Saturday, February 26, 2011

Seeing is Being

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6.22-23)

Trusting Darkness

It’s Oscar® weekend, and like students cramming for finals, Walt and I are rushing to catch nominees we’ve not yet seen. Thanks to various association memberships, we’ve got most of them on DVD, which saves a lot of time running to theaters. Yet the discs remaining in this year’s to-do stack intimidate us more than any in recent memory, because what’s left are dark—in some instances, very dark—movies: 127 Hours, Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine, The Rabbit Hole, Animal Kingdom, and Biutiful. We’re not sure we have the fortitude to wade through so much complex emotion, stress, and loss in 48 hours. To a large degree, current events have more than occupied our minds with crises, tragedy, and conflict. After newscasts of tyrants firing on protesters, the egregious ploy to strip Wisconsin workers’ rights, the Christchurch earthquake, and so on, we’ve put off looking at grimmer nominees. “I don’t want to see that” has been the standard answer to suggestions we put one of the unseen discs into the player.

The human spirit abides only so much pessimism and grief before it rebels. A persistent onslaught of negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences rapidly depletes reserves of light and hope it intuitively taps into to counteract darkness and fear. When we’re at wit’s end with no hope in sight and someone shows us grace or causes us to smile, we say, “Thanks, I needed that.” It’s no exaggeration. We really do need it. Our spirits soak up the light to combat darkness. Yet we’re ill advised to rely on another’s grace and optimism for light. We have no guarantee cheer and encouragement will come from an outside source. While waiting for them, we easily become obsessed with darkness. Our sight becomes infected, incapable of detecting light. We begin trusting darkness, acclimating ourselves to its deficits and dangers, and anticipating its deceits. We grow suspect of light and laughter. “Thanks, I really needed that” turns into, “It’s kind of you to try and cheer me up, but…” By then, our spirits have surrendered the will to rebel against darkness. They’re too weak to crave light’s regenerative power. They need resurrection. Before we reach such a dismal stage, however, we should take Jesus’s words in Matthew 6.22-23 to heart.

We Are Cameras

“The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus says. “If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” While His message is clear, modern technology provides us a more apt metaphor to impress His teaching in our minds and memory. We are cameras. We automatically record and archive everything we see—not only in the literal sense, but figuratively and emotionally also. Our vision extends beyond natural sight. It’s endowed with perceptive and interpretive capabilities to distort and misjudge what we see. We, in turn, control where we look, what we focus on, our feelings about what we see, how those emotions alter the image, and, finally, meanings we attach to it. Over time, we develop what we might call a visual style much like actual photographers. The parallel places Jesus's concept readily within reach.

Let's try an imaginary exercise. We'll look at three pictures and name the photographer. The first is a low-contrast, black-and-white image of a sheer cliff with a narrow margin of clouded sky above. The second—also black-and-white, but starkly so—is an expressly homoerotic close-up of two muscular arms clasping a lily in powerful hands. The third, shot in saturated color, portrays a famous actress as Marie Antoinette surrounded by adoring courtiers. Who are the photographers? In order: Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Annie Leibovitz. Each of their styles is famously recognizable. But what defines them? Subject matter is most obvious. Their images are born from personal passions and interests. Yet ultimately their perspectives and opinions determine how they view what they see. Adams regards nature as vast and overwhelming, yet reassuring; its permanence comforts him. Mapplethorpe finds paradoxes in gay sensibilities—strong and tender, visceral and refined, convoluted and simple. Leibovitz expresses fascination with celebrity by mocking celebrities in endearing ways; outlandish art direction and perfectionism mask a joke (and indictment) about taking stardom too seriously.

If Jesus proctored our little exercise, one imagines Him asking us, “How do images you create and views you express in what you see define you? What captivates your eye, and why? What perceptions and opinions impose themselves on your sight? Is your visual style healthy, affirming, and illuminating? Or is it fraught with anxiety, negativity, and unhealthy darkness?”

Reinventing Our Style

Since we view the world as we choose, seeing surpasses believing. Seeing is being. Where we look, what we focus on, and how we manipulate sight to reflect our attitudes decide our character and the way we live. If our eyes are consistently drawn to darkness—to deadly ideas, looming shadows, and harmful impulses—we become living archives of defeat, fear, and sinful desires. This is what Jesus means by, “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” If that’s our struggle, reinventing our style—investing the effort to discipline where we look, what we focus on, and how we perceive and interpret what we see—provides vital light for our spirits to grow and endure. “If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light,” Jesus promises. Vision is a selective process.

The original Greek for “healthy” means “generous,” while “unhealthy” means “stingy.” Each situation we face is an opportunity to give or take, comfort or curse. All circumstances are circumstantial. Personalities are merely perceived. They can’t define us if we define them. How we view them determines their meaning, influence, and importance in our lives. Healthy, generous sight opens our eyes to light’s presence in darkness. Unhealthy, stingy sight obscures light. What we choose to see is what we choose to be.

Where we choose to look, what we decide to see, and how we manipulate our vision determines our character and how we live.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed. (Ruth 2.22)

This Time It’s Personal

In Leviticus 19, God instructs Moses to assemble the people for a refresher course on its obligations. Most of the Ten Commandments are reinforced nearly intact. But, no doubt, the Jews are surprised to find the original 10 now multiplied by three. Six of the 30 concern the sort of taboos Leviticus is notorious for (sex with slaves, selling daughters into prostitution, eating rare meat, wearing blended fabrics, hair-styling, and occult practices). The remaining edicts are also odd, though for a different reason. They set civic, agricultural, and mercantile policy that applies to a settled community—which Israel plainly is not—by addressing social welfare, treatment of foreigners, farming procedures, and commercial ethics. They anticipate nationhood. Is God jumping the gun here? Not at all.

Purpose for advancing these statutes is two-fold. One, it defines precedents, so Israel will know what God expects when the need arises. Two, it provides time to contemplate principles the new laws uphold—because that’s what God desires most: a principled people committed to justice and compassion. The first law defines the objective: “Be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” (v2) And the governing idea that filters through the new edicts surfaces in verse 18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Prior to now, the Ten Commandments served as Israel’s common code—its means of achieving national character. Leviticus 19 represents a groundbreaking shift in perspective. This time it’s personal.

Fringe Benefits

One of the new laws is an ingenious farming proviso that offsets material need afflicting underprivileged and disenfranchised residents. Verses 9 and 10 read:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

For all practical purposes, it’s a tax to fund entitlements—two bugaboos currently making the rounds in legislatures and political debates. And before a believer hops on the anti-tax, anti-entitlement bandwagon (ironically fueled by parties that allegedly advocate “Judeo-Christian values”), he/she would be wise to revisit this edict. Entitling the less fortunate to reap the fringe benefits of our largesse is a sacred duty. It’s a non-negotiable, unconditional tenet in keeping with loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s a personal responsibility that meets God’s standard of holiness. And it’s the precedent for a three-pronged social agenda that flows through the Old Testament, Gospels, and Epistles: provide for widows, care for orphans, and welcome strangers. Beyond the financial aspect, there’s an equally brilliant social dynamic at work. Entitling the poor and foreign-born to glean outer fields and excess harvest places them in close proximity to their benefactors. They are not invisible. Their physical condition is not ignored. Their struggles are not removed from sight. It makes their needs very real.

We see how this works by flashing forward from Leviticus to Ruth. While her story unfolds in four short chapters, Ruth stands as a central figure in Scripture by embodying all three social disadvantages. The Moabite wife of a deceased Jew, she severs ties to her own family and relocates with her mother-in-law, Naomi, in Bethlehem. Ruth is a widow, an orphan, and a stranger. After her husband dies, Naomi urges Ruth to remain in Moab, where she has family support and marital prospects. Yet Ruth—overtly foreshadowing Christ—voluntarily quits the comforts of home, abdicates its advantages, and lowers herself as a stranger in a strange land on her mother-in-law’s behalf.

In Bethlehem, she avails herself to the gleaners’ rights set forth in Leviticus. She locates fields owned by Boaz, her husband’s nearest kin. Without announcing herself as a family insider, her presence among the gleaners still draws his attention. He discovers who she is and instructs his managers to leave more than usual behind so Ruth and Naomi will be sufficiently cared for. He invites Ruth to venture beyond the fringes and join paid workers who gather the harvest. He encourages her to enjoy their privileges and notifies her bosses that no one is to mistreat her. When Ruth returns, her arms overflowing with provision, Naomi asks where she gleaned. Ruth informs Naomi Boaz found her, welcomed her like any worker, and insisted she be treated as their equals. Now, let’s listen very closely to Naomi’s advice, because her words bear uncanny relevance for every believer (or would-be believer) who’s been left alone, orphaned, and/or alienated by faith traditions. “Boaz’s field is where you should work,” she says. “Because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.

Beyond the Fringe

We all enter the faith as gleaners. Whether loss, abandonment, or alienation drive us to seek Christ’s sustenance, we come humbly, hoping to glean what we need to survive. As widows, orphans, and strangers, we’re entitled to fringe benefits from the harvests of advantaged believers and faith communities. Providing for our welfare is a fundamental principle set forth by The Law and fulfilled by Christ’s sacrificial provision of grace. But our introduction to Christ’s bounty as gleaners is simply that—an introduction. By right of relationship, we accept Christ’s invitation to venture beyond the fringe, joining other laborers in the field proper, where there’s equal provision, opportunity, privileges, and protection. Scripture equips us with written proof that those overseeing Christ’s harvest have been explicitly instructed to accept, respect, and protect us.

But what does Naomi tell us? Not every field is safe. Not every overseer is welcoming. Not every worker is accommodating. And then what does Ruth show us? We locate the right field for us, where we’ll be noticed, welcomed, cared for, called from the fringe to work like any other worker. These fields exist all around us. They can be found. We don’t have to settle for gleaners’ lives, hanging on the outside, subsisting on leftovers. We enter the fringe to be seen and then called beyond it. Fields that honor Christ’s instructions are where we want to be. Hanging around where we're ignored and left to scavenge the fringes gets us nowhere but in harm’s way.

We enter the faith as gleaners on the fringe. Then Christ calls us beyond the fringe, to work as equals in the field. If we’re stuck on the fringe, we’re in the wrong field.

Personal Postscript: Good News and Gratitude

To everyone who's upheld my mom in prayer since we learned she would undergo cancer surgery, I'm thrilled to report the operation was successful, she's resting and recovering, and we're extremely optimistic about her prognosis. I can't adequately express my gratitude for your concern and support. The strength we drew from prayers offered around the world for her is beyond measure. On her behalf, as well as Walt's and mine, we thank God and each of you with all of our hearts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Friends and Family

If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.46-48)

In Love with Law; At Odds with Purpose

Today’s Gospel picks up where last Sunday’s left off—midway through the Sermon on the Mount’s most daunting segment. Although it’s less likely Jesus delivered the text in one setting, and more probable Matthew spliced numerous lessons together to solidify a platform for all that follows in his Gospel, the sermon’s organization is a feat of oratorical genius. Jesus begins with The Beatitudes, a high-level incentive plan that defines His core message and targets downtrodden and marginalized people who will constitute the backbone of His movement. He makes no promises about improving their situations. To the contrary, He says following Him will compound their troubles. Yet, from the start, He turns human logic on its head by promising their struggles won’t go unnoticed or unrewarded. What life takes will be returned: impoverished spirits will inherit spiritual wealth, bereft souls will find comfort, the lowly will be lifted, and so on. Then He confirms their invaluable worth by portraying them as salt that preserves the Earth and light that brings safety to the world. Once He seals His bond with His audience, Jesus turns to the Law that overwhelms them—directly, by disenfranchising them, and indirectly, by legitimizing sources of their distress.

Since He’s about to rattle some really big cages, Jesus prefaces His comments by insisting, “I’ve not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.” (Matthew 5.17) It’s hard to imagine His listeners understand what that means, as many of us, though aided by hindsight and the Epistles’ in-depth analysis, are no less challenged to figure it out. As Jesus steps through the Law, He intentionally focuses on extreme behaviors like murder, adultery, divorce, and pompous oaths—i.e., infractions beyond the pale of ordinary, Law-abiding people. What throws them, however, is His dissection of attitudes and presumptions that pave the way to unthinkable crimes: aggression and deceit that end in senseless death; lust that fuels infidelity; indifference that erodes unions; hubris that enables insincerity. Had Jesus merely recited laws, His followers could have checked them off without thought or reservation: I’m not a killer; I don’t sleep around; I’m wed for life; I honor my vows. As the list went on, their hearts would swell with greater pride and affection for the Law, because It verified how righteous and obedient they were. That’s precisely what Jesus opposes by stressing how easily we can be in love with the Law while still at odds with its purpose. “’Do not kill’ is meant to accomplish more than deter murder,” He says. “Its primary purpose is to thwart lesser evils that lead to murder. Failure to acknowledge and abide by the Law’s intentions is tantamount to breaking the Law.”

Much Closer to Home

Jesus uses the “big sins” to lay the groundwork for what comes next, because what comes next drives much closer to home. It’s here, in verses 38-48, that He proclaims four pillars of His gospel: tolerance, selflessness, equality, and unconditional love. He’s still discussing the Law, mind you, but He’s left the no-brainers to dig down into the hard stuff—edicts intended to shape our responses in virtually every situation we encounter. First, He breaks down “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth”—a three-time favorite from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Jesus explains the point behind the measure’s severity centers on defusing conflicts before resorting to useless extremes. The law’s apparent equity is transparently inequitable. Taking your eye after you’ve taken mine won’t restore my vision. Extracting your tooth after you yanked out mine won’t ease my pain. By intention, the rule is designed to show it’s fallacious to equate retribution with justice. By intention, it expects us to find a better alternative before retribution becomes a last resort. The answer, Jesus teaches, is tolerating adversaries by negating their abuse. “Don’t resist an evil person,” verse 39 says. “If anyone slaps your right cheek, turn the other one also.” He segues from tolerance to selflessness, instructing us to exceed undue demands. “If someone wants your shirt, give up your coat, too,” He says. “If you’re asked to walk a mile, go two. Give when asked, and don’t refuse any loan requests.” (v40-42) How does this satisfactorily resolve conflicts? It doesn’t. It preempts them.

Wow. If it feels like Jesus’s strategy for conflict resolution is over-the-top, what’s next boggles the mind. He cites a law found in Leviticus 19.18—“Love your neighbor”—that is widely misinterpreted to imply “hate your enemy.” He debunks this error by insisting distinctions between friends and enemies are non-existent. If we’re truly God’s children, He explains, then our attitudes must align with God’s, and God treats no one preferentially. He reminds us, “God’s sun rises on the evil and the good. God’s rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Everyone is equal. Thus, in God’s eyes, loving friends is loving enemies; loving enemies is loving friends. Establishing equality is this law’s purpose, Jesus explains, before expanding its implications by asking, “If loving people we already love is all we derive from it, what do we gain? Even tax collectors”—reviled as traitors and crooks—“do that. If we limit our compassion to like-minded family members, where’s the benefit? Even non-believers do that.” (v46-47) So what if we boast day and night about how godly we are? We’re in the same rut as the rest of the world. In other words, without unconditional love, nothing changes.

The Ultimate Statement

Jesus concludes His discussion about fulfilling the Law’s intentions by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as God is perfect.” (v48) It’s the ultimate statement, one that we should hear clearly and carefully. Otherwise, we’ll dismiss what He asks of us as ludicrously unachievable. It teeters on the ambiguity of its seemingly least important word—as. While striving for perfection is a mainstay of our Christian walk, it’s essential for us realize why we’re told to embrace so lofty an aspiration. “Be perfect like God is perfect” sets the standard. The thoughts and behaviors we find in God are the thoughts and behaviors we should emulate. God tolerates our insolence and abuse. We should do the same with others. God answers our undue demands by exceeding our expectations. So should we when asked. God’s mercy preempts conflicts to avoid unjust retribution. We extend mercy to achieve justice as well. God shows no preference among people. Nor should we. God loves without condition and expects no less from us. We’ll find perfection we seek in the Law—not by loving It, levying It, observing It, or obeying It, but by fulfilling Its purpose.

But there’s a second layer to “Be perfect” that replaces “like God is perfect” with “since—or because—God is perfect.” We are God’s reflection on Earth, the living, breathing embodiment of God’s presence. Perfection transcends aspiration to become spiritual responsibility. Resolving conflicts equitably isn’t enough. Gravitating toward friends and family who look like us, think like us, and behave like us falls short. Holding our ground, taking positions, building fences, and dismissing anyone who differs from us makes us no different than anyone else. Nothing changes. We weren’t created to look, think, and act like one another. We were made to look, think, and act like our Maker. When we learn loving the Law is futile if we’re at odds with Its purpose, we’ll fulfill the Law. Once we realize our differences are illusory, we’ll stop worrying about how things look and start seeing what God sees. That changes everything.

We fulfill the Law when we start seeing everyone is the same as us, and stop expecting them to look, think, and act the same us.