Affirmative Action

This post originated as a sermon intended for Sunday, February 22, 2015 at First Baptist Church of Hyattsville. It wasn’t preached (at least, in full) due to snow.  It is based on Genesis 9.8-17 and Mark 1. 9-15.

Today is my birthday. It’s a special day to be sure, but I must confess that I don’t welcome birthdays as much as I used to, now that I’ve crossed the threshold of 40. My 76-year-old mother assures me that the time will come when I will once again look forward to my birthday – in relief if not exuberance.

One nice thing about birthdays at any age is the well wishes. I find I look forward to the cards more than the presents nowadays (though that is no excuse not to get me a present, mind you). While I’m not terribly excited about turning 41, it is thrilling to see my Facebook page fill up with celebratory posts.

I need those affirmations from time to time. We all need them, and we know we need them. Science has demonstrated that all of us need a certain level of affirmation to thrive as human beings. If we don’t receive it, there are mental and emotional consequences.

Research shows that one of the reasons poorer children lag behind more affluent children in school is that their cognitive development is stunted long before they even reach school by something called “The Word Gap.” Children from more affluent families, on average, will have heard something in the neighborhood of 30 million more words than poorer children by age three. And not only that, children from stable families will have heard some 440,000 more positive comments from their parents than children from dysfunctional families by the same age. This gap has a huge impact on both the cognitive and emotional development of these kids.

And this need for affirmation doesn’t subside once we’re grown. Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Seminary has written that one of the limitations of the feedback we so often receive on our jobs is that traditional feedback systems tend to accentuate the negative. Few would dispute that feedback is necessary for growth, but evaluation processes often leave us more discouraged than energized to improve. Why? Because we tend to remember the criticism from reviews, while it is praise that truly motivates us to change.

So, affirmation isn’t just about positive feelings, it yields positive results. We need it to become all that we can be.

Why is it, then, that so many of us (especially adults) receive precious little affirmation unless we achieve something exceptional or do something especially kind – or we live to see another year? Why do our systems and impulses tend to gravitate toward critique and criticism?

Perhaps it is because criticism of others, rather than affirmation, comes with the added bonus of helping us feel superior: another basic desire we’ve had at least as far back as Eden. We may be God’s children, but we’re the Serpent’s groupies – emulating his style, attitude, and mannerisms.

We’ve come to think criticism and contention will get us what we really want, and help us to be who we really want to be. And so, just like Adam and Eve (the founders of the Serpent’s fan club), we’re still hiding from God and still pointing fingers at one another. That bite of forbidden fruit may not have made Adam better than God; but if Adam could lay blame at Eve’s feet, well then at least he could say he’s better than her. All these generations later we’re still following Adam’s pattern and his train of thought. Fear-fired critique is still our baseline response to the other.

We should note, however, that God’s baseline response to Adam and Eve is different – and He, too, continues to follow suit. God was angry with them, of course; but the more I read the story of “the Fall” the more I hear undertones of grief in God’s angry voice. He punishes Adam and Eve for their disobedience, which is God’s prerogative as Creator and Lord of all; but while they are cowering behind the bushes, ashamed of their nakedness, He also provides them with their first set of clothes (Genesis 3.21). God puts them out of the Garden, but He does so not so much to deprive them as to protect them: to prevent them from also eating of the Tree of Life and living forever in their fallen state.

God does something else, too. He continues to walk with Adam and Eve and their children east of Eden. He claims their children as His children. With His presence, God affirms humanity as creatures made in His image.

When Cain kills Abel, for example, God places a mark of protection (not shame!) on Cain’s forehead. Even though Cain has committed a heinous act and God is sending Him away, God still affirms him as one of His own. Later, when God wipes most of humanity  off the face the earth in the flood of Genesis 6, He also places the rainbow in the sky for Noah in Genesis 9. Noah himself has done nothing wrong, but he has endured a wild and crazy ride with God. God places the rainbow in the sky for Noah as an affirmation of the promise God makes to never again destroy the earth with water. The next time it rains, Noah won’t have to wonder, “Oh no! – could this be…?”

God takes affirmations seriously because He takes His children seriously. And so for generations and generations after the flood, God continues to be present. God continues to affirm His people as His people; He continues to affirm the promises and covenants He has made with them; He continues to offer forgiveness for their transgressions; He continues to speak to them and engage them through prophets and poets – and He has continued all this even though God’s people repeatedly have responded to His words and affirmations with hardened hearts, grumbling lips, and serpentine strategies.

Whatever else stunts (or has stunted) our spiritual growth, we cannot claim that our relationship with God suffers from a Word Gap. There’s a big difference between parents not speaking and children not listening when they do.

The truth is we’re still charmed by the Serpent’s rhymes and rhythms, even though they’re rather dated at this point. Most days, we’d still rather listen to them than listen to (or for) God’s still, small voice. The Serpent is a master at telling us what we want to hear.

The Serpent’s lingering appeal is one reason why Jesus came to show us a better way, to demonstrate what is possible when we who are both flesh and spirit, dust and light, walk in solidarity with God. When we pay attention to what God is saying, when we set our priorities by God’s priorities – that’s how we discover the healing, the belonging, the LIFE we have been seeking for eons. And this process of discovery begins with affirmation.

God the Father and God the Son model this process for us in Mark 1. At the outset of Christ’s earthly ministry, the Father affirms Jesus’ identity as His Son before Jesus has done anything remarkable: before He has healed a single person, cast out a single demon, or uttered a single proverb. All Jesus has done at this point in the narrative is show up and offer Himself. Yet, God sees Him and says, “You are my Son, the Beloved. In You, I am well pleased.”

Jesus took these words of love and affirmation with Him into the wilderness. We have no way of knowing for sure, but I believe these words helped sustain Him during those forty days in the desert, as Satan tempted this new Adam with the same opportune, enticing, and eloquent guile he used to lead the original Adam astray. And I believe that because Christ was flesh and blood as I am flesh and blood – and words of affirmation certainly sustain me.

As disciples and would be disciples, we need to take this example set by God the Father and God the Son seriously. If affirmation is a defining feature of the Trinity’s mission, affirmation should be a prominent feature of our shared pilgrimage as the people of Jesus. We need to dedicate ourselves to the work of building each other up (to use Paul’s words), and repent of tearing each other down.

That doesn’t mean we let just anything slide, or allow others to use us as doormats or dust mops. We’re called to be disciples, not peons. But discipleship entails picking up our crosses and following Jesus, emulating His example and obeying His commandments. Jesus warns us not to judge one another for much the same reason God expelled our ancestors from Eden: as much to protect us as to protect those whom we are all-too-eager to sentence. Firstly, judgment is God’s prerogative, not ours. Secondly, it’s hard to shoulder our crosses while banging our gavels. Thirdly, the standards we use when we critique, criticize, and otherwise pass judgment are typically our own, not the Lord’s. When we use our standards, we don’t judge to help others stand taller; we do it to help ourselves look taller while standing next to them.

The Apostle Paul, likewise, denounces laying blame because finger pointing fractures the unity of the Body of Christ and undermines our faith witness.

“These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8 But now you must get rid of all such things— anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  – Colossians 3

Our fallen world is brutal enough as it is. If we want to be beaten down, there is no shortage of opportunities available. Church should defy the fractured and fracturing realities of our age, not conform to them. That’s why we refer to our worship spaces as sanctuaries. They are (or should be) oases of peace, love, and renewal in the midst of life’s often-arid and turbulent climate.

Just as we need affirmation to grow and become healthy human beings, we need support and companionship to sustain us and nourish us on our faith journeys, too. When we follow Jesus, we necessarily embark on a wilderness experience – and not just during Lent. As new creations in Christ, we follow Jesus into a wonderful but strange new world, where the logic of our former lives no longer applies: a world where the last shall be first; where leaders must become servants; where we bless those who persecute us; where we offer our left cheek to those who strike us on the right. It’s the same path the first disciples walked, and the journey can be as bewildering as it is beautiful – especially because Jesus is the one who is turning everything upside down and inside out for us.

So, let’s not wait until our birthdays to affirm one another and wish each other well. Let’s walk with one another, building each other up, and leave the judging up to God. The Father and the Son have set an example of affirmation for us that we need, and the world needs from us. When we focus on seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, as men and women made in the image of God; when we see the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strange, and imprisoned inhabitants of the world as Jesus Himself, it’s difficult for the siren song of the Serpent to sway us, and the strife Paul decries to gain traction. Affirmation is what sustains us in the face of trials and motivates us to aim higher and go deeper in our faith. And affirmation is also one of the simplest, most direct ways we can help bridge and back-fill the gaps that divide our world and its people.

May we allow Christ to clothe us with love, not to cover our shame, but to bind us together in perfect harmony. Amen.

The Long Walk of Love: Remembering Nelson Mandela

The world in memorializing Nelson Mandela today in Johannesburg.  As a personal tribute, I am posting the condensed text of a sermon I preached back in April that uses his life as an illustration of just how much one person, guided by love, can accomplish.  In the words of South Africa’s current President, Jacob Zuma, “We always loved Madiba for teaching us that it was possible to overcome hatred and anger in order to build a new nation and a new society” (New York Daily News, 12-07-13).  May we emulate Mandela as well as remember him. -BTT

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Some months ago, I saw a banner ad on the side of a bus in DC.  The banner featured a picture of Nelson Mandela along with the caption, “Never underestimate the power of one person to change the world.”  I had almost forgotten about it, until my studies this week sent it rolling back through my mind.

First, I was reminded that 19 years ago today (April 28, 1994) South Africans were voting in the first free elections that country had ever seen – the first elections in which all adults of eligible age could vote regardless of their ethnicity. It was that election that would make Nelson Mandela President of South Africa.

Since that time, of course, Mandela has gone on to become a world icon.  He is celebrated wherever he goes and his 90th birthday in 2008 became an international affair. And deservedly so, because Nelson Mandela did, in fact, change the world.  Not only was he instrumental in dismantling apartheid, but he also (more than any other individual save Desmond Tutu) prevented South Africa from trading one form of oppression for another.  Post-apartheid South Africa could so easily have devolved into a state of retribution.  But it didn’t – because Mandela, Tutu, and a handful of others resolved that it wouldn’t.

The other reason why this rolling public service announcement (or whatever it was) featuring Nelson Mandela has come back to my mind is that I’ve been reading John 13.31-35.  I’ve been ruminating on the new commandment Jesus gives to His disciples: love one another just as I have loved you – something much easier said than done.  It’s really the “just as I have loved you” bit that’s the kicker.

If Jesus hadn’t said that, if He hadn’t slipped that qualification in, we could read this passage in the sentimental light that we tend to – and prefer to. We could leave things with each other comfortably on the surface: a hug here, a handshake there, the passing of the peace, the polite exchange of pleasantries, the occasional extension of a helping hand.

But Jesus did say it.  He did slip it in.

Now, this qualifier doesn’t mean that our comfortable, surface-level expressions of affection are wrong.  They aren’t.  They are needed and necessary.  But “just as I have loved you” means those things aren’t enough. They aren’t nearly enough – not in the Kingdom of God, not in the Body of Christ. Why? Because love is the end all and be all of the life Christ calls us to as His people.

The Apostle Paul put it this way in 1 Corinthians 13.1-3: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love that foundational is, by necessity, a deeper, riskier kind of love than the love we tend to experience elsewhere on this earth. It’s what makes the Kingdom of God different: a new reality, a new paradigm; a cut above and step beyond the ways of this world. It is a counterpoint, in fact, to the ways of this world.  It’s a love that ultimately does not and cannot come from us.  It can come through us; but its source is beyond us.

That’s why, as followers of Christ, we must strive to love one another just as He (first) loved us.  It’s how we bear witness to the reality of the Kingdom.

Otherwise, what’s the difference?  Indeed, what’s the point?  As Jesus said elsewhere (Luke 6): “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners…” 

 This is why Jesus gave us these instructions, set forth these commandments, and issues to us a call: love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength; love your neighbors as you love yourself; love even our enemies.

It’s not just a call to love as Christ loves; it’s really nothing less than a call to change the world.

And so what better place to look in trying to understand that kind of calling than to the life of a living, breathing person who has, in fact, helped to change the world through love?  A man who, in his autobiography, credits his Christian faith as the source from which his actions and convictions derive. A man who, for all intents and purposes, should be the last person to embody the life-giving, life-changing power of Christ-like love.  A man named Nelson Mandela.

Mandala’s story is all the more inspiring because the actions and convictions for which we know him weren’t always his actions and convictions. He had to be changed. He had to be transformed.  And so must we. We must – if we dare to call ourselves Christians, if we profess Christ as our Lord. We must – because Jesus has made the consequences of His commandment clear: by this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We must – and we can.  If Nelson Mandela can be transformed, we can.

Nelson Mandela began his political career as a militant. He founded the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress. Basically, he was a terrorist. He believed that a violent, oppressive regime had to be opposed with force.  Non-violent resistance wasn’t enough – it wasn’t going to work. That is why he was put in prison.

So how did a militant leader go from convicted terrorist to celebrated human rights activist?  Knowing what I know of his story, I think he possessed three key qualities that enabled him to make the journey he did – and that we can draw strength and inspiration from in our own journeys.

1. He was willing to learn – which means he was open to change.

Transformation is a process that needs an incubator, and Nelson Mandela had one.  For him, it was Robben Island, South Africa’s most notorious prison. Desmond Tutu has written that when Mandela was first imprisoned, he was “forthright and belligerent” but in jail he “mellowed.”  He “began to discover depths of resilience and spiritual attributes that he would not have known he had.” He allowed the suffering to ennoble him, and found himself “able to be gentle and compassionate towards others.”

He found a strong sense of solidarity with his fellow prisoners through their shared experience of suffering. The prison was bitterly cold and none of them received adequate clothing.  The food served was barely edible.  Their days were spent in exhausting physical labor at the prison’s limestone quarry, breaking up rocks for use in roadbeds. Their guards were racist and regularly demeaned the inmates. In fact, racism appears to have been a prerequisite for employment on Robben Island.

In this environment, Mandela came to realize that if he and his fellow prisoners stooped to the level of the guards, to the level of the system – if they insisted on fighting fire with fire – nothing would be gained and what would be lost in the struggle would be their own dignity.  He came to see and understand that the system of apartheid dehumanized the oppressors as well as the oppressed.  And that realization utterly changed his approach to life – and to resistance.

2. He lived what he learned

Nelson Mandela didn’t stop simply with studying. He didn’t just make observations and jot down notes.  He put what he learned into practice.

When he was finally released from prison after 27 years, one of the first and truly remarkable things he did was to approach his enemies with kindness. He paid a special visit to the chief prosecutor, the man who had robbed him of 27 years of his life, just to shake his hand.  Rather than depose the leaders of apartheid (which he easily could have done with a groundswell of public and international support), he set out to build relationships with them. He reached out to them with love and grace. In doing so, he utterly confounded and disarmed them.

And he continued in this posture even after he won the election, even after he had all the political and legal authority he needed to act without them.  One of the most powerful stories I’ve heard about his relationship with his former enemies is that he once interrupted official state business to go and visit with one an apartheid boss whose wife was dying of cancer. Mandela learned of the diagnosis as he was on his way to meet another head of state, and he took a two-hour detour to be with them in their time of grief.

The result of Mandela’s new approach to life and politics was that people who had literally been trying to kill each other started working together to build a new South Africa. This is the power of living what the gospel teaches us:

If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well.  If someone asks you to go one mile, offer to go a second mile. If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none. 

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

All the things that serve to weigh us down and keep us apart – hate, distrust, indifference, suspicion – cannot persist in the wake of life lived in such a gospel fashion. They are swept aside by the rising tide of all the things that build us up and bring us together – brotherhood, sisterhood, respect, affection: a tide that naturally swells and washes over everything around it when a love like Christ’s love passes through.

Christ calls us to this life of faith, love, and service not just because it’s noble, but also because it works.

3. He believed in who he is.

Generations of Nelson Mandela’s family served as royal advisors to the kings of what we know as South Africa, long before European colonists arrived. Thus, he had a lineage to remind him that he was somebody even though he lived under a system bent on convincing him that he was nobody.

Thankfully, we don’t live in an apartheid state (anymore), but we do live in a materialistic one that makes judgments about people based on what they do or don’t have. Advertising can beat people down just as forcefully as a police battalion.  The message we receive day in and day out is that we are what we possess.  In such a culture, our lack of wealth and success can make us feel worthless AND our achievement of wealth and success can give us a false sense of importance.

But Scripture teaches us that, if we are followers of Christ, no matter what our earthly circumstances may be we have a royal pedigree. We have value not because of anything we do – but because of what God has done in creating us in His image and redeeming us through the death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. Through Christ, we have peace with God and we are heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven (Romans 5.1).  And so, in our struggles the gospel helps keep us afloat; and in our successes, the gospel helps keep us grounded.

This orientation is important because this orientation is the foundation of our discipleship.  You and I can answer the call Jesus extends to us – to love just as He loves us – because we are worthy of that calling. We are heirs to His Kingdom.

Yet, too often we count ourselves out because we fail to trust in our gospel identity and believe falsely that we have nothing to offer. Or we count ourselves too far in because we fail to trust in our gospel identity, and we believe falsely that we’re the only ones who can do things right. Either way, we wind up turning our backs on others. That’s not what God wants from us, and not what the world needs.

The gospel helps give us balance – the same kind of balance Nelson Mandela has found, that has allowed him to be fully who he is and allowed him to embrace others more fully as they are. Perhaps more than anything, that has been the key to his success, and the nations of the earth are in desperate need of more successful people like that.

There is a lot wrong in our world.  There is a lot wrong in our nation, our state, our city, and in our own lives. But the world can be a better place. God is very much at work building His Kingdom, at work transforming the world – and He calls us to be a part of that work as members of the Body of Christ, as instruments of His love, grace, and mercy.

Let us never underestimate the power of one person to change the world.  You’ve heard Nelson Mandela’s answer to the call. What will your answer be?

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