Forgiveness

How do you let go

And stop receiving blows

When you’re the only one who knows

The very lowest of your lows?

When you look up and you see

How other sinners are received,

Do you wonder worriedly,

“My God, what would they think of me?”

Because we think this way,

Tighter to the chest we play.

And I think it’s safe to say

This should be fixed without delay.

For when we all pretend perfection,

We dare to think it is protection,

And avoidance from detection.

It’s preventing resurrection.

When we judge each other’s sin,

Cradling our own within,

There’s no freedom to begin

Healing for us and all our kin.

So live in kindness with each other,

With your sister and your brother.

Then the darkness we will smother,

Giving grace to one another.

Love in Conflict: Seeing People, Not Problems

A troubling trend that I have been noticing as the days go by is the punishment of individuals for the sake of a collective or institutional evil. When we are confronted with a person who espouses or represents an ideology we don’t like, that person often ends up on the receiving end of our (often malicious) disapproval. This is not a justifiable practice, as it is attacking symptoms rather than causes. Furthermore, we are unable to actually affect change when we go into “attack mode.” When one person attacks, the other defends, and a beneficial exchange is rendered all but impossible.

During and after the Vietnam Conflict, military service members were treated like garbage due to strong anti-war sentiments that surged through the American public. Nowadays, due in part to our post-Vietnam guilt, service members are at the very least paid vast amounts of positive lip service regarding the selfless deeds they perform for the sake of our nation’s freedom. Both of these instances forge an unhealthy connection between what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Military service members join the armed services out of a patriotic desire to make a positive difference for their country, as well as to provide for themselves and their families. Such intentions, however, are manipulated when our fellow citizens are inevitably wielded as extensions of the United States government and its various economic and political interests. Both of these statements are true and merit consideration. The soldier cannot and should not be blamed for the misuse of their devotion, and the Powers that Be cannot and should not be sanctified by the sacrifices of others as they rest on capitol hill.

Another example is seen in the world of law enforcement. Let’s say an officer pulls over a person who becomes hostile. Perhaps it comes in the form of a taunt, putting hands out the window and telling the officer not to shoot before an interaction has even begun. Maybe it comes in the form of shouting obscenities, reminding the officer that his salary is paid by the offender’s taxes. In other more extreme instances, officers have been shot in their cars while on break or ambushed on domestic violence calls.

In each of these interactions, the individual officer is seen as a representative of all that is wrong in law enforcement, even though that officer may have never abused the badge. The civil servant becomes the recipient of all the rage and frustration caused by a problem of systemic proportions, and this is as grave an injustice as the inequitable treatment of people of color in the American justice system.

These are two broader examples of something that can happen anywhere at any time. A prisoner can become the means by which a corrections officer violently vents his frustrations. An undocumented Mexican immigrant becomes the face of all that is economically and socially wrong in the eyes of Americans who need someone to blame for a world that scares them. Certain friends, family members, and even strangers become incarnations of racism, sexism, and homophobia to be scolded, maligned, and used to show how virtuous “we the enlightened” are by comparison.

Why is this wrong?

It changes absolutely nothing.

While we are busy laying into one another, the power structures and ideologies that affect us remain strong. Whether it’s killing a terrorist, antagonizing a soldier or police officer, racially profiling an individual, or swearing at loved ones or strangers, the lesson remains the same: violence of any kind toward individuals cannot undo collective or institutional evils. If anything, those evils are strengthened and rooted deeper into our world.

So what is the answer?

I am merely one human being, and I cannot prescribe a foolproof, universal cure for so diverse and widespread a problem. What I can offer is some “everyday wisdom” that any person can apply should they choose to do so. I believe Saint Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 16:14.

“Let all that you do be done in love.”

It is imperative that we take a stand for all that is decent, kind, inclusive, beautiful, generous, and equitable. We should stand against violence, bigotry, fear-mongering, greed, oppression, and hate. All of this, however, can and must be done with love.

Love can be firm and maintain boundaries. Love can call out that which is unacceptable or problematic. What’s more, love can do these things without contributing to the very negativity and violence we are trying to resist!

If we are driven by anger, fear, or hatred, no matter how justified we may feel it to be, our actions will only feed the world’s evils. Yes, we might “get some bad guys” here and there, and we might feel better, but none of that actually reduces the amount of violence and vitriol present in the world. We are just more comfortable with these negative forces because they exist in the name of our cause.

With love, however, we must take responsibility for our feelings. We must process them in a healthy way and recognize that the person in front of us matters. Just as we are shaped by our experiences, so are all other people, and this understanding should inform our actions. This allows us to be more compassionate, more loving, even in the midst of conflict. We can still stand in our truth, but instead of attacking the other, we can connect with them, putting a kind heart and face to their opposition (and our own).

Will this always be well-received? Or will it always end in some beatific vision of reconciliation? Of course not. Yet we cannot attempt to control how others respond to us. All we can do is make sure we respond in a way that best represents our own ideals, not allowing the darkness of the world to determine how we behave.

Imagine a world in which we voted, debated, donated, invested, legislated, and reformed with love in our heart. Imagine a world in which we were able to recognize the humanity in even our worst enemy, choosing to interact on that basis rather than on the basis of our animosity. Imagine a world in which the Powers that Be are starved of our fear and hatred, rendered powerless by our love for one another.

This is an idealistic vision, but pursuing it can lead to very real transformation in this world if we would only be willing to try.

Peace be with you!

Security is a Lie

Maaaan, we humans like to feel safe and secure. Alarm systems, pistols, baseball bats, confirmation bias, the 2nd Amendment, doctrine, prejudice, all of these things are means by which we try to ensure our sense of security. This sense can be emotional, intellectual, or physical.

The problem is that true security/safety is impossible if you actually want to live your life. There is a nothing wrong with taking some basic precautions or having a solid bit of confidence. However, there is a difference between that and living in fear of difference because it threatens to shake up our foundations. Too often, we tend toward the latter.

Life is not conducive to safety. It involves risk, taking chances, and being subject to influences and powers external to ourselves. To try to control or eliminate this often leads to an existence based on fear or suspicion. Ironically, such a lifestyle is fertile ground for more issues, not less.

It’s true that our sense of fear and security can be healthy and definitely helped our ancestors survive. We had to be careful about strange sights or sounds, as anything could potentially kill us.

Today, these instincts manifest in a variety of ways. When our core beliefs or opinions are challenged, we get defensive or even aggressive. Many carry weapons with them everywhere they go. Fear of strangers leads to prejudice, racism, or classism, resulting in isolationist or avoidant social behavior. When our financial prosperity is infringed upon, we hoard our resources and will often pay any price (moral or, ironically, financial) to keep our status.

None of these behaviors are healthy. They might make us feel better, but the tangible, positive results they produce are minimal at best. Furthermore, life isn’t made any less dangerous or unpredictable!

So what’s the alternative?

Acceptance.

I sometimes find myself terrified. I’m scared I’m going to lose my wife or son or friends or family. I worry about our finances, my training business, or my impact on this world.

At the end of it all, though, I have to choose between fear and acceptance. Fear feeds itself and leads to a limited existence. Acceptance, however, allows me to feel what I feel while also pushing me to live my life.

Sure, it all could end tomorrow. I could lose everything, be shot in a Wal-Mart, or I could die in my sleep… but none of this is in my control. All I can do is handle what is within my power to handle, leaving the rest to whatever powers may be.

This may sound like indifference, but it actually allows me to live a life of reckless love and delight in the people God has brought into my life. I kiss and hug my son every chance I get. I flirt with and embrace my wife daily. I check in on my family and friends, eat the delicious food, put down my weapons, give of my resources to those in need, and do my best to leave the world better than I found it.

Security is great in theory, but it just doesn’t exist. Life is wild, unpredictable, and extends beyond the grasp of our control. We can either respond out of fear or acceptance, and I hope we all can chooe the latter. Past that point, all that’s left is to jump in and LIVE!

Peace be with you!

“Stand Your Ground” Law: Why I Stopped Killing Spiders

I used to kill spiders, often on command. Spiders or insects of various kinds would enter our dwelling and someone would yell, “Kill it!” I’d do it, usually with no thought at all.

After all, people I love are scared of those things. I have been scared of them. Therefore, I am justified in taking life from them, right?

Our country even defends this behavior with humans. The Zimmerman and Martin case in Florida is a good example. It turns out you can pick a fight with someone, lose that fight, and shoot that someone because you made a stupid decision.

Totally makes sense, yes?

In pre-historic times, sure. Killing things that seemed threatening kept our species alive. The problem is that civilization doesn’t function well under those parameters. That’s A LOT of death when you take into account how often we tend to fear or hate difference. Yet many states are totally fine with validating our fears to the point of violence.

I get the idea. We want people to legally be able to defend themselves, which is great until you factor in prejudice (in the form of unequal threat association based on race or appearance) and a set of lawyers out to manipulate juries for a win. Also, humans get scared of a lot of things, and that fear is subjective, which is not a sound basis for law. Juries are supposed to consider evidence precisely because empathy can interfere with justice because of shared prejudice.

After all, if we legally excuse people based on their mindset at the time, NO ONE would pay for their crimes. There is ALWAYS justification available. We humans can rationalize anything.

When we justify violence based on fear, we set ourselves up for more violence, not less. This works against what I would say is the goal of laws against murder, manslaughter, assault, etc.

But what is the alternative?

Well.

What if we cared more about life (all life) than possessions or our own illusion of safety? What if we as individuals decided ahead of time to act with love and kindness toward others, no matter how others might act toward us? What if we as a society recognized the inherent value of all living creatures as part of this interconnected natural world?

There is inherent risk to this idea. It’s a scary, idealistic approach to complex, dark, and real issues. However, things can’t change if we keep responding “in kind.” You can’t kill your way to peace. It takes an entirely different response to affect change, and I think we can all agree that change is something we need.

So I stopped killing wasps, spiders, roaches, all of it. I catch them, and I move them. I take precautions, but those precautions are selected with love and appreciation in mind, not fear. It’s a small thing, but perhaps we as a society would benefit from finding such a “third way” for how we deal with each other.

Peace be with you!

From Within

there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defileMark 7:15, NRSV

I’ve always looked at this teaching with an emphasis on the “all foods are clean” thing (Mark 7:19). After all, it means I can enjoy bacon guilt-free and it represents a shift from religious box-checking to a more transformative spirituality. But the last part… the “defilement from within” part… that didn’t truly sink in until recently.

We as humans always look to external causes for our inappropriate actions. It’s never our fault. It’s the unclean “stuff” out there that got us.

We see this when the media crucifies an assault survivor for what they were wearing; we hear it about the victim of a careless police officer for what they may or may not have been doing out so late in that neighborhood OR we see the same logic used to justify the assault on a police officer. After all, there’s this back story…

It’s never our fault.

I’ve done this in my own life. Old habits die hard, and all the more so when changing seems too scary or painful. There was always a reason, whether it be my childhood, my losses, or my depression.

We always look for external sources of trouble and salvation. We don’t want to be responsible for our mistakes because then we might be responsible for fixing them. Jesus rightly criticizes this attitude.

Agreeing with James (4:1-3), Jesus asserts that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly(Mark 7:21-22). Our desires and our fears produce the evil we enact in the world. Other people or situations may stimulate or add specificity to these things, but our response is ours alone.

Now this is not a guilt trip or a statement about my own perfection. I am simply indicating that this passage has taken on new life for me because I now understand that I must heal what is within rather than waiting for something from without.

When many of us entered into faith, we are taught that God is a Savior, which is true. But what often follows is the expectation that God will do it all, which is actually a blatant denial of free will. God gives us the means and awareness, and He is with us always, but to change and grow and leave behind our harmful practices is our work. We must desire it, initiate it, and see it through while relying on God’s grace to keep us moving with compassion for ourselves and each other as we all embark on our roads to healing.

For me to change, I have to want it. If any of us have habits in need of changing, it must be us that seek to enter into that process with God. God’s already where He needs to be, He’s just waiting on us to meet Him at the station.

Whatever is plaguing your life, and whatever negative habits or behaviors are manifesting in you, I pray that you will know that it is never hopeless or too late. All that you need to make the change is already with you, waiting for you to find that motivation and get started. Is it your relationship with your family, friends, or kids? Your relationship with God or yourself? Are you simply sick and tired? Whatever it is, may the grace of God light a fire within, and may we all choose to take a step into that transforming Light.

Peace be with you!

A Christian/Muslim Project

…and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. — Luke 9:2, NRSV

I am excited to announce that my friend Ekram and I are working on a joint writing project that will (hopefully) provide an interesting dose of inspiration and learning for those who are interested. We don’t have a title worked out, but the work will be an interfaith devotional, comprised of alternating daily quotes and reflections from the Christian Bible and the Muslim Qur’an. For those of you who don’t know, I worked with Ekram on a text he published a while back, which you can read about here.

Now, I have been asked why I’d want to do this kind of project and why interfaith work is so important to me. I think these are fair questions, especially in a world like ours. We see a lot of division, a lot of fear, and a lot of lazy responses to both of those things. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what is happening here.

I believe disciples of Jesus are obligated to contribute to the healing of the world. Jesus, in Luke 6:9, highlights the necessity of intentional healing activity when He asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” There is no option to “do nothing.” To not act in a manner that brings light and life into the world is to do the opposite.

Further, the quote at the start of this post is from Luke 9, when Jesus sends his disciples out into the surrounding area to participate in His work of sharing God’s Kingdom. They were sent to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” and that is what I feel I am doing by participating in interfaith work.

Much of the world’s tribalism, hatred, and distrust can be found in the religious realm. Many in my context fear the entire religion of Islam and anything associated with it, and that makes sense due to the violent actions of those who claim to be Muslim all around the world. These horrific activities receive a lot of coverage, and a large amount of people have no experience of Islam outside of the media.

I feel that interfaith work is a way to help heal some of that fear and distrust. When we reach across boundaries to actually experience each other, we often find that we have more in common than we might otherwise have thought. Most of us want to be okay, and we want our families to be okay. We want to work, raise our kids, worship God, and enjoy life. When you understand this, you tend to come away with more potential friends than enemies, and that is a good thing.

Another concern that I want to address is that I am promoting syncretism by blurring the lines between the two obviously distinctive religions. Many well-meaning individuals do this kind of thing, and it is disrespectful to both faiths. While we have much in common, our differences are very real, and you can’t truly love someone without acknowledging all that they are.

With that in mind, I am always clear that my participation in such work is that of a Christian believer, and Ekram always stands as a devout Muslim. I’ve defended the Incarnation in the middle of a mosque, and Ekram has conducted Islamic evening prayer in a church hall with those who accompanied him to our facility. As we were initiating this writing project, we adamantly agreed that we would clearly indicate that this is a written interaction between confessors of two separate religions, even while as we emphasize our faiths’ common themes of peace, justice, mercy, and hope. We openly disagree on some pretty fundamental things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t promote understanding and compassion by recognizing all we share.

A final consideration is brought to mind when Jesus says, “For whoever is not against you is for you” in Luke 9:50. In context, He is responding to the disciples’ rebuke of a stranger casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ response is still a widely cast net, though, and just as Ekram and I have defended our own faith, we have also stood in defense of each other. When armed protesters came to his mosque and started stomping on copies of the Qur’an, I was there. When my faith was maligned, Ekram defended Jesus and reminded people that the Qur’an speaks highly of both Him and His followers. Throughout all of my meetings and interactions with large amounts of Muslim people, I have never encountered a person that stood in full opposition to me or the practice of my faith. In this way, Jesus’ words ring true for me, and I want to honor that.

I participate in interfaith work and relationships because they help remind me that it is my choice as to whether I am surrounded by friends or enemies. It’s my choice to interpret my faith socially or exclusively. Many of us feel like we have no choice but to act and believe the way we do, but when encounter the teachings of Jesus and put ourselves in position to frequently encounter difference, we can see that this is simply not true.

I hope this post adequately answers the questions that have been posed to me regarding this issue. Further, my prayer is that you will join me in the work of sharing the Gospel, promoting peace, compassion, and hope, even with those we might once have considered enemies. Remember, you’re not as alone as you might think.

Peace be with you!