immanuel occurs twice in the Bible: once in the prophet Isaiah and once in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Matthew adds the note that the name Immanuel means “God with us.”

It is striking that when God came to be with us in the person of Jesus, we hear very few words from him before he is 30 years old and even then his teachings are so brief we can read them easily in one sitting. He taught many times in parables, a form of storytelling so brief I refer to several parables every year in my ministry with children. In fact, I have seen preschool children learn to tell the parables themselves; they are that simple.

What I find amazing about this is that God’s words are for everyone, both young and old. God’s words are simple enough that a child (even a very young child) can reflect on them; yet, God’s words are rich enough that one can meditate on the same words countless times over the course of seventy years and still discover new treasures in them. Consider all that has been written on this simple prayer of Jesus, uttered as he was dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  And consider that humankind has yet to grasp the full meaning of those words; it’s unparalleled.

The children with whom I work also learn the first recorded words of Jesus, which he spoke when he was about 12 years old. Note the simplicity: “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

I love how Immanuel’s words to Mary and Joseph came in the form of a question. That should teach us something about our own words. Later, we come to understand why he was in his “Father’s house” and why he replied to their query with another query. He said, “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” (John 8:28)

I experience these words as personally challenging, because it makes me wonder how often I speak without first considering if it is something God would say. To what extent do I allow Jesus to be my teacher and, if I claim he is my teacher, do I let him train my tongue?

I still have a lot to learn. I suspect we all do.

Yet, with all these reflections I still marvel, especially during this time of year, that when God wanted to speak to us, he did so not with words but by choosing to be present with us in a wordless way.

In many ways his communing with us was even smaller than a Tweet and yet the message of love has endured for generations and will continue to endure for all generations to come.

I pray we allow that truth to change the way we live in a world swirling with words.