What Do We Do Next? (A Post Florence Reflection)

What can we do now? We’ve got a variety of options. For the time being, we are confined to watching and waiting. The situation with the roads and the ferries which link us to the world around place us in a precarious position. Although we suffered limited damage, compared to others, we can’t be reached or reach out. This will soon change.

I am reminded of one of the underlying messages of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We cannot immediately fix things, but we can sit in the ditch with others. This is an idea which emerges from within the story. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by thieves. The road, while open and traveled, was known to be dangerous. Victims regularly reported robberies, assaults, and murders. Roving gangs of thieves were known to work the roads, hiding in wait to ambush unsuspecting travelers.

For whatever reason, this man made the decision to walk the Jericho road alone. Before sunset on the first day, he was spotted, followed, and attacked. The ambush was swift and easy. Stripped and beaten, he was robbed of his material possessions. Luke tells us he was “half-dead.” I’ve always gotten hung up on the idea of being “half-dead.” After storms like Florence, Matthew, and witnessing humanitarian crises in the former Yugoslavia, Armenia, and Liberia; it really makes sense. Following a disaster, war, or severe illness we are beaten down, robbed of our material goods, our sense of self-worth, and we feel half alive. Somewhere between living the life we thought we knew and the present we’re experiencing, life is only a fraction of what we once experienced or defined as a whole.

Our house may be half full of water, or our bodies may be half full of cancer or our lives may be half full of love. For whatever reason, circumstances descended upon the road we were traveling and left us in a place we never thought we would be.

Now that we’re here, half dead in the ditch, who are we waiting on? Is it the Good Samaritan? Are we waiting for someone to solve our problem, fix our situation, and bring us back to “full” life? Or does our healing take a different form? Perhaps someone will come alongside us and be present with us in our half-ness, not try to fix us, and offer empathy and companionship even while we’ll still sitting in the ditch.

I hope so. The Samaritan encounters the wounded man. Because of prejudice and ritualized discrimination, he lives half a life as a way of life. Notably, he arrives on the scene after others have observed the reality of suffering and chosen not to help. For reason of piety, arrogance, and pride, they decided not to get involved in the sufferings of others. The Samaritan made a different decision.

We know about the Samaritan taking the man to an inn and offering to pay for medical care. However, what came first? Before he arranged for his care, he bandaged his wounds. Before dressing his injuries, he sat in the ditch and listened. The Samaritan is merely present with the man’s needs without trying to solve any more significant issues. Perhaps both men needed to sit together in the ditch and weep before the substantial question of restoring wholeness could be asked.

The story of the Good Samaritan is not only a parable of doing the right thing. It’s also about becoming vulnerable sitting with each other in moments of great pain and weakness. Many people (even before the hurricane) were in such places. It’s easy to be the hurricane, death, emotional, relationship, insurance, chainsaw, flooding expert. Tragedies are full of “Captain Obvious’ of the Moment”.  You can pontificate and tell people everything you know about the crisis without really opening yourself up to actually listening to the pain of the people you’re talking too. It’s harder to stop talking and listen.

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On Shitholes

I want to speak frankly of “shitholes”.  I do not want to justify the President’s vulgarity or embrace my own.  Instead, I wish to pose a thought experiment.  If we are to embrace a worldview where some places are “shitholes” and other places are first world paradises, what does this mean for our Christian faith?

If we want to limit people from so-called “shitholes” from coming to America, we’ll have to stop Jesus.  By the President’s standards, Nazareth is a “shithole” and so is Bethlehem.  Christianity began, grew, continues, and is strongest today in the ill-defined presidential “shitholes”.  The Christian church is growing the fastest in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.  Christianity is all but extinct in Western Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries.  If America accepts what the executive branch terms as “shitholes” it means we close the door on Jesus Christ.  The culture war idolatry we now practice (and call Protestantism) is a pale resemblance of the “faith of shitholes” we were called to embody.  If Jesus is no longer central to what we do then we are no longer Christians.  The game is up.  We might as well call ourselves civic groups who pray.  We sure aren’t churches.

Like many of my colleagues, I am in ministry because of my desire to go to and live in actual “shitholes”.   When I sang “Here I Am Lord”, I meant it.  I wanted to witness the impact of diseases, preach in the jungle, and build new churches in the middle of nowhere.  I still do my job.  I see firsthand:  God is in the shit.  I’ve found that to be true time and time again.  In the poverty, emotional, psychological, and physical crap we discard onto the most vulnerable people in our world God is working to heal broken souls.  I am blessed to help carry the bandages.

Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?  At the end of the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  In Luke’s gospel, the Lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Do you know what that means?  It means the one from the “shithole”.  The one from the “shithole” showed the other man who was in a literal “shithole” (a ditch) mercy.

Take away the “shitholes”  and you take away Jesus.  Take away Jesus and you don’t have shit.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Is It Too Dangerous To Be A Good Samaritan?

I’ve been thinking about Good Samaritans.

The recent murders of two men on a Portland, Ore. commuter train by a man who was harassing a teenager and her Muslim friend wearing a hijab raises an important question.  In a time where sectarian violence is becoming more common; is being a Good Samaritan more dangerous than ever before?  In risking our lives to save others are we risking too much; putting some in unnecessary jeopardy because our sense of civic decency and religious pride cannot ignore a man with mental illness?  It’s a tough question to decide, in an instant, for what offensive behaviors one is willing to die.

Far from a simple question of situational ethics, the idea of the “Good Samaritan” is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and one that Christians cannot ignore.  The concept of the “Good Samaritan” emerges from Luke’s gospel.  It is a Christian story and for the most part, the secular world gets it wrong.  The “Good Samaritan” is an anti-hero.  His questions and motivation are not lost on today’s headlines.

As Jesus tells it, a man was traveling a dangerous road between two cities.  This road was known to be one where thieves, robbers, and bandits regularly plied their trade.  It was a dangerous path.  The man should have known better than to take this road.  It was, however, this quickest way to his destination. Somewhere along the road he was jumped, robbed, beaten, and left for dead.  No one intervened to stop his beating.  No one fought the robbers.  No one called the police.  He laid there, in the road, a corpse in the making.

While the man lay dying, on two separate occasions, two people walked by his half-dead body.  These people, while very religious, did nothing to help the man.  They valued their religious obligations over any duties toward people in need.

About this same time, a Samaritan was travelling along the road.  Samaritans were not do-gooders with first aid packs, civic heroes, or well-respected people.  The Samaritans were an ethnic group; a despised ethnic group.  The corpse in the making, his ethnic group hated the Samaritans.  The half dead man probably thought the Samaritans were sacrilegious heretics who worshipped a foreign God.  To most people, there was nothing “Good” about “Samaritans”.

And yet, the Samaritan stopped.  Remember the Samaritan didn’t see the initial attack.   There was no more physical violence.  There was emotional violence; that’s what the two religious guys did by ignoring the half dead man in the road.  Religious inaction is as bad as hate speech.  The robbers could have returned.  They did not.  The Samaritan picked up the nearly dead man, treated his wounds, and took him to a place where he could be cared for.  The Samaritan even paid his medical bills.

The Samaritan was “Good” because the dominant religious culture deemed him “bad”.  In last week’s attack in Portland, the Muslim women would be the modern day Samaritans.  If you want to apply the parable of the Good Samaritan: these women are the outsiders, the religious culture different from our own.  Secondly, the two men who died are also Samaritans.  I would also argue they are martyrs.  They stopped when no one else would, despite the danger (obvious or not), they came to assist someone in need. When Samaritans are assisting Samaritans, when we start to see each other as Samaritans; I can hear Jesus saying, “Now you’re getting it”.  It is notable that in Jesus’ story the Samaritan never responds with violence.  Like Jesus himself, the Samaritan counters the effects of violence with healing and compassion.  Death stops when Jesus gets involved.  Jesus (like the Samaritan) doesn’t have to kill others to be safe.

It has always been dangerous to be a Samaritan, good or otherwise.  The kingdom of God is full of Samaritans; outsiders and outcasts who are unrecognizable to the brick and mortar mainstream we call religion.  Look around at the Samaritans among you; they are in your congregations, in your pews, in your world, hiding in plain sight.   Welcome them home.  Tell them Jesus loves them, is proud of them, and their time is now.

Blessings,

Richard (the preacher next door)