For the Least of These

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40 (NIV)

Last summer, I was teaching at a creative writing camp for youth. Yes, for writers it is like Disneyland, thanks for asking. One day, I was in charge of the group that would walk to the Botanic Gardens and spend the day gaining inspiration from the amazing displays of art (both natural and manmade). I set out with 13 teenagers at 9 AM. Half a block to Colfax. Cross without any of the girls getting hit by a car. Past a corner convenience store.

As we passed the little local shop, a woman appeared, kindly asking for help. I say appeared because she wasn’t lurking around the store, she hadn’t been sitting on the sidewalk. We were walking. Suddenly she was there.

“Are you with all of those kids?” she asks.

“Why do you ask?” I’m cautious. I’m responsible for their safety, and I can’t let them get too far ahead. They don’t know where they’re going.

“Could any of you spare a little food?”

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to not be cynical about all of those corner beggars that are becoming more and more prevalent. I understand times are hard, but you always hear those stories of people making a great living by asking for freebies. This woman wasn’t like that. She seemed a little distressed. My group kept walking. They were almost to the next block.

“I’m sorry ma’am. I can’t ask these kids to give up their lunch. We have some place to be in a certain amount of time. I’m sorry.”

I walked away, my backpack weighed down by a box of granola bars and my own lunch. Why didn’t I give her my sandwich? Or at least half? Why didn’t I give her my granola bar? I might have been a little hungrier that day, but I had two credit cards in my wallet. I could have purchased lunch at a cafe in the gardens. Yet, I walked away.

Jesus said that the most important thing is to love God with all your heart, soul, body, and mind. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor. At that moment in time, this poor woman was my neighbor. Literally. She was standing beside me.

What’s my problem?

I was afraid. I was working in a non-church situation with non-churched kids. I was worried about spending money. I was worried about having blood-sugar issues. I was scared of making a sacrifice that I didn’t plan on making. Every comment I’ve ever made about needing to take care of the poor was rendered useless in that one moment. Oh me of little faith. Me of little action.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus talks about taking care of the poor, giving them the coat off your back, giving them a place to sleep when it’s cold and rainy, filling their tummies for a day. I couldn’t even let go of a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That woman most likely didn’t starve to death.She probably doesn’t remember me. The saddest bit of all, though, is that I had a chance to be Jesus to her. I had a chance to be God’s answer to her prayers for just a bite to eat. She also could have been a lazy freeloader. She may have been an angel. But it isn’t my responsibility to choose who I serve and who I don’t. It’s my responsibility to let my words, and actions, and choices point every person I encounter toward the throne of God.

We never know when God is going to drop us into a moment where we have only a nanosecond to decide and act. It’s easy to give sacrificially when it’s on our terms. But when it comes out of nowhere, my natural reaction is the deer-in-the-headlights look and a  “no, thank you.”

My lunch didn’t taste so good that day. Neither did my humble pie.

Telling Stories

“I hate reading.” That’s what I hear from my English students on a regular basis. The older the literature, the louder the complaints. The more Shakespeare, the more tears. And if my students were to read this blog entry, they would chastise me for my obscene sentence fragments and loudly protest my ability to put my own instruction into action. Hypocrite.
I can’t be too critical of my students, however, because their gripes and complaints are no different than my own when I was in high school. I didn’t hate reading per se, but I found no value in such works as Catcher in the Rye or The Scarlet Letter. I thought Holden Caulfield was a jerk and just needed to have the living snot beat out of him. (He is a jerk, but he needs the grace and restoration of a loving God more than anything else). I thought Hester Prynne was trashy and deserved her punishment. (Trashy was a bit extreme, but I failed to hate Dimmesdale and his spinelessness, and I had absolutely no sympathy for Chillingworth in all his misery.)
I am not lost on the irony that I now teach these works to disgruntled teens. I have a completely different view on the so-called classics, and not because I’m a teacher. My opinion has changed regarding these stories and these characters because I have much more life experience that I bring to the table when interacting with a novel. They say that reading literature helps provide us with life experience. They also say that we can better understand/interpret literature if we have a greater accumulation of life experience. Hey, Chicken, meet Egg. Feel free to argue over who came first.In the fray of complaining, I think we lose sight of mankind’s innate need to tell stories. We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years to entertain, educate, inform, etc. Culturally, we seem to enjoy watching stories more than reading them, but the number of movies being made from books tells me that written stories still matter.

Why is it that stories are so important to us?

For starters, because God is a storyteller. When Job finally gives in to peer pressure and complains to God about all of his suffering, God shows up and tells Job the story of the universe. Joseph learns his own life story from God through dreams. When Moses talks to God via the burning bush, God tells the story of rescue and redemption. Granted, the event had yet to take place, but a story is still a story. Jesus frequently told stories, or parables, to help communicate his point. I love the fact that the disciples were often confused by Jesus’ parables and needed him to explain his purposes. Whether it’s prophetic, historical, scientific, or symbolic, we see example after example of God telling stories. In creative writing classes, professors and writers teach that the best stories include characters who have motivations/desires, they make choices to get what they want, they’re provided an opportunity to change, and then have to deal with the consequences or fallout. Starting with Adam and Eve, the Bible tells story after story following this pattern of motivation-choice-change. The apostle Paul even writes that God is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). God is writing our story, and in writing our story he is revealing his own story of grace and redemption.

Genesis also tells us that we are made in God’s image. So if God is a storyteller, we are created to be storytellers. I had a guy once tell me that I was a sinner because I read fiction. Fiction stories, he claimed, were synonymous with lies because they were fabricated and made up. I asked him how he felt about Jesus making up stories to prove a point. He claimed that Jesus had the God-given right to do what he wanted and we weren’t holy enough to do it on our own. I thought about asking him if he drank special kool-aid but I refrained. That guy’s stance can’t be further from the Biblical command to live like Jesus.

This idea of God being a storyteller strikes me as I reflect on my own view of literature over the course of my life. My attitude towards literature was very much like my attitude towards people. My heart was hard and sympathetic. I had sharp edges and, unbeknownst to me at the time, I cut a lot of people. God’s story for me was one of grace and redemption, though, and I have had an opportunity to reconcile with almost everyone that I had burned my bridge with in high school.

I don’t hate classic literature anymore. I’d like to think I don’t have quite as much disdain for people either. Looking back, I can see God’s handiwork designing my faith and my life.

What does your story look like? If you’ve placed Jesus at the center of your life, have you seen your motivations change over time? Have you seen your story begin to unfold? The answers to these questions could be thought provoking and challenging. But then again, isn’t that what a good story should accomplish?

The Superhero Conundrum

Kids love superheroes. Whether it’s the more traditional, old-school comic hero like Superman or Batman, or a character from the recently popular X-Men and the Avengers, as children we love to pick our favorites, play dress up, and save the world from the grips of evil. (Side note to all comic aficionados: I realize the latest Marvel comics-made-movies go back to the sixties, but I don’t remember anything but Superman, Batman, and Hulk undies being available when I was a kid. It just seems that superman paraphernalia has historically been more available than Iron Man or Captain America. No slight intended!)

Even as an adult, I love the popularity of the comic book heroes and the all the new movies. Color me excited that The Avengers comes out on DVD next week. If you aren’t familiar with the story line, a group of superheroes are gathered together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to fight Loki, Thor’s adopted evil alien brother. I wonder how many people out there find themselves identifying with any of the characters–good or evil–as they watch the story unfold. I seem to gravitate towards Captain America and Iron Man, which, if you’ve seen the movie, is ironic to say the least.

I love technology. The gadgets and the Iron Man suit are beyond cool. As long as I’m a teacher, I’ll never have the resources of Tony Stark. And I don’t like free falling. I could never be Iron Man. But that suit is stinking awesome! Stark is a jerk, but he’s hilarious. He’s magnetic. He’s hip. He’s cool. And I would never be friends with him in real life.

Because I’m too much like Captain America.

I understand how arrogant and self-serving that statement may seem. When I was getting smashed into lockers in high school, or getting pantsed during passing period in junior high, I would have given anything to have that same magic juice injected into my body so I could become like Captain America. (I’m sure there’s a lesson about steroids in there somewhere, but that could present the problem of taking the story out of context.) I was Steve Rogers–small, scrawny, not going anywhere important like my Air-Force-Academy-bound older brother.  I was picked on by guys like Tony Stark. So it’s almost laughable that I’m drawn to these two characters and their dysfunctional relationship.

And why wouldn’t Captain America and Iron Man be as compatible as fire and gasoline? Steve Rogers is the stereotypical World War II era American: patriotic, respectful of authority, loyal, moral, etc. Tony Stark, on the other hand, is independent; he rejects authority, struggles with commitment, and cares more about his own well-being than the well-being of his country. The juxtaposition of these two characters provides a stark (sorry for the pun) picture of our American cultural journey over the past 70 years. As a greater culture, we question authority–especially our parents and our educators. We have a hard time committing to relationships because the statistics show that we only have a 50% chance of those relationships lasting over the long haul. We aren’t patriotic about our country because what has our country done for us lately? We’re wounded, and we’re skeptical. And Captain America wants to punch us in the face.

When all is said and done, Captain America and Iron Man get over their differences and work together to save the world. I think that their relationship can be a good example of how generations can bicker within the church. I’ve had the “Captain America” Christians tell me that I live in sin because of my affinity for heavy metal music. I’ve heard both “Captain America” Christians and “Iron Man” Christians complain about church music–it’s either too loud or too old-fashioned.

Yet, at the center of all the noise, God sits quietly, waiting for us to turn to him and worship him. Through the Holy Spirit God prompts us to serve him and to love our neighbors. How effective can we be if we are stuck in our own superhero suit, isolated and alone? Like the Avengers, if we try to make our own voice the loudest and the smartest, we’re nothing but a bunch of misfit freak shows crashing to our own destruction. We won’t be the body. We won’t be the church that Christ has called us to be.

Iron Man has a certain bravado that drives Captain America crazy. But it’s that same bravado that allows Iron Man to risk his life to restart a blown-out engine on their super-sized flying metropolis. It’s Captain America’s loyal desire to see things through that allows him to fight off bad guys while controlling the turbine speed of the engine Iron Man is trying to restart. It’s a riveting scene that shows how successful a team can be when the individuals lay down their own issues–even their lives–for the sake of working together.

As Christians, we don’t have a critical issue forcing us to unite at all costs. Most of us aren’t dodging bullets on our way to church. We don’t disappear when we proudly proclaim our faith in front of our neighbors or on the Internet. We don’t have to worry about our children making it to their fifth birthday because of rampant disease. We are so comfortable that we make stuff up and smack an “Important!” label on it so we can feel like we are battling a cause. We argue about the style of music that best fits our likes and insult everything else. We complain about that one pastor who preaches in jeans, or has a visible tatto. Who’s at the center of all these issues? You and me. Who should be at the center of everything?

Jesus.

That’s easier said than done. But if we could stop manufacturing drama for just a little while, we might see that church isn’t about us. It isn’t what we can get out of it. It’s about how we worship God, how we can hold hands with our Captain America and Iron Man neighbors and raise our voices in one glorious song and praise God for his power, grace, and mercy. And then maybe we can even go the extra mile and give the Hulk a hug. Or maybe a new pair of pants.