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Clueless in the Face of a Great Gift?

Conversations: The Monthly Letter of Justice For All

Christmas 2016

Mine was a small gift, but they missed it.

One of my favorite panels from our new Art of Life Exhibit juxtaposes a classical painting of a woman holding her daughter with the words “Embracing child and career” and “better than abortion.” 

At the University of Oklahoma this fall, though, one free speech board (image nearby) showed that this panel made no sense to some viewers.  They pointed out, confidently, that sitting for a portrait isn’t a career, and a woman in 1786 couldn’t possibly have had a career anyway.

Comments on Free Speech Board: “In 1786 this woman did NOT have a child and a CAREER!” and, [sarcastically], “Sitting for portraits is a career?”

Panel from JFA’s Art of Life Exhibit (Image: Madame Vigée-Le Brun et Sa Fille, by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, France, 1786; More information: Art of Life web page)

Had these students looked with just a bit more curiosity at the panel in question (image nearby), they would have found etched just next to the date of the painting in the bottom right-hand corner the only clues they needed in order to discover the point of the panel — the title of the painting and the name of the painter: Madame Vigée-Le Brun et Sa Fille [by] Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

This translates to Mrs. Vigée-Le Brun and Her Daughter [by] Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Yes, indeed, there is little sense in displaying this lesser-known painting from the 18th century to illustrate the idea that a woman can embrace her child and her career, unless, of course, the woman pictured in the painting is...the painter...and the painting is her self-portrait!  A quick look at the website found on the panel (www.debate2dialogue.org) reveals that Vigée Le Brun was Marie Antoinette’s chief portrait painter.  Yes, at least one woman had a “bona fide career” in 1786!

I don’t recall talking to the students who wrote these comments.  When I came across the photos of the free speech board later, the fact that these students missed the point of the sign made me angry, and for a moment, I wanted to mock them and point out how foolish they were.  But then I caught myself.  Isn’t sadness a more appropriate response?  These dear people are missing out, after all. 

When people outright reject or miss the point of our outreach events, our good-faith attempts to dialogue with them, the beautiful wonder of life in the womb, the truth about human rights, or any other gift we offer, it makes me sad — sad, first, that they missed the gift, and second, that I, in my weaknesses, have sometimes made it harder for them to get it.

This reflection reminds me of another gift, a gift that is not only magnitudes greater than some of the gifts I’ve just been discussing, but indeed, it’s also in a category all by itself.  I’m referring to the gift of the incarnation of Jesus.

God’s gift was a great gift, but have I missed it?

This page from The Psalter of St. Louis (circa 1191-1212) alludes to two very different responses to the gift of Jesus.  Above, Herod (right) talks with the magi and prepares to attempt to kill Jesus.  Below, the magi bring gifts to Jesus, showing a much more appropriate sense of awe and appreciation for the gift of Jesus.  (See Wiki Commons for more information about the image.)

I know I have missed it to some degree.  I know, because although I respond to the gift with private awe, I don’t often respond with public acts of sharing the Savior I know.  I am usually silent.

Contrast this timidity about the gift of Jesus with the confidence I feel when I am standing near the Art of Life Exhibit and have a chance to tell people about the point of this “Embracing child and career” sign.  I am so taken with the sign that I can’t wait to tell people about it.  I want them to experience that moment of wonder, that moment of recognition that comes when one sees that this woman is embodying the embracing of both child and career, all at once, right there in the creation of this painting.  I want them to experience the beauty of the optimism of the panel, the optimism that says women don’t have to kill their children in order to actualize their abilities.

My eagerness to share the truth about Christ, on the other hand, is somehow just barely limping along, even though the incarnation was a much more wondrous embodying — the embodying of God himself.  Perhaps my eagerness is suffocated by the dark skepticism and mocking spirit of the culture.  To be sure, I also fear that the gift will simply be rejected.  Is this the appropriate thankful response to God’s gift — a private hoarding and a repetitive withholding of the truth from others?  The troubling answer is a confident, “No.”

So, let’s resolve, shall we, to share our experience of this beautiful miracle of the incarnation of Christ — his taking on human nature that he might ultimately redeem us through his death and resurrection.  Let’s resolve to share this news more publicly, even if only in small moments with strangers or friends, when we have the choice clearly set before us: Do I now allow this moment to be mundane, or do I transform it by just saying something, taking the chance that this person will join me in a moment of recognition and wonder?

Let’s resolve not to wait, then, for only those few people we’re confident will appreciate Jesus.  And let’s resolve also to strengthen our confidence in the greatness of the gift of Jesus through study, reflection, and prayer, so that we may speak more boldly.  I have a hunch, though, that trusting God by going through the motion of “speaking forth the mystery of Christ”  (Colossians 4:3) might itself do the work of strengthening our confidence to continue to speak.

When I think about how God is patient with me in my reluctance to share all I know of his marvelous gift to me, I’m thankful for his mercy and forbearance.  Perhaps I’m just as clueless as the students who mocked the Art of Life sign.  Perhaps more.  Yet, God is patient with me, a seeker who longs to appreciate his great gifts with the response they deserve.  If God is patient with me, clueless in the face of his great gift, how much more can I be patient with those whom God has called me to engage in conversation, especially when they reject the gift I am offering them?

In awe of God’s great Christmas gift,

Steve Wagner

Executive Director,

Justice For All

Is There a More Important Question than the Voting Question?

If I had five minutes to discuss the election with you around my kitchen table, I’d spend it proposing that there’s one question we can’t afford to neglect as we go to the ballot box.  Which question?

Understandably, Christians all over the United States are pondering and discussing many questions about the presidential election:

  • For whom should I vote?  Is there a right answer? 
  • Should I vote for one candidate in order to make sure another candidate loses? 
  • Should I “vote my conscience” or should I be shrewdly pragmatic?  Are those the same thing? 
  • If we avoid the ballot box due to the presidential election, won’t this harm the other elections? 
  • Which issues are most important?  Which candidate will protect religious freedom, which will help the cause of the unborn, and which will nominate good justices to the Supreme Court?
  • Is there a candidate whose character is fit for the presidency? 

All of these questions are worthy of consideration, of course.  I’d like to suggest, though, that a different question is more important than any of these.  Take a short rabbit trail with me to New Hope Christian Church in Monsey, New York, where I preached a sermon on October 2.  My sermon wasn’t about the election.  It was about Jesus and his approach to focusing on the right question.  As we’ll see, though, his method can help us focus on what’s most important as the election approaches.   

Jesus Transforms the Lawyer’s Question

During my sermon, we looked at a familiar passage – perhaps so familiar that we are apt to miss the point.  In Luke 10:25-37, a lawyer asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus responded by asking the lawyer to expound on his area of expertise: “What is written in the law?  How does it read to you?”

The lawyer summarized the law: we are called to love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus mysteriously replied, “Do this, and you will live.”

Predictably, the lawyer was not satisfied with this answer to his question.  The text says that “wishing to justify himself,” he asked, “and who is my neighbor?”  It’s as if the lawyer was saying, “How?  Tell me what to do…specifically!”  This sounded noble and innocent enough.  But as Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan, it became clear that the lawyer’s question was not so innocent after all: 

Jesus flipped the lawyer’s question,  Who is my neighbor?, on its head: Who proved to be a neighbor?  (Image: The Good Samaritan by Jacopo Bassano, ca. 1562, The National Gallery, London; Image downloaded from Google Cultural Institute via WikiMedia Commons)

As a priest and a Levite walked on the road to Jericho one day, each saw the man left for dead by robbers, and each passed by.  As Scott Klusendorf pointed out to me many years ago, we can imagine that these two passersby felt pity, but they did not actually take pity on the man.  Only the third passerby on the road that day, the Samaritan, stopped to help the man.  The Samaritan allowed himself to be completely put out by the project of meeting the needs of the person in front of him. 

Jesus then asked, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?”  Jesus’s response brought into focus the much more sinister meaning of the lawyer’s question.  Ironically, although the lawyer appeared to be asking “Whom should I love?” he was actually asking the opposite question: “Whom can I not love?  Whom can I safely ignore?”

This was the wrong question, of course, and Jesus flipped it on its head.  From Jesus’s perspective, we should not ask, “Whom can I exclude?” but rather, “How can I become the sort of person who is a neighbor to anyone in need?  Who should I become?”

Moving then to a point of application in my sermon, I shared some of the ways that the people in our JFA community have sought to “prove to be a neighbor” to two groups of people who have been forgotten and left for dead, literally and figuratively, on today’s “road to Jericho”: unborn children and their parents.

Transforming the Election Question

During this election time, many Christians are asking the question that seems most pressing: “For whom should I vote?”  I wonder, though, if a more important question is, “What sort of person should I be?”  This cuts to the heart of the election, bringing it into focus:

  • Whoever becomes President of the United States, how can I become the sort of person who helps unborn children myself rather than relying on politicians to do the entire job for me? 
  • How can I become the respectful, humble sort of person who stands for the right of those who disagree with me to speak freely, trusting God to change hearts and minds? 
  • How can I become the sort of person who speaks up for those who can’t speak for themselves, even with family and friends, even when my own social comfort is on the line?
  • How can I become a courageous person who joyfully endures persecution for my beliefs?
  • How can I habitually pray that God helps me to become the person he meant for me to be?

I suggest then that as you consider “For whom you should vote?” that you take care not to allow that important question to mask a deeper, more insidious question: “What can I leave to my elected leaders to handle for me?”  Instead, let’s become the sort of people who actively meet the needs of unborn children and their parents by creating conversations that change hearts and save lives.  It’s only by the hard work of thousands of us seeking to become people who change minds ourselves that we can make abortion unthinkable for millions and help to bring about justice for all. 

Want to become that person?  Our events and online resources can help.  Want to help us train thousands to become advocates in the coming months and years?  Your gifts to JFA make this possible.

P.S. As the election approaches, would you consider taking one hour of time that you would have spent discussing the candidates for president and spend it instead on becoming an advocate for unborn children?  Our “Learn at Home” Program can help.

Can We Tell Other People What to Do? (#MindBlown)

In election seasons, it is very common for people to talk about what the law should be on abortion.  When that is the topic, it is also very common to hear some version of the following sentiment:

“I’m pro-life, but I can’t tell other people what to do.  Therefore, abortion should be legal.”

JFA trainer Rebecca Haschke did a beautiful job of helping a young man reconsider this sentiment in a conversation she described in a recent letter entitled #Mindblown.  In this man’s case, he felt that because he had religious reasons for his point of view on abortion, he was disqualified from making a case that abortion should not be legal.  I think you’ll be encouraged to see how this young man came to see things differently in just minutes.  In the process, you’ll witness Rebecca’s manner, and you’ll learn a sequence of questions you can ask when you confront this sort of concern in conversations with friends and neighbors.

Members of JFA’s training team interacted with the topic of Rebecca’s letter recently.  You can read some of their reflections and post your own at the JFA blog.

"You Aren't Going Anywhere."

I watched as the standby passenger just in front of me gave the agent his ticket and was the last passenger to disappear down the jet bridge.  He was going home, and I…I wasn’t going anywhere. 

[You] educated me to the max.
— Claire, seminar participant in Washington, DC, January 2016

Washington, DC, was about to be buried under one of the worst snowstorms in recent memory.  The mayor of DC had declared a state of emergency…a day before any snow would fall.  I had been notified about ten hours before that the Students for Life Conference I was in DC to attend had been cancelled, and I had hurried to the airport in the wee hours of the morning in hopes of flying standby back to Wichita to avoid getting stuck.  That was Friday morning, January 22, the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade (1973).

I wasn’t going anywhere.  It was fitting, though, that I and many other pro-life advocates who had gathered in DC for the March for Life were feeling this way as we entered the 44th year of legal abortion in America.  If you’re like me, you take stock of where things are for the unborn child in America, and you conclude, candidly, “We aren’t going anywhere.”  We seem to be stuck in a place where the right to first-trimester abortion is as firmly entrenched as it can possibly be in the laws and consciousness of the people. 

What happened during the next 48 hours, however, provided a different sort of picture.  It’s a picture of hope and the progress that’s possible when we take small steps with the opportunities God provides. 

When in Doubt, Take a Polaroid

STOP = GO...create conversations that change hearts and minds.

STOP = GO...create conversations that change hearts and minds.

I was standing in front of the gate agents already, so I asked them to rebook my flight, since it was certain that my Sunday flight would soon be cancelled.  As I waited, I decided to liven things up a bit.  I mentioned that I had a Polaroid camera.  I took it out, turned it on, clicked the button, and the flash went off.  A piece of white plastic emerged from the camera.  The two gate agents, both women, were surprised and delighted with this “relic from the past.”  Our conversation went something like this:

“Now, when did the picture come into being?” I asked, as the image began to be visible.

“When the camera clicked the photo,” the older of the two women responded.  

“When the film was exposed, right?” I added.  “It wasn’t a picture only once we could see it…  Now, when does a human being begin?”  The older woman made a motion of sperm and egg coming together. 

“I think you’re right – at fertilization.  The Polaroid is a good picture of the way humans begin: Even though we don’t have the apparatus to see them at fertilization, they are there.  Time and development make it possible for us to see them, but they were the same humans at fertilization that they are later on.” 

Rare videos of the unborn are now easy to access and show to friends anytime, using your phone or tablet!

Rare videos of the unborn are now easy to access and show to friends anytime, using your phone or tablet!

The gate agents didn’t know this, but I was sharing a portion of the JFA seminar, a lesson we learned from Richard Stith: The unborn isn’t constructed from pieces like a car; the unborn develops from within, from fertilization, much like a Polaroid picture.  The older gate agent was especially intrigued.  She shared the picture with a third gate agent, a young man, and there was some discussion about the unborn and abortion.  If I remember correctly, I also pulled up the new “See Baby” app on my phone and showed video of the unborn child in the womb (www.ehd.org/apps).  I gave the gate agents the Polaroid picture as a memento to remember the conversation by, and one of them took my business card.  She was smiling.

Instead of walking away from that counter dejected, I walked away excited that God had given me a few free minutes to defend the unborn child in a way that was both natural and memorable.

Snowed in: A Great Time for Getting Equipped to Save Unborn Children

Blizzard snows begin during the March for Life! 

Blizzard snows begin during the March for Life! 

A friend of JFA’s, Kellie Taylor, had mentioned that her group of 46 high school students, college students, and chaperones from Phoenix would be snowed in with “nothing to do,” so why not spend the day equipping the students to dialogue about abortion?  That sounded like exactly the sort of thing that would redeem the time and effort I had put in to come to DC, so I texted Kellie to ask if there was a place for me to stay at the facility that was housing them.  Happily, she was able to secure me a room, so I hurriedly positioned my car so that it would be stuck there when the snow fell.  Then I joined Kellie’s group for a subway trip to the Washington Mall and the March for Life.

Students from Phoenix and I work on pro-life dialogue skills in a makeshift basement seminar environment.  They were troopers!

Students from Phoenix and I work on pro-life dialogue skills in a makeshift basement seminar environment.  They were troopers!

The snow began falling during the March and kept falling through the night.  We spent much of the next day on the Abortion: From Debate to Dialogue seminar, beginning at 10 AM.  Kellie and the other chaperones were delighted.  I “just happened” to have barely enough materials on hand for everyone.  We punctuated the short lectures and interactive activities with meals and plenty of snow time. 

Shortly after we concluded at 9 PM, one student was already creating dialogue on abortion with her pro-choice cousin using Facebook, one of the tools we had discussed in the seminar.  A few others gathered around to discuss questions they still had about the pro-life position until “lights out” at 11 PM. 

One Shovel-Full of Snow at a Time

From "not going anywhere" to "getting somewhere"...

From "not going anywhere" to "getting somewhere"...

...one shovel-full at a time!

...one shovel-full at a time!

On Sunday afternoon, after the snow had stopped, I was about to leave the students to visit family before flying out on Tuesday.  One problem: my car was buried in the snow.  It took two hours for at least five high-school students, one neighbor, and I to dig the car out.  I had underestimated the power of two feet of snow.  One can only dig oneself out of that sort of barrier one shovel-full at a time.  Even a snow-blower, which a neighbor was teaching one student to use, can only displace a little bit of snow at a time.

That’s a good picture of the hope we have, though, since we’re in the same sort of deep, intractable snow regarding abortion in our culture.  We’re not going anywhere.  It’s going to take many of us, one shovel-full at a time, just to help one carload of Americans, let alone a strong majority of Americans, get moving through the snowbank of thinking abortion is a necessary evil.

That’s why, when I found myself stuck in DC, I took the opportunity God provided to talk to the gate agents about the unborn children we so often forget.  A different kind of conversation.  And that’s why I took the opportunity to equip 38 students and 8 chaperones from Phoenix to start engaging their friends and relatives in ways that change hearts and save lives.  A different kind of advocate.

Do you feel like we’re stuck in the snow and “not going anywhere”?  Remember that it’s one shovel-full at a time that gets us out.  It’s one advocate, one conversation at a time.  We at JFA are privileged not just to hand you a shovel, but to also stand by your side creating the conversations, one person at a time, that will make a difference for unborn children and their parents in the end.

More pictures: 

Breaks are better in the snow!

Breaks are better in the snow!

Seminar in the basement...

Seminar in the basement...

Students interact during a role play activity focused on the question, "What about abortion in the case of rape?"

Students interact during a role play activity focused on the question, "What about abortion in the case of rape?"