Marguerite Shuster tells a story that she traces back to Myron Augsburger. I am skeptical as to whether the story could actually have happened—I suspect it to be an urban legend—but it makes me laugh, and it makes a good point, so here it is:
“This fellow was slaving over his desk in his sixth-floor office, struggling to see what he was doing after the seven-foot fluorescent light above his desk stopped working. Calling maintenance produced no help, so he decided to scramble up on the desk and take a look himself. Sure enough, the bulb was burned out. He unscrewed it, measured it carefully, and went off to the hardware store for a replacement. Success! He screwed in the bulb and the office was flooded with light. When five p.m. came and he was ready to leave, he saw the burned-out tube standing forlornly in the corner. Leaving it there didn’t seem like a very good idea, since he wasn’t a part of the maintenance people’s union. He decided he’d better take it with him; he thought he remembered a construction site on the way home where he could dump it So, he carried it down the street, into the subway station, onto the train; but how do you sit down with a seven-foot tube in your hand? … So he stood up. The train stopped at the next station, five people got on, and four of them grabbed hold of the tube. Now what? Pretty soon it occurred to him that all he needed to do was get off at his station and leave the pole. Picture, then, the last person left holding that wobbly pole.” (Theology, News & Notes, Oct. 1999)
Nathanael (God bless him) was determined not to be one of those kind of people who would be left holding a burned-out tube just because others had grabbed hold of it. When Philip, a friend of Nathanael’s, came and told him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45), Nathanael voiced his skepticism. He asked a question that could be considered rather rude, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Christians are often made to feel that they are being naughty if they ask questions or express doubts about anything having to do with God or Christ. But, according to John 1:47, Jesus affirms Nathanael’s character in the midst of his skeptical outburst. Jesus says of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This verse reveals that Jesus values a person’s integrity and genuineness over a façade of faithfulness. Apparently, it is better in Jesus’ eyes for us to express our doubts and to ask our questions (even when they may sound rude) than to shove them down and hide them under a mask of faith.
Why would that be? Why does God prefer honest doubts and questions over a mask of faith?
Frederick Buechner points out, “Doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.” God wants us to be open and honest about our doubts so that we can move from a blind, fragile, and irrelevant faith into a faith that is real and growing.
Ruth Senter adds, “God’s love isn’t so fickle that my doubts cause him to love me less. God sticks with people through their doubts; he hangs on to people when they’re wandering off in the wrong direction. I saw that kind of love other places in Scripture. God didn’t strike Job dead when Job did some loud complaining. Nor did God put David on the shelf when David asked some tough questions (see the Psalms)…. I haven’t outgrown all my doubts. There are still many loose ends of life which I haven’t been able to tie together—and probably never will. I’ll never understand all the ways of God. He doesn’t even expect me to. But he does expect me to love him. And loving means honesty. I wish I’d learned a long time ago that God does understand about doubts. It would have saved me a lot of energy I wasted trying to pretend my questions didn’t exist.”
The conclusion I come to is that one of the keys to spiritual growth has to do with taking off the mask and being genuine with God about our questions and doubts.
At the opening of John’s biography of Jesus (the Gospel of John), two individuals (Andrew and probably John, the author of the biography) become intrigued by Jesus when John the Baptizer refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God. They begin to follow Jesus. Noticing them trailing Him, Jesus turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?”
They come up with the right answer to His question—the answer that leads to genuine discovery. They ask, “Where are you staying?” They want to spend time with Him by which they can watch Him and listen to Him and discover His character (the essence of who He is).
They provide a good model for us: If you want to discover Jesus, the most important thing to do is not to read a theological treatise about Him but to spend time with Him, drawing near to His heart, discovering who He is.
Indeed, that’s what Jesus said to Andrew and his friend, “Come and see” (John 1:39).
Sadly, many people, wanting to “see” Jesus, have looked at perverted images of Jesus in Christians they have known. In her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans shares many such examples: “Likening their conquests to Joshua’s defeat of Canaan, European Christians brought rape, violence, plunder, and enslavement to the New World, where hundreds of thousands of native people were enslaved or killed. It is said that a tribal chief from the island of Hispaniola was given the chance to convert to Christianity before being executed, but he responded that if heaven was where Christians went when they died, he would rather go to hell.” A woman identified as C.J. wrote to her, “We left for so many reasons, but the night we made the decision for good was the night my husband looked at our tiny newborn daughter sleeping in my arms and said, ‘I don’t want her to ever know that God, the God we grew up with, the one the church at large preaches. I don’t want her to grow up with the crap we did. I want her to know God, but not that God. Never ever that God.’”
In the book Severe Mercy, Sheldon Van Auken points out, “The best argument for Christianity is Christians—their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they’re self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration. When they’re narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”
Despite the poor representation of Christ that Christians have often provided throughout the centuries, Christ continues to offer to people the strategy that He extended to Andrew and his friend, “Come and see.”
That strategy worked for me. As a young person I took a serious look at myself and at the Jesus I found in the Gospels. When I looked at myself, I saw a young person who was so anxious to fit in with others that I was two-faced and insincere more often than I wished, but when I looked at Jesus I saw one who was true to Himself in all circumstances—no matter what anyone else thought of Him. When I looked at myself, I saw a person who was unsatisfied with life, always trying to find what could make me happy, but when I looked at Jesus I saw someone who was at peace with Himself even in the most trying times. When I looked at myself I saw someone who struggled so much with jealousies and resentments and prejudices, but when I looked at Jesus I saw one who was consistently filled with love and who unswervingly acted with love toward others. When I looked at myself, I saw a person who was often consumed by fear, but when I looked at Jesus I saw a person of tremendous courage, who put love for others ahead of self-protection.
Continually, when I looked at Jesus I saw what I want to become! Interestingly, this short story at the beginning of John’s biography of Jesus (John 1:35-42) ends with Andrew bringing his brother Simon to Jesus. Jesus looked at Simon and said to him, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” By all indications, Simon was not, at that time, a strong, dependable, and unbreakable person. Jesus saw beyond what Simon was at the moment to what he would become. I love how these two pieces of the story go together: When we come and look at Jesus, we discover not only who He is but also what we will become in Him.
With the coronavirus shutting so many things down, and with the Center for Disease Control encouraging us to stay away from each other, and with people fearfully hoarding some of the basic necessities of life, we need to remember the importance of caring for the individuals around us. The news talks about statistics and percentages, but each unique persons needs to experience human connection and concern.
In an article entitled “Why People Need People: The Myth of Solitude,” Jenev Caddell writes, “More and more research in the fields of neurobiology and psychology is demonstrating how we are more connected and interdependent than we have ever realized. The front of our brains have special neurons called ‘mirror neurons’ that exist to help us understand and empathize with one another. We are a social species, and the truth is, we need each other to survive. All of the technology that exists has not eradicated that need from our basic biology.”
Maddie and Tae sing a song that states,
People need people when the highs get low
The world’s a bit too heavy for one shoulder to hold
The strongest souls still wear out and the hardest hearts still break
Sometimes you ain’t all right and sometimes that’s okay
So if you’re asking me
People need people
Somebody to call when you’re too close to the edge
Somebody to catch you when you’re dancing on a ledge
Somebody to pray for you, someone that you can pray for
To need and to be needed, oh, I believe it’s what we were made for
Many years ago a Japanese magazine published an issue with the picture of a butterfly on one page. The page and the butterfly were a dull grey…until the reader placed a hand over the picture. The warmth of a hand caused special inks in the printing to react, and the butterfly was transformed into a rainbow of flashing color. It was the human touch that brought the butterfly to “life.”
Though we are encouraged to avoid making physical touch with others in the midst of this pandemic, there are other ways in which we can touch a person’s soul and renew life to their spirit.
- A phone call or text
- A kind word (Proverbs 16:24 says, “Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.)
- A good deed
- A caring favor
- A bouquet of flowers from your yard
- Delivering groceries
- A listening ear
- A prayer
At a time like this, when so much in our nation is pushing us apart, what difference it can make—what life it can bring to a soul—if we reach out to one another.
We find ourselves in the midst of a frightening time, with worries over the coronavirus, fears over our health, economic uncertainties, qualms about being in public, and questions about whether we will ever find rolls of toilet paper again.
What are we to do in the face of such fears and uncertainties?
We need the proper combination of caution and courage.
First some words of caution: The Red Cross offers these basic suggestions:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- Wash your hands often.
- Practice good health habits (get sufficient sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, eat nutritious food, and drink plenty of fluids).
- Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces.
It is also wise at this time to avoid shaking hands.
Now for some words on courage: At a time like this—a time unlike anything most of us have had to endure—it is natural to feel afraid. For anyone to tell you not to be afraid would be foolish. But courage is not the absence of fear. Mark Twain defines courage as “resistance to fear, mastery of fear.” Ambrose Redmoon adds, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
Sometimes the best thing we can do with our fears is to look at them closely, learn from them what we need to learn, then set them to the side and move forward with the “more important” thing.
What are those “more important” things that we should be doing? In an article “On Living in an Atomic Age” at the beginning of the Cold War (1948), C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty. This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
One of our greatest tendencies at a time like this is to isolate, but our greatest need in times of need is encouraging connection with others. Dr. Henry Cloud remarks, “One of my favorite examples of connectedness comes from a body of research regarding cortisol release in monkeys, rats, and other animals under stress. Cortisol is not something you want a great deal of floating around in your brain. It is a strong stress hormone. When they put a monkey in a cage and pipe in loud scary noises (thus, high stress for the poor monkey), the amounts of this chemical in the monkey’s system is—as you’d expect—very high. But get this…when they put one of his buddies in the cage with him—even though the loud, scary noises are continued—the amount of cortisol in his brain goes down. The outside stressor is the same, but the inside stress level goes down just from having a friend nearby.”
Perhaps the greatest thing we can do for our world at a time like this is to look out for one another—especially those who are scared, hurting, suffering, or needy. Reach out to one another. Encourage the downhearted. Be there for each other.
In an article about the uniqueness of each human being, Richard Gray writes, “From your walk and your body odor to the shapes of your ears and your backside, scientists are finding many surprising ways of identifying you from the other seven billion people in the world.”
I suppose God could have caused us to come into this world in a cookie-cutter-pattern in which we might all be the same. But with wisdom, creativity, and love, God causes each of us to come into this world as a unique being.
Every individually-crafted person matters immensely to God.
In Matthew 10:29-31, Jesus states, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Every individual matters immensely to God!
Since every person matters to God, individuals should matters to us as well.
We get a glimpse of such personalized care in the way Paul concludes his letter to the church in Colossae. Paul mentions 10 distinct individuals here. Though we know almost nothing about most of these persons, they are mentioned by name because they matter to God and they matter to Paul.
Joseph Fletcher comments, “The true opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Hate, bad as it is, at least treats the neighbor as a THOU, whereas indifference turns the neighbor into an IT, a thing. This is why we may say that there is actually one thing worse than evil itself, and that is indifference to evil. In human relations the nadir of morality, the lowest point as far as Christian ethics are concerned, is manifest in the phrase, ‘I couldn’t care less.’”
On the other hand, Charles Morgan remarks, “There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God’s finger on a person’s shoulder.”
Paul’s letter concludes not with indifference but with a touch of God’s finger on 10 people’s shoulders. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could dissolve some of the indifference in this world with many touches of God’s finger on the shoulders of people in our lives by treating each person in accordance with how much they matter to God and to us?
Some of the touches we find in Colossians 4 carry added significance:
Earlier in the letter, when Paul declared the equality before God of slaves and masters, he began what would bring about the dismantling of slavery. He takes it a step further here. In verse 7 Paul refers to Tychicus, a free man, as a bond servant (in the Greek, the word is closely related to the word used for slaves in Colossians 3:22), while in verse 9, he refers to Onesimus, a slave, as “the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” Paul tears down divisions, and so should we.
In verse 10, Paul speaks of Mark, stressing, “If he comes to you, welcome him.” This is the person Paul refused to bring with him on an earlier missionary trip and fought with Barnabas about. But in Colossians 3:12-14, Paul stressed that we should “forgive each other.” For Paul, forgiveness is not just something to write about but something to practice. That’s how it should be for us as well.
In verse 15, Paul sends his greetings to “Nympha and the church in her house.” Though Greek culture demeaned women, Paul upholds this woman as a respected leader in the early Christian church. As Paul points out in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In Colossians 4:6 Paul give us a lovingly wonderful piece of guidance: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”
It seems to me that Paul’s advice here grows out of his own personal struggle with ungracious speech. In our earliest introduction to Paul in the Bible, he is going along with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples (Acts 9:1), and pursuing Christians to lock them in jail (Acts 9:2). Nothing gracious there! Even following his conversion (Acts 9), he called Simon Peter a hypocrite (Galatians 2:11-13), and he got into arguments with John Mark and Barnabas that split them apart (Acts 15:36-39). In Philippians 3:2 he called his opponents “dogs” and “evildoers.” In Galatians 5:12 he expresses a wish that those who push circumcision would castrate themselves. And in Galatians 1:9 he pronounces a curse on anyone who preaches a different gospel than his. Again, not the epitome of graciousness. Moreover, Paul was the frequent recipient of attacks and slander.
Perhaps Paul challenges us toward gracious speech because he knows well from his own experience how difficult it is, how destructive harsh words can be, and how life-giving gracious words can be.
Dr. R. Douglass Fields comments, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…. We all know how untrue that childhood incantation is. Words do hurt. Ridicule, disdain, humiliation, taunting, all cause injury, and when it is delivered in childhood from a child’s peers, verbal abuse causes more than emotional trauma. It inflicts lasting physical effects on brain structure.” Robert Fulghum adds, “Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”
The April 29, 1992 issue of the Chicago Tribune reported, “A stripped gear in the propeller controls of a commuter plane caused it to nosedive into the Georgia woods last April, killing former U.S. Senator John Tower of Texas and 22 others, the government concluded Tuesday. A gear that adjusted the pitch of the left engine’s propellers was slowly worn away by an opposing part with a harder titanium coating, the National Transportation Safety Board said. ‘It acted like a file, and over time it wore down the teeth that controlled the propeller,’ said acting board chairman Susan Coughlin.” Likewise, hard (or harsh) words wear down a person’s spirit, causing a person to crash.
But gracious words bring life and health and healing. I love the way Glennon Doyle expressed this in one of her Momastery blogs: “Does anybody remember what God used in Genesis to make the world? Was it bricks? Was it stones? It was WORDS. God said: LET THERE BE LIGHT. And there was light. God’s words built the world. Maybe the writers of that story wanted us to think about how powerful our words are. God created us in God’s image so, like God, we can use our voices to create beautiful things. Every time we open our mouths and speak, we are either saying LET THERE BE LIGHT or LET THERE BE DARKNESS.
“When we gossip, when we criticize, when we lie or tell hurtful jokes or use labels that categorize and demean people we are saying: Let there be darkness. We create a world around us that is not so beautiful. And then we have to live in it.
“When we offer a compliment, when we defend a friend or a stranger, when we stick to the truth, when we speak a kind word to anyone—we are saying: LET THERE BE LIGHT. We are creating a more beautiful world, and then we get to live in it.
“Dear God, help us use our voices to create a more beautiful world. Let every word we speak be a stepping stone toward peace. Help us SPEAK LIGHT so we can watch darkness scatter.”