The “Right” Way to Follow Jesus
I will confess that I think most of us get following Jesus wrong. Obviously, to have such a thought presupposes that I have some idea of what it would look like to get following Jesus “right.” I intentionally said “us” in my first sentence, because like Paul, I am the worst of sinners. As I’ve said of late, after abandoning Facebook because it seemed on balance to be more of a negative than a positive in our lives, we came back on in order to better connect with our local faith community, relatives far away, etc. Being back on, as I’ve also said, has been something of a mixed bag. I’m finding that even without a smartphone, Facebook retains its power to suck you in. It’s so, so easy to get locked into the “bubble.” It’s literally rewarding; endorphins are released in your brain when you receive and respond to notifications (even if not on a smartphone). It’s easy to “like” all the news sites, public figures, and causes you believe in, and all the while behind the scenes Facebook’s not so magic algorithm works in self-referencing fashion to reinforce what you already thought was true, to magnify your outrage at all the things you already thought were wrong, until one day you find yourself plowing your car into the people who are surely trying to steal your country right out from under you. I should be explicit here in stating that I am in no way justifying the actions of the home-grown terrorist who murdered and harmed peaceful counter-protestors in Charlottesville, and I can’t begin to think I know what his motivations were when he committed his vile, murderous act of aggression. What I am saying is that I believed before, and believe still, that Facebook (can be? is?) dangerous.
Silencing Those I Disagree With
When we were on before I got in lots of online arguments with the people- usually from the conservative “Christian” upbringing of my youth- that I disagree with. Even if in my heart of hearts I didn’t really believe that my arguing with them would change their minds, I still felt compelled to do so. Usually those arguments ended badly, and a quick click of the “unfriend” or even “block” button followed. Naturally, as I silenced those I disagreed with, I locked myself ever more into my own self-referencing and self-reinforcing bubble. As I write this I’m struck by the last sentence I just wrote. Even if only on Facebook, “I silenced those I disagreed with.” Would I do this in person? Would I refuse to hear those I don’t agree with, even/especially when I find their rhetoric vile, their arguments baseless, and their opinions ignorant or ill-informed? My own rhetoric about myself would say “no,” even if in practice my web of face-to-face relationships and those I choose to spend time with might suggest otherwise.
“Issues” Don’t Deserve Our “Stances;” People Do
Of course I know that people will, and often do, “like,” “friend,” and “follow” pages, people, and groups they don’t agree with for the sole purpose of “trolling” and/or getting into such arguments as I allude to above. I suspect that this is no more virtuous than cementing yourself in your own little like-minded bubble on Facebook. If part of what I think might be the “right” way to follow Jesus involves breaking down barriers and overcoming (often self-constructed) walls of division, I have to think that I have some responsibility to pursue relationship with those who look, think, and act differently than I do, and at the very least to remain in those (online) relationships I’m already a part of with those who think like maybe I used to, but do no longer. Better still, I would do well when possible to invite such folks to dinner. You see, to the extent that I’ve changed in my thinking about the world and especially about how to follow Jesus, much of that change has been driven by my in-person contact with people and ideas that are different than I am. As I’ve said for a little while now, I’ve learned that some of the most divisive “issues” of our time usually involve real people’s lives, and it’s easy to take a stand for or against an “issue,” but when you get to know the real people who the “issue” impacts, you find yourself no longer talking and thinking about the “issue.” Instead, you must decide whether to advocate for or against the well-being and maybe the very life of that person you know, who hopefully has become your friend. The gay “lifestyle” and/or “agenda” used to be an “issue” for me. Now, when people argue about it, I have to think about David, and April, and Ty, and others. I have to ask whether or not I really love them and want the best for them. There’s a lot more to be said about that, but I digress.
My point now I suppose is that “exposure therapy” works. Maybe that’s a good way to think of this. Especially to the extent that we remain afraid of those who are different from us and those we can’t understand, we all need a little therapy, and simple exposure to those friends we haven’t met yet would be a good start. What I’m saying is that I probably swung from one extreme to the other. I lived in a conservative bubble for a long time (pre-social media days), and it did not serve me well as a Jesus-follower. A “liberal” bubble will no doubt serve me no better. It’s probably fair to say that as a mobile-home dwelling male of European descent growing up in Texas, I was a conservative, America-loving, homophobic racist. And because as a child I was an abused conservative, America-loving, homophobic racist who grew up in the church, I really, really loved Jesus in my own small, ill-informed, immature way. I always say I grew up knowing that I could “depend on God in the absence of dependable parents.” Hear me now, the labels I’ve given myself above are labels I’m applying to myself, not to anyone else. Maybe others who grew up in the conditions I did might now look back and think of themselves then in the same way. Most probably wouldn’t, but I’m not saying that about anyone else. I’m saying that about myself.
Moving from One Secular Political Extreme to the Other When I’m Supposed to be an Extremist for Love
If before I was conservative, America-loving, homophobic, and racist, am I now liberal, America-hating, gay-loving, and anti-racist? Some would probably say so, at least in regard to some of those labels. I’d like to be anti-racist. It’s a necessary corrective to a foundational truth about the U.S. which it will likely take just as many centuries to undo as it did to “do” in the first place. I’d like to be thought of as someone who loves my LGBTQ brothers and sisters and who is passionate about (nonviolently) fighting for their good. Admittedly, this is probably still a growth point for me, but it’s something I aspire to. My “conservative” friends, to whatever extent I still have any, would likely think of me as very “liberal.” Truth be told, however, more and more I’m able to see the extent to which “liberalism” inasmuch as it’s thought of as a counter to “conservatism” in this country is a poor vehicle if our destination is the beloved community that MLK, Jr. spoke of and Scripture describes so beautifully. I think “liberal” secular politics in this country often offer the promise of more loving and humane answers to the problems that plague our society, but just as often fail to deliver on that promise. I’ll take the rhetoric of an Obama over that of a Trump any day, but sadly much of Obama’s rhetoric proved to be just- and only- that, rhetoric.
What I ought to know by now is that if what I really hope for is God’s kingdom of love and justice to come, then I have to live like Jesus is Lord, and Caesar/Trump/Obama is not. If the beloved community is what I’m called to be a part of, then I have to do the hard work that the family business of reconciliation requires. That means I must work to be reconciled with my neighbors of color, my LGBTQ neighbors, my poor neighbors, and my rich neighbors and conservative neighbors. If I believe that everything belongs to God, then I must stop hoarding all the material wealth I’ve been blessed with and to whatever extent I have two coats while my neighbor has none, I must give at least one away. If I believe that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and he really meant that we should not violently resist an evil person, I must do the hard work of peacemaking, even/especially as I consider the violent impulses of all the institutions I benefit from and participate in every day.
Too Many Causes, Too Little Time
When I go on Facebook these days, especially after the events in Charlottesville, I find myself overwhelmed with all the things I should be angry about. Some such anger, I hope, is right and righteous, and hopefully to the extent that this is true it will serve its purpose. The purpose of anger, after all, is to give the adrenaline necessary to act, and surely there are many actions that are necessary in these perilous times. Still, the simple volume of anger-inducing information is paralyzing. When there are so many things to do, it’s hard to know where to start. Adding to the vitriol in the comments on a Facebook post or Twitter thread probably isn’t the most helpful place to start, to be sure. I also think it’s a bit of a distraction. Online discussion can be helpful, and I participate in probably more than my fair share, but the real work of healing and restoration that this world so desperately needs happens most often as we break bread together, face-to-face, not as we break faith with one another while hurling insults online.
Without Worship, We Shrink
I read yesterday (online, of course) about how a pastor I respect was moved to pray as he faced all the troubles in the world as represented on Facebook and in his own, real life. When I went on Facebook today and was faced with the same troubles in the world and my own troubles in my own real life, I was moved…to praise. Among the faith community that same pastor I spoke of above is a part of, they have a proverb that goes: “without worship, we shrink.” I continue to believe that this is fundamentally, spiritually, and existentially true. When I allow myself to be moved by an effective worship song, I really am…moved. I’m transported from wherever my burdens feel too heavy to bear to the foot of the cross, where Jesus confronts me with his unflinching love not just for me and my tribe but for each and every person who has ever or will ever live, for the whole world, for the entire created order that groans with us in anticipation of its own redemption. In those moments I am overwhelmed not with anger or despair at all the troubles in the world, or at least on Facebook, but instead with love.
Being Overwhelmed is a Virtue
You see, we were meant to be overwhelmed. We were built and wired to be overwhelmed. We’re finite after all. We’re not in-finite. We can hold so much, and no more. God made us this way because he is infinite. He is not contained. God is love, and that love flows from God to his good creation and to every one of us each and every day for as long as the world has existed and on into eternity, and yet his love is never, ever diminished. He is not the less for it. His love is not a “zero-sum” endeavor. It is not subject to the “laws” of economics, and certainly not to the laws of capitalism. It is not the case that the more God gives, the less he has. And you know what? That’s true for us too. We were made to be overwhelmed because we were made to be vessels of this “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.” We were meant to be utterly filled up with it, and then it was meant to flow from us out to everyone around us. I John puts it best:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in that passage that a lot could be said about, and I’ve said some of it before. What I’m most interested in now is how the passage above ends:
This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
How to Have Confidence on the Day of Judgment
Many would-be Jesus followers spend their whole lives focusing on what came before the last part I just quoted again above. They focus on this part: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.” Many Christians think this “acknowledgment” that Jesus is the Son of God has to do with reciting a formulaic prayer, or worse, making sure the Ten Commandments are in front of courthouses and hymns can be played by high school bands during football halftime shows. Maybe saying the “sinner’s prayer” suffices as the kind of acknowledgment the verse above alludes to, but I suspect not. What I’m struck by, though, is this. Why do some Christians insist everybody say that formulaic prayer or let them practice their USAmerican civil religion in public spaces? Undoubtedly it’s so that they can “have confidence on the day of judgment” because they think that God’s a worse parent than they hope to be and is therefore willing to torment people in hell forever if they don’t say such a prayer. Thus, it is very, very based in fear. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the very passage above speaks to this very issue? There are very specific instructions about just how to “have confidence on the day of judgment,” and this bit of scripture has a lot to say about fear. According to this passage, we will have confidence on the day of judgment not by saying a formulaic prayer and not by fighting the culture wars; rather, that confidence comes when, “in this world, we are like Jesus.” Immediately afterward, we read, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The passage speaks of God’s love being made “complete” among us, and it seems really, really clear that this happens as we love another, because God has first loved us. Oh, that we would all be so overwhelmed with this love that we did love one another in this way, so that God’s love would be made complete and the world would know we were really, truly, finally Christians! What better way could there be to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God?
Of course, all that is the opposite of love can seem overwhelming too. Thankfully, as finite creatures we were not built to contain all the hate and evil in the world, and to whatever extent we don’t act lovingly toward one another, there’s plenty of hate and evil to go around. When we focus on the hate and evil, even if we do so in the hope of countering it, it again feels overwhelming. Just spend a little time on Facebook, and you’ll know this to be true. The problem when this happens isn’t that we feel overwhelmed because again that’s how we’re built. The problem is what we’re letting ourselves be overwhelmed by. Let’s work to worship and pray and do whatever we need to keep close to Jesus, so that we can be overwhelmed by his love, letting it spill out of us to everyone who crosses our path. There’s plenty of hate-speech online and hateful actions in real life that require our loving response, but after all “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Not surprisingly, those words came as Dr. King spoke about violence. He said:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Jesus says that we who would follow him are meant to be the “light of the world.” Let’s be light. It’s the only thing that can drive out darkness. Let’s be love. It’s the only thing that can drive out hate. Let’s be peace. It’s the only thing that can drive out violence.
Let’s Be Friends?
I hope to be light, love, and peace in real life, and on Facebook. That presupposes that I again work hard at the family business of reconciliation, and that requires that I be in relationship- in real life and on Facebook- with those who are different than I am. Hopefully in the coming days our Facebook friend list will grow as I reach out to the folks I unfriended when I grew out of the conservative outlook of my youth. I may not like everything they say; in fact, I’m sure I won’t, but I don’t have the right to silence them, and who knows, maybe I’ll learn something from them. Nor, of course, will they like all the online stances Kirsten and I might take. Be that as it may, if Jesus unrelentingly loves the entire world and each and every one of us whether we want or deserve it or not, and I purport to follow him, then I have to grow into that kind of love too. Lord, let it be so.