Saturday, January 15, 2011

No Ordinary Time

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10.23-24)


Having been reared in a tradition that doesn't subscribe to the liturgical calendar,“Ordinary Time” always puzzled me. Even after learning what it meant, calling periods between Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and Lent-Easter-Pentecost “ordinary” seemed a bit odd. It smacked of “off-season,” as if the Church were like a resort community—sleepy and deserted between peak holidays, alive and kicking when tourists piled into it. The visual of huge sanctuaries jammed wall-to-wall one week and practically empty the next didn’t compute with someone steeped in an evangelical environment where steady growth was the norm. For us, no time was ordinary, despite our congregations also experiencing capacity crowds at Christmas and Easter. Still, I couldn’t imagine considering the interim months “ordinary;” if we were doing our job as disciples and witnesses, they should be anything but.

The missing link fell into place after my tradition’s intolerance for gay and similarly unorthodox believers proved intolerable, steering me to a welcoming community that tracked the liturgical year. Learning of the calendar’s tie to the lectionary—a daily map charting a three-year trek through the Bible—redefined “Ordinary Time” for me. It was more like “Digging Time,” a vital stretch when believers explore the depths of Scripture and uncover fresh truths in principles set in motion by events celebrated during high seasons. Ordinary Time, then, is a misnomer. Christians who avail themselves to the lectionary’s guidance find it a most extraordinary time of growth. It becomes a sort of virtual pilgrimage, as believers worldwide contemplate the same passages at the same time in a synchronized journey of faith.

One hears believers who don’t keep the calendar and lectionary dismiss them as needlessly regimented. They regard the uniformity as impersonal—anathema to forging a personal relationship with God, which suggests a more impromptu approach of being “led by the Spirit” to Scripture that holds immediate relevance to the individual. What this overlooks, though, is the Spirit’s ability to speak to each of us personally through all Scripture at all times. When you and I—and millions of others—read and pray the same texts simultaneously, living in the same world at the same time vests the readings with unparalleled personal immediacy and global relevance. While the Spirit speaks to you and me, the Spirit likewise speaks to us, the Church, as a whole. And that aspect is what makes Ordinary Time—Digging Time—far from ordinary.

A Grave and Serious Situation

In a 1940 speech to the Democratic National Convention, Eleanor Roosevelt evoked the liturgical calendar by refuting the ordinariness of time. She stood before her party to inspire them to nominate her husband for an unprecedented third term. Europe was plunged into the most brutal war in its history. Across the Pacific, Japan invaded China in a quest for empire. Meanwhile, America savored the first tastes of prosperity in more than a decade. Global instability constituted a new threat and isolationists vowed to keep the US out of war at all costs. FDR couldn’t reconcile protecting American interests with permitting Fascist regimes to run roughshod over our allies. Defending freedom under attack was a moral imperative, whether or not popular sentiment agreed. Mrs. Roosevelt challenged her party to look beyond politics and do the right thing. “We people in the United States have got to realize today that we face a grave and serious situation,” she told them. “You will have to rise above considerations which are narrow and partisan.” She concluded:

We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals. No man who is a candidate or who is President can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability, with the highest ideals, with a determination that their party shall be absolutely devoted to the good of the nation as a whole and to doing what this country can do to bring the world to a safer and happier condition.

Historians cite her speech as the convention’s turning point, when the “wisdom” of isolationism was exposed as callous indifference. Mrs. Roosevelt’s address stressed becoming the richest, safest nation on Earth is secondary to accepting moral leadership. Her appeal to a higher calling resonated with her party. Its re-nomination of FDR and his reelection ushered in America’s finest hour to date.

Hope and Responsibility

We enter Ordinary Time keenly cognizant this is no ordinary time. Civic unrest and natural disasters trouble nations on every continent. Partisan politics, greed, and socio-religious differences fuel fires of hatred and divisiveness. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and belief have been hijacked to foment intolerance and violence. The Internet and media have become unduly influential Speakers’ Corners where the maddest among us provoke the worst in us. We’re transfixed by the sound of our voice. Our chatter chokes the atmosphere as each of us has his/her say about what’s said. In our clamor to hear and be heard, we have little time or interest in what the Spirit is speaking to us, individually and collectively.

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” Hebrews 10.23-24 urges. Hope and responsibility—it’s a message for our time. We can’t allow pessimism and cynical resignation to overtake us. Our God is faithful. Our hope is secure. Nor can we forsake our duty to encourage one another to persist in love and good works. Millions of us are marching together, in synch, across time and through Scripture. We are greater than any government, more powerful than any tyrant, and more influential than any media empire. Faith is our shield. Love is our weapon. Obedience is our strategy. The Spirit speaks. We listen and obey, for our benefit and the good of humankind. We hear and accept the higher calling. We step out of the chaos to clear a higher road that leads to harmony, compassion, and justice. There is no off-season, no intermission, no rest period. This is no ordinary time.

The transition to Ordinary Time reminds us there are millions of hopeful, responsible believers marching in synch through time and Scripture. Together, we're greater than any government, tyrant, or media empire.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. (Matthew 3.13-15)

The Human Moment

The transition back to Ordinary Time finds us gathering Advent’s lessons and reminders, neatly organizing and storing them away like treasured keepsakes. There they will be, all together, ready to take out for future reflection when time permits or urges us to do so. In the process, we happen on a few items whose beauty got lost in the season’s festivities and fatigue. We linger with them, wondering how we missed their significance at first, as they are truly beautiful and significant. They deserve a closer look so we can internalize their value before putting them away. For me, the season’s final lesson was one I nearly overlooked. Our pastor set it forth splendidly in last Sunday’s sermon on Jesus’s baptism. I had no problem getting the message. The problem was I didn’t slow down, take time, and create room for the message to get to me. It’s tugged my sleeve ever since, popping up here and there in one form or another—an echo, a wink, a knowing nod, and even an arched eyebrow or two.

The sermon focused on the human moment preceding Jesus’s baptism and the subsequent divine declaration He is God’s Son. John the Baptist has amassed a following with the incendiary proclamation his Successor will purify the people like a farmer who threshes his wheat and sets fire to the chaff. (John's obsessed with pyrotechnics. Earlier, he attacks a curious group of religious leaders, comparing them to barren trees that will be chopped down and burned.) When Jesus steps into John’s riverside inferno, He’s nothing like the flame-throwing Avenger John advertised. He simply—quietly—asks John to baptize Him. Thoroughly confused, John balks. “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” he asks. (v14) I’ll let my pastor take it from here:

It’s such a delicious line. John the Baptist, star-struck, mystified, aghast at the thought. “Wait,” you can hear under the surface. “This isn’t the way I thought this was going to unfold. I thought justice was going to come to come with fire! Wild. Fire!!” Jesus says: “Come on. Let’s do this thing. Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

Active Cooperation

John consents. The humanity of the encounter douses John's fantasy of fiery wrath sparked by divine fury. He’s suddenly aware Jesus has come to fulfill all righteousness, not to enforce it. To do that, He needs John’s cooperation. “Let it be so now,” Jesus says. It’s incumbent on John to let go his notion of what Jesus should do and get with His program. Change John seeks will come by example rather than coercion. Jesus will draw people through love—an altogether different method than John’s concept of change driven by fear. Consenting to baptize Jesus humbles John. It takes him out of himself, freeing him to forget everything he’s ranted about and wished for so he can participate in Christ’s mission in keeping with Christ’s nature. “Now,” Jesus stresses. It’s a pivotal moment for both of them. Both will leave the water transformed. Jesus will no longer be a carpenter’s Son. A supernatural manifestation will confirm His divine authority in no uncertain terms. John will no longer be Christ’s forerunner. His role will shift to Christ’s partner in launching God’s redemptive plan. The implications here are huge. And all of them hinge on John’s consent.

Asking the Unthinkable

It’s easy to grow so enraged with wrongs we suffer and witness that we formulate outlandish scenarios of divine retribution levied on the offenders. Particularly if we’ve been buffeted and bruised by familial, social, political, or religious wrongdoing (or all of the above), we envision eventualities no less spectacular and definitive than John’s fire fantasies. If we don’t explicitly say it, we silently project hope that those who abuse and oppress us will one day pay a great price for what they’ve done. Like John, we set the stage for it, don’t we? “Wait till Christ shows up,” we declare. “Boy, are they gonna be sorry! I’d be afraid, very afraid.” Then, when Jesus does step into our conflict, He’s nothing like we anticipated. We learn He’s come to forgive debts, not penalize non-payment—to fulfill righteousness, not enforce it. His entire program is built on love’s power over fear. Instead of opposing our adversaries, He imposes on us, asking the unthinkable: help Him. Our reaction mirrors John’s: “I need to be helped by You, and do You come to me?” It’s a tenderly human moment, this negotiation between Christ and us. It’s humbling to hear Christ’s appeal for our cooperation. Yet Christ’s request for our help reorients our awareness that change, not judgment, is what we really seek. Change that cannot occur without our consent.

Consent changes everything—our perceptions of Christ, our adversaries, and us. We’re no longer potential beneficiaries of divine intervention or passive witnesses to divine justice. We’re engaged participants in Christ’s mission. We abandon fear-infected fantasies fed by self-righteousness to partner with Christ in fulfilling true righteousness and launching God’s redemptive plan. The decision turns our thoughts from satisfying debts to saving debtors, from losses to gains. Our initial confusion at Christ’s request yields to consensual clarity, opening our eyes to love’s liberating power over fear. The moment we agree to help Christ is the moment our fears dissipate and our chains fall. We can balk at the request or we can accommodate it. “Let it be so now,” Jesus says. What happens after that hinges on our consent.

The moment John consents to Jesus’s request is the moment everything changes for both of them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Not Big Enough

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49.6)

Re-Inverting Intuition

Modern technology fosters a bizarre craze for tiny things. Ours is the first era in history that doesn’t equate size with power. From the day a visionary cave dweller invented the wheel until the 1980s, bigger automatically meant better. But now that we can cram our pockets, briefcases, and dashboards with all the comforts of home, “the littler, the cooler” reigns supreme. Our obsession with toy-sized gadgets has radically inverted human intuition about life. We downsize everything we can—from factories to families, from sentences to sentiments—seldom considering what we sacrifice. For one thing, the texture of today’s world can’t compare to that of my youth. When factories were filled with workers, craftsmanship brought distinction to products. Larger families turned homes into theaters and mealtimes into scenes. Before writing became texting and phrases acronyms, sentences flowed with eloquence and subtlety. And when emotions were feelings, not emoticons and meltdowns, they colored our conversations with rich hues and bright splashes.

Another thing gone missing in our love of miniaturization, I believe, is romance with thinking big. Personal technology has created a society of specialists. Our gizmos put the world in our hands. Yet very few of us use them to expand our vision. Most of us concentrate on doing what we’ve always done, just more of it quicker. Maybe that’s not a bad thing for the time-crunched VP rifling through emails on her iPhone. But if she transfers her do-a-lot-about-a-little intuition to how she perceives and explores her potential, there’s no “maybe” about it. It’s a bad thing—a terrible thing. Our worth and wonder emerge by thinking bigger. They shine brighter with broader reach. Our challenge isn’t narrowing focus to become experts in esoteric fields; it’s admitting our dreams and visions aren’t big enough for our gifts. That requires re-inverting intuition—returning to the pre-tech mindset that bigger is better, and less really means less.

Prophetic Principles

Coming off Advent, which casts Isaiah on the lines of an eminent narrator whose deep baritone scoots things along, we’re apt substitute “Jesus” for every pronoun in his prophecy. It’s a glorious idea, though not above suspicion. Given glaring discrepancies in Matthew and Luke’s accounts—each relying heavily on Isaiah—it’s not unreasonable that they retrofit their versions to echo his predictions. In fact, it’s highly likely, as Early Church theologians and authors as a whole look to Isaiah to verify Jesus’s Messianic stature. Thus, we tremble at the suggestion Isaiah isn’t written with Jesus specifically in mind, as if he literally envisions events he describes exactly as they play out. But this reduces the prophet to uncanny fortune-teller, which is neither his calling nor gift. Prophets serve as God’s envoys to humanity—to us. Their main duty is realigning our perceptions with God’s principles, using promises as incentives. The prophetic construct is pretty basic: A) God’s not pleased with you. B) This is how you correct it. C) If you do, God will bless you; if not, God will judge you severely. Therefore, while Isaiah’s prophecies are applicable to Jesus, they’re no less so to us because the underlying principles remain the same for Him and us.

Opening Isaiah with this awareness, it explodes with relevance for every believer. Fresh air reaches passages sealed under Messianic glass to become life-changing lessons. Even verses that appear directly tied to Jesus burst with personal meaning. Consider Isaiah 49.6: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” From a Messianic standpoint, its message is overt: Christ’s mission surpasses restoring Israel to include the entire world. Then, knowing this prophecy is sent to us as well—for are we not also God’s servants?—what is God telling us? Freed of its Christ-centric detail, the principle arrives at our door. God says, “Common expectations are too small for you. I’ve got something bigger in mind, something better.”

Hearing the Prophet

When Isaiah speaks these words, conventional wisdom and popular tradition in Israel holds the Messiah is an exclusive promise for them. “Not big enough!” God says. Although the prophecy couldn’t be plainer, Judaic culture at large can’t vanquish its longing for exclusivity and permanence as God’s chosen people. Since it’s always been that way, they reason, that’s how it must always be. “That’s too small,” God declares. It’s all too small—the dream, the understanding, the tradition, and the prejudice. Yet Israel’s slavish belief in exclusive rights to the Messiah doesn’t affect God’s plan or deter Christ’s fulfillment of it. When Jesus defines His purpose to Nicodemus, the learned Pharisee, in John 3.16, He says: “God so loved the world.” Then and there, He draws a line. Jews fixated on culturally acceptable beliefs think small. He thinks big. To confine His vision, gifts, and efforts to their narrow-minded expectations defeats His purpose. He’s heard the prophet. “It’s too small a thing for you.”

In a world enamored with miniatures—one that continually rewards small thinking and petty behavior—we can anticipate resistance when embracing the prophet’s message. Traditional boundaries and beliefs aren’t big enough. Through Jesus, we learn what's always been won’t always be. As God’s Servant, intent on realizing His potential in scale with God’s plan, He bucks tradition and culture over and over. God’s got bigger things in mind and, though confronted with small minds at every turn, Jesus won't be convinced otherwise. He starts small, with a little kitchen magic to help a host who’s run out of wine, but He seizes each new opportunity for something greater. The message, miracles, and manifestations get bigger as He goes, constantly expanding His reach. Through Isaiah, God says to us, along with Jesus, “What religion and culture expect is too small for you. Broaden your vision. Expand your reach. What you've been told isn't big enough.” Our worth and wonder don’t fit the tiny-tech paradigm. Neither does God’s purpose or the gifts we’re given to fulfill it. We hear the prophet. With God, bigger is always better. More is always more. Anything less is not enough.

We don’t live and think in scale with conventional wisdom and popular tradition. They’re just not big enough for God’s purpose and the gifts we’re given to fulfill it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Get Right, Church

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. (Isaiah 42.6)

Too Late

For days now I’ve been unable to escape an extraordinary slave spiritual built on a deceptively simple lyric: “Get right, Church, and let’s go home.” It’s captivated me for all sorts of reasons, some regarding its origin but mostly for its relevance to our role as the Church in today’s world. I’m mystified that a people sold into hardship could sing such a song. Get right, Church? If we stood in their place, we’d go off on whoever came up with that. Get right, when everywhere we turn we stare wrong in the face? There’s a church that needs to get right, but not ours, not us. This belongs in the whitewashed palace with the whitewashed people—the ones who barter us like oxen, get pious on Sunday and violent on Monday, and say they worship in “God’s House” but lock us out, leaving us to sing our faith while we melt in the merciless sun. And let’s go home? That’s new, too. Home, as in where? We’ve been gone so long we don’t have one. We know what you mean, but we’ve got enough Heaven songs. We don’t need another, certainly not one like this.

The song’s durability proves its positive reception as it spread across the South via hearts of captives shuttled between owners. As America’s first virtual faith community, slaves drew strength from their united pursuit of righteousness. Few knew their age. They measured lifetimes by seasons; the sun’s arc defined their days. Yet primitive timekeeping didn’t impede their urgency to get right—and be right—to get home. Here are the verses, also one-liners:

I’m going home on the morning train.

Evening train may be too late.

Righteousness coalesced their sights on blessings denied: freedom, dignity, identity, and safety. With no expectation of sweeping deliverance, going home was a solitary journey. They believed forsaking righteousness for one second could thwart their passage. If they weren’t ready for the morning train, their best hope resided in the evening train. Still, second chances weren’t assured. And too late would be too late.

Collectively and Subversively

Naturally, we bristle to think a momentary lapse could nullify a life of earnest obedience. Modern fears of failure and rejection distort our view of what slaves clearly saw in the spiritual. It had nothing to do with divine fairness and everything to do with solidarity of purpose. It wasn’t about God. In truth, it wasn’t even about dying. It was about living collectively and subversively—flouting the corrupt politics and culture forced upon them. Righteousness brought them together, held them there, and enabled them to construct an invisible cathedral that towered over their captors’ so-called sanctuaries. Under everyone’s noses, faith raised a home for their souls. Legally, they were owned. Spiritually, they were kept. To their owners, they were commodities—ledger entries assigned a dollar value. To their Keeper, they were a covenant—a precious promise come to life, a nation cradled in God’s hand, a light to pierce blindness and dark dungeons. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, “Get Right, Church” embraced all God vows to us in Isaiah 42.6-7: “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” In seven little words, the spiritual presented the proposition and promise, asking, “What will we do?” Its verses answered, “We won’t waste a moment. The first chance we have, we’re getting on-board and going home.”

Where Is the Church?

As concern about current confusion and violence rapidly mounts, a cry goes out: “Where is the Church?” We’ve yet to provide a meaningful reply. “Everywhere” we say, even though the instant it passes our lips its inadequacy chastens us. A Body severed in pieces strewn in all directions has no presence or power. Why do we balk at God’s proposition? Why won’t we get right so we can be God’s promise? What are we waiting for? If we already know righteousness means living in right relationship with God, one another, and our neighbors and enemies—if we’ve heard God’s call—what’s our problem? We’re staring at the morning train. Our chance to board is fading while we squander moments scanning the timetable for a later train. Why? We differ with some of the passengers already on-board. (They don’t like us, either.) Too late will be too late. Second chances are not assured. If we don’t get right, we may not get home. The world pleads with us to pull ourselves together and do as God asks. It’s time the Church showed up.

Proverbs 14.34 nails it: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.” God calls us to righteousness to raise a new nation out of nations. We are fast approaching zero hour, when self-cannibalizing politics has devoured its last ounce of dignity, when social activism has abandoned the fight for justice to pummel its adversaries, when human ethics have devolved to basic instincts. God grants us a priceless opportunity to transcend politics, activism, and ethics as one nation in God—the Church truly triumphant and universal, the collective and subversive Body of Christ, God’s breathing, moving, and speaking presence on Earth. It’s ours to be the promise, the light, the invisible cathedral, the home of the soul, the creative instrument of renewal, to be kept by God—not merely owned by corrupt masters. This portion of Isaiah 42’s pledge ends with God saying, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” (v9) What God wants to do through us is more thrilling than we can ever imagine. Seven little words: Get right, Church, and let’s go home. What will we do?

We’re staring at the morning train, wasting our chance to board because we differ with some of its passengers. Meanwhile, the world pleads with us to pull ourselves together and show up.

Postscript: The Spiritual

This vintage recording of “Get Right, Church” by The Angelic Gospel Singers beautifully captures the spiritual’s optimism and enthusiasm. If while reading the post you heard a slow, mournful slave song, you’re in for a treat!

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.