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The Task Ends With Peace

When the Lord gives rest to your kindred, as to you, and they too have occupied the land that the Lord your God is giving them beyond the Jordan, then each of you may return to the property that I have given to you. — Deuteronomy 3:20, NRSV

If you’re like me, you have wondered when everything finally stops. Life is a constant, tiring journey full of stressful decisions, twists and turns, hills and valleys. For the person of faith, concerned with the improvement of the world based on their belief system, this is made even more difficult by the constant clash between one’s ideals and the seeming reality of earthly life. For every step we take forward, it seems that we are given yet another series of challenges to face.

Therefore, when joy in our progress is constantly hindered by new challenges, it is only fair that we sometimes wonder when it all will finally stop. Isn’t there some checkpoint that we get to when the veil peels back and we are able to just coast? Unfortunately not, my friend.

You see, the effort of changing one’s world by way of God’s grace is a life-long trek sustained by faith, hope, and (above all) love. In the text for today’s post, Deuteronomy 3, Moses recaps his conversation with the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, all of whom having been allotted terrain beyond the Jordan before Israel’s formal entry into the Promised land (verses 12-16). The temptation must have been strong for those tribes to settle, so Moses instructs them to continue in the journey until “the LORD gives rest to [their] kindred” (verse 20). The Israelite journey began together, and it will end together.

The same essential truth is evident in our lives. Only when peace, justice, and wholeness are a reality for all can our efforts cease. As such, it stands to reason that it is only “when the complete comes” that we will achieve the rest we seek (1 Corinthians 13:10). The life of faith is not a checklist that, once fulfilled, allows us to rest on our laurels. It is a journey to the day when Christ comes in final victory and we all experience the blessed feast together.

So perhaps you have been sprinting through life. In spurts, you make progress only to be slowed by even more derailing challenges. In that case, it is best we examine how to consistently sustain our efforts to share the light and love of God in Christ with the world. We must exhibit the humility to accept our constant room for growth, stay connected to God through prayer and ritual, and regularly commit acts of charity that we may embody the peace we wish to one day experience.

It is important to note that Moses assured the tribes that the day would come when they could rest. I am offering the same words of encouragement. The day will come when you and I see and understand the fullness of God and become partakers in it. We will have our rest. For now, however, we must be content with the little glimpses we are allowed through our everyday interactions with the Divine.

With every kind word and action, with every embrace of the Eucharist and other rituals, and with every moment spent in community with the Spirit, we are able to foster an enduring sense of joy that will be brought to completion at the appointed time. It is my prayer that you will join me in our long journey together. May we all earnestly tread the road of Life, helping each other experience a little bit of Heaven all along the way.

Peace be with you!

Sacrifice Isn’t Sacrifice

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. — Matthew 25:32-33, NRSV

I live in a country that speaks often of sacrifice. We extol the virtues of our military and civil service members, revering the sacrifices they make to keep our nations safe and free. Movies portray characters that give of themselves to a heroic degree, always affecting some sort of monumental change at the end. Not surprisingly, we also lift up Jesus and His sacrifice, which grants us forgiveness and understanding of God’s insurmountable love.

With all that in mind, I believe we are very unhealthy when it comes to the notion of sacrifice and the “hero-worship” to which this nation subscribes. It is right that we respect the choice of those who join our military out of a love for family and country. This becomes problematic, however, when we are no longer allowed to question the legitimacy of the causes for which they are made to fight. Further, our respect seems to be mere lip service in a country with such high veteran unemployment and suicide rates.

Our police officers should be respected and given every chance and resource to safely and effectively keep our streets free of crime and violence. This goes too far, however, when the justice system cannot be challenged for its injustices against the poor and people of color. Again, our praise falls short when budgets, paychecks, and training protocols don’t reflect a desire for safety when it comes to our officers and civilians.

Parenthood requires self-sacrifice and putting the needs of others before ourselves. Problems arise when this idea is used to send an abused wife or child back to their home with the misguided hope of “keeping the family together” and “suffering as Christ suffered.” Again, what is a good notion of self-giving becomes an occasion by which innocents pay the price for the misdeeds of others.

I hope you noticed an important distinction. I am in no way criticizing the individuals who are simply trying to do what is right, but I am casting a suspicious look on the powers that make use of their good intentions. Blaming individual persons for structural issues is unproductive, and I do not want to be misunderstood.

So what is my point here? Sacrifice in and of itself is not necessarily a good or blessed thing. It matters who is doing the sacrificing, and it also matters for what they are making the sacrifice. Further, it is important to note that sacrifice, in the Christian sense, is not to be limited to our heroes. It’s the call of all people who claim to follow Jesus.

The text of Scripture that motivated this point is Matthew 25:31-46, known commonly as “The Sheep and the Goats” or “The Judgment of the Nations.” The “sheep” are those who, at the final judgment, are commended for their care of others (verses 34-40). As they did to “least of these,” so they did to Christ (verse 40). Notice the “sheep” have no idea that they were serving Jesus, just that they were doing the right thing!

Now, to truly care for another person, we must sacrifice ourselves. To feed, give water, clothe, visit, and comfort, we must give of our comfort and resources. This kind of sacrifice must be made of our own volition, utilizing our gift of freewill to honor God.

The “goats” also make sacrifices… out of others. They receive criticism for refusing the same compassion evident in the lives of the “sheep” (verses 41-45), and they pay the penalty for such selfish behavior (verse 46). When we decide not to care for others, we sacrifice them for the sake of our comfort, security, and self-preservation.

Now, it was no accident that sheep and goats were chosen to represent these two divisions of people. Both animals are used for sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the parallel makes perfect sense! Sheep are used as freewill offerings, while goats are the offerings for sin. Creepy, right?

One represents an offering of free will to God. The other represents a necessary sacrifice because of the power of human sin. The “sheep” sacrifice themselves by choice, offering comfort and peace to the afflicted. When we get to the “goats,” we see those who sacrifice others for the sake of themselves.

The latter is not a worthy sacrifice, and here is the takeaway: God will vindicate those who are sacrificed by executing justice on those who take advantage of them… as well as executing judgment on those who allow this to happen. It is here that we have a serious implication for this world and our tendency toward hero-worship.

When we pay lip service to those with genuine, self-sacrificing motives, we fail to truly honor what they have given. For example, if we look to Christ as a hero as opposed to an example, we fail to realize the truly transformative power of what He has done. We are called to take up our cross and follow, not to sit underneath the cross and be grateful that we no longer have a dog in this fight.

A more desirable alternative is to embody the values we extol in others, recognizing them as examples for us to follow. We should be willing to make sacrifices so that all may live full and blessed lives without having to bear the weight of our selfishness. This means asking the questions, taking the chances, and making the generous choices, even when all of this is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Now, I am not laying the world’s fate at your feet. This is a work that will not be completed until Christ comes to restore all things… but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a role to play. Start small. As always, I believe in examining our daily lives, finding opportunities to extend hospitality, keep silence, and work for justice. Whether it’s the man begging on a corner, the co-worker having a hard time, or that unbearable family member, our day-to-day decisions will bear witness to our willingness to sacrifice either ourselves or each other.

Instead of leaning on others to do what we will not, the life of Christ calls us to join the large family of people who bear witness to the love of God by their lives of chosen self-giving. Rather than merely talking of our heroes, let’s respect them fully by doing our part, walking the way of the Cross together, that we all may experience the life of God that awaits us.

Peace be with you!

The Most Important Decision

Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them.Psalm 135:18, NRSV

Everybody worships something. It may not be God, and most often, sadly, it isn’t. Our idols include celebrities, information, politics, institutions (including religious ones), our nations, families, work, money and others.

There are many things we worship, and, as the Psalmist points out in 135:15-18, our lives reflect this. We treat each other in accordance with our idols, and such things hardly cause us to treat one another well. When we fail to honor the One who is known for His compassion and justice (135:14), we also fail to exhibit those traits as a rule. Instead, our love for our neighbor depends on how they relate to the power, wealth, and desires that actually govern us.

For me, Sundays are a day to decide. I worship because I am grateful for my life. Further, I want to renew my commitment to live and love according to my example in Jesus Christ, rather than allowing the many false gods of our time to dictate my thoughts, words, and actions. I may fail at times throughout the week (duh), but I always come back to my center that I may be empowered by God’s grace to try again.

I don’t know where you’re at or what your idols may be. We all have them. I just want to issue an encouragement to make a different choice.

As my Old Testament professor once said, “You become what you worship.” So let’s examine what drives us, and let’s decide to live according to the image of love, for such life has the power to change everything for the better.

Peace be with you!

Thus Saith the Lord: Quit Yer Bickerin’

How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced? — Numbers 23:8, NRSV

It has been a WHILE since my last post, but I needed some space to adjust to an increase in personal training business. I also don’t write as well without “feeling it,” being inspired to share something that I think really needs to be said. So you know this article should be pretty good!

I have been reading through the oft-neglected book of Numbers, and I have to say, it is growing on me. Talking donkeys, fiery snakes, a bronze snake that undoes the fiery ones, all fascinating parts of a narrative that highlights God’s patient faithfulness with human lack thereof. For today, though, I want to emphasize Numbers 23, which captures part of the story of Balaam, a prophet who was summoned to curse Israel on behalf of a Moabite king named Balak.

As per usual, God has other plans for Balak and Balaam. Balaam warns Balak that he is only going to speak what God gives him to speak (22:38), and this is exactly what happens. Balaam gives four oracles, none of which prove favorable to Balak’s cause. As it turns out, God has no qualms about acting contrary to our desires and expectations.

With that in mind, I LOVE the little snippet that opens our article for today. We are currently living in a world of cursing. I am not talking about mother*bleep*ing cursing, but the kind of curses by which we define and attack one another. Here in the U.S., midterm election season has just passed. In that season, we have witnessed the state of animosity that exists between those of different political values and opinions.

Those who subscribe to the Democratic ticket curse their neighbors who are Republican for being racist, bigoted, and callous. Republicans hurl insults at their Democratic fellow citizens regarding their weakness, softness, and lack of practicality. Family members turn on one another, friendships are strained, and the only way to avoid it seems to be silence on the topic. This is stupid, because failure to talk about what is important actually contributes to the division in our country.

Beyond politics, racial conflict is still a problem. Stereotypes become the “facts” by which entire peoples are judged. Humor is used to mask real prejudice, and whether it’s racial, sexual, religious, or any other social category, victims are blamed, sides are taken, and lives are devalued.

In light of this, I think it is vitally important that we heed Balaam’s words from verse 8. What God has not cursed, we should also not curse. What God has not denounced, we should also refrain from denouncing.

God has not cursed us. Republican, Democrat, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Wiccan, atheist, liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-gun, gay, hetero, somewhere in between, male, female, somewhere in between, soldier, pacifist, immigrant, native, documented, undocumented, rich, poor, middle class, happy, depressed, anxious, and any other conceivable category of person all stand in the “non-cursed” category. How do we know this? Jesus Christ.

While God certainly doesn’t approve of everything we think, say, and do, that doesn’t mean God curses us for our sin. In Jesus Christ, we see that God does the EXACT OPPOSITE. God blesses us and forgives us! As Christ says in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, in Romans 5:8, Paul affirms that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

The witness of Scripture is that God does not curse us, but blesses us by taking on flesh and bearing our sinful burdens in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is not so that we may feel guilty or pained, but so that we may understand the love God has for us, which in turn should become the love we embody for each other. Self-sacrificial love is the nature of God, and it is also to be the nature of His people.

Instead of cursing one another over our differences, we ought to listen. We should set aside our opinions and values, no matter how strongly we may feel about them, so that we can live out the love of Christ in even the most difficult conversations and situations. This may be weakness in the eyes of the world, in this culture of ours that prizes the self above all others. But “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15), and we would do well to remember that reflecting God’s love is a cause far more worthy than any other we may hold dear.

I hope this message comes as a blessing to you. I know it was a wonderful reminder for me, and I trust that the Holy Spirit will bear much fruit in us if we keep our hearts open. God has not cursed us, and so we should not curse one another. As Paul says, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15)!

Peace be with you!

“Oh, Honey… You’re Not That Powerful”

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”… Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” — Luke 5:8, 10, NRSV

I was having a conversation with a much-beloved friend of mine about the human tendency to exhibit pride through excessive shame. A good example is the person who believes they are too sinful or lost for God to forgive or love them. It’s not that they are intentionally being prideful, but it is in some sense misguided to believe that God’s love (a love that sent Him willingly to execution on a cross) is limited based on our misdeeds. My beloved friend’s response to this was one that made me laugh and think all at once.

“Oh, honey… You’re not that powerful.”

This is, I think, a more sassy interpretation of what Jesus says to Peter in this passage of Luke 5. Jesus instructs Peter’s crew to “put out into the deep water” with the expectation of catching fish, despite them having “worked all night long” without catching a thing (5:4-5). Peter, naturally, expresses some doubt regarding the outcome, but relents.

Not surprisingly, Jesus’ prediction comes to fruition. Tons of fish are caught, and Peter (not for the last time) feels like an ass. In verse 8, he falls down before Jesus and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Despite evidence to the contrary, Peter believes his sinfulness should keep him from experiencing the power of Christ.

Jesus responds in a way that makes a world of difference. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10). There are two sides to this wonderful revelation. First, Peter should stop falling down in fear. Christ’s mission is not to condemn, but to save. This brings in the second piece, which tells us that Peter’s sin not only lacks the power to condemn him, but it also is powerless to prevent the work of God from being done through him. Peter is free to fearlessly follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This interaction should also serve as a powerful lesson for us. We tend to give up on ourselves rather easily. How often have you said or heard someone say, “I am what I am. If I haven’t changed now, I just won’t?” This is really a lack of security masquerading as confidence. Sometimes our insecurities are more pronounced, as we believe ourselves to be so unworthy of love that we almost willingly fall deeper into our self-destructive cycles.

If we examine this passage and allow ourselves a bit of grace, however, we can see that we don’t determine the love that is felt for us by others (especially God). Jesus knew Peter would not only exhibit some disbelief, but that he would also abandon the Son of God to a horrible fate, yet Peter was brought into existence and called to be a leading Apostle. Likewise, God knew all that you would be capable of, both in a positive and negative sense, and He still decided that it would be worth every risk to have you in this world. Further, the same call He offered to Peter is offered to you, that you may experience and participate in the sharing of His unending love.

Of course there will be days when we feel unworthy. We are bound to screw up repeatedly. Luckily, perfection and shame are not requirements for discipleship so much as humility and the willingness to take a chance.

So when you begin to let shame take control, and you fear that you are too low for God to love or forgive, remember the good news of Jesus Christ: “Oh, honey… you’re not that powerful.”

Back In Action!

But to the Kohathites he gave none, because they were charged with the care of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders. — Numbers 7:9, NRSV

We just got back from an awesome trip to Colorado. My grandmother turned 90 this week, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and dancing the week away. Believe it or not, that little elderly woman hung in there for 3 hours of Oktoberfest themed dances!

Anyway, this trip also gave me some spiritual insights that I would like to share over the next few days, beginning with this story of the Kohathites from Numbers 7. The other Levite groups receive offerings from the leaders of Israel, which consisted of covered wagons and oxen. The Gershonites and Merarites receive the goods, but the Kohathites, “because they were charged with the care of the holy things,” receive nothing.

One way of looking at this is obvious and practical. Because they were all busy carrying the holy items of the tabernacle, the Kohathites simply didn’t have the capability of taking on even more stuff. For me, though, there is a spiritual teaching here for those of us who try to lead holy lives.

If there is one thing I learned on this trip, it is that we can only carry so much before something has to give. Hauling a backpack, two full suitcases, and four jackets made for quite the waddle to our room in the basement of a lovely rental in Breckenridge. It wasn’t long before the point came when I eventually had to let it all hit the floor.

The same “breaking point” applies to our spiritual lives. There are many things we try to carry all at once, and the burden often causes a disastrous overload. We try to be better people, but we also harbor bitterness, hatred, and a lack of forgiveness. In the pursuit of holiness and “the good life,” we also refuse to let go of our greed, selfishness, and prejudices.

Coming back from this vacation, I’ve realized that I have to be choosy about the things I carry. As with the Kohathites, I cannot expect to bear the love of Jesus in my body if I am also loaded down with a bunch of other distractions. For them, it was the choice to hang on to the holy items rather than receiving oxen and wagons. For me, I must decide to pursue forgiveness, compassion, and loving justice in my life as opposed to clinging to my wounds, anger, and selfish desires.

As we see in Leviticus/Numbers, unholiness cannot remain in the presence of holiness. It is either transformed or renewed. My encouragement for today is for all of us to intentionally decide what we will allow into our finite spiritual space. May we all sift through our wounds and fears to uncover the precious gems of love, healing, and transformation.

Peace be with you!

And The Lord Saith, “Do Nothing”

But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. — Luke 1:20, NRSV

Traditionally, we look at this passage in Scripture and proceed to contrast the story of Zechariah with that of Mary. Zechariah disbelieves Gabriel’s message while Mary embraces it. In standard teachings, Zechariah is merely the negative foil to Mary’s exquisite faith, apart from being the faithful father of John the Baptist.

When I stumbled across this passage recently, though, something different caught my attention. When Zechariah asks, “How will I know this is so?”, he is looking for security, assurance. Sure, he is doing it in the face of a divine messenger who literally appears out of nowhere, but it is something we all do. We crave security, and we want to have as much control as we can in life.

In ancient near eastern culture, childbearing was the greatest sign of blessing. For Israel in particular, bearing a child was a physical reminder of God’s promise to prosper the nation, making them as numerous as the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5). This is why the Bible has such strong opinions on marriage and procreative sexuality. It is also why Zechariah and Elizabeth were considered to be in disgrace, because, despite their righteousness, they were a barren couple.

When we understand that, Zechariah’s skepticism (which mirrors Abraham and Sarah’s), makes sense. He wants to be assured that when he tells his wife (and others) that they’re going to have a baby, it freakin’ happens! Otherwise, their disgrace would be amplified.

The first problem with this, though, is Zechariah’s source. Gabriel, the messenger of God, is probably not one to come play a cruel prank. This is a divine message, not some cosmic episode of Punk’d.

Second, and more importantly, there are no guarantees in life. It’s a cliche, but it’s a lesson we desperately need to learn, just like Zechariah. You see, Zechariah is being told what’s going to happen (“until the day these things occur,” 1:20). Outside of sex with his wife, there is nothing Zechariah is expected to do to bring things to fruition. The results do not depend on him, and we all know how scary it is when important aspects of our lives rest outside of our ability to control them.

In response to Zechariah’s questions, Gabriel does something that seems punitive. I mean, he takes away the guy’s speech, which also probably made seducing Elizabeth hilarious. I imagine lots of eyebrow waggling and gestures… Anyway.

When we look a little closer, though, Gabriel’s action is more of a “blessing in disguise.” All Zechariah can do is sit back, go (quietly) about his regular life, and wait to see what God does. This is also all we can do.

I know this isn’t what some of us want to hear, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Whether it’s a job interview, pregnancy, asking for a date, or awaiting diagnosis, there is a broad spectrum of life events with outcomes we cannot determine. We normally view this as a horrible aspect of living, and many of us refuse to accept or admit it, but what if it is actually a blessing?

When we obsess over the details and outcomes of life various issues, are we being healthy? When last I looked, continuous stress contributes to declines in physical and emotional health (it’s science). Our enjoyment of life is made less and less possible as we try to guide (force?) life to go the way we would prefer.

But what if I told you all you were in charge of is living your life? What if, instead of fighting or fearing the truth of our limited power, we embraced it? Life would consist of actual living, where we take care of business, but also make space for the Spirit of God to do its work. Uncertainty would serve as a reminder to take time to enjoy our short time on this earth as opposed to obsessing over it.

I believe this was Gabriel’s message to Zechariah, and it is God’s message to us. If Gabriel (and God) wanted to punish him, the birth of John could have been given to someone else. Instead, Zechariah gets to learn a powerful lesson about his own powerlessness as he also experiences the birth of his son. In the end, both of these things prove to be sources of joy.

So for us, that which normally worries us can actually provide us happiness. We cannot control everything in life, nor are there any guarantees. When all we can do is wait and see, perhaps it is best we employ a bit of faith and spend our time doing what we can by loving those around us, honoring the gift of life and the One who gives it to us.

I’m not suggesting some “pie in the sky” view of life. I suffer from depression, and I know many of you may suffer from anxiety. It’s important that you realize, dear reader, that I am not advocating the view that anxiety, stress, and worry are sinful. Rather, I am affirming the need for us to engage in self-care and seek treatment so that we may live life fully. It is true, however, that we must be willing to admit when we are being unhealthy, accept our dependence, and find a way to move forward.

So no matter what you have going on in your life, I hope you will accept this teaching from Zechariah. Yes, there are things you and I cannot control, and worry is an inevitable response, but we can also learn to respond with faith. When we understand our own limited power and that each day is ultimately a gift, we are free to guide our efforts away from what we cannot affect and toward those people and causes in our lives that mean the most to us. This is God’s gift to us, and I pray you’ll join me in accepting it.

Peace be with you!