What we desperately need right now is something any of us can do

We’re missing one thing in our culture today. In the America that we have become, there is one element that we’ve largely cast aside. More specifically, we have stopped showing this trait to those who are different than us. Democrats and Republicans withhold it from each other. People who disagree about hot-button issues of sex and gender and race and immigration and the Supreme Court all seem to be lacking in one key area.

Kindness. The ability to treat someone in such a way that isn’t based on the differences we have about the human condition, but is rooted in the fact that both we and they are human.

Kindness doesn’t require you to agree even one iota with another person. It isn’t about seeing eye-to-eye. But it does involve looking someone in the eye, and seeing in them a person who, just like you, has needs, doubts, hurts, struggles, fears, prejudices, convictions, questions — as well as things they believe passionately, and things they’re prepared to defend til their dying breath.

Recently, I have been listening to two podcast episodes that brought this to mind. The first is this conversation between Kate Bowler and Margaret Feinberg. Both women have been diagnosed with cancer, and they talk about the various responses they’ve received from others — like the person who wrote an extended email to Kate, describing her in the past tense, and the numerous folks who recommended Margaret try a coffee enema. Yes, you read that right. Coffee in reverse, so to speak, as a cure for cancer.

But those who are facing a complex diagnosis that defies simplistic solutions ultimately don’t need a oddball cure or a trite theological truth. What is most helpful for them is something that truly anyone can offer: simple kindness.

The other podcast is this interview Mike Cosper has with Rachelle Starr. Listen to the entire episode, and hear a powerful story of God’s grace — and of leading with kindness. Rachelle sensed God calling her to show that kindness to women who experience anything but kindness: women in the sex industry. After a decade of this outreach, Rachelle and her team have learned how powerful it can be just to offer a simple meal and a listening ear. In other words, kindness.

See, here’s the thing: you don’t have to understand someone to offer them kindness. You don’t have to agree with them to say a kind word. You don’t have to feel connected to someone to offer them the gift — the grace — of kindness. And in a day when it seems like we’re just yelling at each other in cyberspace or avoiding each other in real space, what a breath of fresh air kindness can be. In fact, what a breath of the Spirit it can be; for, as it turns out, the fruit of the Spirit is not arrogance, or debating skills, or even being right. No, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness….

Defend & Devour

One of the skunks I mentioned in my last post is gone. I saw it the other day when I was out for a walk. At the end of my street, as you turn the corner, someone had apparently hit it with their car. And — skunks being skunks — I smelled it before I saw it.

As you read this, I’m guessing not many of you are sad. The demise of skunks is not usually cause for grief. If, on the other hand, I had hit the fawn that ran in front of my car the other night, I’m sure more of us would have felt a tinge of regret (including my not-easily-impressed-with-wildlife wife, who let out an “aww” as the little deer stumbled across the road in front of us). Or, let’s take it one step further: if it had been my neighbor’s big, white fluffy dog, there would have been genuine compassion for his pet.

Why the difference? Well, between the skunk and the deer, it’s what we might call the “cuteness factor.” Deer, especially when it reminds us of Bambi, evoke more of a sense of attraction than a skunk who may look like a Disney character, but certainly doesn’t smell like a Disney character.

To most of us, a skunk has no natural attractive qualities — especially with the sense that attraction moves you closer to something; in that sense, no, I am definitely not attracted to skunks. Even so, when a skunk lets off stink, a skunk is simply doing what skunks do. And they do that for a reason. Sensing danger, they pull out their strongest response: Stink the enemy away.

I mean: how can you blame a skunk for doing what it has to do to defend itself? Isn’t that what the animal kingdom is about? It’s why dogs bark; it’s why cats scratch. It’s why bees sting and mice bite. They are doing what comes naturally, especially when threatened: they are defending themselves.

But animals have another instinct: to devour. Less about protection, this is about consumption — for every animal has to eat.

Both of these are the animal condition: defend and devour. It is the way of survival. To me, this is best pictured in the snake, who is pretty good at both: defending and devouring. A snake will bite you if threatened; and will swallow you if hungry. I didn’t go looking for examples of this, for I really have no desire to see a snake do either, but video of snakes defending and devouring are, no doubt, just a click away.

So what? Why blog about animals? Well, for one, it’s everywhere we look. On the one hand, it’s the animal condition — one that should not surprise us. Animals will instinctively, without malice, do what comes naturally to them. You stick your hand in a snake hole, you will get bit. Whether you do it intentionally or by accident doesn’t matter; a snake’s gonna do what a snake’s gonna do.

Same with mosquitoes. And gorillas. Even viruses. We fight against the flu and ebola, as we should, but they bear us no malice. They are simply doing what viruses — what all living creatures do — defend and devour. In fact, I think we could extend the description even further, to phenomena of nature. Hurricanes can be devastating and deadly. And I wish no one to get caught in their wake. But hurricanes are simply what happens when the right conditions of temperature, moisture, wind, and atmosphere combine in a powerful way. They don’t intend us harm; harm is simply what results when they simply do what hurricanes do.

For such is life on this fragile planet we call earth. Creatures and creations of all kinds that exist to defend and devour.

Of course, these instincts are not contained to snakes and skunks. They are also true of humans, too. Most of what we do, instinctively, at least, is to devour or defend. We work so we can have money so we can eat. Devour. We struggle, especially in America, with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, in part because of what we eat. Devour.

On the flip side, we go to the doctor to deal with our heart disease and diabetes. Defend. As a country, we raise up an army. As individuals, we lock our doors. We take vaccines. We stay away from wandering skunks and questionable holes in the ground.

But this principle of defending and devouring goes further. The guy at work takes credit for your work. Your neighbor loses her cool when your dog poops in her yard. The lady in the Lexus takes your parking spot at the mall. Your facebook “friend” goes on a rant that gets personal and political at the same time.

What’s going on here? Well, it’s the animal inclination to defend and devour. And what’s our normal response? To defend and devour right back.

And like our animal friends, it’s only natural; it’s what we instinctively do. Often, without much thought or consideration, people hungry for more (power, position, comfort, support, money, acceptance) will devour. And people who are afraid, or hurting, or uncertain, or doubting, or discouraged, or wounded, will defend. And often, in both cases, it’s not pretty.

Which tells me that there is only one way to stop this cycle. Unhealthy devouring and defending continues until someone doesn’t return kind-for-kind. Instinctive acts continue until someone recognizes that “hurting people hurt people,” and adding hurt to hurt doesn’t heal the hurt. But turning the cheek might.

Maybe that’s why Jesus told us this in Matthew 5.39. The only way to live in the world, but not be of the world, is not to live as the world. The only way to be a part of the animal kingdom while not living as animals, is to rise about the “defend and devour” instinct.

In other words: follow the lead of Jesus — who came not to be served, but to serve. Who came not to devour, but give his life as a ransom. Who, when he most needed to defend himself — and could have — didn’t simply turn the other cheek, but turned his whole life over to the Power & Principalities that devoured him.

But in the giving, in the dying, in what was certain defeat, came victory. And — shockingly — the thing we have no defense against (Sin & Evil) was defeated. And the One Thing that is certain to devour all of us (Death) is — amazingly — turned on itself, and new life arises.

So, in a world of defending and devouring, I want to remember two things:

  • There are a LOT of hurting people who are acting on instinct. In a million different ways, we need to turn the other cheek, to show them and the world a way not animal, but human — truly human, as modeled by the One who is truly and completely human.
  • And with that complete human, Jesus, overcoming death, nothing in this life ultimately has the power to devour us. With sin and evil defeated, I don’t have to defend myself. Jesus has already done that. I simply need to put down my weapons, and allow grace and love to win the day: in my life, in our churches, and in our world.

The Surprising Word that Won the Spelling Bee

The National Spelling Bee, which began in Louisville in 1925, held its 91st competition last month. The Bee begins with 11 million kids, age 15 and under — all vying to get a spot in the national championship in the Washington DC area. (Apparently, there’s no minimum age; last year, a 5-year-old made it through the preliminary rounds. This year, an 8-year-old was among the 519 who made it to the finals — though I gotta ask: What’s he been doin’ the past 3 years?)

But what’s most fascinating to me is the word that won it all. With the championship on the line, what did Karthik Nemmani have to spell in order to wear the crown? Koinonia.

Koinonia is a term that is best-known for appearing in, of all places, the Bible. And specifically, it’s most quoted reference is Acts 2.42 — a description of what the first believers of Jesus committed themselves to practice. Included in the mix is “the koinonia” — a word that usually is translated “fellowship.”

Now, when we use the word ‘fellowship’ in church, it’s usually as an adjective. As in: Let’s gather in the Fellowship Hall for a fellowship meal sponsored by the Fellowship Class. All good things, for sure; but even better because they point to the deeper meaning of the word koinonia.

Koinonia is sharing; a coming together. It’s a bond; it’s having something in common. It’s unity, oneness, participation. It’s where our lives come together in such a way that something happens that’s indispensable; essential; life-changing. 

In fact, a form of the word koinonia appears in Acts 2.44 and 4.32,  both of which describe how the early Christians shared their possessions in common. So, I think it’s appropriate to say that koinonia is where we come together to meet each other’s needs as the family — because we have already come together to be family, in Christ.

Koinonia, then, is not just the pinnacle of the Spelling Bee; it’s the pinnacle of the Christian life. Koinonia is what we share with Jesus (1 Corinthians 1.9), and, as a result, what we then share with each other (described in Philippians 2.1-4, and then powerfully illustrated by the description of Jesus in verses 5-11).

Koinonia is giving ourselves so completely to Christ and to each other that whatever comes — whether it’s suffering in this life, glory in the next, or anything in between — we share it with Jesus, and with each other.

But koinonia doesn’t stop there. We see this at the end of Acts 2, in verse 47, where the first believers were praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Or, at least that’s how the NIV reads. But in this place, I think the King James does a better job, when it says: “they had favor with all the people.”

The idea here, I think, is that the earliest believers lived in such a way that the grace they experienced — the koinonia that they shared — went out from them toward all the people. Church wasn’t just about them, but about taking this wonderful fellowship and unity and purpose out there — to the temple, in the homes, and out where people were.

In his book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter tells of a woman who worked in a grocery store checkout lane. Her “sphere of influence” was only a few feet, but everyday she greeted customers with warmth, remembering their names and asking about their families. She would end their brief interactions by saying that she was going to pray for their families.

Over time, this began to cause problems … because people wanted to get in her lane, resulting in long lines. They would wait, though, because she encouraged them. When she died, years after she had retired, the church was packed — as people came to share how this woman had blessed them in her checkout lane.

That’s what koinonia looks like — when we take it out there, where we live. And there are a bunch of ways to do that. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Look Up: Notice people around you. Start by considering who else is seeking to follow Jesus where you live, where you work, where you go to school, where you work out or play cards or golf, and connect with them. (Perhaps, if you don’t find it too hokey, you can call these folks your “Koinonia Krew.”)
  • Look Around: Notice those around you who could use some encouragement, some love, a glimpse of grace. Be available to them. Enlist your Koinonia Krew to join you in praying for, and blessing, these folks.
  • Put Down Your Phone: How many times have you seen people in public not engaging with those right in front of them because they are staring at a screen? How many times have you been that person?
  • Pick Up Your Phone. But wait, Jeff, didn’t you just say….? Yes, but in this case, maybe you need to pick up your phone and reach out to someone who needs to receive a word of encouragement, or forgiveness, or just a simple text that you are thinking about them.
  • Go Outside: Go out in your neighborhood, or in a community space — and see who you run into. Last night my son and I were outside throwing a baseball, when I noticed 6 skunk crossing our street. I don’t remember the last time I saw a skunk (alive, anyway), and here there were at least 6 skittering across the road. (I saw “at least 6” because I sure wasn’t going to get close enough to do a head count.) Anyway, that led to a conversation with the neighbor across the street — someone I barely knew. Who knew skunks on a street could be the source of a refreshing scent — in this case, a whiff of koinonia?
  • Take a Moment: At least once a day, ask someone: How are you doing? Then stop, and really listen.

The point: you can go take the koinonia we share out there, every day, everywhere you go. You don’t need a formal church program, a big budget, a ministry staff, or be a part of a ministry staff to go and love people. You simply need to be grounded in the reality that you are connected to Jesus and to his people — and then go live it out.