We Northern Hemisphere folks are now in the darkest month of the year-but in the last third of December the tide turns, naturally and supernaturally. Because of Jesus, "people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned" (Matthew 4:16).
What do we do when basking in the light? One of Christ's toughest apostles gave good instruction: Be "prepared to make a defense to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15-16).
I suspect that rough fisherman Pete was preaching not only to us but to himself. Until changed by the Holy Spirit he was unused to treating others with gentleness and respect. And in talking with University of Texas students-many with church backgrounds against which they rebel-I'm struck by how many believe that Christians do not treat other sinners with gentleness and respect.
How should they be treated? During the week before Thanksgiving, Michael Richards, best known for playing Jerry Seinfeld's neighbor on their 1990s hit television show, fell into comedian's hell. Richards left no one laughing when he did a show at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles and exposed his bigotry by screaming what is now known as the "n-word" at some audience members and positively recalling the bad old days when the only right many blacks had was the right to be beaten, and worse.
The Richards rant, now posted on YouTube, generated thousands of responses, with many declaring that he should never work again, and some defending him. But the Christian position, when we see anyone using his tongue, rudder-like, to send his whole body over a waterfall, is neither of the above. We should chastise the perpetrator and pray that God will change his heart. We should also take his action as a reminder that sin is always crouching at our door.
Sometimes it crouches with the particular creepiness that brought down Richards. As Southern Baptist leader Richard Land commented, "Racism and the ugly destructive prejudices it spawns are still with us, and will continue to be. Why? Fallen, sinful human hearts are always going to be subject to the temptation to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3), which is the root of all prejudice."
But the problem is general. Whenever we see someone's baptism in church, we should be reminded of our own. Similarly, whenever we see that some other sinner's heart needs to change, we should be reminded of our own desperate need.
We should say, as an adaptation from Augustine's 1,600-year-old Confessions (IX, x) states, "O Lord, what evil have we not done? Or if there is evil that we have not done, what evil is there that we have not spoken? If there is any that we have not spoken, what evil is there that we have not thought to do?"
We might recall as well two modern statements: J.I. Packer's three-word summary of the Bible, "God saves sinners," and Ann Lamott's "I don't understand much, but I understand how entirely doomed I am without God." Doomed-Michael Richards and all of us are utterly doomed without the event we celebrate on Christmas.
I'm a Christian because 33 years ago, in late fall darkness, I began to glimpse a great light. I know of some desperate people, from teenagers to octogenarians, who sit in darkness and need that light. I'm sure you know some, too. But here's the question: Will a drug-user, thief, or liar come to you or to me with the expectation of being treated with gentleness and respect? How about a homosexual, a radical feminist, or an atheist?
Some of my students recall preachers who pointed fingers and thundered so much that the ministers and all those around them became deaf. These students, of course, filter their experience through the anti-Christian bigotry that is common in academia and media, so I don't confuse their accounts with reality, but they are reality-based.
When in sermons or columns or conversations we don't treat others with gentleness and respect, we should recall words that may have become overfamiliar: "Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."