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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.

A Person Is a Wonder

This seminar reminded me that I must remember that I am talking to people…
— Kaitlyn, 2015 seminar participant

My kids and I participated in a live nativity a few weeks ago.  We donned the garb of shepherds and angels and walked towards a rustic stable where actors from local churches were waiting with live goats and sheep to take a photo with us. 

I was the last to enter the stable, a poor shepherd.  As the crew helped my kids find a place where they could be seen by the camera, I looked around.  It was fun to be standing next to three wise men in robes and crowns.  As the photographer got ready to take the shot, he asked us to look at him.  Instead of following directions, I did the only thing that made sense to me at that moment, I looked down at the baby Jesus (in this case a doll) and my mouth hung open, my eyes bright with amazement.

Adorazione dei pastori (The Adoration of the Shepherds)  by Mattias Stomer (17th Century)   Photo Credit:  Palazzo Madama

Adorazione dei pastori (The Adoration of the Shepherds) by Mattias Stomer (17th Century) 

Photo Credit: Palazzo Madama

Click.  Click.  And that was it.  We moved towards the door of the stable to give others a chance.  My kids stopped to interact with the animals as I waited outside, and then we went together to the dressing room to disrobe.  When we retrieved our picture, it looked pretty comical.  Everyone except for me was looking directly at the camera.  I was the only one looking at the baby Jesus.  To me, the photo was merely a distraction from the main event: being in the presence of a person – a very special person named Jesus.  (I identify with the shepherds in the Mattias Stomer painting.)

I’d like to suggest that what happened at the live nativity is a good metaphor for the challenge that we face throughout every day: will we allow ourselves to be captivated by the persons in our lives or will we be distracted from them?  Will we be captivated even by strangers, by our enemies, our spouses, our parents, our kids, our friends, and by God himself?  Each person I come across in a given day is a wonder, worth every ounce of my focus.  When I check my smart phone for the time or the weather, the wonders of new email messages, Wikipedia, and YouTube all cry out for attention, but these wonders aren’t wonders at all, when compared to a person.  And what is this letter you’re reading, when compared to the person who might be near you right now?

JFA veteran staff member  Paul Kulas  focuses his attention on a University of Oklahoma student in November.

JFA veteran staff member Paul Kulas focuses his attention on a University of Oklahoma student in November.

JFA veteran staff member  Tammy Cook  listens to a student at the University of Oklahoma in November.  I'm very proud of our team at JFA.  Every member of the team aims to appreciate the wonder of the person in front of them, even as they are advocating for the lives of unborn human persons.   See more pictures of the team in action here.

JFA veteran staff member Tammy Cook listens to a student at the University of Oklahoma in November.  I'm very proud of our team at JFA.  Every member of the team aims to appreciate the wonder of the person in front of them, even as they are advocating for the lives of unborn human persons.  See more pictures of the team in action here.

Each member of our team faced this same challenge every time we conducted an outreach event this year.  We want to save the lives of tiny unborn human persons, but in order to do so, we are confronted with another reality, a college student who is also a person with a bundle of conflicting beliefs and desires.  At our University of Oklahoma outreach in November, I talked for a second time to a woman I’ll call Diana.  Diana wasn’t any more enjoyable to talk to the second time than when I met her in March of this year.  She displayed the same haughtiness, the same self-importance, the same close-mindedness and tendency to lecture rather than listen.  I became confident I wouldn’t be able to change Diana’s mind on any point, and while I looked for an opportunity to gently bring a close to our conversation, I had to work to focus my attention on this person.  As I did, though, I was experiencing a different sort of love, the sort that gives without hope of return.  This is what a person calls forth from us: giving our attention just for the sake of appreciating the wonder of the person and the God who created her.

May I humbly suggest that you and I dedicate ourselves this Christmas to being captivated by the wonder of the persons around us – the strangers, our spouses, our kids, and even those, like Diana, who annoy us?  And let us not neglect to depend on God in the midst of every interaction, that we might also be captivated by him – the one who created every person.  Merry Christmas! 


Ministry Notes

 

YOU CAN HELP JFA MAKE ABORTION UNTHINKABLE

You can still give an end-of-year gift using our Credit Card giving page, our Donate page (for other giving methods), or by calling 316-683-6426.  Thank you for standing with us! 

 

Recent and Upcoming Events

JFA staff members will be at the Students for Life Conferences and March for Life events in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco in January.  Pray that God would orchestrate for us the connections we need to make with student pro-life clubs and the other pro-life advocates we would like to train to make abortion unthinkable in the coming year.

For recent events, see www.jfaweb.org/calendar and www.jfaweb.org/photos.

What about those Planned Parenthood videos?

They have made quite a ruckus.  Released over the past three months by the Center for Medical Progress, ten undercover videos have exposed executives from Planned Parenthood and its partner organizations discussing details of transferring tissue from aborted children for use in research.  In all of the media discussion generated by these videos, four sentences by Kirsten Powers (“Crush Planned Parenthood,” USA Today, 7/22/2015) were perhaps the most important. 

After noting that Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards apologized “for the uncompassionate tone her senior director of medical research” used when talking over lunch about different ways to “crush above” and “crush below” the parts of the fetus to “get it all intact,” Ms. Powers put things into perspective:  

“But the problem here is not one of tone.  It’s the crushing.  It’s the organ harvesting of fetuses that abortion-rights activists want us to believe have no more moral value than a fingernail.  It’s the lie that these are not human beings worthy of protection.” 

Ms. Powers nailed it.  The problem with Planned Parenthood becomes clearest when we focus on the unborn child and the abortion that takes her body apart. 

This is a good test to apply as you watch the discussion about the videos continue to unfold in the media, in House subcommittee hearings, in your church, and among your friends on Facebook.  There’s limited value in discussing funding, lawbreaking, the transfer of tissue for research, the character of individual workers, and anything else about Planned Parenthood, if we don’t, in almost the same breath, clarify that the problem with Planned Parenthood is that the unborn child is a child, abortion takes her body apart, and any organization that takes an unborn child’s body apart should stop doing that.  Otherwise, the case against Planned Parenthood makes very little sense to pro-choice advocates who are listening to us.

This brings me to another important aspect of the Kirsten Powers article.  She got the focus on the child exactly correct, but she also published her comments in USA Today, a paper with a broad-spectrum readership of 1.6 million, the third-largest circulation for a US newspaper according to Wikipedia.  In other words, Ms. Powers modeled for us what we should be doing with the Planned Parenthood story and any other story like it: talk to pro-choice people and try to persuade them.  Talking amongst ourselves has some value, to be sure.  Pro-life advocates need to be more active in opposing abortion, and the videos seem to have energized many pro-life advocates.  This is a good thing.  If we aren’t at some point finding pro-choice advocates and the forums in which they develop their beliefs, though, we will never make abortion unthinkable for a strong majority in the United States.  And surely, that is essential for bringing the dehumanization and destruction of unborn human children to an end for good.

The Planned Parenthood videos, then, call to mind two important pro-life priorities: (1) keep the conversation focused on the baby and on the abortion that takes her body apart, and (2) engage pro-choice advocates in conversation about those realities.  To the extent that the Planned Parenthood videos help us to accomplish either or both of these, they are an asset.

In "Ministry Notes for October 2015", I detail some ways that JFA is working to find pro-choice people, to engage them in a conversation about the unborn child (and the abortion that kills her), and to equip pro-life advocates to do the same.