Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Person Standing in Front of Me

Last week, I listened to Jimmy Carter's latest memoir, A Full Life, on my commute to and from work. In the book, Carter describes the frustration he felt when knocking on doors as a young evangelist and not always having the right words to share with those he met. His partner in these efforts, a man Carter felt to be a powerful witness with a great ability to communicate, gave him some advice that has remained with him for the duration of his life.

"You have two jobs. You are to love God and you are to love whoever happens to be standing right in front of you at that particular moment. That's it."

The advice comes directly from Scripture and is the primary call of Christians (see Matthew 22:37-39, Luke 10:27, etc). We are to love. Sadly, it's hard to see that sometimes. But, it's true.

Whether or not you share my Christian faith, I hope you can at least agree with the latter half of the advice . . . that each of us would be better humans if we would decide to love whoever happens to be standing in front of us at any particular moment.

This directive is so simple in its instruction, yet so difficult to put into practice. I fail at it every day. I want to do better.

I have returned to Carter's life lesson time and again while reading news articles and opinion pieces about the current Syrian refugee crisis over the past several days. I remind myself that first, we are to love. There are fellow humans, no better or worse than me, who are hungry and scared, whose homes have been destroyed and whose lives have been threatened. I care for them just as I do the homeless veterans and single moms and teachers and all the other groups about whom social media has been telling me I should care before I worry about those escaping chaos in the Middle East. They all matter. And I agree with the warning that has been shared by analysts much wiser than me -- how we treat these refugees today will have repercussions for generations to come in our battle for the notions of freedom and love to win over those of oppression and evil.

I am not wearing rose-colored glasses. While I love, or at least try to love, I have discernment. I'm not naive. I know that there will be a small number of individuals who seek passage with the refugees who mean harm. And I know that a small number is all that is needed to cause an incredible amount of destruction and death. We have seen that reality play out time and again around the globe this year. This threat is not to be discounted, and it is unfair to taunt or condemn people who understandably worry that the scenes recently played out in Paris and Beirut and Egypt and Kenya and Iraq and Nigeria will be seen here. I believe the process for finding these people is more stringent than the procedures in place in Europe, but I also believe that the best vetting process cannot find everyone. There will be more attacks against us on our homeland.

But, discernment also comes in handy as a balancing tool when considering our risks. I think about the Muslims who have been my friends, roommates, classmates, neighbors, and teachers, and with whom I have gone on dates, participated in community service, and attended Christian baptisms for my friends' children. I am confident that, as much as conservative talk radio and creative Facebook memes would like to convince me otherwise, their relationships with me are genuine and they aren't just biding their time until enough of "them" are here to impose Sharia law and make me wear a hijab. I am aware and vigilant, but I put it in the context of my experiences.

So I (try to) have love, I have discernment. But I will be honest and admit I also have fear. I do worry about harm coming to my family. I worry about terrorist attacks and war that will stretch into the lives of my grandchildren. I worry about the seeming indifference to our global threat, interrupted only by flashes of defensiveness, displayed by our current leader and that those being considered to succeed him include a used car salesman/televangelist who wants to put religious litmus tests on people coming to our country, an overgrown child who calls people names and wants to build a big wall, and a corporate insider who will say anything a particular audience wants to hear except for actually naming the threat in front of us. (See, that last sentence wasn't very loving . . . I'm very much a work in progress.)

I develop fear from the depravity that our constant media exposes us to with its 24/7 news cycle. I don't understand how a human can cut another person's head off or set a man on fire or plant bombs on school girls and force them to walk into markets or kill people who had welcomed him into their church for Bible study or execute an entire room of first graders in Connecticut or lure a child to his execution in an alley in Chicago. These acts hurt my soul and can take me to a dark place. And let me be clear. If I am faced with someone who is attempting to harm my family, I admit that I will fall short of Christ's command and I will not be loving to that person standing right in front of me at that particular moment.

However, I am doing my best to use my love and discernment when the fear starts to take over, because fear can be consuming and will rob me of the joy of what is happening with thoughts of what might happen. I acknowledge that someone may arrive here with a plan to take bombs to a shopping mall or restaurant or government building. I also accept the reality that there were thousands of people inside our borders wanting to cause us harm long before anyone heard of a Syrian refugee. Lots of them were born here. In the meantime, we can provide comfort and shelter and a future to families (and not many families, by the way . . . the United States' effort is a drop in the bucket) who have not been able to imagine such gifts in years. I will remember that I'm more likely to die driving home from work than I am due to the evil intentions of a refugee and I will continue to get in my car every day. I will remember that I live in a community with people who love my children and me and about whom I feel the same way and that we will help each other in times of need and crisis and even possible terror.

I will start by focusing on offering love and kindness to any person who is standing right before me at any particular moment. That effort should keep me plenty busy. And then we will see what happens from there.