Whenever our children got caught playing with matches Kathie would do two things. First, she would explain the danger of playing with fire. Second, she would drive her point home by sharing a childhood memory.
Kathie’s grandfather lived with her family when she was young. He would spend hours looking out the kitchen window, smoking his pipe. Everyday, Kathie’s mother Millie would fuss, “Pappy! Get away from the window with that pipe, you’re gon’na catch those curtains on fire!” Her grandfather would walk over to the kitchen table, sit down, and take a few more puffs from his pipe. As soon as Millie left the room, Pappy would wander back to the window.
It was a Saturday morning while Millie was shopping for groceries, when Kathie and a friend chased away their boredom by playing with a box of matches. One by one, they would strike a match, throw it in the kitchen sink, and watch it burn. It was all fun and games until one of the matches landed on the curtains. Shortly after the fire was brought under control and the smoke settled, Kathie’s mom returned home. As she walked into the kitchen, arms loaded down with bags of groceries, she shrieked, “I knew that old man was gon’na burn those curtains!” Kathie looked at her mom. She looked at the curtains. And then, she looked at her Pappy. Without a second thought, she threw the “Old Man” under the bus. She let Pappy take the blame.
No one knows if Pappy thought he burned the curtains and simply forgot about the fire or if he took the blame because his heart burned with passion for his granddaughter. We do know he didn’t justify himself; nor did he deny setting the curtains on fire. I believe it was his love for Kathie that kept him from speaking up. He was willing to take the heat on her behalf. Love works that way.
Jesus told his disciples that the greatest expression of love anyone can make is to lay down their life for their friends. Right after he said that, Jesus looked them straight in the eye and said: “You are my friends!” I think he probably winked as he said it. The passion Jesus has for every person on the planet motivated him to lay down his life as a living sacrifice. He did it to burn away all of the sin and every stupid mistake we’ve made, or ever will make.
God is crazy in love with people. God’s heart burns with passion. In the life of Jesus we learn that God will go to any lengths to make that love known in the world in order to mend all that is broken. Dorothy Day once said, “Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light a fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”
What keeps you up at night? What’s the first thing you think about in the morning? What do you dream about as you walk through the day? Thinking Red Together will provoke us to reflect on questions such as these and help us discover what we’re most passionate about.
When my friends and I plot capers to release love into the neighborhood, we ask ourselves three questions: When Jesus looks at our city, what breaks his heart? And then we ask the same question of ourselves: When we look at our neighborhood, what breaks our heart? An honest discussion about these two questions will compel us to ask a third: What can we do to mend the broken heart?
One of my friends was brutally honest with her self and confessed to our small group, “What breaks my heart is the fact that nothing breaks my heart! I’m concerned about a lot of things. I’m concerned about systemic sin in our city and the harm it brings on so many of my neighbors. I’m concerned about racial injustice, and poverty, and the health and education disparity across our city; but none of these issues keeps me up at night . . . and that breaks my heart!”
When I reflect on the words and ways of Jesus, it’s easy to see how his passion for people and his passion for God motivated him to put his life on the line for the things he cared about. It mattered to Jesus if those in power treated disenfranchised people unfairly. It mattered to him if people were neglected and left out of the party. He left his home and a secure job in order to seek out those who were broken hearted and run over by the religious and political systems of his day. He cared about the poor and those in dire need of health care. He spent a great deal of time healing the sick. He even broke to law to do so. He healed people on the Sabbath and put the care of hurting people above the comfort and norms of those in power.
Jesus cared so much for people who suffered from social injustice that he spoke directly to those in power and challenged their hypocrisy. He looked religious and political leaders in the eye and said: You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. And then Jesus called them a bunch of names; like, hypocrites, snakes, a brood of vipers, white–washed tombs, and blind guides. Wow, I think his passion for the people who were pushed to the margins of life fueled his indignation against those who did the pushing. There is no doubt; Jesus was passionate about people! He was also passionate about justice, mercy and faithfulness.
When I was a child my grandparents lived next door. There were many days when I ate six meals, three at home and three with Grandma and Granddad. My best visits were the days when my grandmother made candy. Before she added sugar to the mix she would look over the rim of her glasses and say, “If a little is good, more is better!” It sounded logical to me, but my grandfather would pipe in from his rocking chair and say, “Nell, too much of a good thing is not a good thing.” Their opposing wisdom left me wondering: Can you have too much of a good thing? Years later I found the answer: It all depends on what the “good thing” is.
Believe it or not, even though chocolate covered cherries are considered a good thing by most people, you can have too many. Let me explain.
When I was thirteen years old I fell head–over–heels for Kathie Brewer; and for some unknown mystery—yet to be explained—she fell for me. Fifty years later Kathie and I are still falling for each other, and from time to time we stumble and fall over one of our eight grandchildren when they play at our feet.
During the month of February I will reflect on the things Jesus was passionate about and explore ways to add more of those things in my life. When I read the stories of Jesus and pay special attention to the words printed in red, I find three things Jesus was extremely passionate about.
When it comes to passion for people, passion for life, and passion for justice and mercy, my grandmother’s saying rings true: If a little is good, more is better!
When you read the word RED what comes to your mind? A rose . . . a valentine’s heart . . . a MAGA hat . . . your favorite sports team?
For me, the word RED brings to mind the red letters in my Bible, the words Jesus spoke over two thousand years ago; words that still ring true with power and purpose. The words of Jesus comfort me when life gets out of whack and they make me uncomfortable when I get complacent about mercy and justice.
The color RED didn’t always make me think about the words of Jesus. It started a few years ago when our church decided to spend a whole year reading and reflecting on the red letters in the Bible. A whole year focused on the words of Jesus will make you rethink the way you’re living. It will challenge a faith community to rethink what it means to follow Jesus.
Shortly after the year–long Red Letter Challenge I started writing a book about our experience. The book is called, Think Red: Imagine Your Community Living and Loving Like Jesus. If all goes as planned, the book will be published later this year. When it’s released I hope you buy two copies, one for you and one to share with a friend.
Writing the book made me uncomfortable and curious: uncomfortable with the disparity between the typical expressions of our North American Church and the words of Jesus; curious to see if our local church could do something different and re-imagine a community that looked more like Jesus.
Most of my Christian friends are bored of playing church and equally bored of books bent on deconstructing the Church. Instead, we’re on the hunt for communities that are chasing after the red letters in the Bible. In an effort to find ordinary people who dream about building community around the words and ways of Jesus I will be writing blogs throughout the year and sharing post that invite people to Think Red Together.
If you want to be a part of the conversation here are two ways to connect:
Here’s a warning from personal experience: If you dare to think red for a year it might change more than the way you think.
Larry Stoess is an author, public speaker, and urban church planter. He loves telling stories about how dreaming with God will empower people to make old and broken things new again. Larry and a band of friends founded the Church of the Promise in Louisville's Portland neighborhood; The Table, a pay-what-you-can community café; and Promise Housing Plus, a non-profit construction company. He has written about their experience of dreaming with God in his new book: Think Red.