Between the high profile suicide of Robin Williams, a tragic loss of a hilarious and fine actor, as well as the awareness being built surrounding the tragedy of Rick Warren’s son, , mental Illness has been on the Christian radar a lot as of late.
This struggle hits close to home for myself and my family, as my wife has struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since a very traumatic event in her life 12 years ago. I will not share specifics but know that she was traumatized and had to relive that trauma multiple times in a short period of time where she almost took her own life, like Williams and Warren did do.
Not only is it a struggle to live with such trauma, but it is almost equally a struggle to be a Christian believer and live with the expectations, imposed from both inside and out. It can be difficult for other Christians to understand the plight of someone with a mental illness, but a good portion of the population of America struggles with it in one form or another and it is important for people to speak up and speak for those with mental illnesses.
My wife thought it was time to speak up and add her voice as one that can understand and advocate with those who struggle with PTSD and other mental illnesses. She wrote a great post I wanted to share here so that you, fine reader, can get help or help someone with a mental illness. You are not alone in this struggle, and my wife speaks beautifully to that in her post over at Our Bit of Chaos.
Today is one of my favorite days of the entire year. It is that once a year magic of Halloween where kids dress up in their favorite TV characters, favorite monster, or pretty much anything that gives them the appropriate cultural security clearances to accept free candy from neighbors, local businesses, churches, and school-approved functions.
Dressing up is awesome. I remember my favorite costumes of dressing up as Don Majkowski, the year I dressed as Kung Lao from Mortal Kombat (so cool), or the year I went as the devil and my brother was cookie monster (the picture is a classic, I wish I still had it).
Even better than dressing up is getting a chance to give candy to kids and get to speak to your neighbors. I met more neighbors in our area last year through Halloween than any other single day of the year. My son and I sat on the sidewalk by our house and were able to bless our neighborhood with hot chocolate and it was really cool to get to talk to people and enjoy a little conversation on a chilly night.
And the candy…the pounds and pounds of candy. I have a particular jones for Milk Duds and Laffy Taffy. Mmmmm…Laffy Taffy.
However, there is one thing that drives me absolutely crazy about Halloween that I need to get off my chest. No, I am not talking about the ultra-revealing and highly inappropriate costumes that are sold to women and girls every single year. I am not talking about the safety of the day or the pranks that are pulled by middle and high school kids on un-suspecting neighbors and teachers. Nope, I am talking about the annoying practice of stuffing Halloween-themed Bible tracts into the plastic pumpkins of un-suspecting kids.
I make no apologies for saying that this is one of the stupidest things that a disciple of Jesus Christ can do and I would contend that it is less loving than *gasp* dressing up as the devil. Not only is this highly ineffective at actually making disciples of Jesus, it is a practice that unhelpfully goes against the grain of evangelism It also sends out a message that not only do we not love our neighbors, but that we don’t really like them, either. I know a lot of people are going to bristle at the suggestion that handing out evangelism tracts is a stupid idea, but I challenge you to convince me that it is actually a loving gesture.
I find it to be a picture of laziness in our walk with Christ and a self-justification that we checked off evangelism on our obedience check list and pat ourselves on the back for “redeeming” this “Devil’s holiday”. When we just slap a tract on the back of the fun-size Butterfinger we’re not making disciples, we’re drawing up cultural battle lines and not bothering to think that, instead of creating a hostile thin red line between us and those that “celebrate” Halloween, Jesus just might want us to obey his Word and to “do the work of an evangelist” and cross that line in order to start some not-yet-Christians on the journey to becoming followers of Jesus.
Evangelism is NOT an information blast on a tiny piece of paper, an extemporaneous conversation, or an 1800’s style camp-meeting, although all of those things can and have served as mediums for evangelism. Evangelism is a sharing of the good news, which is a pillar of and an avenue for making disciples of Jesus Christ. To limit our evangelism and the sharing of the good news with our neighbors and their children to a silly tract in a pillow case is not just ineffective disciple-making, but it is lazy and borders on being disobedient. Jesus didn’t invite us in to his family to pass out tracts, he drafted us into his spiritual army to get right into the thick of the action. Tract passing is propaganda work; real evangelism is getting into the trenches of our community and the muck and mess of people lives and speaking the good news of God reconciling us to Himself through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Lastly, I know quite a few people who have gotten those tracts in their bags. I have never heard a person say that they enjoyed receiving that. Usually it is good for a laugh and trying to think about who gave it to them, and then it is quickly tossed in the trash. If this is the case (and my circumstantial evidence is just that but I am positive others have similar stories) then why are we wasting our time with this and why aren’t we moving on to embracing “new” ways of evangelizing and making disciples on Halloween (and every other day for that matter).
Let’s follow Jesus’ command to GO and MAKE disciples and STOP printing and stuffing useless Halloween tracts that don’t MAKE disciples but only FAKE spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, but I never felt that I lived in a suburban neighborhood. As an adult, I hear/read/experience so much about neighbors, especially in the suburbs, never talking or interacting, but my best friends growing up were the cool dudes up the street and across the field from me. Our lives revolved around playing neighborhood games of soccer, capture the flag, and night tag in the perilous field that separated my house from my best friend and the boy a grade older than us. I never felt that I had to travel miles to play with friends, and my summers as a kid were some the coolest and best memories I ever had.
College was really no different. When living in the dorms you could not avoid running into other people. Life with other people was a necessity in college and there was no shortage of guys and gals to hang out with on any given night, even if it just meant sitting in your dorm room watching Forensic Files on Court TV.
But something happened to neighborly friendliness when I got married and had a family. Somehow, all that stuff that had been bantered about the neighborliness of our society decaying suddenly had teeth to it. You didn’t want to hang out with the creepy guy who checked his mailbox ten times a day and stared at you from his screen door in his underwear (true story). There was no reason to get to know the neighborhood old lady, since she fenced up her house and never came out of it. Not even the nice family adjacent from you. You just exchanged niceties and never could remember the wife’s name. There seemed to be this unsaid rule that you stayed in your yard and did your best to follow the prescribed boundaries set out by your local municipality.
I don’t know what happened. Why did I suddenly feel no need to get to know people? Was it my fault? Was it other people’s faults? A combination of both of them?
I saw this in our church, as well. We gravitated towards those the most like us. Why did we bother commiserating with those we didn’t know, when it was so much easier to stick with who we know and enjoy Sunday mornings in comfort? I didn’t want to go meet new people. I had friends, and TV, and video games, and books, and quiet times, and Bible Studies.
Looking back, I think I was trying to make strangers out of my neighbors and make neighbors out of people I called my friends. My friends, my inner circle, became who I cared about and my neighborhood became wherever they were. My real neighborhood, the place where I lived among other people, became a strange land of strange people with strange habits and lives I didn’t care about.
But what did Jesus want us to see in Creepy Underwear Guy, or in Shut-in old lady, or Denim-wearing Homeschool Mom at church? Was I really supposed to make my neighbors into weird strangers that I gave funny names?
In Luke 10, Jesus addresses the question of who is our neighbor. A lawyer, seeking to justify himself after Jesus tells him the law is summed up by loving God and loving your neighbor, asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus, as a great teacher and provocateur, answers the lawyer’s question with a story:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “The one who showed mercy to him,” he said. Then Jesus told him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37 HCSB)
The main point Jesus is trying to make is to showcase the lawyer’s self-justification by keeping the law. He shows that the best neighbor is the one that helps by using the example of the Samaritan helping this poor traveler, not the obedient priest or the holy Levite who walked right by him. The Samaritan was someone seen as extremely offensive and was an ethnic pariah in the Jewish community, so his use of the Samaritan is striking. Jesus is saying, “Your holy obedience and holy club mean nothing if you are not willing to help those in need and be a true neighbor by imitating this Samaritan helping the poor, dying man.”
Likewise, Jesus said that the Samaritan proved to be the neighbor to this man. The Samaritan, a common epithet used at the time among Jews (in fact, Jesus is called a Samaritan in a derogatory way), is your neighbor, as well as one who can be a neighbor to you. Jesus does not find this offensive, but is highlighting the hypocrisy of those who try to justify themselves through strict obedience to their man-made laws, and he points them to the heart of God.
“Jesus invites us to have a posture of treating those that are most offensive to us as our neighbors.”
This is further illustrated in Jesus’ story to a ruler of the Pharisees’ when he was invited over for dinner (Jesus walked and ate with sinners, but he also ate with the people who hated him. Talk about an example to strive for). Jesus said to everyone gathered at this dinner:
“When you have a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12b-14)
Jesus invites us to have a posture of treating those that are most offensive to us as our neighbors. Heretical Samaritans, the blind, the poor, the lame, the crippled; all of these were unclean and deeply offensive to the Pharisees and keepers of the law. Jesus rebukes our holy huddles and man-made laws to embrace a radical discipleship that looks beyond our own theological navel-gazing and invites us to embrace the Father’s gracious and loving heart. We are to be like the Father, who extended unmerited favor and grace to us, and feed and bless those who cannot repay us in turn for our kindness, just as we can never repay the Father for His gracious provision of His son and inviting us into His family.
My challenge to myself, and to you by extension, is to seriously ask what the Spirit is saying as a result of Jesus’ words. Are we going to be like the lawyer and try and justify ourselves by loving only those who we are willing to love? Are we going to be like I have and give them a funny label to slightly de-personalize (or de-neighbor) those around us? Or, are we going to step out in obedience, in the power of the Spirit, and love those who are unlovely and offensive to us?
My hope for myself is to not find the next funny label for a weird neighbor, work colleague, or fellow church member, but to step out in faith to love someone that looks and acts nothing like me and pray for the Spirit to make me more like Jesus’ loving hands and feet to a “creepy-underwear guy.” He did that for me on the cross and I pray for myself and you to have a heart that bleeds for the weird and for the outsider like Jesus’ does.
PS If you are looking for great resources on how to build relationships with your neighbors, read The Art of Neighboring.