For Sylvester, With Love

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Sam 16:7

His chair is still on the front porch at the bottom of the street, at the top of the steps, by the front door.  A cat is keeping it warm perhaps not realizing he isn’t coming back.  The whole house is empty now, its inhabitants having been evicted though they paid their $100 per week for a room in a house without heat and use of bathrooms shared by 15 other adults.  The man they paid didn’t pass along the money to the bank but he does drive a nice new car.

So when everybody moved out, it was like breaking up a little family that had formed from those who had endured all kinds of suffering, were mostly alone the world, but learned to depend on each other for company, encouragement and it turns out, life.  The chair on the front porch was often moved down to the driveway, where others would gather to visit, share beer (that had no restrictions as to time of day…morning was just as good as after 5) and always wave up an arm in salutation as we passed by on our way home.  It was the greatest homecoming every time we’d pass by them.   Often it was just a hollar of one another’s names with a big smile and jovial wave.   Sometimes we had the time to stop and visit too.  But it reminded us each time that community mattered, a greeting could go a long way to humanizing one another and that the world includes far more beauty than our own little households can contain.

A year ago, Sylvester sent a girl to our house on New Year’s day who had been struggling with crack addiction, had been kicked out of their house because of it (though others certainly used, just not to the same degree) and was in danger of losing her one year old baby.  Our small exchanges gave him the sense that we might be able to help her.  (Turns out we couldn’t, but it did deepen our friendship with Sylvester as we worked together to try and support her.)  I learned through that experience that Sylvester was a care giver.  He was no respecter of persons and cared little for self-protection in the face of others in need.

I don’t know much about Sylvester’s life prior to his living on our street.  He showed more gums than teeth in his smile, most likely due to crack use.  He had crazy hair that would almost seem over the top for a costume designer, but couldn’t help but make you smile.  His face was worn, certainly from a hard life, also evidenced by the fact he spent his days in that chair drinking all day, every day, except when I saw him walking down the main road, usually with black bag in hand from the liquor store.  Even then, I got a huge smile and hearty wave.  His eyes showed sorrow and perhaps even the futility of life, and yet his kindness caused me to miss this…and perhaps miss him too.  I wish now that I had taken more time not just to enjoy him and our unlikely friendship, but to really know him as well.  He died the week before Christmas, apparently following his wife (who I never knew about), who had died a year and a half earlier of AIDS, apparently his killer too.

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.  For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.  James 2:1-10

Sam delivered the news of Sylvester’s death and we cried together.  Sam moved to a beautiful new house outside of the city when they all had to leave but Sylvester just found another room on a street down the road notorious for drug dealings and prostitution.  He stopped eating, which Sam had made sure didn’t happen when they were living together.  When the “family” in that house broke up, it seems along with it went whatever remained of Sylvester’s will to live.  He died in a room at Grady, basically another anonymous homeless man.  He had nothing in his appearance that would cause strangers to adore him or even notice him.  He is that guy that is driven by on the side on the road, invisible at best, feared at worst.  I imagine him now robed in splendor, washed and made whole with teeth “like a flock of sheep, each with its twin and none missing” as the bride in Song of Solomon i is described.  There is still wine, but no longer to anesthetize the pain of a hard and lonely life but instead as part of an abundant feast, to celebrate life everlasting with the Lover of his soul.

I kept waiting to hear plans for his funeral or memorial service.  Sam finally called yesterday to let me know it would be at 9 this morning.  We hurried our morning exercise, got the kids up and dressed in appropriate and respectful attire and prepared them for the purpose of our attendance at this opportunity to honor Sylvester.  A person’s life should be remembered, celebrated, honored and its ending grieved, because we were never intended to die.  As we approached the exit on the way to the funeral home, Sam called to say there would be no service.  The funeral home had already loaded his casket in the car and not a soul other than Sam was there.  At 8:45, the car pulled away, taking his body away, alone.  I cried the entire way home.  This is the value we give to a life that doesn’t leave behind a solid bank account or years of evident community investment.  This is the reality of a grown-up without blood relatives to be located, the only ones really expected to send off their own with dignity.  Man looks at the outer appearance.

But God looks at the heart.  Maybe the heavenly paparazzi gathered to snap pictures of Sylvester’s entrance.  Maybe the shouts and cheers of welcome were deafening upon his arrival, drowning out the silence of his departure from here.  His soul receives the value, affection and cherishing of one loved as a broken world with sinful people increasingly refuse to offer.  Oh may it not be so here…could we not start, as His people, cherishing the lives that our utilitarian world despises?  Could we not, like the Father, run with arms wide open toward those He loves regardless of their outward and evident brokenness?

(Love) always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.  1 Cor. 13:7-13

Disagreement and Difference is Not Sin

For those of us who highly value “truth” as something to be sought after, as the end goal to any problem or question, the notion of relativity can seem threatening.  If a math equation has one correct answer, a jury decision has one outcome, a who-done-it has one solution (Colonel Mustard with the lead pipe in the billiard room), then it is very hard to be comfortable with more than one conclusion being appropriate.  In medicine, for example, we want one magic bullet, not a series of treatments or combination of factors which together all influence an outcome.  We want one clear diet: (paleo!, vegetarian!, Greek!) that can be applied universally as the one best way to get nutrients and live with strength, health and energy.  The downside to a narrow view of “truth” is that it encourages polarizing thoughts and approaches in a way that makes harmony impossible.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  John 14:6

Jesus is the truth.  Jesus is wisdom.  He is certainly not both the truth and not the truth.  But He did demonstrate that you can love fishing OR carpentry and be equally faithful to the Father.  Jacob prepared a roast for his father for a blessing and Daniel was a vegetarian in captivity.  It is not what goes into the body that makes one holy or defiled, but what comes from the heart.  Paul’s journeys took him to cities and smaller towns, neither more holy places to live than the other.  But I want to elevate the former above the latter.  I confuse “cool” for truth.  I confuse preference for truth.  I confuse body parts for the whole body…in other words, it takes all the very different parts with very different functions to make the whole body run properly.   The whole earth is full of His glory, not just select neighborhoods.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.  1 Cor. 12:12-20

We were not all made with mathematical minds but some have the eyes of an artist or the heart of a poet.  Some have the skills of a counselor to draw out the wrestlings of another’s heart while others have the ability to teach, imparting information in such a way to effect change in the student.  There are some who love food and delivering the beauty and comfort of a carefully crafted meal while others find ease and delight in working with their hands to construct homes or cars.

Some of us are loved well by being given space from noise and demands while others are loved well through constant connection and interaction.  We enjoy different television shows and movies because they articulate the different experiences we each have with the world as our particular stories need to have them identified.  We are passionate about different political issues because God has given us different responsibilities in this large Garden to cultivate.  We hear the same problem and come to different conclusions about what should be done not because one is lacking the information that brought about the other’s conclusion but because God has wisely given us different perspectives and only He is omniscient knowing all the details.

So why do our differences make us angry at one another?  Why do we so badly need for others to be us, to see it our way, to do it our way or to come to our same conclusions?  Why do I roll my eyes at one person but not another?  Why do I judge the ear for not being the voice or the voice for not being the ear?  Why do I demand that the toes perform what only the fingers can really do well while forgetting that the toes are keeping the whole body balanced and upright?  The shin bone is not sinning against the elbow by not bending, it was not made to bend and would not be doing its job if it bent – gross, it would actually be broken if it did.

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it,but sitting in judgment on it.  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?  James 4:11-12

People who live in American suburbia are not sinning against God’s kingdom any more than people who live in Manhattan are somehow more in touch with God’s kingdom.  Being moved to tears at a beautiful ballet is not “fake” any more than being emotionally consumed by a football game.  Just because we don’t understand one another’s passions or perspective does not mean we are sinning against one another in our differences.  I am sinning against the body, however, in my persistent judgement of others.  We are sinning against God as we assume His role in judging our brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends.  And interestingly, His judgment of the other “parts” in Christ’s body has all fallen upon Jesus leaving instead verdicts of righteousness.  Why is it that I who proclaim this Good News of His affection deny it to my own family of believers?  It is because I still don’t really believe it myself.  I continue to want to merit His favor and so demand that others do the same.

“Judge not that ye be not judged” must begin with me.  If I can claim a higher status in God’s kingdom for anything apart from Jesus, then I may keep my snooty attitudes about others.  If, however, my only claim of comfort or security, goodness or integrity, is as far as I am hidden in Him, then I must extend this unreasonable grace to others as well.  They will know we are Christians by our love.