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spiritual life

Misplaced Guilt

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Guilt often misleads us. We think that we ought not to fail, that we ought to be competent at whatever we undertake, that we ought to anticipate what will happen and be prepared for it. The things we berate ourselves for are our incompetencies. But only God is all-competent.

Jesus showed us what a good person is like. A good person is totally dependent on God. Jesus did only what he saw his Father doing. He always left outcomes up to God and just did what he knew was right. From a human perspective, his life was a failure. Executed for insurrection, he did nothing of lasting note except persuade his followers of something really insane—that he was God’s unique Son. Yet his life and death and resurrection have transformed the world.

God does not consider our failures as important as our disobedience. Again and again in the bible, he demonstrates his displeasure at being disobeyed. And disobedience arises from distrust. It was so when the Serpent tempted Eve. She doubted the goodness of God’s purpose in prohibiting the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is so now whenever we don’t do what we know is right because we fear the repercussions. One essential part of Jesus’ teaching is that God loves us and treats us as his own children. He taught us to trust God so that we would have the courage to obey him. The repentance he demands is not for our failures but for our disobedience and the distrust it springs from.

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Brother Shadwick

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When I was about 14, my family started going to a new church. It was still an Assembly of God church, but it was not the one in Columbus, Ohio we had been attending. This one was in Delaware, about the same distance but in the opposite direction. We were living near Sunbury, Ohio at the time. I don’t remember why we switched churches, but I think it had something to do with our former pastor leaving. The church in Delaware was small, maybe 35 or 40 members, so when the 10 of us started going, of course we were going to have an outsize impact. The pastor, Brother Moore was a young, sincere man, and the congregation was made up mostly of middle aged and older folks. I’m sure our family alone doubled the number of kids attending.

Fifty years ago, churches had Sunday School followed by Worship Service every Sunday morning. Sunday School was a time of instruction, mostly for teaching kids, but most churches of my acquaintance also had adult Sunday School classes, but the folks who attended were mostly people with kids who were bringing them to be taught. The format was usually less formal than public school. Classes were small. There were often kids from 3 or 4 grades mixed together. Still, you were expected to listen to the teacher teach, not interrupt or talk in class, and generally behave yourself. At 14 I was really good at that, having attended church since before I could remember.

My Sunday School teacher at Delaware Assembly of God was a man in his 40s named Brother Shadwick. (In the Assemblies of God of my youth, every adult was either Brother or Sister from the pastor on down.) Brother Shadwick was short but wiry; he looked like a fighter with close-cropped hair, big ears and a bulbous nose, thick lips, and one of those sallow complexions that would go beet red when he got angry. He proved also to be proud and ignorant, always a dangerous combination.

Our class was in a small room off the fellowship hall. There couldn’t have been more than four or five of us. I don’t know if Brother Shadwick took an instant dislike to me, or if it was our first skirmish that made me his enemy. The lesson that day was about Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Brother Shadwick was trying to set the scene. He told us that fishing boat Jesus and the disciples were in was very small, about the size of a row boat.

I raised my hand.

“It must have been bigger than a row boat,” I said. “It held Jesus and twelve disciples and their fishing gear. Jesus fell asleep in the prow. How could he sleep in the prow of a row boat?”

Brother Shadwick looked daggers at me. He stopped the class and had us all bow our heads. He prayed that God would forgive my sins and overcome my rebellious spirit. I was embarrassed, of course, but I also knew that I was right and the Brother Shadwick was wrong. Rather than admit to being wrong, he had treated me as if I had done something shameful. I knew I was not rebellious. In fact I was a compliant child, and I resolved to keep my mouth shut unless I was called upon.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I was a 14-year-old boy. There is no other age when boys are more obnoxious. I was certainly not immune. I was no doubt tactless and cocky. But I was not interested in how he felt having his word questioned by a mere boy. I was interested in truth, and it mattered to me that he was changing the story to suit his own preconceptions. But after that incident I was wary.

Some months later another incident occurred. Our class had been combined with another, and we now met in the fellowship hall where there was more room. My younger sister, Lani was in the class. There may have been as many as a dozen students. This time the lesson was from Jonah. The story of Jonah is bizarre even compared to other Old Testament stories. The feature most people remember is that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and survived inside it for three days, but that is not what makes it truly bizarre. Taken as a whole, it is a story about the compassion of the God of Israel for people who were not Israelites, who were in fact enemies of Israel. The last sentence, which God addresses to Jonah as a question, makes the point explicit:

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals? (Jonah 4:11)

Brother Shadwick claimed that this meant that the people of Nineveh were savages, unable even to tell their left hand from their right. He compared them to people living in mud huts, eking out a living at subsistence farming. Sitting there listening, I kept thinking, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to say anything.”

Then Brother Shadwick looked straight at me and asked, “Isn’t that right?”

What could I do? I pointed out that Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, that they represented the dominant political power in the region at the time, and that the verse probably referred to children rather than to the entire population of the city. Brother Shadwick turned red. My sister rushed from the room to find our mom or dad. I found out later that she thought he was going to hit me. He did come toward me and stand over me. But he did not lay a hand on me. Instead he resorted once more to prayer for my rebellious spirit because I had dared to know more than he knew.

I do not know what resources Brother Shadwick turned to when he was preparing his Sunday School lessons. Perhaps he thought, as many people still think today, that he needed no resources but his own understanding to make sense of stories that were hundreds of years old. I was not so self-assured. My family had encyclopedias, bible dictionaries, study bibles, and alternate translations. When I read the bible, I referred to those resources to help me understand. I still use such helps when I read the bible.

Two more incidents help illuminate Brother Shadwick’s character. Both occurred shortly before my family left the church. The first was that Brother Shadwick got into a fight with a co-worker and was badly beaten. His nose was broken, and he came to church with his face heavily bandaged. He sued his attacker and lost. The judge decreed that Brother Shadwick had provoked his attacker, so no compensation was due. The second was a confrontation between Brother Shadwick and a new pastor who had come to set make things right at the church. I don’t remember what it was about. I just remember Brother Shadwick standing nose to nose with the pastor, flushed with anger, his hand balled into a fist and spitting his words between clenched teeth. He still had bandages on his nose. The pastor regarded him with absolute calm but refused to back down. We left that church, and it closed for good not long after.

Some people would have been soured on church forever by these incidents, but I was fortunate in several respects. My parents knew me well. They knew I was not trying to cause trouble or show up Brother Shadwick in front of the class. They didn’t berate or discipline me for standing up to Brother Shadwick when he said things that revealed his own prejudices, especially when he asked for my opinion. I also knew that Brother Shadwick was not best representing the character of Christ in these episodes, so they did not make me question God’s goodness. Besides, I had my own relationship with Christ, and he sustained me even when others who also claimed to follow him misunderstood me. So I bear Brother Shadwick no ill will. I hope he has found peace and been delivered from his anger.

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Love Is Kind

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… love is kind. 1 Corinthians 13:4

If you’re like me, you’ve seen memes on Facebook declaring that “kindness costs nothing.” But of course kindness is often costly. Kindness requires that you have another person’s best interests in mind rather than their approval or admiration. The question is, “What is good for this person?” not “How can I get this person to like me?” Love is careful not to assume it knows what is best for another. That’s why patience—allowing others to make their own choices—has to come first. But kindness cares more for the well-being of the beloved than for their friendship or attachment. So kindness may, in fact, do things that the beloved perceives as unkind—at least in the moment.

We see this dynamic best in the way parents discipline their children. Keeping in view the well-being of the child, they may forbid activities that could seriously endanger the child—activities such as playing in the street or starting fires or throwing knives. The child may perceive the parent as unkind, but in fact the parent is showing genuine love and kindness for the child by preventing them doing something dangerous.

What about friendships, however, where the relationship does not include the unequal power dynamics of parent and child? Can kindness still be perceived as unkind? Of course it can. For example, you might warn your friend against making a risky investment, even though pundits and economists are describing it as safe. Or you might do all you can to dissuade a friend from committing to a relationship that you and other friends can see is plainly doomed. Or you might advise your friend that he endangers his own soul by continuing unrepentant in sin.

Kindness extends beyond mere warnings or advice, however. You might attend a protest for racial equality but find that people of color regard your advocacy as officious or patronizing because you are white. Kindness makes sacrifices for the good of the beloved, including bearing their recriminations, their misunderstandings, and even their hatred. This is the way God treats us, and he expects us to treat others the same way. This does not mean that you become a doormat and simply accept the ill treatment of others. But it does mean that you might withhold the exercise of your power and choose to appear weak rather than endanger the good that will come of doing what you know is right.

Kindness offers help but does not insist that its offer be accepted. Remember that Paul is describing love, which is always other-centered, never self-centered. Love must start with patience. You must respect the autonomy of those you love. Yes, it feels good to be needed, but as soon as something feels good, it becomes a temptation. Beware the seductive power of what feels good! Helping so you can feel good is not kind or loving. As Anne Lamott says, “Help is the sunny side of control.” If we ignore the autonomy of those we love, we risk creating a codependent relationship punctuated by continuing failures and rescues. Indeed, if we ignore their autonomy, our love will come to look an awful lot like hatred, and our sense of being in control will become increasingly unsatisfying. True kindness leaves the ones we love in control. They determine what help they will accept and how they will use it. Of course, this does not mean simply enabling them to do as they please. The offer of help may come with conditions, and there may be milestones that must be reached for help to continue. The goal of help offered in kindness is independence not dependence.

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