As Different as Chalk and Cheese

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I grew up in a family where teasing was a form of affection. Wrestling, practical jokes, funny stories that revealed weaknesses in each other? All normal (to us). To those not accustomed to this way of relating, such play appeared intimidating and offensive. Most of the time we knew where the line was, but in the background, we often heard someone warning, “You had better stop now before someone gets hurt!”

And then someone got hurt. A line was crossed. For one of the participants the action wasn’t fun anymore. Teasing became bullying (to them). Fights ensued.

Like many parents, we discovered our children’s individuality early. One liked to cuddle; the one who had to move-it move-it move-it resented the restraint of adult arms. One cried easily, one bounced back like an inflatable clown punching bag, one treasured solitude, and one was happiest when surrounded by 27 of her closest friends.

Not only did their teasing/offense lines not line up, they all responded differently to discipline. A raised eyebrow could send one child into paroxysms of guilt, while the arrival of the correction Cavalry, with swords drawn, would prompt another kid to say, “What? I didn’t do nothin’.”

Another parent, describing her boys, said, “They’re as different as chalk and cheese.”

I understand her. Add the dynamic of parents who married their opposites and it’s a wonder we ever agreed on a restaurant.

This week my social media is flooded with differing opinions -strong opinions- from people who claim to be part of the same family of God. I admit, I also have opinions and preferences. Try as I might there are some folks I just can’t seem to get along with. Why don’t other people see things the way I do? Is there something wrong with me or something wrong with them?

I went to bed talking to the Lord about this. By morning he brought to mind the crazy mix of personality types and viewpoints of the disciples Jesus chose to walk closely with him. The Lord reminded me he went on the road with both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector in his crew.

I followed this rabbit trail and learned some fascinating details about what it meant to be a Zealot or a tax collector. In short, it meant they were ideological enemies.

Zealot is our English word. Simon belonged to a political group called the Kanna’im which comes from the second commandment term for God, El Kanna – jealous God. They fashioned themselves after the zeal of the priests Phinehas and Levi who resorted to the sword in efforts to maintain the purity of the law. In their opinion, the other major parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, were not doing enough to uphold Jewish standards in the midst of a barrage of corrupt foreign propaganda.

The infiltration of foreign ideas, and especially idolatry, into Jewish culture incensed them. They despised the Romans for imposing their ways on the populace. When the great census was taken under Quirinus (the reason Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born) their anger boiled over. The census was about taxes. Taxation represented everything despicable about the occupation; now the people felt forced to support idolatry financially. The Kanna’im considered King Herod the Great to be a sycophantic pawn of the Romans and a fake Jewish convert.

The Kanna’im traveled to troubled areas and stirred up riots while they destroyed property and anything they considered to be a graven image. Some began to carry concealed daggers in case the opportunity to take out an infidel arose. Zeal consumed them and many died, either in the skirmishes or by execution later. Their plan was to replace Herod (and his descendants) with a real king, and for this they needed a Messiah – or at least a Messiah-like figure. Jesus fit the bill. (When he refused to play the game, saying his kingdom was not of this world, they found others, the “false Messiahs” Jesus warned his followers would arise after he left.)

Depending on which side is issuing a label they could be called either terrorists or resistance fighters. Herod called them “robbers.” Simon (sometimes called Levi) was part of the Kanna’im. Jesus chose a violence-advocating activist to be one of his closest companions.

Matthew, on the other hand was a publican. A publicanus collected duties, excise, and taxes for the Roman occupiers (The use of the word “publican” as the proprietor of a drinking establishment came later in England). He was a Jew who was detested by the Zealots for being a collaborator. Most of the Jewish population simply hated him for taking their money or goods in kind.

Zacchaeus, who demonstrated remarkable transformation after meeting Jesus, was part of the publicani, chief tax collectors, who were like district managers for the government revenue ministry. As such he was truly hated. Not only did he take money and give it to the Romans, he had the authority to set fees for collection and confiscation “services.” The fees, of course went into his own account. Matthew and his colleagues were lesser officials, but their methods involved blocking roads, bridges and gates until people needing to pass paid up – adding of course, their own “fees.”

Capernaum, a town near the point where the Jordan flows into Lake Galilee, was a border town on the edge of Decapolis territory which had become a district of Roman settlements. Perhaps this is why the Roman Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his beloved servant told him he need not bother coming back with him. Crossing the border was a hassle because it meant running the gauntlet of publicans.

Jesus understood the burden of reputation Matthew brought with him. He knew he was subjecting himself to guilt by association and that he would be called “the friend of publicans and sinners.” Nevertheless, he approached Matthew the Tax Collector at his installation at the gate and gave him the opportunity to become a follower. We know Jesus was not naive about the relationship challenges involved. He illustrated his story about humble prayer by using the example of a Pharisee with excellent public status and a Publican with a poor social rating.

When I think about Jesus’ deliberate inclusion of these two men holding extremely different ideas about politics and methods of surviving tense times, my reaction is, “Are you kidding, Lord? How could there be any unity in this “band of brothers?”

I remembered the band also included Nathanael the prejudiced (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”), Judas the embezzler, Thomas the cynic (“Unless I touch the wounds…”), Peter the filter-less impulsive (“I’ll never forsake…”), and James and John the holier-than-thou social climbers (“Do you want us to call down fire on them?”). They all argued about who would be greatest in the kingdom.

Add to the outer group of followers some stage mothers, embarrassed siblings, spies, and what’s-in-it-for-me merchant opportunists and he had a congregation no sane pastor would envy no matter how much pressure he is under to improve his stats. Perhaps one of the greatest miracles Jesus performed was to keep them from killing each other.

How did you do it, Lord? Just this week I witnessed people who have unfriended each other over arguments about which businesses or movies or evangelists to boycott. When it comes down to questions about the best way to run the country the opinions are even more sharply divided, even among Christians who have been in formal fellowship for years.

The gospels mention squabbles between disciples. They also tell us that Jesus spent time with his heavenly Father praying about who to choose to be one of the twelve disciples. Here’s the thing: The Father didn’t judge them by their current resume and curriculum vitae. He saw who they would become.

When the instruments of an orchestra tune to the same pitch they are in harmony, even when their sections play very different instruments and follow music in the score that doesn’t resemble anyone else’s part. The one thing early followers of Jesus had in common was the response to his question if they wanted to leave: “Where else can we go? You have the words of life.”

Not everyone is going to feel they have the same exact instructions to follow. For example, a person with a Holy Spirit granted motivational gift of prophecy tends to see a big picture with few gray areas. They move boldly and purposefully toward a goal. A person motivated by a mercy gift will tend to see the people falling through the cracks and respond with gentle compassion. Many gifts. Many perspectives.

After Christ died and rose and ascended to heaven the Holy Spirit came in power upon the disciples. That’s when they began to remember what Jesus told them and put it all together. It’s interesting that Matthew’s written account is the one that emphasizes that Jesus was the Messiah and therefore qualified to rule as King of Kings forever, something the Zealots were hoping to fulfill by political means. It’s also interesting that the Kanna’im who didn’t follow Jesus stayed part of a movement that provoked the violent fall of Jerusalem, while Simon went on to declare the saving love and grace of Christ for a world beyond the confines of Mosaic law.

How do we live in harmony with people as different as chalk and cheese? We tune to Jesus. We keep our eyes on the author and finisher of our faith who saw the joy that lies ahead. He who was willing to lay down his life and conquer death for us, He has the words of life. We can do no better than extend the same grace to others that he has extended to us.

I may not agree with all your opinions or methods, and I might yell ouch and need time to calm myself if you cross the friendly line and hurt me, but if you and I are both centered on Christ and know that he loves us, we are family. It’s his kindness that makes us want to change. I’m willing to listen to what God shows you and adjust and hope you are too. It’s called love.

(Note: This is not intended to be an in-depth academic study. Scholars differ on details. If you are interested I challenge you to explore the topic further.)

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Overwhelmed

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Have you ever noticed that crises don’t have the decency to line up and come single file, waiting patiently until the previous demand has been met?

It’s snowing – again. During the unusually big dump, three weeks ago, I met this guy digging out not only the access to his carport, but a neighbour’s place as well. Then he went on to help clear the way for a midwife who lives down the lane before she returned from night shift at the hospital.

“The important thing,” he told me between shovelfuls of snow, “is to not let it pile up on you.”

“But it’s still snowing!” I said, as my blue toque turned white with accumulated fluffy stuff.

“I know. But if I waited until it stopped the task would seem overwhelming. So I work, take a break, and work some more.”

He tossed another shovelful on a snow bank taller than he was.

“Just keep at it,” he grunted.

I admit he demonstrated a better work ethic than I often do. Sometimes I look at the task ahead of me and feel so overwhelmed I quit, hoping a miraculous event will clear the path like a sudden thawing chinook wind (which we don’t get on this side of the Rockies.) At the moment I feel buried under inertia.

But the man with the shovel reminds me to persevere.

So first I respond to obligations and crises, then clear my desk, file my notes, answer my emails, take a break, clear my emails, edit my photos, take break, and write my stories – one sentence a time. I toss words on the page like tossing shovels full of snow on the spot I hope will transform into a garden someday.

It feels overwhelming but maybe, someday, there will be a book where once nothing existed but blank whiteness.

Just keep at it.

For Grace to be Grace

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“For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before.”

– Kathleen Norris

Mercy is great, but mercy is not grace. Mercy unhooks whatever barb we have caught ourselves on. Mercy disengages the power of expected consequences that make us pay for our naivety or stupidity or even outright rebellion.

Grace engages the power to become more than our naivety or stupidity or rebellion would allow. Grace empowers us to become something entirely new, entirely different – entirely holy. Grace draws us into the Presence of the Holy where nothing will ever be the same.

Without grace frontiers are formidable walls. With grace we can say with the Psalmist:

For by You I can run upon a troop;
And by my God I can leap over a wall.

(Psalm 18:29)