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!

 

 

Changing the Story

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” — Matthew 2:13, NRSV

We live in a world that needs a change in story. Repeating cycles of violence, physical and ideological, seem to indicate that we have made very little real progress in the ways we deal with each other. The dangers of forcefully keeping “peace,” drawing lines in the sand, and demonizing each other based on our differences have all been made known throughout history. Somehow, though, we just keep barreling toward whatever next great “fall” comes next.

Even as individual people, things seldom look better. We continue painful and self-destructive cycles believing “that’s just how I am.” We dismiss ourselves and one another based on the worst information we can obtain. Both us and the people around us suffer for our unwillingness to put down the burdens we carry.

So why is that? Why do we seem to always fall back into dangerous patters of behavior, both collectively and as individuals? Well… Change sucks.

Change is something humans resist. It scares us. If the rules, standards, and patterns are allowed to shift, there is less for us to cling to for support and stability. Unfortunately, the fear of instability and change causes us to resist, often to our hurt and that of others.

When we look at the story of Jesus, Herod violently opposes the idea of a new king, one that would, in the end, deliver the people from the oppressive reign of Rome. He seeks to destroy Jesus, and in the process, countless innocents are slaughtered (Matthew 2:16). The moral of the story? Change is not a neat process, and while it is absolutely necessary, resistance is to be expected.

I can’t prescribe much for changing the entire world, except that we as individuals need to start choosing different paths. If enough of us do that, taking a page out of Jesus’ story, perhaps things can start to look different. Rest assured, though the path of improvement is necessary, it is bound to meet resistance.

Others will try to keep us from changing. Mantras like “once a cheater, always a cheater” serve as examples of how we tend to write people off. When we start embracing the love of Christ in our lives, the resulting change will scare others. After all, if we hold ourselves accountable and begin the process of transformation, that means they can. The resistance we meet in others could come in the form of ridicule, cruelty, or rejection, and that is horrible.

But it pales in comparison to the resistance we will meet internally.

There will be tears, doubt, and a surge in the negative feelings and habits that we are trying to eradicate. Our ego will violently revolt, leading to some crappy days… weeks… months. We will want to quit and flee back to “safety.” But that is not the end of the story.

You see, as the life of Christ teaches us, the love of God cannot be stopped once it is welcomed into the world. Jesus met a horrific amount of resistance, and it ended up costing him his life. Yet the victory is ultimately his, and that promise is extended to you and I.

If we take one step at a time, we will eventually look up and see that we have traveled a great distance with the love of God lighting our way. We will meet the Herods, the Pharisees, the Pilates (not the exercise), the cross, and the grave, sometimes in others and sometimes within ourselves. However, if we keep in mind the victory God has already given us and the responsibility we have to keep walking in the Way, the story will continue, culminating in a moment when we look back and see the momentous changes God has brought to completion in us. What’s more, we may even see the many people who were positively touched by our journey all along the way.

It is my prayer that you will join me in trying to change the story. If we change ours, we also stand to change the world’s. This is going to take loads of patience, prayer, and self-love, and it will often be a painful road. Yet all of that pales in comparison to the blessing that will follow.

Peace be with you!