small & needy

I’m reading Drew Hart’s book, “Who Will Be a Witness: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love and Deliverance.” Dr. Hart is part of the Harrisburg Church of the Brethren in Pennsylvania, and he joined the CoB’s Healing Racism initiative with a lecture and conversation last month. Click that link and listen to the lecture – you won’t be disappointed.

In his book, Hart describes a moment in college when one of his white Christian friends asked him if he would die for his country. At first, Drew didn’t understand: what do you mean? Under which circumstances? What kind of scenario are you setting up, here? But eventually, he realized that the friend was asking for an all-encompassing commitment: would you die for your country without any qualifications and for any purpose?

“My answer,” he writes, “was easy at that point – ‘Hell no!’ is probably what I said (or at least what I was thinking)…I was confused. There should never be anything that demands your ultimate allegiance as a Christian, regardless of the context and circumstances, except discipleship to the way of Jesus, yielding to the Spirit’s activity in the world, and worship of our Creator, and living life committed to loving your neighbor as yourself.” (WWBAW, p. 166)

In this morning’s devotional reading, Anna Lisa invites us into the story of Naboth and King Ahab. Ahab lusts after Naboth’s field, vowing to starve himself to death until he could get what he wanted. Ahab was KING – he had EVERYTHING. And yet he was willing to die for the next best thing that he couldn’t have. Anna Lisa says “There’s a striking correlation between lung capacity and lifespan. The clothes you wear, the way you sleep, your stress level, pollution and infections can decrease your lung capacity. Is your rush-hour commute worth dying for? What about the hours at your computer?” Her prayer at the end of the day’s reflection is “Jesus, you died for love, healing and revolution…teach me to live and die for these things, too.”

We’re all just trying to survive, right now. Avoiding death sort of seems like a wiser activity than discerning what it is we would die for. Except, for the last year, people have been making that choice over and over and over, every single day: I will die for a chance to eat in a Chili’s. I will die for my “right” not to wear a mask. I will die for one hour of sitting inside my church’s sanctuary. I will die for the honor of caring for COVID-positive patients in my workplace. I will die for money to pay the rent. I will die for a birthday party. I will die for the permission to teach my students in person. I will die to accompany my sick child to the hospital. Every one of these scenarios has come to pass over the last 12 months.

I got my hair cut yesterday, inside a salon. I’m super cautious in every other way: my only other indoor activity is a weekly grocery trip for 20 minutes or less. But a haircut – one hour every two months – means a trip downtown, an hour of conversation with my stylist who I love, a rare opportunity to experience human touch, and a tiny bit of normalcy when I look in the mirror and at my own face on those godforsaken Zoom screens every day.

I suppose, in some forms of this calculus, I have decided that I will die for a haircut. Or maybe I will die for an hour of face-to-face conversation with someone I like. Or maybe I will die for the sensation of human touch.

It’s messed up that we are forced to decide, every day – every hour – what we are willing to die for. Both Drew Hart and Anna Lisa Gross wrote those reflections before this pandemic, before the question about “for what are you willing to die” became a constant drumbeat behind each day’s to-do list. Their questions are also individual ones, but the pandemic has expanded the question to: what are you willing to kill for? Every one of these decisions has the potential to kill someone else.

I think it’s still worth asking, and answering. Am I willing to die for my hours at this computer screen? Am I willing to kill for the chance to eat mediocre food inside a restaurant? Am I willing to die for human contact? Am I willing to kill for my country?

A year ago, I would have had ready, powerful answers to all of those questions. I would have answered with clarity and hubris. “No!” I am only willing to die for love, healing and revolution. Humbling, then, to recognize how small and needy and how very much like King Ahab I am, how less-than lofty my basic requirements reveal themselves to be, how much I need other people.

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