Pure, Undefiled Christian Teaching
Note:What follows is my religion column for today's issue of the Tribune & Georgian on a candlelight vigil held by a dumpster in a local apartment complex where the murdered body of a then unidentified girl had been found a week earlier.
Candlepower turns out to be more than a measure of light intensity. On Monday evening, 150-200 people took part in a candlelight vigil at the dumpsters of The Pines Apartments in Saint Marys. The experience of that event was more luminous than the power of the candles alone.
At one level, it was the simplest of events. The group gathered. We sang Amazing Grace and The Old Rugged Cross. A half dozen pastors offered prayers for the perpetrator or perpetrators, for the victim and her loved ones, for the neighborhood and more. Then we sang Kumbayah as we processed around the apartment complex still carrying our candles. One more brief prayer and the service was ended.
Yet there is a power in this simple service. There is power in standing alongside a dumpster where a murdered girl’s body was found dumped to stand up for the value of human life. There is value in going to a place of fear and speaking words of peace. There is value in showing the light of hope in a time of despair and there is immense value in speaking words of love into the face of hate.
The power of the dispelling darkness with light was much more intense than 150 candlepower or so. It was also the power of Christians, who sometimes seem so divided over matters of doctrine and worship practices, setting aside the differences to focus on the love of God shown in Jesus Christ. That was the real power on Monday evening—the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection shining in a place of death and abandonment.
If we had decided to take up a theological discussion of some point of doctrine or another, perhaps we could have found room to disagree. Or if we had focused too much on how we worshipped that night rather on that we could join together in worshipping God alongside a dumpster, then perhaps we would have disagreed. But instead, it was the simplicity of knowing that the common faith we have in God through his son Jesus is much more important than any issues which divide us.
If you’ll permit a small aside, I want to add some scripture alongside this idyllic image of Christians in action to bring some more depth to the story. The practice of regular Bible reading has a way of crashing in on your life in unexpected ways. A text written nearly two millennia ago can speak with the force of a word written just for you for just that day. And the scripture crashing in on my life lately comes from a Bible Study I’ve been leading on the Book of James.
James was written by the brother of Jesus. James had been such a faithful Jew in Jesus’ lifetime that he could not see Jesus as the Messiah, that is until Jesus appeared to him after his resurrection. Then James became a leader in the early Christian church in Jerusalem. From that position of leadership, he wrote a letter to the faithful scattered around the Roman Empire.
James speaks with crystal clarity to speak against favoring the rich over the poor. He writes that we are to be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to become angry. He also says that we are to keep what he calls “the royal law,” which is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is the not so fine doctrinal point we got right on Monday evening. As we walked around the apartments singing, “Someone’s weeping Lord,” we joined ourselves with the mourning and the fear of our neighbors in The Pines. Knowing full well of the problems of drugs and violence, we showed love rather than judgment. We did so not for the people there, but together with our neighbors in The Pines.
I do know that right belief matters and I do try to read and study and have good biblical basis for what I teach about God. But I also know that if I get more concerned about doctrine than people, I look a lot more like the religious folks in the Bible that provoked Jesus’ wrath. Jesus showed great love to many people, but he had a short fuse when it came to outwardly religious people who had no real concern for others.
We find this also in the book of James. James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
The orphans and widows were those in his society who had no standing, no one to care for them or speak for them. In that same way, the murdered girl whose name we do not yet know was, at the time of her death, an outcast with no one to speak for her. In lighting candles, singing songs and saying prayers, we showed that we know she was a beloved child of God who our Lord would never have wanted treated so shamefully. We also showed those still living in The Pines and that neighborhood, that they too are beloved by God.
So matters of doctrine and points of division aside, I think that Monday evening showed that pure, undefiled Christian teaching is love. Showing love of neighbor in a place where hate for another was so violently clear is to shine a light in the darkness. Speaking up for someone who another saw as refuse is a way to declare that all people are beloved by God and no one is beyond redemption. And for that task, there is no finer altar than a dumpster. And I am proud to be part of a community willing in large numbers to gather at that altar and put our faith into action.
Note:After I sent this column in, I read Jim Morrow's blog post and realized he had done a better job capturing the event and what mattered with fewer words. His post is here: Light Shines in the Darkness.
For those who have not seen the news, the murdered body was identified yesterday as that of a 15-year old Jacksonville girl. Her identity was discovered through a fingerprint database. A news story on her identification is here: Body in dumpster was teen from Jacksonville.