The Recipe of Stereotype

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)

The other day I wrote about seeing through stereotypes, as it is very common for people to paint certain “other” people groups with a broad brush of generalization. I approached this notion from the perspective of being the perpetrator of the stereotype, but this morning I find myself thinking about it from the perspective of being stereotype’s casualty.

For the record, I have never suffered serious injury or been particularly harmed by another person’s stereotype. I have, however, experienced being labeled, misunderstood, falsely accused, and socially marginalized in specific situations because I have always been up-front about being a Jesus follower. I get that stereo-types are often rooted in partial-truths. The world is full of judgmental, condemning, narrow-minded groups and individuals who wear the label of Christian. When I have been causality of stereotype, I recognize that I am being lumped into one’s mental basket with them.

Here’s a thing that I’ve found to be true in my faith journey. The further I get in the journey the more clearly I see my own faults, the more important I find it to own my mistakes, and the more readily I feel the on-going need for God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. I find myself less concerned about the moral speck of dust in the eyes of non-believers because I’m blinded by the 2×6 of moral failure in my own. Whatever righteous anger I might feel is not stirred by sinners in need of Jesus’ grace, but by the legalistic, self-righteous religious types who sourced the stereotype with which I’ve occasionally been labeled.

Paul’s letters to Timothy are, chronologically, the final two of his surviving letters.  They were written late in his life to the young protégé who traveled with him and became a leader among the groups of Jesus followers they founded. One of the interesting observations to be made in these two very personal and heart-felt letters is how different they are in spirit and tone from the fiery letters Paul wrote to the believers in Galatia and the Corinth earlier in his journey. Paul’s passion for Jesus’ message and his ministry have not abated in any way, but there is a tenderness and humility with which he is passing the baton. Paul is embracing Jesus’ mercy and his personal need of grace as he owns that of all sinners “I am the worst.”

Stereotype is made with just a few ingredients: a pinch of truth, a pound of ignorance, and a cup of passivity. I’ve been guilty of it more times than I’ve been a victim of it, and so this morning I find myself whispering a prayer of grace, forgiveness, and blessing over those who may have stereotyped me unfairly along the way.

Simply Walk Away

Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.
Titus 3:10 (NIV)

Wendy and I enjoyed dinner with friends the other night. Casual conversation and catching up led to the subject of a particular individual. Ironically, everyone at the table had worked with this individual in an authoritative capacity, and everyone of us had similar, negative experiences. Duplicitous, malicious, narcissistic and untrustworthy, this individual had repeatedly been a crazymaker with each one of us before burning bridges in spiteful ways. Tragically, every one of us had a similar story to tell.

I couldn’t help but think of that dinner conversation as I read Paul’s instructions to Titus in today’s chapter: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” As I thought back to the various stories of the crazymaker we had in common, I recounted many second and third chances this person had been given. In retrospect, every one of us at the table wished we had simply cut ties much earlier.

Along my life journey I’ve come to accept that there are broken people in this world who, for various reasons, become crazymakers who sow division, discord, and deceit wherever they go. I’ve also observed that, in most cases, it does no good to try and rebuke or reform a true crazymaker.

I confess to you that, as the conversation went on around the table, my imagination conjured up scenes of things I would love to say and do were I to run into this person again, but every dream sequence I came up with ran afoul of Paul’s earlier advice to Titus in the chapter: “slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.” That’s the other thing I’ve found to be consistently true about crazymakers. They bring out the worst in us.

This morning I’m thankful that I have had very few crazymakers in my life. I’m also reminded that in order to keep Paul’s admonition to “live at peace with everyone” I sometimes have to simply walk away.

“Kingdoms Rise and Kingdoms Fall”

In everything set them an example by doing what is good.
Titus 2:7a (NIV)

Tay, Clay and Milo visited Berlin this past week. It was fun for me to see the pictures and to get Taylor’s Marco Polo describing their trip to the Berlin Wall memorial. How remarkable that what stood as a very real, tragic, iconic and seemingly immovable metaphor of the times for my generation is now reduced to a memorial and museum piece.

[cue: The Times They are a Changin’]

I am fascinated by the times we live in. Technology is advancing at a rate faster than any other time in human history. Humanity is witnessing and experiencing more rapid change than our ancestors could fathom. As a follower of Jesus, it is not lost on me that our current culture is being dubbed the “post-Christian” era or the “post-evangelical” era. Denominational institutions are splitting and crumbling. Ironically, I might suggest, much like the Berlin Wall.

I’ve watched this create tremendous anxiety and fear in some. Yet, as I observe and witness these things, I can’t say that I’m particularly worried or upset about them. Why? First, we are told countless times by Jesus and God’s Message not to be afraid or anxious. Second, if I truly believe what I say that I believe, then I have faith that this Great Story has always been moving towards a conclusion that is already written in the eternity that lies outside time. Third, the mystery and power of Christ was never of this world. That’s why the Kingdom had to come as Jesus embodied and prescribed, and why Jesus was never about becoming an earthly King with political power and clout.  When humans attempted to make the Message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God about Level 3, institutional, earthly power I believe we essentially made it into something it was never intended to be and, at the same time, emptied it of its true power.

In today’s chapter, Paul instructs his young protégé, Titus, what to teach the followers of Jesus in Crete. What struck me was not what those specific instructions were, but the motivation Paul gives for the instructions and their adherence:

“…so that no one will malign the word of God.”

“…so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.”

“…so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”

The paradigm was not that followers of Jesus would have the political and institutional power to make non-believers toe our moral line. The paradigm presented was that we who follow Jesus would live out the fruits of the Spirit towards everyone, that we would exemplify Kingdom living in all we say and do, and we would love all people in such a way that others would see, be attracted to it, and wonder how they might experience the same love, joy, peace, and self-control they see in us. What a different paradigm that that of making rules, appointing enforcers, and punishing offenders which is the paradigm of this Level 3 world

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about times and change.

The words of an old U2 song flit into my thoughts:

October,
the leaves are stripped bare of all they wear.
What do I care?
October,
Kingdom rise and kingdoms fall,
but You go on,
and on,
and on.

And so I proceed on, into another day of this earthly journey trying to live out a little love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Thanks for joining me, my friend. Have a great day.

Seeing Past Stereotype

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”
Titus 1:12 (NIV)

A while ago I enjoyed coffee and caught-up with an old friend as she was passing through town. It was not surprising to hear her observations of our little town and its citizens. Our town has long had a reputation of being very conservative and very religious. Like most stereotypes, there is some truth to it, though it is not close to what urban legends have made it for people like my friend.

I’ve learned along my life journey that this is a problem with stereotypes. Like all generalizations and prejudices, they may be rooted in specific things that are, or were, true. They are never universally true, however, and most of the time I’ve found them to be a lazy way of categorizing a group of people in order to fit them into the box of my world-view.

Wendy and I have, for many years, lived and operated in both the Christian community and the arts community in our region. We have observed that many members in both communities paint the other with broad brush strokes of stereotypical generalizations that diminish each other in tragic ways. The generalizations only serve to perpetuate misunderstanding and negativity toward one another.

Today’s chapter begins an instructional letter Paul wrote to Titus. While Titus is never mentioned in the book of Acts, he is referenced thirteen times in Paul’s letters. Titus was a trusted companion and coworker with Paul, and had left Titus on the island of Crete to help organize the fledgling groups of Jesus followers throughout the island. His letter was meant to provide encouragement and instruction in the work.

In the opening of his letter, Paul references a stereotypical view of Cretans sourced from a Cretan prophet. All Cretans are liars and gluttons, the prophet said. Paul acknowledges the truth of the stereotype and urges Titus to rebuke them.

As I sat and listened to my acquaintance over coffee it struck me that her view of the world was based on sweeping generalizations. She saw the world as a scary place full of hatred, oppression, and fear, when facts say the opposite is increasingly true. I humored her by laughing at her perceptions of our community and acknowledged that there is some truth to it, but I also felt a twinge of sadness that she would likely never experience all the positive ways her generalization falls apart when knowing, working with, and living among the incredibly diverse members of our community.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the stereotypes with which I’ve been labeled and painted by others across my journey. I’m also thinking honestly about the people and groups whom I generalize and pre-judge in my ignorance. It seems to me that this is one of those Golden Rule moments in life. I have to lead by example and treat others the way I, myself, would want to be treated; Not as a stereotypical member of a group, but as a unique individual who doesn’t fit neatly into the box of another’s perceptions.

 

Broken Relationships; Divine Purpose

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
Philemon 1:15-16 (NIV)

If you’re not a regular reader, please know that I’ve been reading and blogging through the letters of Paul in the chronological order they were likely written. In my last post, Seasonal Companions, I wrote about the conflict and reconciliation between Paul and John Mark. But that isn’t the only story of reconciliation hiding in the back stories of the personal greetings found at the end of his letter to the followers of Jesus in Colossae. Paul writes:

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

Onesimus was a runaway slave from Colossae who was owned by one of the believers there named Philemon, a friend of Paul. We don’t know all of the facts of the story. What we do know is that Onesimus seems to have stolen from Philemon and fled. In what I’d like to think was a divine appointment, Onesimus ends up running into Paul in Rome and he becomes a follower of Jesus. Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Colossae to make things right with the master from whom he stole and fled. Onesimus is carrying with him Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which we just finished reading. Onesimus is also carrying a letter to Philemon, which is today’s chapter. (Paul’s letter to Philemon became the shortest book in the Bible, FYI.)

Paul’s letter to Philemon is brief, but warm-hearted in its appeal to Philemon to be reconciled with Onesimus. Paul asks Philemon to consider sending Onesimus back to help Paul while he is in prison. Paul urges Philemon to see how God used Onesimus’ offenses to bring about His divine purposes. Onesimus left Philemon a runaway thief, but Onesimus is returning as a brother in Christ trying to make things right.

In the quiet this morning the theme of my thoughts continues to swirl around lost and broken relationships. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a good reminder that sometimes a season of relationship ends because one or both parties need the separation in order to learn, experience, and grow so that a new season of deeper and more intimate relationship can come back around.

I find myself, once again, thinking on the words of the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes. There is a time and a season for everything. That includes a time for conflict, and a time for reconciliation. There is a time to make amends, and a time to forgive. Sometimes the time in between is just a moment. Other times it takes many years. Along the journey, I’ve come to embrace the reality of, and necessity for, both, along with the wisdom necessary to discern which is which.

Seasonal Companions

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)
Colossians 4:10 (NIV)

“There are friends who are friends for a season, and there are friends who are friends for life.” Thus said a  wise woman to me while I was a Freshman in college. It was the first time I remember really thinking about the purpose and tenure of friendship in life’s journey.

Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples, but Luke records that there was a wider circle of seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1). Among the twelve it was only Peter, James, and John that Jesus called out to join Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter, and when He was in His deepest despair in Gethsemane. Like most of us, Jesus had concentric circles of relationship from the intimacy of His inner circle of three to the wider and less intimate relationships He had with the twelve, the seventy-two, and an even larger group of 500 followers to whom He appeared after His resurrection.

Along my life journey, I’ve had a number of friends, mentors, and protégés who became part of my “inner circle” during a particular stretch. Looking back, I observe a certain ebb and flow of pattern and purpose in relationships. As the wise woman stated, some paths converge for a season and then organically lead in opposite directions. Conflict, sadly, severed some relationships. In a few cases, I’ve realized it’s best to leave be what was. In others, reconciliation brought differing degrees of restoration. There is longing to experience reconciliation in yet others when the season is right. Then there are a few in which time ran out, and only memories both bitter and sweet will remain with me for the rest of my earthly journey.

Most readers of Paul’s letters skip through the personal greetings with which he typically tagged his correspondence at the beginning and/or end. This morning, it was one of these oft-ignored greetings at the end of the chapter that jumped off the page at me. Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, sends his greetings to the believers at Colossae. There is a back story there.

Mark, otherwise known as John Mark, had been a boy who was part of Jesus’ wider circle of followers. Mark’s mother was a prominent woman who also followed Jesus and likely supported His ministry financially. When Peter escaped from prison it was to the house of Mark’s mother that Peter fled. It was Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, who brought the enemy turned believer, Saul (aka Paul) into the fold of Jesus’ followers. Barnabas and Mark were part of Paul’s inner circle on his first missionary journey.

Then, it all fell apart.

In the middle of the journey, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and went back home. Paul felt abandoned and betrayed. Years later when it came time to make a return journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along. Paul, still angry that Mark wimped out and abandoned them, would have none of it. There was a big fight. There was a bitter separation. Paul went one way with Silas. Barnabas went the other way with Mark. The season of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark was over.

As Paul writes his letter to the Colossians it has been many years since the conflict with Barnabas and Mark. Paul is in prison and is nearing the end of his life. Mark is with him. We don’t know how the reconciliation happened or what brought them back together again, but Mark is there sending warm greetings through Paul. It’s nice to know that sometimes in this life we get over our conflicts. We let go of the past and embrace the present. Seasons of friendship can come back around.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back and thinking of all the companions I’ve had along my journey. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for each one brought to my life and journey, despite where the ebb and flow of relationship may have led. And, in a few cases, I’m praying for the season when the journey might lead divergent paths back together, like Paul and Mark.

An “Eternal Question”

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Colossians 3:12 (NIV)

I call them the eternal questions. This is not because the questions have no answers, but rather because no matter how many times you answer them they must be answered again. Perhaps they should be called the “perpetual” questions, but the phrase “eternal questions” has a certain ring to it. The eternal questions are the boulder of Sisyphus, the mythic schlep who perpetually rolled the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again. In our home, the most common eternal questions are:

  • “What are we having for supper?”
  • “So, what’s the plan today?”
  • “What am I going to wear?”

I’ve learned along my life journey not to fight the eternal questions. It’s futile. It’s best to make your peace with them. For me, a step in the process of making peace was the understanding that the eternal questions come from an abundance of blessing. We are blessed to have choices. Indeed, we are blessed to have so many choices available to us from which the eternal questions spring.

In today’s chapter, I found myself intrigued by Paul’s encouragement to “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We don’t often think of kindness as a garment. I don’t think of myself slipping into gentleness and patience like a pair of yoga pants.

Nevertheless, as I meditated on the word picture Paul gave, it struck me that when it comes to my attitude and responses towards both circumstances and people, I have an entire wardrobe available to me. I can choose that bright rage coat, or I can choose the suede jacket lined with gentleness. I have an entire wardrobe of choices available to me. Welcome to the walk-in closet of free will.

“What should I wear today?”

Of course, if you’re anything like me there are those “go to” choices that don’t seem like a choice at all because they’re easy and require no thought. No effort needed, and the choice is oh so comfy. Passivity slips on me like a familiar old sweatshirt. I’ve worn prejudice so long I’ve worn holes in it like my ancient pair of 501 blues. And then there are those well-worn flip-flops of pessimism I can just slip into as I head out on my daily trek.

I once had a prophet who was given a word picture for me. It was the image of Father God handing me a shirt to put on. It was a shirt I would have never picked for myself, but once I slipped it on and looked in the mirror I realized it looked so good on me.

That came to mind as I meditated on the notion of choosing what I’m going to clothe myself with today. My spiritual closet is stocked with love, kindness, patience, joy, peace, gentleness, and self-control. How often do I reach down to the dirty clothes scattered on the floor of my closet and slip into my old stand-bys of resentment, apathy, impatience, complaint, discontent, bitterness, and indulgence?

This morning I’m once again asking myself the eternal question “What am I going to wear?” This morning, however, it’s not about the clothes I put on my body. I’m on a business trip and there’s only one outfit in the suitcase for today. Today, the eternal question is about how I’m going to clothe my spirit, temperament, and attitude as I work with colleagues and clients. Father God has an outfit picked out that I might not normally choose for myself. Maybe I should try it on. I bet it’ll look fabulous.

Dress well, my friend.