Ferguson, ISIS, Mental Health, Ebola, ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge: Why these issues (and others) should’t be at odds with one another.
I have two long-time friends who are doing hard combat in the battle with cancer right now – both have brain tumors, both are confronted with the reality of their own mortality far too soon.
No one would ever suggest to me that I should choose only one of them to lend my support, prayers, finances, and help.
So why then do we think this sentiment is ok:
I have to be honest with you. I think this image is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen floating around the internet in a long time. Like really, seriously, outrageously dumb.
I realize that’s a big statement, but pitting clean water issues (in the developing world by implication of the photo) against fatal disease research and caring for ALS patients living with a death sentence is not only illogical, but exclusive in the worst possible way. It’s like telling me to choose between Joy or Charysse to care about as they both undergo treatment for this monster overtaking their brains and bodies. I care about both, and so much more.
Making matters even worse is the way issues tend to quickly polarize us in our quest to do what’s “right” or fight for “truth.” I have a lot to say about social media, about advocacy, about click bait and headlines such as “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is Killing Babies” that perpetuate incomplete information about life or death issues, about hashtag ‘slactivism’ that doesn’t pack a punch and hashtag activism that does, and about how and why we lend our voice, time, and energy toward what we do. And most of all it is personal. Of course it is.
But honestly, the bigger concern all of this raises for me is this:
Isn’t there room enough in our hearts for it all? Can we not care about clean water, finding a cure for deadly diseases, the tiniest lives among us, and so much more all at the same time?
On choosing which issue is most important
I’ve been so disheartened this last month as many, MANY heart-breaking issues have surfaced to vie for space on social media and—more importantly—in our hearts and heads:
- The death of Robin Williams, suicide, and mental illness.
- ISIS and Christian genocide.
- Gaza, Russia, the Ukraine, Syria… entitlement, retaliation, promise, and bombs.
- Ferguson, racism, police militarization, human rights, and our desperate need for humility and deep reconciliation.
- ALS and the #icebucketchallenge.
- Spiritual abuse, wounded church-goers, and the need for true repentance and restoration.
- Ebola, poverty, and inequality.
- Planes crashing and falling from the sky.
Those are just a few, but most would agree they’re the most urgent and weighty issues (in no particular order) that have shared moments in the spotlight during these last show-stopping weeks alone.
What causes us to respond the way we do?
Because I’m a person who is wired to feel deeply about all things touching on justice issues (my parents tell me I’ve been like this since…. ALWAYS), I have literally been losing sleep over the unfolding of current events. I’m tossing and turning and asking myself what my personal response should be and wondering what I am blind to and what am I seeing clearly and how does my worldview and theology taint (for better or for worse) the way in which I engage? I’m asking myself (and God) how might Jesus lead the church in all of this and what should our corporate response look like and what does it mean to give myself on behalf of my neighbor (agape—sacrificial—love) and what does repentance, humility, love, reconciliation, and kindness mean translated into the everyday not just for the world “out there” but for me?
According to Strengths Finders one of my highest “strengths” (that sometimes feels more like a weakness) is Belief and, whether I like it or not, it tends to trickle into every single area of my life. (Or drive itself into every area.) Regularly I find myself in the arms of my husband asking through muffled sobs: “What is wrong with me that I feel so much?” and/or “What is wrong with everyone else that they don’t?” (My last meltdown was over #bringbackourgirls – an issue I’m still heart-sick about and praying into regularly.)
I realize I’m not “normal” in the way this stuff affects me, and I’m glad for that. (The whole world should be glad for that because oh my goodness that would be… exhausting.) And I also realize that my views are one-dimensional at best. (“We see through a mirror dimly” as the Apostle Paul put it.) But it’s not just my emotive, Belief-driven personality that compels me to care, it’s also my faith. My belief about the goodness and kindness of God requires me to have the utmost conviction that he cares about our pain and suffering and the injustices around us.
Among other things, we all have our own filters, convictions, personalities, expressions of faith, worldview, and cultural norms, all of which help determine how and when and where we tackle the issues we do. That’s not a bad thing.
But please don’t tell me that you can’t be concerned about an issue because you’re already concerned about another. Please don’t tell me to choose between Joy or Charysse, Ferguson or mental illness, Israel or Palestine, ISIS or Russia, ALS or clean water or my personal convictions about when life begins.
Love doesn’t compare or exclude or allow itself to be dictated to by a hierarchy of needs that incredibly human humans have ascribed varying levels of importance to. Love derived from the Divine encompasses all.
When the issues present themselves
Now, please don’t misconstrue my words here. I’m not saying every Christian needs to take up every cause. That’s not realistic or even helpful. I understand that “compassion fatigue” is a real thing and the internet can be a mind-numbingly noisy place. I also understand the need for not being entirely consumed with the world’s problems at the expense of appreciating the beauty and goodness of God around and among us even as heartache coexists or explodes into our personal comfort zones.
However, when injustice rises or pain is exposed and we willfully turn our heads the other way and pretend it doesn’t involve us, then we are breaking the greatest commandment that Jesus ever gave: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. (It’s a difficult commandment to be sure, but strikingly simple.)
When Jesus took on flesh and “moved into our neighborhood” (as Eugene Peterson so brilliantly put it), he didn’t limit his ministry or concerns to one issue or to what he felt was most “important” for people to understand. Instead he made himself available to whatever issue presented itself and then demonstrated the beautiful character of God—his character—within it:
- The wine ran out and water was transformed.
- The blind came to him and sight was restored.
- The sick reached out (or were brought to him) and were healed.
- The possessed came and were delivered.
- The religious spread dangerous ideas and were rebuked.
- The disciples asked questions and were taught.
- The grieving sought refuge and were comforted.
- The sinners caught in the act were shown mercy.
- The friends who would betray him were loved even still.
- The diverse were embraced and celebrated, the repentant were forgiven and restored, the doubters were affirmed and encouraged and believed in, regardless of their struggle, and the ashamed were set free.
The ministry of reconciliation begins and ends with Love
Jesus came to show us the ministry of reconciliation. He came to show us what life can look like as all things begin to be reconciled to the goodness of God.
Over and over again Jesus “changed his tune” to embrace and address whatever was afflicting the people around him, whether it was affliction of heart, mind, body, or spirit. No matter what the issue was, his tune may have changed but his lyric was the same: he sang love, always love. A love that was generous, unassuming, humble, gracious, unconditional, and both reactionary and preemptive at once.
And so this is my response as I’m faced with more concerns than my feeble arms can hold: I’ll ask what does Love look like? and try to respond in the best way I know how. I will screw up BUT I will try to listen, try to learn, try to err on the side of kindness and inclusion and advocating for the marginalized or the suffering. I will try to make room at my table for the other, even when I don’t fully understand where they’re coming from or when association doesn’t fit neatly into my cultural or religious boxes.
This kind of “making room in my heart” is hard because there’s certain people (or groups) I’d rather not associate with because I believe what they stand for is wrong, plain wrong. But I firmly believe that Truth and Love shouldn’t be at odds with one another. Truth stems from Love, not the other way around, and if we can major on Love then I’m quite sure Truth will follow.
Choosing ‘both/and’ instead of ‘either/or’
I can’t foresee ever not caring about oppression or violence, women’s issues or the racial divide. I can’t foresee ever not caring about education or the government or how our theology matches up with the endless good nature and character of God. I will always care about missions, about the gospel of Love, about activism, about inclusion, about caring for my neighbor who walks through illness or grief. I will always care about displaced peoples, asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants. I will always try to rally my networks to help my friends with cancer, ALS, infertility, child loss, mental illness, job loss, divorce, ministry fatigue, or any number of issues that might scratch their way to the surface.
Jesus cared about all the needs brought before him, so why shouldn’t we try to do the same, responding within the framework of our personalities and the things that burden our hearts?
Why must we choose an “either/or” over a “both/and”?
Dear Church, can we make room in our hearts for it all?
Oh dear Church, can’t we all search our hearts and make a little room for one another? There will always be more “causes” than we know what to do with or feel capable of addressing, but that shouldn’t mean we back away, unwilling to engage. The needs of the world may be big, but we all know our God is bigger. The Holy Spirit was never his Plan B; he was left on earth to enable us, empower us, counsel, comfort, teach, and nudge us to represent his Love in whatever issue of the day is presented. Even though our hearts often feel too small, too fragile, and too weak to embrace the disarrayed world around us, the heart of God is not.
Maybe the problems and suffering of the world belong to us more than we care to admit. And maybe, with Jesus, we can make room in our hearts for it all.
#Ferguson, #ALS, #CancerSucks, #Gaza, #Ebola, #ISIS, #BringBackOurGirls… these are more than just hashtags. These represent real heartaches belonging to real people that really need our Love.
Don’t ask me to choose an issue. I’m trying my best to make room in my heart for it all.
Learning how to love better,
A post script about ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge:
For the record, yes, I absolutely have a bone to pick with the critics of the #icebucketchallenge in particular. To date the ALS Association has received well over $70 million through this “silly little” campaign that’s gone viral. (No doubt that number will be obsolete as soon as I publish this. When I first wrote this a week ago the number was at $13M and I thought that was impressive!) With donations up from $1.9 million during this same time period last year, I dare you to tell me this challenge isn’t making a difference! (And that’s only the fiscal side of things, the solidarity and delight and encouragement this challenge has provided for the ALS community cannot be pegged with a price tag.)
ALS is a savage monster ripping families apart at the seems (even while it beautifully knits them together in other ways). Before you write off the challenge completely, perhaps try reading a first-hand account from dear friends of ours who are bravely facing this disease head-on and learn What An ALS Family REALLY Thinks About the Ice Bucket Challenge. (Go Team Stern! May the entire internet rally around you!) You might also want to watch this “unsexy fool” share his heart-wrenching story on youtube (it’s a long video so just skip forward to around the two minute mark if you need to) or watch this dear girl’s incredible truth-telling ice bucket challenge. (Perhaps grab the tissue box first.)
And to the issue of embryonic stem cell research being used by the ALS Association to help understand the disease and find a cure, I want to implore you to not “throw the baby out with the ice water” and know that although, yes, they do use stem cell research from both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, the embryonic stem cell research is done in one privately funded research project. Your general donation is certainly not used for “killing babies.” I know this because I’ve personally spent hours reading up on it myself. The more I’ve researched, the more I’m compelled to believe that this is a cause worthy of our support and dollars. In saying that, if you can’t support the ALSA knowing they use both types of stem cell research, I respect your conviction. Please just know there are other organizations that are working to support ALS families that you can give to as well. My friend Bo Stern (who’s husband, Steve, has ALS) recommends Team Gleason or ALS Guardian Angels. I would also suggest the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation, which my friend Michaela Evanow recommends. The GSF is working on finding a cure for SMA, or “baby ALS” as it’s been called.
I think Bo sums it up best: “But yeah, the thing I love the very most is Steve Stern and the thing I hate the very most is #ALS. If you knew them like I do, I think you’d understand.”Pin It