Saturday, March 26, 2011

Death by a thousand paper cuts

“The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain.”
~ 2 Timothy 1:16

The second letter that the apostle Paul wrote to his beloved Timothy contain the last words recorded by this man who began as a murderer but lived out the remainder of his life as a passionate follower of the Lord Jesus. During this second imprisonment, Paul was no longer permitted to reside in an ordinary home, but was held in close confinement which made it difficult for Onesiphorus to locate him. It is important to consider that in the early first century when this faithful friend diligently searched for Paul, the merciless persecutions of Christians under Nero raged. Seeking out a man who awaited execution as a Believer would put not only one’s own live in danger, but could imperil one’s family and any known friends as well…yet Paul comments that not only did this individual continue his search until he found the faithful apostle, he was not ashamed of Paul’s chain. As followers of Christ, as friends, as members of both earthly and Heavenly families, it is crucial that we understand the gravity of this short comment on the faithfulness of a friend.

According to the most recent statistics available dating to June 2009, 3.1% of the American population is either incarcerated in jail or prison, on probation, or on parole…1 in every 32 adults. I think most of us would say that we definitely personally know far more than 32 adults, probably hundreds, actually. So that means that statistically, every one of us is likely to have a friend, family member, work associate, someone in our lives who has faced some degree of reprimand by the justice system. Does that number astound us? It should. The United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation in the world. But what does that mean to the church? To the individual Christian trying to live with integrity and love toward their fellow man?

In this day of internet access to just about any piece of information you might want – or NOT want – to know, there is no such thing as “keeping your life to yourself”. Not anymore. Once something is printed about an individual, whether it is true or not, it is permanently there in cyber space for all to see. Newspapers, television news programs, blogs, discussion forums…their purpose is to draw in the public to read or watch…not necessarily to tell the truth. So, without going into a diatribe about the integrity of the modern media, we need to consider the impact this kind of information can potentially have on someone. And remember, that “someone” might well be your neighbor, your friend, the person sitting next to you in the pew at your quaint little country church. What does one do when stumbling across information that could potentially damage a fellow Believer’s reputation or at the very least cast a shadow on them in the eyes of their fellow parishioners and friends? It might seem like a complicated question, but it is not.

The question is going to be one of some error... a sin, if you will…perhaps a simple traffic incident caused by carelessness, or a domestic violence incident caused by argumentative hearts. Maybe it is even something more sinister such as a substance abuse issue or a violent crime. What is the response to these individuals by those in the church?

We must remember that whatever is between a Christian and their Lord should remain there. God offers forgiveness of sin through the blood of His Son…not through public confession or embarrassment, not through absolution by any other human.  Yet, there will always be those who simply cannot leave someone else’s personal business alone and will want to “discuss the matter”  or share their findings with others in an attempt to “figure out if this person is going to be a problem”. Thus begins the insidious paper trail. Though in these modern times, much of what we read is on a computer screen and not on actual paper, the effect is the same…just like opening a letter too quickly or turning paper pages carelessly, paper can cut you. The words printed on it can slice even deeper. The resulting wounds can be devastating.
But here is the thing about paper cuts. They are small. Not a single one will cause a life-threatening hemorrhage, though they hurt like the dickens. But what about ten? One hundred? A thousand? How many tiny paper cuts would it take to induce agony in our flesh? How many would it take to actually cause death? Perhaps not death of a physical body, but how about the death of faith or trust? Death of confidence in friendship? Or even worse, death of desire to be a vital part of a church or group of Believers who follow the same God?

How many times will someone make excuses for talking about a personal matter behind someone’s back? How many times will the person in question be expected to just turn away and ignore the cut of those words? How long will it take before anyone realizes that the fine line between “fact finding discussion” and “gossip” takes only a blink to cross, and that the result can easily be…death by a thousand paper cuts.

Onesiphorus earnestly sought his friend, Paul…and he was not ashamed of Paul’s chains. I wonder, if Paul were living now, if the modern church would react the same way. Paul is called the greatest of the apostles, yet before his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, he was a liar, a murderer, and a vicious persecutor of Christians. Yet, as he pursued a life of faith, as he sought the God he knew and lived his life according to that Spirit, he was not subject to shame by God, rather he was forgiven and empowered to bring a message of forgiveness and peace to countless others.

Ponder this, and look around yourself today. Do you know thirty-two people? Sixty-four? One hundred twenty-eight? Then you likely also know a few people who may have used up their band-aid rations on their own paper cuts. What will your response be to them?  Will you allow them to continue beyond their experience on their own Damascus road, or will you continue to raise the banner of their guilt?

Perhaps the greater question is…will you at least provide the band-aids?

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