Sunday, July 27, 2014

Go to the Bikers, You Sluggard

Awhile back, on the way home from work, I heard a story on NPR about Bikers Against Child Abuse.

An adolescent girl who must testify against her stepfather can stand on the courthouse steps and listen to the gathering thunder until a dozen Harleys swarm into view and search for parallel parking. Men and women dismount wearing combat boots, blue jeans, black leather vests, silver chains, braided beards, and sun-bleached ponytails. They are thick in chest and thigh, with gray-green tattoos creeping from their shirtsleeves. They rally around the girl and escort her into the courthouse. They answer her phone calls and come when she feels threatened. They have all passed criminal background checks.

As I waited to merge onto the I-184 interchange, why did I suddenly feel like a disciple on the road to Emmaus? Why did my heart burn within me? What was I longing for?

The members of Bikers Against Child Abuse operate on a simple principle: predators prey upon the weak, and bikers bring strength. When a victim is in need, the only thing members have to do is show up. And yet, they're more fat than muscle, and they come without guns or knives. Their strength is only in numbers and reputation. They shower in the morning and put on their strength in so many layers: hair, clothes, chains, bike, noise.

I knew why I burned inside:  I was jealous of the palpability of their strength. And I was jealous of how easily that strength was directed to those who needed it.

Someday, when the fatherless are in need, we won't need to call a session of elders, or start a fund, or write a book. We, the members of the Church, will just show up. Someday the hum of our Hondas and Subarus will portend the overthrowing love of Christ. Someday the slap of our sneakers and loafers and flip-flops will cause predators to back into corners and cross themselves. Someday the faith in our eyes will seize whole cities with holy fear as at the demise of Ananias and Sapphira.

But for now, I suppose motorcycles are easier.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

We Are Frauds, Part 2

There he is, sitting on the sidewalk, legs outstretched, back against the wall. And I can see, even from my car as I approach the garage, that there is no coffee in the man's hand.

And this time, I feel joy.

I enter the mini-mart, get my coffee as before, then head straight for the breakfast kiosk where paper-wrapped egg and cheese "croissants" melt under heat-lamps. I take two, and as I cross to the checkout line I don't make the same mistake I did two days prior. This time I don't wait for the Holy Spirit to descend. This time I trust he is already with me.

I pay, exit through the glass doors, and turn the corner.

The man is African-American, with a white beard in sharp contrast. He wears a ball cap with a sticker across the crown that reads "Bad Religion." Hanging from one of the pockets of his long coat is a red and white pack of Marlboros, crinkled and half empty. He's not smoking, and he doesn't smell of smoke, so I assume he's either rationing his cigarettes or saving them as currency.

"Hey," I say. "You had breakfast yet?"

He looks up and says, "I usually just drink coffee."

Of course.

I go back inside,  buy a second cup, then return and sit on the sidewalk in solidarity. He pockets the sandwich I offer, saving it for later. He sips his coffee with gratitude as I eat the other sandwich. And I learn his name, and that he's from southern California, and that he's been in Boise for about 30 days, and that there's nothing for him here so he'll be returning to California soon. We chat about the difficulties of finding work. About the fact that the street we're on feeds directly from the interstate only a few blocks away. About old TV shows from the early '80s.

And then, realizing I'm a couple minutes late for work, I stand and tell him the honest truth:

"Nice meeting you, man."

We'll share breakfast again the next day. And after that, I'll never see him again.

And what was accomplished? From a pragmatic viewpoint, nothing. From an evangelistic viewpoint, nothing.

From Jesus' viewpoint?

In the Gospels, the poor, the downcast, and those otherwise in bondage always recognized Jesus as full of the Holy Spirit, if not as the Son of God, and they ran to him, or called out his name until he came. It was the same with the Apostles, who had so much power flowing out of them that even their shadows and kerchiefs could heal. If the old man on the sidewalk, with his "Bad Religion" hat and his rationed pack of Marlboros, saw Jesus on the street -- recognized him as the Messiah as did the destitute in the Gospels -- I think it likely the old man would run to him and sit at his feet. If the old man recognized an apostle of Christ filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, I think he would cry out and be saved.

Perhaps my problem -- our problem -- is that despite our outward appearances, despite our offerings of breakfast and conversation and cash, those in bondage don't recognize us as having Christ in us.

They know, deep down, that we are frauds.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

We Are Frauds, Part 1

It's hard not to be a fraud.

There's a mini-mart across the street from the office building where I work in downtown Boise. There's a sidewalk lining the mini-mart, and as I approach in my humble compact car I see a man sitting on that sidewalk, legs out straight, his back up against the wall. It's June, and yet he's wearing long clothing and a coat -- the first sign of homelessness. And here's the problem: I need a cup of coffee from that mini-mart.

It's a problem because I have resolved to stop ignoring homeless people. It means today I must act. I must talk to him and begin the arduous task of building a relationship with someone alien. And before I can begin building a relationship, I must meet his most immediate need: breakfast.

My old church tradition was good at adding caveats to just about every word that came from the lips of Jesus. Especially when it came to loving the poor. I was taught that the natural contempt I had for such people was really love, because giving them anything (other than "the gospel") was hurting them, continuing their cycle of dependency. Because they had -- and still do have -- every opportunity to bootstrap themselves into any of the high office windows reflecting the rising of the sun around us. Because the most effective witness we can make is just being ourselves: modest but stylish, humble but well-educated, financially secure but knowing God may (but probably won't) taketh away. We were to make them jealous, you see. We were the Jets, snapping our fingers at the world.

But now I see the chronic poor -- especially the homeless -- as people in bondage. Not in bondage to themselves, as we'd like to think, but to the Principalities and Powers of this world. To the Accuser. To Satan. Yes, there are heartier meals to be had, but since his defeat at the Cross Satan has always been a petty tyrant.

So what do I say to the man on the sidewalk? I've never been one for small talk. I've never been good at making friends. And I'm afraid. Not that the man will harm me, or even that I'll fail.

I'm afraid I'll look like a fool.

After parking in the garage opposite the mini-mart, I cross the street at the signal and watch the man through the corner of my eye. And I can see now that he's holding a cup of coffee. And my old self snatches at that cup of coffee and begins making excuses: if he has coffee, he has probably already eaten. If he has coffee, someone must already have helped him. If he has coffee (and here the Accuser sets his hook), he might not be homeless at all, because coffee is a luxury, and a homeless man would never choose coffee over food, and how offended he would be if he was not homeless and yet I treated him as if he was.

I walk inside and start filling a 20 ounce cup (two-thirds cappuccino and one-third breakfast blend) hoping the Holy Spirit will descend upon me somewhere between the creamer station and the checkout line. But he doesn't. I pay for my coffee, get my patron card punched (three more coffees and I get a free one), and leave by a different exit. And I walk across the street to my office.

The moment I sit at my desk, I feel the weight of guilt and shame on my shoulders. It's the very guilt and shame my old church tradition worked so, so hard to eliminate with all its caveats, with all its redefining, with all its cold calculations.

But I refuse. Refuse. REFUSE. to rationalize my way out of helping that man.

Better to carry my guilt and shame openly because then at least there is hope that I will be compelled to overcome it.

Otherwise, I am damned.

When I see that man again in two day's time, things will go differently.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Full Circle

I've come full circle.

I was part of a church tradition that shaped my life, I was severed from that tradition, and now I'm entering a new church tradition. But this one has a different spirit, a different take on love. It's a tradition that is a path, not a destination.

If it wasn't for all the negative side-effects, such as loneliness, depression, and psychological scars that suddenly resurface at the mention of certain key words (covenant, patriarchy, discipline, deacon, elder, pastor) I would wish that everyone suffer a period of spiritual abuse and be traumatically severed from the church that made you who you are today. Because when the church tradition that holds you up (like a tomato cage or a titanium rod in the spine) is removed so suddenly and completely that you don't have time to find a new one before the old is gone, you are forced to realize just how much of what you believed was tradition and how little of it truly helped you carry the Cross, if you carried it at all. All you have left is the resolution of Paul amongst the Corinthians: you know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). You have only the Word of God and the unbuffered movements of the Holy Spirit. You cling to Jesus, and you start to see the world through him, rather than him through the world. Raw scripture is a powerful and frightening thing, and it's no wonder the church tradition that set me adrift was so against it.

This much I know:  I am still, and always will be, orthodox. I believe in the triune nature of God, in the virgin birth of Christ, in the lordship of Jesus over the earth, in the workings of the Holy Spirit. And I believe there's a great shortage of bread multiplied, fig trees withered, and mountains moved.

But those are the easy things, the untested things. There are things I believe now that are harder truths to bear because they are antithetical to my old tradition, to my old self. I cling to them now because I believe Jesus lived them and commands them still, and they give me hope.

Despite living in a church that worshiped strength, I believe Jesus calls us to nonviolence.

Despite being shaped in a church that believed prosperity was evidence of righteousness, I believe the poor and downcast are being held by bonds that God expects us to break at great cost to ourselves.

And despite being molded by a church that redefined love until it wasn't love at all, I believe the only thing that can reconcile the evils of Death, Loss, and Futility to a God who is Love, is a parent-child bond so strong that all tragedies become sufferable because they bring us closer to our Father.

I'm writing this blog because I see all these things from the corner of my eye, and I want to bring them to the center of my vision. So I can connect, piece by piece, all the things I now believe. And so I won't just know the love of Jesus in theory, but will compel myself to practice it.