Issues and Labels or Faces and Stories?

I’m more than you know

I’m more than you see here

I’m more than you let me be

I’m more than you know

A body and a soul

You don’t see me but you will

I am not invisible.

There is no them

There is no them

There’s only us.

-U2, “Invisible”

I drove quite a distance yesterday, six hours total, to be precise. And I had plenty of time to think, and also to listen to music and podcasts. One podcast in particular, a Jonathan Martin sermon, really grabbed me because it was exactly what I’d been thinking about off and on, for a month or so. He helped tie up some of the loose ends for me.

I don’t remember precisely how he said it, but he talked about how God was teaching him to pull his head out of the sand, so he could see people with God’s eyes, enter into their pain, listen to the stories of their lives.

And here’s where the problem is for a lot of us. It’s extremely hard to do that, and still use the labels we’re so fond of. It’s almost impossible to do both. We love to talk about things in terms of “issues facing the church, or America today.” And I don’t think there’s much wrong with discussing “issues.”

But these issues affect people, real people, real image bearers, real lives.

It’s funny how soundbites and labels go hand in hand. The insane amounts of media we’re bombarded with, willingly or otherwise, day and night, has really changed how we think and talk about things. Even though these concise statements using lots of labels and statistics to talk about various issues comprise nice, neatly packaged bits of information to digest, unfortunately it doesn’t give us a very Godly view of the world.

What do I mean by Godly?

I think a Godly view of the world must include a lot of seeing the image of God in other people.

It really does. We humans have the ability to do hellish things when we manage to cloud our vision enough to forget about the image of God in others. I know the wickedness I imagine, sometimes. And let me tell you, when I’m thinking those things, the farthest thought from my mind is that this person is a precious creation of God’s, made to bear His image.

Statistics, news, soundbites, may have truth in them, but truth can’t be reduced to any of those things.

Truth goes much, much deeper.

I think we need to make a huge effort to stop letting the news companies and the politicians control how we talk about stuff. It seems like we’ve just gotten so used to it, we barely think about how it’s affecting us. See, if we don’t actually make any effort to know any of the faces and stories behind these labels, if we only choose to look at them as a group of facts and statistics, we feel we can say pretty much anything we want about them, so long as it doesn’t sound too bad. We feel we can reduce them to a political statement. A theological statement. Some to like to call it “standing for truth.”

But what really is truth, if it’s not based in the Word made flesh? He’s the one who showed us what truth looks like, in person, walking around in skin and bones. He showed us what it was like to really see people.

The law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus.

We’re not Christ, but we are called to be Christ’s bodily representation right now.

And really, we can’t see people with God’s eyes, when we’re conveniently reducing the gays, the illegal immigrants, the Arabs, the African Americans, the liberals, the conservatives, the fundamentalists, the liberal theologians, the Catholics, the evangelicals, the rich, the poor, the policemen, the felons, whoever we don’t like, into little chunks of news and statistic for us to slice up, discuss, and pretend they were never really people in the first place.

We might as well be honest; we all have our people we we’d rather not see as people.

Labels do make it easier to talk about people, but I have to wonder: what do these discussions really accomplish if it never goes beyond abstract, if we never see what they mean in the context of our local communities, or in our relationships with individuals? What I mean by that is, if our theories on these issues have no flesh on them or no faces to them, do we really think we can discuss them in an educated manner?

We feel safe keeping it in the theoretical, because it frees us to reach whatever conclusion feels safest and most comfortable to us, and our voices sound really wise bouncing back to us in the comfortable little vacuum we’ve made for ourselves to inhabit.

I’m not proposing existence without convictions. That would be absurd. But what does your conviction look like when it comes into contact with a living and breathing person, a priceless being whom Jesus died to save? Is it as black and white as you thought? Chances are, it’s not.

And this slaps me squarely in the face, because I love the sound of my own voice and the sound of my ideas. I like talking about things more than I like seeing what happens when I embody them outside of the comfortable home I’ve built for them. But ideas affect real people, and I can’t be naive enough to assume otherwise.

Like Becca says, when we enter into someone else’s story, we have to face our own brokenness. And we all hate that. It’s no fun to approach a person you see as being beneath you, and realizing they don’t fit inside the box you built–that ugliness in your own heart is no better than the ugliness in theirs.

It hurts. It’s humbling to realize we’re on par with those we despise. But only when we’re knocked to our knees by His grace and our unworthiness, only then and there, are we in the proper position to serve.

I think it’s pretty typical “fallen human” to not want to know the stories of the people we’d rather write off. Those people about whom we’d never say this, but in more subtle and “Christian” (Pharisaical) ways, act like grace isn’t for them.

We all like to feel superior to someone.

The reality is, if we try, it’s pretty hard to not see at least a little bit of God in those people, to see a little bit of ourselves in those people, to begin to see little sprouts of hope coming out of the ground in their lives, when we make friends with them.

One thing though: if you start making friends with the people you’re prone to dislike, it’s much harder to fit them into the neatly tied packages you’ve fashioned for them.

The generalizations stop working.

The labels and statistics start being replaced by faces and stories that don’t let you talk about issues the same way, because you think of the real people associated with them.

It’s certainly not the easiest way to approach life, but it is the Jesus way.

And here’s where it gets awkward, because those who know me well, know I really struggle hard to embody this. I think I’m getting better at it but the progress is so slow, that it’s really discouraging sometimes. I find it really hard to brush up against the types of people who don’t “fit” with me very naturally. More often than I care to admit, my actions push the people I’ve categorized as “them” away instead of inviting them to be a friend.

But that’s very much what Jesus was talking about when He said, that even “heathen” people usually treat those well who are easy to treat well. Is anything exceptional, or “earth as it is in heaven” going on, when I’m nice to people who are easy for me to get along with?

Hardly.

I guess I’m simply asking that all of us who name Jesus as King be extremely careful what we’re willing to say about issues concerning people we’ve never bothered to meet, let alone even tried to love.

Brian Zahnd aptly explains some of John’s best known words in the Bible like this:

“If we say, “I love God.” But we hate our brother, that is, the other, we are lying to [ourselves]…

…John says there’s a problem. You can’t see God. You only see God in the imago Dei; you only see God in the image bearer. You only see God in the other.

Because God whom you cannot see can become abstract, and what you end up doing is actually loving yourself, because you imagine God to be like youBut when you find out that the other, your neighbor, whether you call them friend or enemy, bears the image of God, and you can’t love them, now the cat’s out of the bag and the truth is on the table that you never did love God, you only did love yourself…

…the Biblical test case for love of God, in other words, is love of neighbor. And you think, ‘Okay. Alright.’

But the Biblical test case for love of neighbor is love of enemy.

We love God to the extent that we love [our enemy.]”

A few closing thoughts:

I don’t know exactly how to conclude this because some of this stuff isn’t particularly fun for me to think about– mostly because I know how much transformation needs to happen in me. I know the ugly thoughts and actions of which I’m capable.

Sometimes they stay inside and sometimes they come out–you know, those moments that make you wonder what God ever saw in you, that caused Him to pursue you, or any of us. He loves us. So mysteriously, lavishly, relentlessly.

I guess I have to conclude that it’s his nature. The fact that He is love.

I’m thankful for a patient and gracious King who doesn’t stoop to my ways of dealing with people–the One who continues to show me what love actually looks like in the flesh, the One who embodied perfect love and, asks us to the same, that we may be children, who are like our Father in Heaven.


Will you teach us how to love?
To see the things you see
Walk the road you walked
Feel the pain that you feel…

-Jars of Clay

“I Am Not Mafia!”

Last night after the singing, we did the usual hanging out. Actually, lest someone in my youth group accuse me of dishonesty, I was not actually there for the singing part but instead listened to someone else singing–the Shalom Quartet. They were fantastic as usual, with a few songs that I had not yet heard them sing. Hats off to you guys: Willard, Eldo, Lyle, and John. I enjoyed it a lot and I feel fortunate to have experienced another one of your concerts while I was here on vacation.

My youth group is quite different than it was a year ago. As a rule it is quite a bit younger than it was. Cedar Crest youth group is morphing and it feels strange not to have experienced the actual morphing, but simply to jump into the midst of the “morphed” occasionally. It was really good to hang out with my youth group again and one of the things we did last night was to engage in a game of mafia.

I was the “narrator” most of the time and it was fun to observe and play the game. For those who have never played, basically the game consists of several “mafia” mixed in amongst the “townspeople.” The point of the game is for the townspeople to try to eliminate the mafia by figuring out who they are. And for the mafia to eliminate enough townspeople before the townspeople figure out who are in the mafia. That is a fairly short explanation of the game.

As the townspeople try to figure out who is part of the mafia, people are forced to defend themselves, mafia or not, and try to convince everyone else that they are not mafia so they won’t be voted out. Some of the kids hadn’t played before so the first round was pretty low key and a little boring. As people got into it, the ensuing rounds were very animated as the group became more adamant in their accusations and rebuttals.

One of the things you have to do when you are accused of being mafia, is act as normal as possible. You can’t act to defensive but you do have to be  forceful enough that people will believe you. It’s a fine line–especially if you have something to hide.

It was a lot of fun to watch, but after I left I thought of a fairly interesting application to church life. I don’t know about the rest of you, but sometimes I try to put up a front. In church, I often feel the pressure to conform and say and do what will get approval from other people. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all just sitting in a circle saying and doing things that try to convince the others in church, “I am NOT mafia!”

People are struggling with things. Yet, we all hate to look weak. We think it doesn’t look cool to those around us. We’d hate to look stupid. Yet somehow when someone bares their soul, very few of us start throwing stones. Seldom do we admire someone less when they share an issue they are facing. In fact, I usually admire them more, but somehow, rarely is the connection made between head and heart.

The masks we wear create a mysteriousness and a lack of transparency that really shouldn’t be present in the church. That said, it is really hard to do that because everyone has expectations of what we should be. I think when we try so hard to please others it is really hard to be the person God designed us to be. I think this is the first key to the removal of this haze.

It’s something that I have been learning to do differently– slowly. God doesn’t want me to be someone I am not just to please others. And yet, sometimes, people feel so much more real than God is, and it seems like pleasing them is more important. In the end though, they are not the ones that made me. It seems like I forget this so often.

I also have to remember that there is no way I can please everyone. It is most important that I please God by being the person He wants me to be. The best way to do this is to spend time with Him–a lot of time. That’s the way He can best tell me about His plans for me.

Please join me as I make this transition. Don’t let people try to make you something you are not. Their input into your life is valuable but don’t don’t value it over God’s input. Eventually, a life of trying to please people will run you ragged. People often misunderstand what God’s purpose is for your life. Spend tons of time with God so He can tell you the things for which He designed you. And while you’re at it, enjoy taking cues from the One Who made you for  a specific purpose and also knows what is best for you.