Promises, Promises

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

— Genesis 12:2-3, NRSV

Good day, everyone! I hope this post finds you well, but if not, I hope it helps at least a little. The text above is the promise of God to Abram (later known as Abraham) that kicks off the dramatic series of stories that encompass the religious history of Judaism and Christianity. God’s promise to Abram is one that has a specific purpose and appeal, rooted in the ancient middle eastern concern for the continuation of the tribe or nation through childbearing.

The appeal of God’s promise has some carry-over for us today. Having kids is still very much “what one does.” If one is found to be infertile or otherwise incapable of having children, they are likely to pay an ungodly (pun intended) sum of money to somehow achieve that specific part of the human experience, whether by means of adoption or scientific advancement. Older generations look disdainfully at younger generations that don’t care to have children, and religious conservatives tend to discourage forms of contraception that interfere with God’s “intended purpose” for sex.

In reality, however, we are having fewer children, and that is probably a good thing. Looking at the small-scale, we already have too many children without homes, structure, or hope. Thinking bigger, our planet could use A LOT less of us hairless apes trashing it. With that in mind, it’s best to shift our focus from the literal appeal of God’s promise, as it can distract us from the universal truth of its purpose. If we do this, we find that God’s promise is for you, me, and all those who are open to hearing the call.

God promises us great things, we see that in the text in verse 2 (“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great”). The important part is what comes next, when God states His purpose to make Abram into a blessing. God indicates the intention that “all the families of the earth shall  be blessed” in the person of Abram. This is the first lesson I’d like to impart: Every gift, wage, or luxury in our lives is not just for us.

Just as Abram is charged with being a blessing to the world, so are we. If you are gifted with money, it’s intended to be used for the benefit of others. If I am gifted with the ability to interpret and write concerning the Scriptures, it’s intended to be used for the up-building of others. If one is gifted with a just or compassionate heart, charisma or influence, strength or the arts, healing or privilege, they are charged with utilizing those things for the benefit of the world, so that the One who gives those gifts may be known.

It doesn’t matter if the thought of giving to those you deem less deserving bothers you. That’s not part of the condition. Notice that God says nothing about deserving, only blessing. Following God, therefore, is a call to set aside prejudices and develop the practice of kindness and generosity, whatever the medium might be.

Abram fails at this pretty early on, like all of us have or will at one time or another. The big problem is when we don’t recognize our failures, like Abram doesn’t. Later, in verses 10-20, he uses the blessing and protection of God to fool Pharaoh, currying the ruler’s favor by putting his wife (and Pharaoh) into a terrible position as he acquires more goods, slaves, animals, etc. We often do this, making our gifts and talents into a means of gaining for ourselves as opposed to utilizing them for making the Kingdom of God into a physical reality. Such a trade is the very essence of sin, far from God’s intended purposes.

The other lesson I’d like to impart is that opportunities for being “a blessing” are more frequent than you and I might normally think. Abram didn’t blow a major opportunity by not donating all his goods to charity or by refusing to go on a mission trip to Sudan. He was intentionally deceptive and distrusting of God, using his wife to ensure safety from a perceived possibility of a threat and reaping the economic benefits, all of which amounting to a destructive discourtesy toward the very ruler who allowed him and those with him to settle in Egypt and be relieved from famine (12:10). This was a textbook opportunity to be a blessing, to be gracious, and he blew it. Let’s look at our own lives now.

Have you ever had to deal with a riled up customer, co-worker, friend, or family member? Have you ever blown by the car parked on the side of the road with the hazards blinking without a second thought? Have you ever reacted sharply to what amounted to a slight inconvenience? Have you ever violated your position, status, or relationships because of your inward focus? I know I have. These are all common situations in which we regularly contribute to the negative powers of the world. At least, that is one way to see them.

We could, however, also see them as opportunities, gifts in which we are able to showcase a different power at work in our lives. You see, what I am proposing is not that we show our spirituality through sweeping gestures that distract us from our everyday ministries. Instead, I submit that like Abram, we could all use the reminder that everything we have been given is intended for our daily use to make the world a better place. Those small situations that we encounter every day are a part of the ministry each of us is charged with, to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the knowledge of the God of grace who died for us. In those situations, our reactions and choices determine whether we are acting as disciples or not, and it is my hope that this post and this biblical text will help us all think a little more about how we react and utilize the opportunities, gifts, and talents that God has extended to us.

Every single one of us has a passion, a talent, a love, or a gift. There is something unique to you that God placed in your life for the purposes of His Kingdom. You’re very existence is such a gift, as God clearly thought the world needed one of YOU to make it more complete. This is a promise of God that is given to Abram, to you, and to me. If we can only become conscious of the fact that we and those we share this earth with are beloved children of God, we will find countless opportunities to enact our charge to be a blessing, and the promises of God will be fulfilled before our very eyes.

Peace be with you!

 

 

On Guns, Defense, and Faith

I can already hear some of you (assuming you even wanted to click on this article and read it).

“Here we go. Just stick to the matters of church and God and let everyone do what they want with this sort of stuff.” Nope. Not this time. I have already talked about the issues with discussing guns (or anything else for that matter) in a previous post, essentially exhorting everyone (especially those of faith) to keep a cool, compassionate mind. This is hard, but it is exactly what is needed in such a knee-jerk, reactionary time as ours. However, what I am discussing today is more specific, yet still applicable to many overlapping issues regarding violence and the Christian person.

First off, I don’t blame guns. I lament their existence, but in the end, we cannot blame a tool for what it is used for. Do I believe everyone should have access to whatever weapon they want with little to no restriction? Absolutely not. However, if you were hoping for a discussion of the evils of weaponry, you will be slightly (but not entirely) disappointed.

So what exactly am I going to be putting under the microscope here? That would be us, the worshipers of violence.

Think this is harsh? Sorry, but let’s just be honest. We devalue life. Specifically, we devalue life that does not conform to our sense of what is right, and we call this “justice.” Where I am from, for example, lives are most valuable when they are free of certain mistakes. If you break into someone’s house, you should be shot with no remorse. If you talk about shooting someone with no remorse, you are somehow a more moral being. If you murder someone, you should be murdered back. If you talk about murdering those you deem deserving of it, you are simply being just (even though it is likely the same logic was applied by the murderer). Do you see the odd cycle?

The issues around gun control are the most frustrating of these cycles. For example, when enough white kids are killed in school, we want to take action. When young people of color are killing each other daily in our forsaken “bad parts of town,” that’s just a sad but acceptable part of life, it would seem.

Too often, what we mean by wanting justice is really the desire to have our biases validated in a court of law, whilst we dare to hope for forgiveness for our transgressions. Oddly enough, I think Jesus actually talked about this somewhere in Matthew…

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

In chapter 6, verses 14 and 15, Jesus lays down a truth that we love to use for small infractions and the hope of our wrongs being overlooked. When bigger transgressions are committed, however, we tell Jesus to shut up and let us handle this situation as we see fit.

Sounds crazy when you put it like that, yes? That is what we do. Nowhere does Jesus say, “Forgive unless they murder someone or break in or are trapped in the cycle of gang life and violence.” I checked. Everywhere. However, this is how our collective mind seems to interpret the words of Matthew’s Gospel.

My point is that while the tools of violence are not dangerous in and of themselves, the attitudes and biases we all carry (combined with the haphazardly regulated availability of efficient weapons) are exceedingly dangerous, especially for those of us who hold these positions while displaying crosses all over our house. Luckily, though, those crosses hold the key to doing something different.

What I am about to say may seem impractical and scary, but it is honestly, as I see it, the only Biblical way to approach the issues of self-defense, weapons, and violence as people of faith (and, I submit, as people in general).

We own three pistols. Part of this is due to inheritance, part of it for the cathartic hobby of shooting targets. A fun fact, though, is that we keep none of them in our night stands, but in our safe. Why? Nothing that we own is worth the life of someone else. Also, if someone were to break in during the day (which is when that usually happens), I do not want my very efficient pistol out there doing damage to others. This is why we keep our weapons properly stored and why I personally choose not to carry weapons with me.

As the 49th Psalm admonishes, “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.” The first step to preserving life is realizing there is nothing worth more than life. This isn’t because criminals are utilizing life well, but because God gave that life, and only God can rightfully take it back. If we ignore this truth and decide that there is no shame in killing those we feel deserve it, we share the same mental space as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hitler, Charles Manson, and the like.  The fact is that if we continue down the path of selective devaluing, we are no better than those we condemn. We must learn to think, speak, and act in ways that show an inherent, immovable valuing of life.

We cannot underestimate the impact of our collective attitudes regarding the value of all life. As long as we walk about devaluing that which God has given (whether we feel justified or not), nothing will change. As long as we (by word, thought, and deed) dismiss the cross of Christ, where God declared sinners to be worth dying for, we cannot expect a brighter future. 

Now, if you know me, you know I practice martial arts, specifically Goju-Ryu Karate Do. To many this seems like a preparation to do violence, and it was when the style originally developed. Things change, however, and what I have found is that practicing martial arts has helped me learn to keep a level head and an open heart. Does this mean I will allow someone to strike me if I can prevent it? No. Does this mean I am going to puff out my chest, pick fights, inflict as much damage as possible, and think in terms of violence in my daily life? Also no. Martial arts is a tool that should be used responsibly and actually promote communal well-being.

On a similar note, I have no problem with gun ownership… as long as we are held accountable. Do we all have safes and keep them locked up at appropriate times? Do we have a record of assault/domestic abuse? Do we ensure that we are properly trained in marksmanship, safety, and maintenance of firearms? Too often, these are issues that are overlooked for the sake of convenience and pleasing lobbyists.

On the broader scale, are we holding ourselves accountable for our words and attitudes? Did I just talk about killing someone if they ever try to rob me or break in? Did I just rejoice that a death row inmate met his end? Do I really feel no remorse about someone dying? Is my convenience really the most important thing in this conversation? Remember, Proverbs 24:17-18 teaches us, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the LORD will see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from them.”

My final point is geared toward the criticism this post may very well receive (which I welcome). I will undoubtedly provoke the question, “So I should just let myself be a victim then? Do nothing? Is that the Christian way?” My answer is, “Well…”

It is here that I appeal to Scripture. In Matthew 26:47-56, Jesus is being arrested and a disciple tries to defend him by drawing his sword and cutting off a slave’s ear. Jesus’ response?

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

It would appear Jesus could have resisted, utilizing heavenly violence to prevent his own innocent suffering. However, thankfully, that is not the example Jesus sets for us, yet we pretend that it is. Either that, or Jesus doesn’t affect our conscience regarding justice and violence at all. I am not sure which is worse.

I understand our natural impulse to seek peace by eliminating all threats, but I have to say that it is impossible that all threats disappear. Eventually, we have to live life, and we have to choose whether we will live in acceptance of fear and violence or strive for something else. The only way to achieve peace is through this “something else.” Jesus encourages us time and time again to live as if the Kingdom of God is at hand, even if the world around us doesn’t reflect that. The implication, for me, is that the world will begin to look this way if we actually treat God’s world as if it were a reality now and not just a post-death escape.

If we want peace, we must think, speak, and behave peacefully. If we want forgiveness, we must think, speak, and behave with grace. If we want to be loved, we must think, speak, and behave lovingly. What’s more, if we want to be followers of Christ, we must actually follow Him into those places of discomfort and danger, walking as He walked.

On the surface, I seem to have taken a middle-of-the-road approach. In truth, I just took an exit and headed a different direction. Banning guns will not cleanse us of the plague of violence that is so commonplace in our country. Nor, however, will the refusal to do anything. Most pressing to me is the issue of our attitudes regarding death, defense, and the use of force as a means of justice. If we devalue the lives of anyone, we fail at our task as disciples. When our attitudes change, our practices will. Perhaps open carry will cease to be a source of pride and bluster. Perhaps carrying at all will be reduced. Perhaps a nation can come together and find useful and effective ways to curb and reduce tragedy, not just in the schools and communities that we care about, but the places we try to forget exist. Perhaps we stop neglecting communities at all and start behaving as if we are, in fact, our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers. Perhaps the future could be filled with faithful people who decided to choose the cross.

Once can only hope.

Peace be with you!

An Old Idea We Have Yet to Master

“For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” — 1 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV

“My body is a temple.”

We have heard, said, or disliked someone who said that phrase at one point or another. It is a spiritual idea that comes from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, yet we somehow have taken it to mean that one shouldn’t enjoy Pringle’s every once in a while. Jerks…

Anyway, I have been reading 1 Corinthians (First Corinthians, not “One Corinthians,” Mr. President) for my New Testament devotional text, and I felt compelled to use this section from chapter 3 to talk about the purpose of the Christian faith and provide some encouragement for all of us to take it seriously. So let’s dive right in.

Verse 16 of the text says that we “are God’s temple” and “God’s Spirit dwells in” us. It should be noticed (as the footnote tells us) that the “you” in this text is intended to be plural, which serves several purposes, the first of which being that the entire Church (the body of believers in Christ) is considered the temple of God in which the Spirit of God dwells. When we gather and act together (in accordance with our faith), the Spirit of God is powerfully present, revealing the love of God to the world through us. As Jesus says in Matthew, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The “you” in this text can also refer to the body of individual believers, because each believer is said to have the gift of the Holy Spirit (see the entire Book of Acts). Both our personal and communal lives, therefore, should bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Whether we are gathered in a church, Bible study, service event, or individually at work, school, or home, the Spirit of God and our connection to it should guide our thoughts, words, and actions.

Too often, however, we are not so intentional with who we are. We react based on how we feel, our instincts, or what will seemingly benefit us the most. Our personal, political, economic, and social lives too often fail to reflect that which we claim to be when we gather on Sundays (or Saturdays or Wednesdays, depending on your denomination). In fact, we have developed a system where this is accepted, known as the confession and pardon of sin.

Not every denomination has this as a formal moment in worship (which also contributes to the problem), but for those of us that do, the ritual actually reinforces the idea that wrongdoing is just a part of who we are. If we say the words with the correct measure of guilt, everything will be okay for US, which is hardly the intended point. Similarly, those churches that don’t talk about sin and the need for forgiveness contribute to the problem by failing to acknowledge that we do harm to others. Sometimes it is intentional, sometimes it isn’t, but either way, it needs to be acknowledged and fixed.

So what does this have to do with the whole “you are that temple” talk? I’m glad you asked. Step into my office.

A self-centered life does not witness well to the love of God with which we claim to be connected. I shall repeat that in bold. A self-centered life does not witness well to the love of God with which we claim to be connected. This holds true for when we gather as the Church and when we are in the midst of our daily individual lives.

Do I go to church for me? Do I go to church for my friends or so I can go to heaven? Do I go to church so I can act how I want during the week? Do I leave my faith in my private life? Do I treat others how I want, knowing I can ask forgiveness from God later? Do I keep my faith strictly personal and make my political, economic, and social decisions based on other things?

These are all good questions to ask, and more than likely, we are all begrudgingly nodding our heads in response to some of them. After all, it is how we were all raised to see church: as a service industry. What’s worse? The institutional church plays right into this role. Church is for us. It is so we can get what we need. It is also for when we have the time to do things for others, but mostly it is for us. It’s okay to admit this, because that is how our culture views almost everything. How is it useful? What does it do for me?

Unfortunately, this is hardly how the faith was designed to work. Our intentions do matter when it comes to what we do. If we gather because we are supposed to or because we are getting what we feel we need, we are not gathering in the name of Christ. We are gathering in our own name, and the Spirit of God is silenced. We unknowingly place an idol that looks like us on the altar of Christ and defile ourselves, the collective temple of God.

When we leave our faith at the church or in our hearts, making decisions based on what will make us the most friends, money, or success, we do the same thing. If we treat our neighbors based on stereotypes, prejudice, or ignorance, we defile the temple of God within us. When we poison our earth because we feel it is there for our uses only, we defile the temple of God within us. The same happens if we believe the lies of our culture and what they have to say about us, our bodies, and our value. Whether collectively or individually, we defile the temple of God when we fail to realize our value and the value of all others. 

So what do we do? We go back to square one. We hit the basics again.

We must re-accept the teachings of Christ daily, resolving to live in a way that honors the Spirit of God within us and within each other. When we gather, it must be in order to connect with God. When we go out into the world, it must be to live in light of that connection. We must be willing to change when we are in the wrong, and to stand firm in the love of Christ when we find ourselves tempted to act in self-interest.

In short, we must daily resolve to seek to both experience the love of God AND reflect it. This takes practice and grace, both for yourself and for others. It is about building daily habits of mindfulness and compassion. It is a journey that will last as long as we are on this earth, but it is one that is worth every twist, turn, and disruption.

I don’t know where you are on your faith walk, but I can tell you that all of us need this reminder every once in a while. Remember that you house the Spirit of God within you, and every decision you make either honors that or… does not. If we can all be more conscious of that, we will all get the chance to experience the love of God on a greater level. It is my hope that you will join me in this re-evaluation, so that we can all be the temple we are designed to be.

Peace be with you!

“Stricken”: A Snowflake’s Guide to Caring for the Suffering Servant

“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted.” — Isaiah 53:4, NRSV

“Know thyself!” says the old proverb. Taken correctly, it can actually be pretty fruitful advice. If we honestly check in with ourselves at many points throughout our days, we can get a sense of who we were, who we are, and who we run the risk of becoming. Unfortunately, we tend to confuse “Know thyself!” with “Think you know what you need to know concerning thyself!” Aside from the higher word count, the second, all-too-common phrase is problematic because it keeps us from recognizing where we are in our journey.

Looking at the Scripture quote above, we find one of the many Isaiah passages interpreted to explain the events that happened regarding Jesus. For many, this passage in Isaiah 53 is simply an explanation of how Jesus’ self-sacrifice did away with our sin on the cosmic level, and I think that is an unfortunately shallow interpretation. Yes, there is truth to it, but when it comes to this language of Jesus’ death, I fear we take too much for granted and miss a vital lesson.

While reading this chapter for my morning devotional a couple of days ago, the quote above struck a chord with me. The writer tells us that “our infirmities” and “our diseases” were what afflicted this servant. Then, we are informed that this servant is thought to be struck by the hand of God, one who must have done something to deserve this treatment. The reaction to this suffering one seems to be head-shaking and dismissal, as we are told “he was despised, and we held him of no account” (53:3). The twisted summary is that we are the cause of this person’s suffering, yet we act as though it is something deserved, as though the problem is with the afflicted. Sound familiar?

As someone born in 1991, I am often considered to be a part of the Millennial generation, which has drawn considerable (not wholly undeserved) ire from older generations who feel we are all entitled “snowflakes.” While I am not going to (in this post) discuss the ridiculous hypocrisy of that claim, I am going to point out a noticeable trend that is becoming more and more evident. It seems that we don’t like being held accountable for our part in the suffering of others, and we will do anything to avoid it. This, unfortunately, tends to include blaming others for what our words and actions have done to them.

This may chafe some people, but I do not subscribe to the idea of being “stuck in one’s ways.” I don’t care if you are 95 or 12 years old, if you are a part of this world, you have a responsibility to do the best you can to live a respectful and informed life. I don’t pretend that this is easy. It is hard to unlearn and alter deeply ingrained patterns of thought and living (trust me, I have learned this the hard way). However, it is flat-out impossible if we can’t honestly ask ourselves whether or not the opinions, beliefs, or actions by which we define ourselves are healthy and life-giving or not. Too often, we take for granted the kind of person we are and just expect everyone to conform to that reality. Otherwise, they can go kick rocks.

Interestingly enough, that is exactly the attitude Israel seems to be taking with the servant in Isaiah 53, and it is certainly the cultural climate that put Jesus on the cross. People who thought their way was above reproach and worthy of full acceptance did not take kindly to the “snowflake” talking about love, justice, and caring for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole (regardless of whether or not we think they deserve it!). Even today, followers of Jesus are put off by some of his teachings, and even flat-out ignore them when it comes to “practical” matters like politics, finances, and how we deal with difference. At the end of the day, the idea was that Jesus put himself on the cross for daring to challenge the religious and governing authorities of his time.

What does this have to do with how you, me, and how we treat each other?

Too often, our assumption seems to be that if our words or actions hurt others, the problem is with how weak they are as opposed to how crappy we are acting in a given moment. We blame others for a sin for which we will eventually have to answer. After all, which do you think God is going to take issue with: the fact that someone is sensitively offended by my prejudicial language or the fact that I don’t care and even persist in said behavior? You can bet I will be the one in the hot seat, no matter what rights I feel I am entitled to.

That’s a small example regarding how people treat the sensitive or offended, but you can take that template to any extreme you want. What about blaming the medically uninsured American because I voted for the guys who wanted to take the insurance they had away? Perhaps it’s blaming that “pig-headed” conservative family member for all the times I called them backward, racist, and ignorant? Could it be blaming the abused person we know for the psychological conditioning and brutal actions of the jerk laying hands on her? What if I blamed my spouse for my infidelity? As you can see, the gate truly “is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it” (Matthew 7:13).

We all do this in one way or another. I get asked why I wear a crucifix necklace when “Jesus isn’t on the cross any more.” While this is in some way true, I can’t help but think Jesus is always up there. I once had a professor who said, “We crucify Christ by our ‘isms.'” Indeed, I think it is safe to say that as long as the innocent suffer and as long as we refuse to acknowledge and change those parts of ourselves that contribute to that suffering, Jesus is crucified time and time again.

This is a harsh teaching, but it is also a blessed one. Just as we put Jesus back on the cross, we also have the freedom to not do that. If we put even the slightest effort into changing our habits and lifestyles to better care for others, we begin to mend the wounds of Christ instead of causing them. Every moment we set our pride or fragile ego aside and act for the good of all, we experience in some small way the resurrection of Christ, made complete at the end of our days.

Now, this won’t always be easy. People like to believe that true change is impossible. “We are who we are.” This is a shallow form of comfort that accommodates people who are too scared or stubborn to try to improve. For me, the biggest lie I had to overcome was the ideology behind that severely unhelpful phrase, “once a cheater, always a cheater.” I believed for so long that my issues with boundaries and commitment were who I was meant to be. “Perhaps I am just better off alone,” I would often think. Guess what? The day came when the Spirit within me refused to accept that, and I sought help. I talked to friends, pastors, and counselors. I faced the pain of my life and asked myself some tough questions. It wasn’t and isn’t easy at all, but for every foot of ground I gain, something in my heart breaks free and I find myself living joyfully with the woman I love. The struggles I face daily are still real. Temptation is always out there, but I have learned healthy ways of dealing with it, and I am now in a place I never thought I would be: happy. 

The same thing is possible for you, no matter the affliction you face. You are not doomed to be what others say you are, even if the “other” you are fighting the most happens to be yourself. You may think you are too old, too lost, too broken, too scared, too weak, too [insert chosen adjective here], but “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (Luke 18:27). It may be hard as hell, but it is worth every bit of it to experience the transforming power of God firsthand.

It all starts with openness. We have to be open to honestly examining the effects our words and actions have on others. We have to be honest enough to see those moments when we are shifting the blame from ourselves to those we negatively impact. Instead of accounting them “stricken,” let’s admit when they are bearing the burden of our choices, and let’s make the decision to let God do something different through us. It is never too late to choose light and life, and I hope you will join me in trying to do so. 

Peace be with you!

 

 

Wrong Question, Right Answer: On “The Good Samaritan”

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” — Luke 10:36-37, NRSV

This story, often called “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” is one of the chief parables in the Christian faith. It is about kindness that reaches across social, ethnic, and even religious boundaries. It also showcases one of the best turn-arounds Jesus has ever pulled on someone, and the result is a message that is sorely needed in our world today.

You can find the whole story here, and you will notice that after a lawyer asks Jesus about the necessary qualifications for entering eternal life, and Jesus answers rather bluntly, we get a new question that sounds familiar to anyone who knows this story. “And who is my neighbor?” From there Jesus enters into an unexpected narrative with an even less-expected result.

Now, for those of us unfamiliar with the parable, don’t feel bad, as the most familiar interpretations and lessons on this parable tend to miss a major point. Jesus never answers the lawyer’s question.

The odd interpretation most come to is that one’s neighbors are the people who are merciful toward you, so go and be like them, which one has to admit, sounds weird. It is seldom noted that Jesus doesn’t tell the lawyer who his neighbors are, that he may concentrate his efforts on them. Instead, Jesus teaches the lawyer how to be a neighbor to even one’s most despised enemy (as the Samaritan is to the Jew in this parable).

We as humans always look for the minimum. We want to know how much we really have to achieve, and we strive to fulfill that while still trying to get everything else we want. When it comes to religion, this tendency is more pronounced. We always ask what we can get away with. Not in those words, but we ask things like, “Will I go to hell if…?” or “What does the Bible specifically say about me wanting to…?” We seek technicalities, or, like the lawyer, we want to know who we are allowed to mistreat. He didn’t ask that… but he did.

The lawyer already noted that the Law teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves in verse 27. Therefore, his question (“Who is my neighbor?”) is really kind of wrong. He is asking who he needs to love as himself. He is exhibiting an action we do all too often in our world today. There are people who are more inherently worthy of our love and respect than others. We don’t want to treat our enemies civilly, much less with love, as Jesus teaches in Luke 6:27-36, found here. We want to love who we feel deserves it, but we also want to be free to hate (or “strongly dislike” as every minimal Christian puts it) those we feel have earned it.

With this in mind, we often will be found asking the lawyer’s question every time we come to this story. Now, luckily, we are mostly given the right answer, that everyone is to be our neighbor, treated with love. Jesus, however, doesn’t even bother to answer the lawyer’s question with that. Instead, Jesus asks (and answers) his own question.

Notice, after the parable, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” His advice is to go and show the same mercy to others. His question and answer are not concerned with who our neighbors are so much as whether or not we are being merciful neighbors to everyone.

Jesus tells us to stop looking for the minimum requirements and to start focusing on being disciples, day in and day out. It’s not important who our neighbors are! It is, however, important to know whether or not we are being neighbors to others. This is an essential teaching for today, when we seem to be more than happy to retreat back to our segregated, isolationist way of surrounding ourselves with similarity and calling that Christian love. It is an essential teaching in my country, where we Christians want to know the minimum we have to religiously adhere to while remaining free to ultimately do what we want.

Our future as a planet depends on our ability to accept this teaching. It will take the help of God every day, but I guarantee that if we wake up determined to be a neighbor to everyone (as opposed to finding worthy neighbors to love), things will start to look different. God is always at work, but when we open the door to our hearts and our lives in this way, real changes will start to happen. I personally think real change is something we desperately need if we want to survive as a species!

I hope this little talk has proved helpful for you. I hope you are, like me, pondering this story anew. Most of all, I hope you will join me today in a journey of discipleship, determined to be a neighbor, exhibiting God’s love to all. It takes practice, but it is totally worth it.

Peace be with you!

Floods Will Come

“I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.” — Luke 6:47-48, NRSV

I remember seeing an illustrated version of this parable. If I remember correctly, it was in Grandma’s Gospel, a book my grandma in West Virginia (who we are visiting this week) used to read to me on her front porch swing. I have always liked this teaching, even if at first it was because I’d laugh at the guy that thought he was building a strong house on sand. Anyway, I feel this is a good parable to ponder as we enter into a new year. Why?

A new year is a new opportunity, a chance for a new way of life for some of us. It is important that we take a moment to pause and consider how we are going to live in this new year. 2017 certainly revealed a lot about our more negative sides. Selfishness, greed, prejudice, and apathy marked the public sphere, leading to a sense of despair for everyone involved (except for those in power who benefit from the above sinful expressions). The question now is whether or not we want more of the same.

You see, such sinful expressions are the result of houses built “without a foundation” (Luke 6:49). Fragile existences based on possessions, status, self-satisfaction, or the need to be superior often fail us in the moments when the floods of life come along. Notice I said “when,” not “if” the floods come. The text says the same thing. “When a flood arose, the river burst against that house” (Luke 6:48).

Floods are going to come, regardless of whether or not our lives are rooted in stone or sand. Living a life founded on the rock of faith does not exempt one from the immense and often overwhelming pain life brings along. In similar fashion, basing our existence on things that can be easily swept away (work, relationships, self-importance, fleeting pleasures, etc.) doesn’t do us any favors either. The trick for this new year, then, is building our lives on a foundation that is not only strong enough to sustain us through the pain of life, but also has the power to provide shelter and peace for others in the midst of their own storms. 

How do we do that?

It begins with the teachings of Christ in Luke, all summed up earlier in chapter 6. You might recognize the foremost of these teachings in Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” From there, look around at the other teachings.

“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35).

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

This chapter is then wrapped up with the parable of two foundations.

Coincidence? Of course not. Keep up.

Jesus says the one who builds their house on a strong foundation is the one “who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them” (Luke 6:47). If we want to begin and continue this year in a new, better way, the best advice is build a foundation on those things that keep us kind, gracious, patient, loving, forgiving, and compassionate. What’s the best example? Look at Jesus.

Jesus was maligned almost everywhere he went. People claimed to be his disciples, only to abandon him with alarming quickness. He came teaching freedom, transformation, and a closer relationship to the Divine, which led to a miserable death on a cross. In the midst of mistreatment, persecution, beatings, and a humiliating execution, Jesus never compromised on his love, compassion, justice, and inclinations toward healing and wholeness for those who needed it.

If we want to experience a different sort of year, that’s exactly what it’s going to take for us.

Floods are going to come. Whether literally, as in Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast of the United States, or figuratively in the form of mass shootings, sudden loss of life, familial stress, unemployment, or the ending of important relationships, these floods all have the capability of turning us into self-serving people who only serve to feed the hateful atmosphere that has been so prevalent in our world as of late. If, however, we build our lives upon a foundation beyond ourselves, a foundation that prioritizes the care and well-being of others, we will be able to withstand the turbulent waters. 

Will there be damage? There always is. Will life hurt? Of course. If, however, our lives are geared toward others, in alignment with the will of God, our pain can be healed and made useful. This results in a very different reality from the one we have seen before. You know, the one where our pain and our suffering and our desires take precedence over anything else.

As you go about beginning this new year, I hope you join in me in doing some construction work. How can we change the foundation of our lives to one that is firmly set on the unshakable rock that is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ? We won’t always get it right, but our continuous efforts alone will yield something beautiful that will go a long way toward healing previous damage done to us, to others, and to all of creation. So let’s get started!

Happy New Year!

Peace be with you!