Thursday, April 23, 2009

Easter Redux

Day before Easter, I joined friends for coffee at a different location. Our favorite spot had caved to economic pressures. Of course, no new choice would suffice—but we had to find another place, or just stop getting together for coffee.

The preference was for a locally-owned business, so the locals chose the new venue, and I, the lone commuter to the affair, followed mapquest to my destination. The selection was a place I had heard of before, but somehow I had missed one detail: this tiny coffee shop was an add-on to a big-box-leftover now converted to something labeled “Casino.”

I pulled into the parking lot with misgivings. After all, hadn’t I spent countless hours researching records, policy, precedents, and academics’ expert opinions in opposition to the establishment of just that very type of place in my own town years ago? I didn’t think my opinion of having such a place in my town had changed, so why did having it in the next town make things any better?

But my friends were inside. I reluctantly parked the car, walked in the café door and got in line to order my mocha. While chatting with the woman behind the counter, I casually asked how she liked being a tenant in a commercial center that, other than her small shop, was all casino.

She was quick to correct me: “Oh, no! That’s not a casino; that’s a card room.”

Hmm. Same rhetoric we encountered when we fought the big-box “card room” slated to open in our town. And, funny, that’s not what the big, red sign across the front of the building said. I thought I read a sign saying “casino.”

“We love having them as neighbors. They keep everything clean. They have great security. They’re very nice.”

True, as I had pulled into the full parking lot that Saturday morning—wondering how many of the parked cars were just there to pick up coffee—there was a woman diligently sweeping the parking lot and sidewalks.

How very nice.

The little cash register in my mind went off at about that time. I got to thinking about business realities. The price for the mocha, soon paid, would go into the till, and in the cut and dried reality of the business world, would eventually be split into proportions to cover costs for ingredients and labor, profit for the owners, and—yes, eventually—let’s see…there would be overhead costs for items such as rent. So my coffee purchase, in its infinitesimally small way, would go to support the landowner who benefited, mostly, from the revenue generated by the gigantic—albeit nice—business concern next door.

It puzzled me, knowing that our group usually strove to support local businesses owned by Christians, to think that this coffee house was another such establishment. I suppose, in this world of multifaceted entities, it is near-impossible to keep from supporting causes diametrically opposed to one’s convictions. I didn’t know for sure the orientation of these business owners, but assumed from the history of our group that they would share that common heritage. Considering the long-term negative social impact of establishments like this “nice” one next door, I couldn’t help feeling bothered that no one in our group seemed disturbed that we were sitting in a café right next to a casino.

Did everyone but me miss that fact? How could they? Each one of us had to walk through a packed parking lot to be second or third in line at a tiny coffee place. Did this not bother anyone? Was I just really out of orbit thinking about this?

Funny, but this very theme had been resonating in my mind following another such little discovery. I had just renewed an online friendship with another homeschooling mom. I had always been impressed with her incisive observations, and—wanting to keep reading about these—had asked her if she blogged. She not only shared the blog’s location but sent along some YouTube links of her husband’s work.

This man—call him brave or call him crazy—is one of those people not intimidated over sharing his faith on street corners. With a bull horn. I’ve always been ambivalent about such people. I’m glad for their conviction and their willingness to care enough about other people to reach them wherever they may be found. On the other hand, I wonder how effective such an approach ultimately is.

Regardless of my thoughts on this, I opened some of those links to see him and his associates in action, speaking at Mardi Gras, Super Bowls, and other crowded venues. The first link I opened happened to be an encounter in front of an abortion center. The jist of the dialog turned out to be heckling between the speaker and an employee, evidently on break. The odd thing was that the employee, while in no uncertain terms telling the intruder to cease his tirade, insisted that she, too, was a Christian.

Wait. A Christian? Working in an abortion clinic? Is this yet another episode of “It’s just my job”?

The point of the clip was that the reason we still have such strongly-contested social harms is not the apathy of the general public, but hypocritical buy-in by people whose very faith would lead others to believe they were in opposition to the issue—like Christians who find no problem being employed by abortion clinics.

Christians linked to abortion clinics? Wait! I just read something else hinting of that same scenario. Granted, it was linked to a local story, a tragedy in fact. These are wonderful people. This is a great loss. That it would not be true would be a vicious thing for the one suggesting the connection. But if it were true, it would support my blogger friend’s contention.

Of course, anything on the internet has to be checked out these days! So, I did—went to Snopes, the veritable receptacle of the gospel truth (well, in a secular sense, of course). Disappointment: they were noncommittal. Not to be outdone, I went to another source and found follow-up documentation of at least one part of the puzzle. While one little piece of the story doesn't necessarily mean it might just be true, a member of what seems to be a Christian-oriented family may turn out to be a business partner in a large abortion concern.

Perhaps this possibility doesn’t bother anyone any more. But it bothers me. Yet, if my finger points to that, it needs to point to me, too. What may be a trivial four bucks tossed on a counter on a happy-go-lucky Saturday may link me to behavior no different than business operations that profit from practices that harm others.

So, my Saturday puzzling morphed into my Sunday Resurrection-Day celebration. My mind couldn’t help juxtaposing the example of One who was willing to lay down His preferences—not to mention His rights—for people such as us, people who pray nice prayers seeking God’s favor in all we do. We want things “nice”—that we may be healed from our everyday sicknesses, saved from financial problems, excused from difficulties. We constantly see God as our Provider—which is Biblical—but we want the provisions before we feel the pain of lack. We respect God as our Savior, but we plead for Him to save us before we feel the pressure of our need to be saved. We want God to provide the good, but we want Him to do it before we ever feel the misery of not having that good.

And so our prayers are for our nice life, our nice things, our nice wishes for our friends and family. Yet, the miracle-worker God is no Savior, Provider, or Healer to those who have no need. A nice life provides no compelling reason to need a God.

When we “go along to get along,” we pray only “nice” prayers. Those are the prayers that will never see desperate men decide they no longer need to gamble. Those are prayers that will never result in abortion clinics being seen for what they really are. Those are not even prayers that will open blind eyes or unstop deaf ears.

It is only when we are faced with the desperate, the agonizing, the impossible, that we truly see what God can do.

Nice prayers don’t have resurrection power.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What's so good about Good Friday?

Twenty-two hours ago—Facebook is good for those kinds of details—Sara posted a plea: “Please pray for Captain Richard Phillips and those who are trying to rescue him from pirates off the coast of Somalia.” Her heartfelt note included a link, helpful for uninformed people like me who are not reckoned with the average American news junkie.

Despite having Drudge, our homepage, blaring out constant updates, I had been avoiding exposure to the drama’s details. However, who could refuse Sara’s request? So I took a look to see what I should be praying about.

Pirates do not amuse me. Even at the height of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” craze, I was not amused. I never even took a look—though a culture infused with pirate-mania meant I could never fully escape awareness. In real life, pirates are not entertaining in the least. They are as serious as dead meat.

To read through the myriad details of this week’s crisis-in-real-life, there is no Jack Sparrow levity to lighten the load of negotiators or stategists. Frankly, I scanned through articles, avoiding the many quotes of persons “not authorized to talk.” The too-even-handed coverage giving dignity to lawless “spokespersons” discussing the needs of their “colleagues” is annoying.

One thing that captured my heart, though, was the mention of the captain of the ship, himself. Captain Richard Phillips, after ordering his crew to lock themselves in a safe room to avoid initial contact with the trespassing pirates, chose to surrender himself to the attackers to safeguard his crew. Taking their hostage with them, the Somali pirates fled to a lifeboat.

“That is what he would do. It's just who he is,” maintained his sister-in-law. It was a matter of character.

The ship itself echoed that character. Reports of the crisis note that it is unusual to find an American ship with an American crew in these waters—noting this was the first pirate attack on such an American vessel in countless years. Unusual it might be, until one realizes the purpose of the vessel: to carry food to malnourished people in the very country of the pirates’ origin.

Reading all this news on the eve of a significant Holy Week event, I couldn’t help thinking of parallels: the captain of his ship offering himself up to captors, his life held in exchange for ransom. The willingness of one man to substitute his life for that of others. The ship itself, designed to help the very people who turn against its commander.

Although I have been raised in a Christian home, I never understood—could never receive the full impact of realizing—the concept of a substitutionary death like the one held in annual remembrance on Good Friday. “Oh, look how Jesus Christ suffered,” church people would say, as if the misery of suffering itself would cause a change in me. While I am sorry that others suffer—especially when it is represented as if they have to suffer—I can’t seem to understand how that should somehow change my heart condition.

It was only when I could see the reason for a substitution—that that death should have been mine—that I could understand the importance of what happened that particular Friday two millennia ago. To see that there is a God who owns, by virtue of His creation, this world and all in it (which includes me), allows me to understand that the Creator has vested rights for organizing His creation in the way He sees fit. When His order is violated, justice expects payment. This Creator clearly stated that those who violate His order will die. Along with everyone else who has ever made a mistake, that includes me.

But God never intended it to end that way. He had a plan: to substitute a perfect being for me—for you, for “whosoever will”—so that the death I was sentenced to is not suffered by me, but by that other Person. For my own violations, I was being held for ransom, but He paid the price. It is not the horribleness of any suffering that changes my heart, but the intense gratitude for knowing that someone cared enough for me to do that—and was qualified to do so—that makes the difference.

While I pray earnestly for the voluntary captive in today’s shipping crisis, it reminds me of its coincidental placement on the schedule of another world: the time when the One who offered Himself to pay a ransom did so, that I might continue to live.

How can such miserable occurrences as these be called “good”? Perhaps the Somali pirate crisis for Captain Richard Phillips will never be called good—although I fervently hope he emerges a hero, and one who lives to see that recognition—but I know that the world’s captive sinners ransomed by Christ’s substitutionary death can now understand that Good Friday is good because One Man was willing to offer Himself to take the place of others who should have died.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Not Ready To Fall Yet

Sometimes, minding one’s business and going one’s own way become mind-numbingly predictable. The ennui brings on the thought that, maybe, that’s not what life is supposed to be all about. Shouldn’t there be some quest to make a difference, to rub shoulders with the world and leave a mark that shows how this is a better place owing to the fact that not only did I pass through, but I did something about it while I was here?

That was the nagging feeling that prompted me to start this blog in the first place: isn’t there something more that I should be doing with my life? I took that little nugget of annoyance as a prompt, and passed the challenge along to family: what are we going to do with our lives?

Answers to that question, of course, can be rather messy. Changing course has all sorts of auxiliary impacts. Some of them are not entirely risk-free. So the predictable response in the face of risk is to do nothing! But the clock is ticking away, demanding an answer, calling me back to face that question. With nothing to force the answer, however, I become stagnant in a nice eddy in some backwater lagoon.

In the mail a while back, I received one of those heart-wrenching pleas for financial assistance. This particular letter solicited donations for orphans trapped in the pathetic plight of the nation with the world’s highest inflation rate—Zimbabwe, which, according to the BBC last year, saw an inflation rate of over 8000%, making our own financial troubles a mere blip on the radar. Of course, I wanted to send something, anything, everything to these children who must be hurting so much. Here were people who were victims of someone forcing the questions of life: their lives had to change, and they had neither voice in the plan or the result of it.

And then, my husband enlightened me on what was happening in Zimbabwe. A little history lesson laid out the panoply of events that moved the nation from “Africa’s breadbasket” to poverty’s devastation. If a nation has brought this misfortune upon itself, should we really deprive ourselves to give a helping hand that might turn further against the people it is meant to help? No sense providing something that can be turned into further fuel for the fire.

That same scenario and doubt play themselves out when I look and see what can be done to make a difference on our own street corners—although, certainly, in much less dire situations. Our family drives somewhere—out for a bite to eat, or a visit to a different part of town—and invariably, a stranger is there with a story of the miserableness of his life and a need which he is asking us to fix with a handout. Learning from years of practical experience, my husband has often seen these “donations” end up being funds to continue supporting a drug or drinking problem that started the whole mess.

Remembering such scenarios puts a chill on taking compassionate action: what if the misfortune is the victim’s own fault? Should we perpetuate such mistakes? How compassionate is compassion that only helps to buy more misery?

And so, lacking answers, I do nothing.

It is a strange thing that, at this same time, I struggle so with wondering what I can do to advance God’s kingdom, be of use to Him. This very blog was started with the question: what should I do with my life? The sanest answers seem to be the safest ones, but they are not the most gratifying ones. The answers that seem most real are the ones that serve to make a difference. But making a difference must, by definition, be the most risky course of action.

My husband spends a lot of time considering how to effectively make a difference. In the case of the occasional homeless person asking for “some change” for a cup of coffee or the “stranded motorist” asking for a dollar for enough fuel to make it home, he has answers that go right to the point of need. Hungry? Let’s go to the sandwich shop; I’ll buy you lunch. Out of gas? Bring your gas can to the station; I’ll spring for a gallon for your car.

Those are immediate answers for immediate needs. A moment’s risk at a sandwich shop makes a difference in one stomach for one meal. What about the rest of life? How do you make a difference there? It really comes down to facing up to taking risk—choosing a course of action that not only will make a difference for someone else’s immediate moment, but that will also place us on a path that will be anything but predictable, nice, orderly and in our control.

Some have compared this to falling: when you slip, the best way to fall is to just let go and fall. Holding on, being tense, clutching for help sometimes makes the fall only worse. When you let go, decide to let yourself go to the risk of falling, it somehow buoys you up so you don’t have to fear taking the risk. Only then can the possibilities really open up and flow to you.

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