Sunday, January 21, 2018

Reminders of how difficult it is to be a Christian

When we hear that it is enough to be anti-abortion to be a Christian, this is my response. Yes, pro-life is the Christian way, the protection of embryos is the Christian way, but pro-life, the Christian life, encompasses a wide range of behaviors, starting with the embryo and ending with the elderly, the sick, and the dying. Lest we forget Christ's preaching on what it means to be Christian.

Matthew 25:31-46 New International Version

The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

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This message spells out for us in no uncertain terms what Christ expects from us. There is no Christian argument that can justify white supremacy, racism, or the exclusion of others based on race, income, or gender. No matter the circumstances, we as Christians are called to help others, to include others, to think of others, to put ourselves in the shoes of others. It's hard. It's very hard. Sometimes it seems like an impossible task. We tell ourselves, we work hard for a living. Why should we give our hard-earned money away to the homeless or the unemployed, or those who seem to be lazy? There is some validity to the argument, because some people are lazy and don't want to work. How would Christ have responded? Would he have tried to convince the lazy to work, to contribute to society, at the same time that he said to us, continue to feed and clothe the poor anyway? I think he would have. Why should we visit the sick, the elderly, or the housebound or contact them regularly? We don't have the time to do that. We convince ourselves that a phone call twice a year is what we can manage. There is some validity to the argument, because we often don't have much free time at our disposal. I think Christ would have wanted us to dig deep and find the time. Why should we include other people in our social circle, or reach out to the new employee or the immigrant from a war-torn land? Why should we waste our time trying to understand that migrants and refugees are fleeing from war to a better life? There is some validity to the argument. Countries do need to take care of their own first before they can take care of migrants and refugees. But often it's easier to say that they're coming to our rich countries to take advantage of our wealth and benefits. That's what I sometimes hear in Norway, from well-educated and well-fed people. And then I think, you don't want to share any of your wealth, much of it based on a natural resource called oil. That's not right. I think Christ would have wanted us to dig deep and find the empathy and compassion needed to put ourselves in their shoes.

I don't think Christ worries too much about our bottom lines, about our profit margins, about our pension plans, about our lack of free time. I think he is more concerned that we are charitable toward others, despite the cost to ourselves. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot judge harshly the unfortunate as lazy and freeloaders and at the same time call ourselves Christian. It doesn't work that way, and it's a message that I understood already as a teenager. I understood that it was going to be very difficult to be a Christian. Because it means going against the norm, against the prevailing trends of xenophobia, against the fear of losing our material wealth. It means moving ourselves out of our comfort zones. Christ is challenging us to think about our fears. What is it we fear? Do we fear being homeless, sick, mentally ill, terminally ill, old, unemployed? Yes, we do, and it's normal to feel that way. All these things involve loss of prestige, loss of face, loss of our pride, loss of our easy life, and so on. It means we cannot always have things the way we want them. We may not be able to take that vacation abroad this year, or buy the new car, or the big house, or send our children to expensive schools. We often learn the hard way. Someone we love becomes sick or dies. Children commit suicide or overdose on drugs. Family members become mentally ill and difficult. We want to run from the problems, we want to have our comfortable lives back. But what if we can't? What if the problems are life-long? What if someone we love becomes disabled and can no longer take good care of themselves? What do we do? I think we're allowed to be angry, distraught, irritated, or sad about the turn of events, about the bad luck, about the bad karma. We're not allowed to turn our backs on those who need us. Mother Teresa said the same thing. Charity begins at home. But we have to acknowledge those outside our family who might need our help too. We cannot close our eyes to the suffering in the world. And there is a lot of suffering. Objectively, when I look at what migrants and refugees want, it's a better life for themselves and their children. Is that so wrong? They just happened to be born in the wrong part of the world. A toss of the dice, and perhaps we could have ended up like them. Who knows?

That is why, as a Christian and an American, I don't want to see us close our doors to immigrants and those who dream about finding a better life in America. That is what makes our country great. One of my friends on Facebook recently posted the poem that stands at the base of the Statue of Liberty--a beautiful poem and a Christian message if ever there was one:

The New Colossus--by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”