Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Shot to the Nose

"Erected to the memory of John Phillips. Accidently shot - as a mark of affection - by his brother." - Gravemarker in New England.

In the early 70s my family lived in Aurora, Colorado in a quiet little neighborhood much like many of the older towns here in Alabama. I came across it the other day looking up old places I lived on Google Earth. (The address is 986 Dearborn Street, Aurora, Co if you want to see it yourself.) The center of the neighborhood was Ford Elementary School, which, from our little home on Dearborn Street, was literally over our back yard fence. During second and third grade I walked to school, and went home everyday for lunch.

Next door to us, on the corner, lived the Crofts. Mrs. Croft was a folk guitarist, and, looking back, probably had much more of a sixties mindset than my family had. In my mind I can still hear her playing her guitar and singing "Blowin' in the Wind", and, while at the time I didn't know who wrote the song, stands as my first ever memory of any Bob Dylan song. Her son, Taylor, and I are the same age and played together regularly in those days. Those were the days when G.I. Joes were full size dolls, and, with their great king fu grip, Taylor and I played G.I. Joes for hours like most 6 and 7 year old boys of our time.

However, this quiet neighborhood was broken up occaisionally by the neighborhood bully. I am sure that every neighborhood has them, and this quiet little neighborhood was no different. Unfortunately for us, ours lived in the corner house directly across the street from Taylor. His name was Jeff, and though only a year older, was much, much bigger than either Taylor or me.

I don't know that Jeff was your typical bully. I don't recall him ever beating me or anyone else up. I don't recall him yelling or taunting us. All I remember was being intimidated by him and his size and if he wanted to come and play with our G.I. Joes he did - and we didn't question or fight back. We viewed ourselves as powerless, helpless and weak to his greater power and authority. And I have never forgotten that feeling of intimidation and weakness that Jeff caused just by his presence. Bullies take because they can and hurt because they will. While justifications for their harm may be offered, justifications are not necessary.

Fast forward a few years to another quiet neighborhood in another town. At the end of Hahn Ave, the street where we lived at the time, moved a new family, the Coles. They have one son, Marc, who is approximately the same age as most of the other boys that live in our little section of the neighborhood. Marc wore thick glasses, and was fairly skinny and lanky.

By the time they moved in, the boys in the late pre-teen early teen years were already friends in the neighborhood. There was me, Eric, Van, Chris, Greg, Michael, Rob and Mark, all of us within a year or two of each other's age. For some reason, when the Coles moved in there was some collective consciousness among us that we would not accept Marc into our "group" and would treat him with contempt. And pour it on we did. For absolutely no reason, as certainly Marc had never done anything to any of us other than to look weaker than us, he was chosen during those years to be the outcast, the focal point and butt of our jokes, the target for snow balls in the winter, and verbal assaults in the summer. And, like the immature children we were, we could justify our actions toward Marc if they were ever questioned.

In truth, Marc was a decent guy just trying to get along, and we, me included, were nothing more than bullies, making his like miserable for our own pleasure. In later years, toward the end of high school, Marc, the Van Halen devote', was finally accepted in our "group" of Pink Floyd and psychedelic rock listeners and would hang out and listen to music with the rest of us on Van's killer HiFi. But those early years were clearly hell for Marc, and they were that way because of me.

As I look back on those two times in my life, it is scary for me to see how quickly I went from bullied to bully, not learning the lessons of my earlier days, and forgetting the empathy that adversity and trial should inevitably bring, but for some reason doesn't deliver. But I look back and see, that is how the world works - the strong, by force of might or deceit of mind, prey on the weak as if they are not persons, or at least persons worthy of their presence and friendship. The strong justify their own actions as either being entitled to behave in such a manner, or that the weak deserve such treatment. The weak are something to be used for the amusement of the strong. That is the way of the world. It is the way to hide their other weaknesses and insecurities.

John tells us "But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him." (1 John 2:9).

Like a shot to the nose, those words ring out against me. They convict me. They condemn me. They beat me up and bully me, calling me to examine my own heart and attitude and actions, even as I witness the heart and attitudes and actions of others. How quick I am to judge others in relation to myself, all the while over looking my own weakness, failings, and faults. And how blinded by the darkness I am when I fail to love my brothers and sisters in all their weaknesses. When I sit by quietly and permit the strong to prey on the weak.

Often I see, even within the church, the sense of entitlement that strength and power bring. I witness, among my brothers and sisters, and even within myself, an attitude of contempt and derision of those who are weaker in the faith, weaker in the body, and weaker in the soul. I witness the weak bullied by the strong, I know God is not in those actions, and Christ is not honored therein. I see the fragile souls entrusted to our care, and the wreckless and careless manner in which they are treated. And how, like poor John Phillips, they get caught in the cross fire of their brother's "affections". I see how we often suffer it to be so by inaction and inattention.

And I witness how quickly we forget that it is not our strength which unites us, but rather our weakness. How we are each sinners struggling through this world, completely and totally relying on the power of Christ to save us, and not our own. And how we forget how desperately we need the love of each other, as brothers, as sisters, just to find our way.

I am glad to be a part of Community Prebyterian Church, a place where the Marcs and the Jeffs can commingle, and each recieve the care and love of Christian brothers. And hopefully find the peace and acceptance and respect each deserves. A place where we want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11). And while we are by no means perfect, we are a place where we try not to shoot our brothers, not even by accident.

To the Marcs in my past, my present and in our church, I seek your forgiveness. Both for my actions, and for suffering the actions of others.

To Jeff's of my past, my present and in our church, I offer mine.

And to each know that we have tried to put away our childish behavior and cannot and shall not withdraw our love.

God, help us to continue to learn what it means to love one another.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Look What's Missing

"Many of us believe that wrongs aren't wrong if it's done by nice people like ourselves." ~Author Unknown

Over the Christimas break the 4theluv household received one of the worst domestic cleaning tools ever produced - the Bissell Spotbot. This little "jewel" boasts that even the toughest carpet stain is no match for its specialty formula cleaning solutions and its whirling brushes and water suctioning.

While they still look pretty good, as with every American family that has children and pets, the carpets at the 4theluv house show their wear. Through the years, things get spilled, pets have accidents, kids have accidents, parents have accidents and things get tracked through. While looking skepticly at the Bissell Spotbot and all its boasted claims, the 4thluvs decided that the worst of the stains had to go. After all, it couldn't make it look worse.

So what the heck, we thought. Let's give it a try. We filled the little machine with its "magic" formula, some recommended oxy-clean formula, set the machine over the stain we wanted gone, "set it and forget it". The whiring sounds set in motion, the high pitched whining, the back and forth of the brushes in its six inch circumfrence was a sight to behold. And ten minutes later this mechanical demon beeps its maniacal, almost satanic beep that it is finished.

Moved off the spot, the remaining carpet was still a bit damp and circularly brushed, but you really coudn't tell much. So you do what every self-respecting Bissell Spotbot owner does - you move it to the next spot and repeat. And of course, you repeat this action four times on four different stains, as that is about how many you can do on one tank.

The problem only appears after the spots dry. The problem, of course, is that all the hype and claims of the Spotbot are true. Absolutely true. 100% true. Way too true. The thing works better than it claims. There is no longer stains where the Spotbot was at work. The carpet looks brand new - fresh from the carpet mill. So soft and fluffy and fresh you wold lay your newborn baby on it, as long as your baby is smaller than six inches.

Now the 4theluvs consider themselves educated people. We tend to think through issues both theoretically and pragmatically. But the theoretical and pragmatic problems of the Spotbot escaped us both - perhaps because we didn't expect the claims to be true. The clean circles on our carpet now ridicule the dirt and grime on the rest of the carpet - carpet that didn't look too bad before we began. Now it looks like it should have been replaced years ago.

To say the least, Mrs. 4theluv was not happy. She wanted to know what we were now supposed to do with the crop circles in our carpet - the clean spaces. Those little round wonders of soft downy carpet pure as the driven snow. My only suggested was that we could show off our holes when people came to visit. (The couch was comfortable that night.)

And that's when it hit me - how many Christians live their lives showing off their holes? The things that they don't do. Those grand statements of how hole-y they are. Jesus had something to say about that:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. - Luke 18:9-14.

I have no doubt the Pharisee was not those things he said. He was defining righteousness by what he was not, and what he was. He was the display of perfection, a legend in his own mind. His holes were brilliant - he had hole-iness he could spout off and proudly display. And all of us repulse at that notion because we know that self-righteous arrogant jerk found sadistic pleasure in putting other people down.

It is so easy to condemn the Pharisee. But stop and think for a moment: don't each of us define "righteous" as those things we personally don't do, and those things we personally do or want to do better? And don't we gage the spiritual health of others by the standards we created for own righteousness? Isn't church about comparing our clean spots and learning how to accentuate them - all the while trying to cover up how dirty we are in other places?

Like my carpet, our "clean" spots only serve to highlight how desparately hopeless our situation is without Christ. But it also serves to showcase the promise and glory of the gospel - that our sins, though like scarlet, will be washed whiter than snow, and though crimson, will be as wool. (Isa. 1:18) Without Christ, there is no hope for any of us, no matter what we don't do.

I am glad, and hope it will always be so, that Community Presbyterian Church is a place that honors people not for the holes in their lives, but the Christ within them, our only hope. And perhaps all of us, the next time we are tempted to point out those sins we don't commit but others do will remember the lesson of the Spotbot.

Happy New Year.


PS - at the next yard sale for the church, there may magicly appear a Bissell Spotbot for sale. Feel free to buy it at your own risk. Just remember - it works. You have been forewarned.