This week my family experienced a traumatic event at the local shoe store. Our youngest daughter, Charlie, is now in the same size shoes as my wife.
This opens up a whole world of wardrobe options for Charlie. No doubt she’ll soon begin raiding Leigh Ann’s closet – putting the over/under on muddy high heels at 110%.
Everyone at some point has put on their parents’ shoes, clomped into the living room like a clown and acted as silly as we could for a laugh. We pretended to be our mom or dad, imagining what it would be like to be grown up and get to do whatever we wanted all the time. Funny, how bad we misjudged what it meant to walk in our parents’ shoes.
We Christians aren’t any better.
We’ve done such a good job of defining our faith by what we believe, completely ignoring the entire book of James and most of the Gospels, that we’ve equated zealousy with faith. We’ve so defined our dogma in black and white that the gray areas of actual living as a human have become threatening.
Twice in scripture Paul talks about this gray area. The question of the moment was whether it’s ok to eat meat sacrificed to idols. His first answer is: Of course. There’s no such thing as those other gods so bon appetit. But then he says: If you eating that meat makes whoever you’re eating with believe in those false gods, then don’t.
His whole argument requires our ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. To empathize.
Yesterday I heard an episode of This American Life titled But I Did Everything Right about a woman who grew up Baptist, worked in a women’s clinic, and believed strongly that abortion was wrong. In her first pregnancy, something rare happened that made the viability of the fetus very low and the danger to her health high. But she chose to carry the child.
Greater love hath no woman than this, that she lay down her life for her baby.
The baby didn’t make it. One week the heartbeat didn’t show up on the ultrasound and she had to go through a still birth labor. Then the same thing happened again with another pregnancy. Different (and unrelated) diagnosis, but the same outcome.
This caused her to rethink her position. She said she wouldn’t do anything differently. But she acknowledged the gray no-win situations that women are forced into. And this led to a less judgmental, more grace-filled theology.
Last night I met my buddy, Casey (not the brother), at TrimTab for a couple pints. Casey graduated from Beeson Divinity School about a decade ago but never served a church. Instead he worked in non-profits, shelters, recovery programs, and the like. And he described how working among the poor and disadvantaged changed his rigid theology. He said “My theology has been having to catch up to my lived experience.”
This is exactly how Jesus said we should live. When we throw a party we should invite the nobodies and outcasts, the folks who leave the toilet seat up and laugh too loudly in public. It’s also how he taught theology. Jesus’s theology always grew out of loving people, eating with folks the law said not to eat with, healing folks on the sabbath, bending doctrine to fit the best way to love. He told the crowds: I know Moses said you can divorce your wife, but don’t. Think about her. The Priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan parable would’ve made themselves unclean to do what Jesus suggested.
For Jesus, theology followed empathy. And the folks he was most critical of worked exactly the other way around.
Friends, we need to relearn empathy. We need the courage to put people above dogma. I promise it won’t make you a heathen. Let’s relearn how to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.