Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Fate Worse than Death

Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves. (Luke 17.1-3)

Howling for Help

In the US, 2011 opened with a week of sorrows that went from lamentable to tragic to horrifying. On Monday, the 112th Congress convened, with Republicans assuming leadership in the House of Representatives. The new majority swiftly dashed any hope it would comport itself in a manner befitting gracious victors by pegging repeal of healthcare reform as its first order of business. The bile that poisoned the last Congress and 2010 elections will spill into this session, it seems. The second go-‘round is all the more nauseating since it’s basically a juvenile stunt. The lower house’s bloviating and bluster won’t help the repeal clear Senate approval and Presidential veto hurdles, and those who concocted the scheme—gussied up as a “symbolic gesture”—know it. What they don’t get, what they’ve never got, however, is shelving healthcare to show contempt for the opposition reveals utter contempt for poor children. Tramping over them to kick the governing party’s shins is a sad, sorry sight indeed.

Contempt for children—and the fate befalling a society that abides it—became the week’s theme. On Wednesday, Bill Zeller, a 27-year-old doctoral student at Princeton who dazzled the world with his Web programming genius, killed himself. He left a 4,000-word note explaining what drove him to choose death over life. If you’ve not yet read the letter, which has been widely published, you must. (Honoring his request that it be presented entirely intact, you can find it here.) It’s one of the most painful accounts I’ve ever read, as Zeller relives unrelenting torment in the clutches of childhood abuse. Paragraph after paragraph documents symptoms and behaviors howling for help—all of them ignored or answered with contempt. At one point, he describes feeling an evil within compelling him to kill. Fear that he might take another’s life is the main reason for ending his. And while we tried to reconcile Zeller’s humanity with the fiendish inhumanity he endured, we had no idea 2400 miles away another young man was losing his battle with similar compulsions.

With little about his past available at present, we can’t say whether childhood abuse factors into the mental storm that descended on Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old would-be assassin of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Yet this child—also adept at the computer keys—strung the Web with howls for help. Ten days ago, his MySpace page read, “I’m searching. Today! With every concern, my shot is now ready for aim. The hunt, a mighty thought of mine.” If anyone heard him, if anyone spotted madness in his youtube ramblings, no one cared about quelling his troubles. Media coverage of the murders he committed, including that of a nine-year-old girl, categorized Loughner as an oddball whose cryptic cries didn’t merit notice. Statements from far and wide reviled his actions, and rightly so. But it was startling how many explicitly called for him to be held in public contempt. The hideousness of his crime has masked the horror of his existence. There will be no help for Jared Lee Loughner.

The Lingering Question

Cases like Zeller’s and Loughner’s—as well as untold others, where contempt for innocence breeds horrific tragedy—inevitably raise the lingering question: how do we prevent these things from happening? The wisdom we’re searching for will never be found, though, because we’ll never be that wise. Our limited capacity should lead us to seek divine wisdom, which hides in plain sight in Luke 17, where Jesus candidly addresses this. But since His answer isn’t the one we’re looking for, we resist it. He says there is no solution to eradicate the abuse of innocents. “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come,” He explains. (v1) Forces that pervert politicians’ compassion, warp predators’ minds, and blunt attentiveness to pleas for help cannot be destroyed. They feed on deadly desires for power and profit. They’re seductively shortsighted and irrational, making easy prey of anyone vexed by fears of impermanence and insignificance. We don’t want to believe this, despite knowing it’s true.

The lingering question asks the wrong question. Jesus puts another question to us instead: are you watching yourselves? Are you taking every precaution against contempt for those liable to stumble? Are you serving your interests with no concern for theirs? Are you unwittingly abetting forces that prey on the weak and defenseless? “Woe to anyone through whom they come,” Jesus warns. “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” (v1-3) The answer isn’t prevention. It’s accountability. Jesus calls each of us to lives of vigilance that encompasses everything we can possibly do to strengthen the weak ones in our lives, to defend the powerless, and to help straighten the paths of those who’ve lost their way. Implicit in His warning that we not cause anyone to stumble is His mandate that we take them in our arms to steady their balance and secure their steps.

Under the Sea

The sea is never friendly when mentioned in Scripture—or, for that matter, any ancient text. It’s a mysterious, unforgiving entity that deceives the eye with a glistening surface that conceals riptides and squalls. Dangers inexplicably, suddenly arise at sea and it swallows everyone who falls into its depths, never to return. In many ways, the sea is to Jesus’s time what outer space is to ours. For all they know about it, they’re aware how little they actually understand it. So when Jesus tells the disciples causing an innocent to stumble is worse than being thrown into the sea with millstones tied to their necks, He describes a fate worse than inescapable death. Then, He takes a sharp turn to discuss forgiveness. “If someone sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them,” He says. (v3) All of it together—accountability for others, courage to confront those who wrong us, and grace to forgive them when they repent—overwhelms the disciples. But their response in verse 5 couldn’t be more perfect: “Increase our faith!”

Fulfilling our duties to protect innocents, rebuke wrongdoers, and forgive them when asked—regardless if they change their ways—is beyond our means. That’s why there’s no political argument or social uprising strong enough to defeat evil desires. Faith, the irrevocable belief that obedience to Christ’s commands has the power to change the world, is our only hope. It drives us to exceed what’s reasonable to achieve the impossible. We will never control the forces beyond our control. Yet by faith, we can keep those around us—and us—from buckling to evil. One shudders to imagine the millstones and suffocating shame worn by those who contemptuously tuned out Bill Zeller and Jared Lee Loughner’s howls for help. In a week marked by death, we’ve witnessed a fate worse than death. Yes, Lord, please increase our faith!

Contempt and indifference for those at risk of stumbling will end in agony that surpasses death by drowning.


claire said...

Thank you, Tim, for connecting the dots between those events. Thank you for reminding us that we need to watch ourselves.
The world is in such a need of prayers that all of us retired folks have worked to do till we die and beyond...
Blessings, ami Tim. This is a great piece.

PS: I have been away on Christmas vacation with our children and grandchildren. A wonderful time, which was not mine as much as usual. It feels good to be back here :-)

Tim said...

Claire, this is actually the third draft of a post that began with the healthcare repeal, and then included Bill Zeller, and then the Tucson murders. My heart grew heavier by the hour, it seemed, as the basic error we've made in caring for those weaker than us grew more apparent.

I'm so grateful for your response, as I've been at writing this all night, never sure I was even slightly clear or doing the topic justice. I'm still not at ease with it, but you get me much closer to comfortability. Thank you!

While you've been on holiday, I've been in the deep work trenches and not had any time to visit with you and so many other treasured friends. This will soon change (thank God) and I so look forward to feeling good to be back as well!

Blessings--and Happy New Year!

Philomena Ewing said...

I have been following the events from the UK here and am appalled at the apparent link between the killing of these people at the shopping mall and the apparent political carrots that amy have been implicated too. The abuse situation no doubt will sadly be repeated as there are so many in the same position and I feel sick at the horrors we humans inflict on one another. Our society is sick at heart and I just pray for all the good people who work their guts out at the messy end of life who have to deal with the damaged people at all ends of the spectrum.
Thanks for writing about this Tim.

Philomena Ewing said...

One other thing this week is the assassination in Pakistan of a moderate reaonable man who had the courage to speak out against unreasonable laws. The fact that so many came out to applaud the killing sickens me.

Sherry Peyton said...

Oh Tim, you speak so powerfully about the lessons we MUST learn or we will forever be mired in this violence. Thank you for this. I am so unspeakably sad and angry and feel helpless in this pit of inequity. Somehow, someway we must stop the violence, and start addressing the evils that beset this world. Until we do, we will continue to lament these tragedies.

Tim said...

Phil, your comment about upholding those "who work their guts out at the messy end of life"--so well-put--touches on a point our pastor made in this morning's sermon on the Baptism of the Lord. Remarking on John's reluctance to baptize Jesus, she paraphrased His response as "Let's just do this," after which Matthew says, "John consented." The baptism scenario is all about partnership, she said: our partnering with God to do what we could never do alone; God's joining with us to accomplish what must be done.

All the ideals that drive us to work our guts out at the messy end of life--justice, peace, compassion, and right-relationship with God and one another--are too lofty for our short arms. But faith, evidenced in our prayers, thoughts, words, and behaviors, lifts us well within their reach.

We are not alone in this battle. We cannot be dissuaded nor can be deterred because faith anchors our confidence we will not be defeated. Though the times sicken us, we must not forget they are times. They can and will be changed by faith. And even as I write this a scripture springs to mind:

From the west, people will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun [i.e., the eastern horizon], they will revere his glory. When enemies come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD will put them to flight. (Isaiah 59.19)

First the flood, then the flight. We are cresting toward the moment when God's Spirit must intervene. We can't release our faith in this promise of world- and times-changing partnership!

Sorry for the run-on, but your comment stirs me all the more, reminding me our commitment runs on both axes--vertically with God and horizontally in prayerful support for one another.

Thank you!

Blessings always,

PS: Yes, the assassination of Salam Taseer this week is another sign of the times--contempt and religious hatred are global illnesses. We may never cure these diseases, but we can end their epidemics.

Tim said...

Somehow, someway we must stop the violence, and start addressing the evils that beset this world. Until we do, we will continue to lament these tragedies.

How true, Sherry! Our chronic indifference to innocents has put us in the maddening center of this syndrome, where we face an impossible chicken-egg dilemma. Has our comfort with violence created a state of emergency that leaves us no time and tools to combat the evil at its core? It seems so. Or has our comfort with evil stripped us of time and tools to combat the violence evil produces? It seems so.

The only light I can find in this dark eddy--and it's the faintest of glimmers at present--is our certainty that, in the end, our God governs all things. Human history runs rampant with massive failures that send us back to school to relearn lessons we forgot. The longer we ignore what God is saying to us, the louder God will speak until God has our undivided attention. It's the most horrible way to learn, yet unfortunately our habitual memory lapses erase that lesson as well.

Though I hate saying this, it's very possible our reeducation has just begun; these may be the early lessons in a grueling course that will test our fortitude and faith with mounting rigor. To push the metaphor to emphatic overkill, I pray with you and every Spirit-led believer that our world can forsake its romance with selfish stupidity and quickly become a quick study in the lessons we must remaster to control our violence and contain the evil forces convincing us we know it all.

Clearly, a new semester has begun. How long it lasts and how hard it gets depends solely on our willingness to hear and heed God's instruction. How like God to grant us freedom to learn at our own pace. And how like us to drag out the lessons until it feels like we'll never reach their end!

And without faith that perceives what we refuse to understand, we have no hope we'll ever successfully reverse this trend. But with faith, increased faith, we can open our minds and hearts to God's voice, trusting what we don't understand and acting on the truths we've already been taught.

God grant us an increase of faith to learn and the bold humility to act on it.

Many thanks and blessings for your comment, Sherry.

Peace soon,