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!

 

 

All That’s Wrong with “Love”

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. — John 15:12, RSV

Do you ever get tired of hearing about “love?” I do. As someone who has spent most of his time in mainline denominations (and surrounded by people who espouse more liberal theology), I was hammered on the head for YEARS about the supposed “love” of God that we were supposed to share with one another. Often, the verse above was cited to make sure we understood the importance of this.

Now why am I bashing on the idea of “love?” Also, why am I putting “love” in quotes?

For starters, the “love” that is often peddled in the religious mainline is not real love. It’s a form of passivity that keeps us out of confrontation. When we “love” one another, we blandly accept each other in a way that keeps everyone feeling comfortable. Preachers don’t really say anything because they don’t want to alienate anyone by declaring certain beliefs and practices to be inconsistent with the Gospel, so you get a lot of “spiritual” sermons that just tell you God “loves” you and it’s going to be okay.

People “love” each other, so they don’t call one another out for being total jerks. Parents “love” their kids, so discipline falls to the wayside. We “love” our country, so we don’t question its practices or heroes. God “loves” us all, so we can basically do whatever we want.

Welp. I’ve had it.

I’ve been as guilty of this as everyone else, but sometimes, you just have to change. Why? Because this form of “love” is a slap in the face to God. I will repeat.

This type of “love” is a direct, violent, and dismissive slap in the face to God.

Referring back to the selection of John 15 I used for this post, it is true that Jesus’ commandments ultimately boil down to “love one another as I have loved you.” But how did Jesus love us? Read the next verse. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13).

Oh, SNAP!

Yes, as it turns out, real love is costly. It hurts. It is confrontational, takes no prisoners, and can end up costing us our very security, comfort, and lives.

God doesn’t “love” us. God loves us. God came in the flesh to show us the extent of that love, even going so far as to accept a horrific, torturous, and humiliating death to make sure we understood what love really is.

To love God means to love one another. To love one another means we are willing to speak the truth to one another and to ourselves. We are willing to point out what’s wrong and our own participation in those wrongs. We are willing to face our darkness so that our lives may be life-giving and a blessing to those we encounter. Further, love also means that we are willing to change in order that we might grow in our ability to honor God by truly loving our neighbors and enemies as ourselves.

I openly admit that this post is a lot of frustration with myself. I used to live a life that was rooted in “love,” a fickle feeling that justified the crappy things I did while paying lip service to God in how I treated His people. I’ve recently come to the point where I am much healthier; physically, mentally, and spiritually. With that health comes the full knowledge and recognition of all the wrong that I have done in the name of “love,” and I am writing in the hopes that the rest of us can avoid learning this lesson the hard way.

I am also writing, however, that you may know just what it means to love. Love is sacrifice. Love is fierce. Love transforms our hearts, minds, and lives into something utterly beautiful. Love is what God has for you. Yes, God is just, holy, and “other.” But all of that is rooted in the reckless love God fosters for every aspect of His creation. It’s a love we are reminded of when we look to the cross and see how far He was willing to go for our sake.

This was a pretty heavy, passionate post, I know. It at least felt that way to me. But my own revelations over the last year or so (my entire life, really) have come to a head and I just feel this urgency to let you know that love still has power for us today. No matter how often it gets watered down or misused, the power of love is the power of God, and it is offered to you and me. It is my prayer that we will accept it.

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!

 

 

 

Righteousness ≠ Perfection

The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out. — Proverbs 13:9, NRSV

Reading Proverbs is both a delight and a challenge. Wonderful wisdom abounds in this small, fast-paced book of sayings, but the challenge comes from historical and cultural values that differ from our own, plus one other thing: vocabulary. The word “righteous” is used quite a bit in the Bible (around 567 times, give or take, depending on the translation), and I’d wager a hefty portion of that usage comes from Proverbs.

The reason I bring this up is that in my own life, the word “righteous” has been largely misunderstood, making Scripture study rather unpleasant. If you’re anything like me, you tend to beat yourself up. Your mind plays your failures over and over again, and reading a collection of texts geared toward making us more righteous certainly doesn’t help. I have found, though, that this is because I have come to confuse righteousness with perfection.

Righteousness is a life defined by virtue and justification, but even the most righteous person in the Bible would by no means be considered perfect. In fact, God seems to go out of His way to choose wildly imperfect people for the purposes of establishing His covenant. Noah, Abram (later Abraham), Sarai (later Sarah), Isaac, Rachel, Leah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Jonah, Peter, Judas, the Twelve, Saul (later Paul), and the list goes on and on. All of them are in some sense chosen and involved in the continuation of God’s covenant and story, yet none of them are even close to being perfect.

My point? The Bible has a distinction between perfection (a quality of God) and righteousness (something God imparts to humans). For us to understand the Book of Proverbs, or any other Biblical literature, we must first understand that for the writers of Scripture, sin is a fact of life. It is an ever-present part of being human. Therefore, when we read about righteousness, we cannot assume that we are supposed to be free of sin always and forever. As John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Rather, all this talk of righteousness and sinfulness is about the trend of our lives. You and I will inevitably mess up. Sin is a part of who we are. However, it doesn’t have to be our defining characteristic, and it won’t be if we are honest about our faults, do our best to positively affect our surroundings, and rely on the grace of God to fill in the gaps. While sinners, we can still lead a humble life that tends toward the kingdom of God rather than our own selfish pursuits. We only become truly wicked when we decide that we are our gods, having no sin because we can do whatever we wish. In short, we become defined by our sin when we give up.

We must remember the central Christian teaching that salvation and righteousness are gifts of God granted by His sacrifice in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). The love of God is given freely, and relationship with God is opened to us free of charge. This does not mean that we do not have a response to make, but it does mean that our response should come from gratitude, and not the desire to earn our way to heaven.

God’s grace is not intended to inspire guilt or a brow-beating approach to our lives. If we spend every day trying to check off items on “The Chart of Perfection,” we will soon grow resentful of that which is meant to give us everlasting joy. Instead, we are charged with living lives of gratitude, humility, and mercy, with the love of God and neighbor at the front of our minds. We will still have sin, but instead of crippling guilt and regret, we can humbly approach the God who will remind us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So when we hear the words of the Gospel, extolling the value of righteous living, we shouldn’t engage in self-punishment because we lack perfection. God has plenty of perfection already. What the Lord seeks is that our perfectly imperfect hearts would seek after Him and trust Him to take care of the rest. If we remember our faults (and that God has forgiven them out of His limitless love), we are able to look graciously and lovingly upon the faults of others, and in doing so we fulfill the Commandment. But that is a subject for the next post. 😉

Peace be with you!

Your Own Eyes

…for it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did. — Deuteronomy 11:7, NRSV

Religion is an interpretation of life and its meaning. Every faith in every place sees the world in a particular way, with problems that its teachings are designed to solve or address. Even if you don’t hold yourself to be particularly religious or a person of faith, I guarantee that you have a belief system that affects how you approach and understand the world around you.

The same holds true for the Israelites in this passage of Deuteronomy 11. In fact, I would argue that the long sermon of Moses that is Deuteronomy is designed to ensure what view of life the nation of Israel brings into the land of promise. Repeatedly, Moses emphasizes that the people of God should live in a way that honors their history and the grace God has shown to them.

Moses frequently reminds Israel to keep “the commandment.” The word is singular, implying that this command is an umbrella over the 613 specific commands laid out in the Torah. In fact, this command is the very one Jesus calls the “greatest and first” in Matthew 22:34-40. “You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always” (Deut. 11:1, while Jesus quotes 6:5). Israel’s worldview, then, should be filtered through love for the God who first loved and delivered them.

The generation of Jews Moses is addressing in Deuteronomy is not the generation delivered from Egypt. Those of the previous generation were all led through the wilderness until they died, as a punishment for their chronic disobedience and dissatisfaction with regard to God. So why does Moses say, “It is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did?”

Communal memory is an important thing in Judaism and Christianity. We were all delivered from Egypt through the Red Sea. We all drank water from the rock, ate manna in the wilderness, and witnessed the pillars of fire and cloud as they led us to the promised land. We all saw the healing power of Jesus, fled from His cross, and rejoiced at His resurrection and ascension. This is not just the story of those who were physically there, but it is our own story that we (are supposed to) witness to with our lives.

So what is your story? What is the tale you tell with your life? For far too many of us, our lives do not tell of the magnificent works of God, nor do they bear witness to the hope of Jesus Christ. In fact, many of us live without any hope at all, settling for bleak acceptance. The result of this is a life lived proudly, inwardly, or selfishly. We become our own gods, and we fail to recognize all the opportunities God sets before us to make a difference.

Even if you are of the non-believing crowd, careful application of hope in the ultimate victory of good can make a huge difference. What you do in this world matters, even if only for those around you. The choice that faces us is the choice that faced the Jews in Deuteronomy: blessing or curse, life or death. Whatever you and I believe, I hope we will choose the things that bless others and bring life to a world trying to kill itself.

So now I ask, what have your eyes seen? How will you choose to walk on this brief journey of life? It is my prayer that the grace and love of God will be your lens, and that the hope of Christ will fuel your heart for the purposes of doing some good during your short visit to this earth. Pray the same for me, and let’s live out a better story together.

Peace be with you!

The Task Ends With Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace be with you!