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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Toward a "Most Respectful Interpretation"

My friend Jill was trying to find the perfect restaurant for her pregnant sister who was allergic to smoke. They searched meticulously to ensure that wherever they chose would have no traces of smoke.  Finally they found a cozy little bistro with clean air and good people -- or so they thought! Ten minutes into their meal, they both glanced over to see a haggard and despondent woman seated at another table.  As she stared at them intensely, she pulled out her long Virginia Slim cigarettes from her gold Louis Vuitton purse.  She puffed away, blowing smoke throughout the restaurant.  “Oh, no, you didn't!” Jill thought to herself. Her sister didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. “Don’t worry, Jill, we’ll just find somewhere else to go,” she said. “Oh, heck no!” said Jill, never one to bite her tongue. She ran over to the woman, slamming her hands on the woman’s table and exclaiming, “Do you have any idea how rude this is?  My sister is pregnant and allergic to smoke and you are killing her baby as we speak, you horrible person!” 

The old woman turned as white as a ghost in stunned silence. “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry.  I had no idea I was doing this," she said apologetically. “I haven’t smoked in eight years.  I just picked these cigarettes up instinctively as a coping mechanism.  You see, I found out yesterday that I have breast cancer and I just found out today that my husband is leaving me. The grief was too much to bear.  I’m so sorry.  I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.” Tears were streaming down her face. Jill was speechless.

Martin Luther in his explanation of the eighth commandment says, “We are to speak well of our neighbors and interpret everything they do in the best possible light." A phrase that I use to describe this concept is called “MRI (Most Respectful Interpretation)”. What if the parishioner that is yelling at us after the service just found out that they have lost their job? What if the annoying kid in our Sunday school just found out a friend was moving away? We don’t necessarily have to know what their story is, but we have to remember that they have one. As we enter the mission field with our own biases and assumptions about people, it is important that we maintain a gracious hermeneutic. We serve a God who knows our story and gives us a Most Respectful Interpretation. May we extend this grace to others in our ministry. 

Grace and Peace,


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