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When You’re Tired of Tragedy

In the wake of the worst mass shooting in Texas, which occurred yesterday in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, everyone is already arguing. This is partially good, because it means people care, even if it has to be a specific kind of death to warrant one’s concern. On the other hand, all of us getting indignant (no matter how technically righteous) will result in what has typically been done: nothing. What hope and guidance does God give us in relation to such senseless violence?

In the time of Christ, things weren’t so different. The Roman Empire ruled with an (often subtle) iron fist, and death was a part of everyday life, even if it was dressed up as justice or entertainment. Jesus’ message came to us in a time of immense suffering, and though we have done a pretty good job of watering down this message in a lot of ways, the fact remains that the Gospel of Christ was intended to speak to us in the darkest of times, and when our young people are dying as a result of gang violence (often ignored in these conversations), when worshipers are massacred in what was intended to be a place of love and safety, and when so many seem resigned to the inevitability of such things, I would say we are in the midst of such times, and the Gospel has something to say.

In Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus offers his famous response about paying taxes to Caesar and giving to God that which is expected. What does that have to do with this particular conversation? In the text, when Jesus asks for the coin, the focus is on taxes. Technically, the focus is on him saying something to violate either civil law or the Torah (Law or Instruction; Hebrew Bible, specifically, the first five books), but the topic is paying taxes. ANYWAY, Jesus holds up the coin and asks, “Whose image and inscription is on this?” The Greek word for image in this case is eikon

Important? Yes. You see, at this time, Matthew, Jesus, and anyone else who wasn’t in a synagogue would have been using what is called the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. Matthew, the writer of this Gospel, used the Septuagint for Old Testament quotes and wrote the Gospel in Greek. Now, remember that word eikon? Let’s take a look at the Greek version of Genesis, specifically 1:26. On verse 26, second line, first word, do you see something that looks like this: εἰκόνα? Transliterated to English letters, it is (EEEK!) eikona! See a similarity there? I apologize, but the Bible nerd in me loves when this kind of thing pans out.

Anyway, getting back to the main conversation, Jesus’ word of advice is to “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matt. 22:21). The image of Caesar is on the coin, so that goes to Caesar, but whose image is on humanity? That’s right: God’s. Jesus reveals that God isn’t concerned about things, but about the faithfulness of people. PEOPLE. Not things.

What does that have to do with the senseless tragedies that surround us? Too often, we argue about the things and what to do with them rather than how we can be faithful as God’s people in the midst of this darkness. What’s the difference? Let’s take a look at the anti-gun/anti-gun regulation argument, and let’s not pretend that this didn’t start as soon as we learned about all those innocent people dying.

This argument is going to fail and result in nothing. Do you want to know how I know? Because no one is concerned about people. They are concerned about things, namely guns. “But we are anti-gun because of people!” It doesn’t show when you enter into the discussion. “But we are anti-gun control because we care about people and their freedom and safety!” It also doesn’t show when you enter the discussion. Both sides of this are so consumed with the idea of rights or bans or laws that they forget about what the issue really is (or should be): the preservation of life and the love of people. 

You see, we are in a society that is always against something. ALWAYS. Whether guns, abortion, immigration, race, monuments, or any other hot-button issue out there, we are always piping up about what we are against, but the  thing is that nothing seems to change, and that’s precisely because all that this amounts to is complaining. There are no (good) solutions proposed that are workable, and these issues (while important) become things we “just can’t talk about” because they get everyone’s blood pressure up (James 1:19-20, anyone?).

Our political structure thrives on this because ultimately, our bickering and silence amounts to a great degree of comfort for those in charge. They don’t have to pass any difficult legislation, all the while the world just keeps spinning as we continue arguing about what to do with our stuff. So what is the solution proposed by Christ and how does that help us?

Instead of focusing on the objects and what we are against, perhaps our conversations should start with what we are concerned about, and perhaps (just PERHAPS), that needs to be people. Not objects, not even freedom. What will protect ALL of our people? How can we care for ALL of our people?

If both sides of our political aisle were able to honestly say that they just care about the future of our nation, perhaps things would look different. If we became a nation of people who could let our love for people guide our conversations and decisions rather than the things we do or don’t want, perhaps things would look different. Doubt it if you want, but it hasn’t really been tried, and I’m at the point of believing that anything is worth a shot.

We need to talk about how we can stop, prevent, or at least impede the violence that will eventually tear this nation to pieces. It is a conversation that has to happen everywhere, from top to bottom, from the dinner table to the oval office. It can’t, however, be something that one “side” is a part of. We must make space for each other and move forward in a way that embraces what is common and what is dear to us all. We as a nation need to individually and communally figure out how we can go about our days in a new way that is centered on love for one another and faithfulness to God, and not on the things we do or don’t want. 

As you go forth and think, speak, and act in this world, it is my prayer that you will join me in trying to re-orient the way we do these things so that love really is the center of all of it. Vote based on your love of others. Speak based on your love of others. Act based on your love for others. As a further step, do these things based on the love God shows for you in Jesus Christ. Let us give ourselves to God, and not Caesar, so we can let the Holy Spirit move through us in order to shine the light of the Gospel to all we encounter, that we may finally see some change.

Goals

“The goal of instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.”

— 1 Timothy 1:5

There is a lot of instruction out there these days. Everyone seems to have an opinion about how we need to think, feel, vote, eat, love, shop, dress, believe, etc. I would argue that for every facet of human life, big or small, there are ten to twenty different perspectives being forced on us about how to approach them. Social media, “news” networks, advertising, belligerent family members, and, yes, religious institutions all seem to be full of teachings that we are promised will bring us whatever it is we are seeking. 

On the flip side, these teachings are reinforced with the threat that failure to heed them will result in all manner of unfortunate and unpleasant consequences. This is, of course, not because those seeking to manipulate us are the problem (heavens, no!). It is our own fault for daring to think critically about what is being shoveled at us.

Interestingly enough, though, thinking critically is exactly what we should be doing, and the Scriptures encourage it wholeheartedly. Deuteronomy encourages us to examine whether those claiming to speak on behalf of God are really doing so, and it even includes a severe penalty for those who do not speak what is right, causing unnecessary worry for the people. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul encourages us to not “brush off Spirit-inspired messages, but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good.”

Rather than allowing ourselves to be told what to think or what instructions to follow, we would probably be better off paying attention to how we think with regard to our chosen paths. Undoubtedly, there are paths that are dangerous for ourselves and for others, but, generally speaking, if we approach each crossroads with a carefully chosen process of discernment, we may rest assured that our chances of being steered wrong are exponentially reduced. Ironically, to give this a try, you will have to trust me and my interpretation of the Scriptures a little, but please feel free to think critically and let me know how it sits with you!

For me, the greatest guiding principles to life’s decisions can be found in the Gospel (predictable? Meh.). The first is Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment in the Law, Matthew 22:34-40. Christ teaches us that it is not the rules that are most important. Rather, it is how we determine which rules to follow or break, and the best way to make that determination is to ask whether whatever path we are considering is centered in love for God and others or… not. 

Second, we find a similar teaching from Paul in his Letter to the Romans. We are taught that the right decision is made when it is rooted in the love of one’s neighbor, which (in biblical terms) means everyone, not just those who we consider worth it or easy to love (see Matthew 5:43-48). This is the love God offers us in Jesus, and it is the love we are expected to imitate. On a side note, if you happen to be sitting there in wonder at the impractical or monotonous nature of this teaching, consider whether you would want strangers to think kindly or selfishly in a matter that affects you. Hmmm…

Finally, we have the quote that started off this post. With all the instruction that awaits us in this crazy world of ours, no matter who or what is attempting to influence you, it is essential that you and I make decisions that are centered in love that is authentically from the heart, won’t violate our conscience, and will promote a sense of faith and hope in others. As you go about the rest of your day, I hope you will join me in resolving to only follow that instruction which keeps your conscience clean, your hope alive, and your heart full of love. 

Something Good Will Come?

“Get along well with God and be at peace; from this something good will come to you.”

–Job 22:21, CEB

For anyone familiar with the book of Job from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, this quote seems a bit callous. For those of us unfamiliar with the story, Job is a text that wrestles with the balance between God being good and the suffering of the innocent. All the while, as innocent Job suffers for no reason (chapter 2, verse 3), his friends make pretty lazy, haphazard attempts to console him, ironically through blaming him. Obviously, some secret sin of his has cost him his family, his wife, his health, and all that he ever possessed. Sounds pretty relevant to today, no? One resolution many decide on when faced with the pain of existence is that there is no God, but I have always found that route to be rather petulant. I also find the bad God route to be equally irritating. Both of these have a self-centered nature that ultimately says, “Life isn’t what I want it to be all the time, therefore there must not be anything bigger to it.”

While an atheistic approach to the world’s evils is problematic, I also find the theology of Job’s friends to be rather repugnant. However, many of us who grew up in or encountered the faith know that many well-meaning people still cling to the answers of Job’s friends. What’s worse, they use that logic as way to comfort those who are in pain.

Take the quote above, for example. Have you ever been going through a particularly dark time in life and fed something akin to that? Whether it’s “get along well with God” or “give it up to God” or any other well-intended but non-descriptive advice, it’s not really helpful. What does that mean? How does one do that? What if everything doesn’t get better after that?

First off, everyone needs to acknowledge the love behind any attempt to bring comfort to a situation of pain. Many people are “fixers,” and they cannot make themselves sit by in silence, even though this may be more necessary and beneficial. That love needs to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Secondly, if you’re one of those people, a “fixer,” God made you that way for a reason, so don’t read this post and think it’s an attack on you. Hopefully, what you read here will encourage you to re-interpret your gifts. I have had to do this many times and will probably do it a million more, so I hope you will be encouraged, not discouraged by this conversation.

With all that out of the way, here we go!

Let it be known that the words of “comfort” we just picked are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. Indeed, the issue tends to be whether or not they are properly understood, which, in a culture saturated with the prosperity gospel, is a hard task to tackle. The prosperity gospel is the usage of the story of Jesus to gain a profit. It involves telling people if they give extra money, have extra faith, and believe correctly, their life will be materially excellent. Intentional or not, I would guess that most churches have fallen into this trap, if not in the pulpit, in the pews. It is an easy enough system to believe and subscribe to, particularly in a nation like the United States, where things can be expected to pan out well, more or less. The problem is that the prosperity gospel builds a load of unrealistic expectations that also deny the very thing that defines the Christian faith and honestly addresses the darkness of life: the cross of Christ. It is through the cross that we can hope to gain valuable (not to mention honest) insight into Scripture’s words of comfort and hope.

First of all, in the story of Jesus, as in Job, faithful living never means that everything is going to be fine all the time. As a matter of fact, Jesus is quite clear about this here, in Matthew 10:34-39. Faith in Jesus can actually bring more tension and issues into even the most sacred parts of our lives, including our families. As a matter of fact, families did betray their loved ones to the authorities if they were followers of Jesus, which doesn’t exactly fit with the prosperity gospel narrative. Again, looking at the cross, Jesus, the human who was one with God, the very substance of God made flesh, still ended up dying a terribly painful and humiliating death.

While not many of us here in the United States will not experience this particular form of pain (as opposed to other places in the world), the same truth can still be found in the fact that the faithful suffer just as much  as anyone else. Because of what we won’t do, buy, support, or participate in, the faithful Christian often finds themselves under some form of strain, not to mention the harsh realities of sin, illness, and death that affect all people as a rule, which brings me to my next point.

Faith is about seeking the ultimate Good (God) in the midst of life, not about experiencing only the mere goods that are a part of life. Rather than focusing on whether or not our lives look like we would prefer them to, faith challenges us to focus on making our lives into what God would prefer them to be. In the midst of the beauty, pain, loss, love, and sheer chaos of life, the life of faith is one that is devoted to using our freedom to care for others.

This will not always be noticeably rewarded, but that can’t be what it’s all about. Similar to yesterday’s topic, we can’t just abandon the work of faith because we aren’t getting what we want (2 Thessalonians 3:13). What we are doing seems to cost us too much. We still experience the harshest realities of life even though we feel we don’t deserve it. We still struggle, despite our best efforts. If, however, we let these things keep us from loving God through loving others, and we turn our focus inward, we end up strengthening the darkness that afflicts us. 

On the other hand, if in the midst of the pain of life we resolve to continue seeking God through prayer, Scripture, and the love of others, we will experience blessedness. Being blessed has nothing to do with what you possess or the comfort of your life. In the Bible, being blessed is about being in the presence of God and sharing that presence with others. This is what Job’s friend should have been trying to communicate in the quote that kicked off this post. Seeking God will yield good results, “something good will come,” but it doesn’t mean that everything bad will go away. Instead, it means that we become gifted with the knowledge that whatever we face, we do not face it alone. As we continue to march through whatever dark valley we are stuck in, we can be comforted by the knowledge that if we continue to love and trust, the power of good in the world (indeed, the power of God) will grow with each step until we eventually come to the place where we can see what God is doing in and through us.

When the time comes to comfort others, perhaps the best thing we can do is simply keep a silent vigil with those who are suffering. Presence goes a long way. If we are to speak, however, let’s speak words of comfort that don’t lay blame or give false hope. Instead, let’s tell the honest story of a God who is with us in the darkest of moments, who shows us, in the person of Jesus, what it looks like to live faithfully through the pain of life. In doing so, we offer the real hope we are given in the story of the resurrection, that this pain doesn’t have to define us, that it doesn’t get the final say. 

Show Me Some Love!

“What can I give back to the LORD for all the good things he has done for me? I’ll lift up the cup of salvation. I’ll call on the LORD’s name. I’ll keep the promises I made to the LORD in the presence of all God’s people.” — Psalm 116:12-14, CEB

I know, I know. Cute freakin’ dog, right? For the life of me, I cannot remember his name, mostly because he had about twenty when I met him. I was on my first international mission trip with the church I was a member of at the time. We were in Costa Rica working on an orphanage, and this adorable little guy quickly became my shadow. Although I was instructed by trip leaders not to pet him for fear of disease or getting bitten, I opted to follow the lead of the local workers and love on… let’s call him “Jake,” because a Spanish name from this thoroughly white American would be wrong.

Now, Jake followed me around, brought me various items he felt I needed, and always (ALWAYS) stayed close during lunch, knowing he could expect to be paid in lunch meat. Midweek, though, I was asked by the workers and those running the orphanage not to feed Jake anymore, due to some fear of creating dependency.

I was worried that my failure to feed this wandering canine would result in me losing my workweek buddy, being an introverted animal lover who couldn’t care less if a human doesn’t like me. However, he still continued to shadow me for the remainder of the trip, no charge! He was still bringing me items, leaning on me as I took water breaks, and flat-out snuggling me at lunch, although I wasn’t really giving him what I’m sure he was hoping for, and here is where the lesson can be found.

We often go on and on about the kindness and unconditional love of dogs, unless you’re one who doesn’t like dogs (close button is in the upper right corner). For all our praise of these qualities, however, humans are hands down the absolute worst at imitating them. Look at our Scripture for today (Psalm 116), a selection of which is at the start of this post.

What do we find in verse 1? I submit that it is the best description of human affection I have found in the Bible to date. “I love the LORD because he hears my requests for mercy.” We often “love” based on what we are given, and I know you know that is true. Unlike Jake, who continued to love on me despite my failure to give him what he probably really wanted, our expressions of love that we very well may feel often depend on whether or not we are seeing what we want to see in others.

Look back at the Scripture that opened this post. The psalmist declares that they will keep the promises they made because God has done good things for them. Well, what if some bad stuff goes down? Are you just done? “Forget those promises, if God didn’t deliver, why should I?” I have thought this way before, and I’m sure you have as well. God can handle and work with this, but what about the people who depend on us for love? What about the times you and I learned the hard way that human “love” is often determined by performance? It hurt, didn’t it?

I have had many instances in my life when expressed love was given in return for particular achievements. Otherwise, I just had to trust that this love was there. I have also been the one to withhold grace until I felt it was merited, which, of course, made it something other than grace (“free, unmerited love or favor”). We live in a world that operates based on this model, and while it is technically fair, it also isn’t.

Not a single person in this world always lives the way they should, and this is especially true in relationships, whether friendly, romantic, or familial. In these places, we don’t always get to see the best in people, but they also don’t always see our best either. So, while we feel it may be fair to operate via a justice based model of love, we are probably better off doing something else.

“Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.” — Luke 6:31, CEB

Oh, yes, we are back in Sunday School (Never been? Here is your glimpse into that world!). While this teaching has probably been beaten to death as the fundamental way in which we are to relate to others, to actually consider taking it seriously in life’s most painful moments takes it to a whole other level.

Meeting a perfect stranger, someone in need, a friend asking for help, these are all easy enough, right?

How about when your spouse cheats? What about when your role model messes up? What about when someone you hold close to your heart betrays that in any way? Now, we are getting to the heart of the matter. It is not enough to keep our promises and do our best for others when we get what we want. If our lives and this world are to improve in any way, people have to start actually holding themselves to a constant standard of love that is independent of the actions of others. 

What if we are the cheater, the screw up, the betrayer? This is when it gets interesting. Just as we need to put a stop to that behavior in order to live out the “Golden Rule” above, we also need to treat ourselves with that level of grace. Guilt can be useful in helping us stop certain behaviors,  but if we just stop at feeling guilty, resentful, and regretful, we aren’t really solving the problem, and we further diminish the image of God that rests on all of us, regardless of what we have done with it. 

We must extend the grace that we would desire to ourselves and others whether or not we/they deserve it, as this is what makes it grace and this is what can ultimately transform our lives and this world into more sacred and blessed experiences. If you have been hurt, it happens. It just happens. People fail and they should have to make up for it, but the situation still calls for a gracious approach. If you are the one who has caused the problem(s), it happens. You will have to do the work to repair your relationships, but it can be done. 

Regardless of where we are at on this spectrum, we should all take a moment to remember that grace is something the world desperately needs more of. If we get too jaded, cynical, or accepting regarding the wrongs in life, nothing will ever get any better. This doesn’t mean we get all “sunny side up” and ignore the pain in life, but it does mean that we put things in perspective and do our best with what we are in control of. Today, as you go about your doings, resolve to be more gracious and loving in the ways God is revealing to you. Maybe it is admitting you were wrong. Maybe it is accepting an apology and moving forward. Maybe it is meeting resistance with kindness. Maybe it is forgiving yourself and starting on the long road of rehabilitation. Only you know, but rest assured that you are not alone, that the love of God in Christ is with you wherever you go.