Entertaining Angels

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2, NRSV

I have a habit of which I have recently become aware. When I am nervous, uncomfortable, or emotionally hurting, I hold my right fingers in my left hand, gripping them firmly. It’s something I have done since I was a child because it made me feel safe. My love language is touch, and when I was a boy I would hug myself or hold my hands like this when I couldn’t sleep. Somehow, this habit has stuck with me even as I approach the age of 30.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author talks about showing “hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Often, we who have heard this passage taught year after year immediately flip to the interpretation that our kindness should be automatic because literal, heavenly beings might be spying on us. I suppose this carries some weight, but after thinking on this habit of mine, I came to the conclusion that there is another way to approach this idea.

Every person bears God’s image. We learn this in Genesis 1, when God says as much (1:26-27). Even without that text, we know that all people are born capable of incredible and horrible things. Often, their choice between these two depends on their upbringing and experiences.

So let’s consider that for a moment.

My own experiences led to far-reaching consequences in the form of holding my own hand and resisting relationships that could hurt me. My wife has graciously and bravely contended with my issues over the years, both acknowledging my scars and refusing to let me be defined by them. While I am better than I was, I have hurt her and others, a reality which now horrifies me.

Odds are, the same is true for you. It’s likely that you have been shaped by many things, both negative and positive, and your less-than-desirable qualities have roots that go deep into the pain you carry. If you don’t think you have less-than-desirable qualities, congrats, we just found one.

So what does this have to do with the passage from Hebrews?

Just as you and I have our issues that can be explained by our past pain, so do others. Sure, they may not hold their own hand or be afraid of relationships. Maybe they are just raging jerks or internet trolls. Maybe they are alcoholics. Perhaps they abuse drugs or bully others. They could also be strict or uncompromising. They could be a mass shooter or terrorist. The point is, every person we meet has been shaped by their world. While they may not respond to it appropriately or responsibly, they still merit compassion because they were once a child like you or I, with all the potential in the world.

In that way, they are undercover angels, hidden by the ugliness of the world.

I am becoming more cognizant of how I treat others, especially those who are difficult or negative toward me, even when they aren’t around. Odds are, it all comes from their own pain, and while I don’t have to take their crap, I also don’t have to add to it by imitating their expression of pain. Perhaps if we can all learn this lesson together and put it into practice, we can see a world transformed by the compassion of Jesus, who calls out to us all.

Peace be with you!

For Good

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28, RSV

The challenge coin in the image above is a small(ish) thing that I carry with me every single day. A lot of people get these tokens for far more important reasons, and, if we’re being honest, you can even purchase them. So why is it so important to me?

This coin is a daily reminder for me that I may never know the full scope of my life. Further, it’s a testament to God’s ability to take our worst moments and turn them into something beautiful and edifying. This isn’t some cheesy “lemons and lemonade” theology. I am actually arguing that no moment, good or bad, determines our future indefinitely. What’s more, no moment in our lives should be taken for granted, for it could become a means by which we become characters that advance the story of God’s salvation.

If you read my post about my attempted suicide at age 11, you know that such a moment produces lasting effects. I still deal with depression and suicidal ideation, albeit in far healthier ways than when I was a child. It’s still “there” in my relationships with loved ones, and long ago, I accepted that would be the case.

What I did not foresee, however, was how such a dark experience would enrich my life.

My post on suicide found its way to a Lieutenant Colonel at Goodfellow Air Force Base. For those of you that don’t know, our armed services have a horrific suicide rate. The pressures of training and the things these people have to see take a hefty toll that we still don’t properly acknowledge as a nation. As it turns out, the Lt. Col.’s squadron was going to take part in suicide prevention training two weeks after I posted the article.

A few emails and a phone call later, I was set to travel to Goodfellow AFB and share my experience out loud, in full detail, for the first time ever, in front of 40 or so Airmen. No pressure. I drove down feeling relatively calm, but once I arrived, it became a different story. I realized Dad and I had never talked about this. We never discussed this topic after it happened. I was glad he was there to support me, and to hear that it wasn’t his fault, but I didn’t know how that was going to impact him. On top of that, right before I was to speak, I went to the restroom, where I saw a handicap rail.

Normally, I ignore handicap rails. I am glad restrooms have them. But not this day. This day, I wanted to tear off the wall the very thing I had tried to hang myself from as a boy. Somehow, though, after a lot of shaking and praying, I found myself talking and baring my darker side to a lobby full of total strangers. And Dad.

When it was over, there was applause I couldn’t really hear from people I couldn’t really see regarding an experience I couldn’t really process. I took some questions, bowed out gracefully, and then the Lt. Col. shook my hand. It was in this handshake that he passed me the challenge coin as a token of gratitude. In the moment, I was unable to truly appreciate such a gift from a service member, but now my heart is humbled by it. I am also grateful for the physical reminder that an experience that was so ugly for me had become a means by which I could bless others.

The Scripture verse at the start of this post is used to justify all kinds of theology regarding the will of God and the problem of evil, but I am honestly not interested in that today. Rather, I want to affirm the truth that God honors our trust in Him by taking our moments of pain or weakness and making them into a blessing by which His will may be accomplished.

If had not been the one to attempt suicide at age 11, this particular talk and this particular service to this particular group of service men and women would not have happened. Several in this group had been touched by the problems of mental health and suicide in the armed services. My connection to this base and my experience as a boy led to a moment in which those feelings could be validated and addressed.

Further, if I had not gone through the painful process of being fired from a ministry job, and if I had not chosen to leave my long-beloved denomination, I would not have started this blog. I would have remained in a job that actually discouraged me from sharing this very story of my life. While my life would have been smoother and more comfortable, my purpose would have actually been cut short. My firing led to my leaving. My leaving led to this blog. This blog led to that post, and that post led to a moment of service to those who serve.

In John 6, Jesus ducks a crowd for fear of being placed in a position of power. In verse 15, we see that, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” If Jesus had allowed himself to be made king, he would have been powerful in a way to which we humans could relate. He would have been like every other person exacting judgment and promoting power from the top down. Instead, he withdrew, in order that he would become the Christ we all needed to see.

Likewise, moments of humiliation or pain in life seem to be causes for shame and disgrace. For God, however, they are fertile ground for our humble participation in His kingdom. If we remain open to His love and Spirit, even in the darkest moments of life, we can rest assured that opportunities will arise in which we can draw on that experience in order to heal and edify others. In doing so, we are also edified and healed.

All of this is why I carry this coin every day. It’s not a trophy or statement of how awesome or brave I am. Instead, it serves as a humbling reminder of God’s undeserved activity in my life. Even when I stumble or fall, God is always working for good, and the same can also be true for you. .

Peace be with you!

Simple, Not Easy

My vows to thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to thee. — Psalm 56:12, RSV

One of the themes I’ve been touching (harping?) on frequently in recent posts, such as the one on Islam, is the idea that we are only responsible for our decisions to love God and our neighbor (or not). This life is short and full of opportunities in which we might witness to the love of God with our lives, but we often make that process more complicated than it needs to be.

Take the conversation about homeless persons, for example. Many of us don’t give money to panhandlers because “they might go buy drugs or booze with it.” I definitely appreciate this concern, as fueling someone’s self-destructive habits is certainly not something I want to be guilty of.

It is, however, important that we ask ourselves a question in this scenario. If, at the judgment, God asks us how we responded to someone’s apparent need, what will we be able to say? Sure, that person may choose to waste our kindness, but that is something for which they will have to answer. For me, the only choice I face is whether or not I meet a perceived need when I am able to do so.

This consideration is true for virtually any risky situation in which we are challenged to give of ourselves, especially when we may not be assured of any discernible positive effects. In Psalm 56, quoted at the beginning of this post, the speaker is being pursued by those “who seek to injure my cause,” and those “whose thoughts are against me for evil” (56:5). These people “band themselves together, they lurk,they watch my steps,” and yet the Psalmist’s decision is not to turn tail and flee (56:6). Instead, the speaker insists, “My vows to thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to thee” (56:12).

The proper response to any situation, even one in which we may be taken advantage of or “pursued without cause,” is faithfulness. Being faithful to God is found in following His commandments (1 John 3:22), and all commandments and prophets may be hung on the Christian calling to love God with all we have, and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). It’s certainly not easy, but it is rather simple.

This is a world in which we want assurance and security regarding the people and place in which we invest our kindness. Some of this comes from a good place, other times it’s mere selfishness. Therefore, it is my prayer that you will join me in practicing the Great Commandment. Jesus leaves us His example, healing and bringing the Good News to all, even those who would eventually crucify Him, and the invitation to follow is extended to us. Just remember, regardless of the uncertainty of the world, God’s faithfulness is something we can certainly depend on.

Peace be with you!

 

 

Recovering Love

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. — 1 John 3:14, NRSV

I’m always surprised at the lengths people will go to not have to love any more people than they would prefer. Even at seminary, there were proposed interpretations of Scripture that were geared toward narrowing the field of people we are responsible for loving… And they were put forward by future priests and pastors!

It’s true, though, that thanks to mainline denominations and pandering politicians, the word “love” has taken on a squishy, almost manipulative quality. Too many leaders and speakers use the term as a means of pushing their political or social agenda, guilt-tripping some into either falling in line or pushing others away to new levels of anger and spite. This, however, doesn’t mean that the teaching of Jesus doesn’t have any merit.

On the contrary, it is more important than ever that we recover the intent and actions of love that Christ intended for us. The love of Christ involves calculated and accepted risk, not merely a general pleasantness. Too many people confuse active love for “not pissing anyone off,” and that is not at all what the crucified Messiah has in mind. Truly loving others is a path that leaves us open to pain and being taken advantage of. It means setting ourselves aside for the good of each other, and looking to the crucifix as a reminder that even in moments of deep darkness that are bound to come, God is there, bringing us life.

In the First Epistle of John, chapter 3, we encounter a conversation about love. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (3:11). The fundamental teaching of Christian living and belief is love, both of God for us and of us for each other. Further, this love is an indication of Eternal Life that abides within us here and now. As John says, “Whoever loves a brother or sister[c] lives in the light, and in such a person[d] there is no cause for stumbling” (2:10).

Conversely, when we lead self-serving lives, we turn our backs on Eternal Life, and we cease living in relationship not just with each other, but with God. “Whoever does not love abides in death” (3:14). Love is a way of life, and it is Life itself! It is living in a way that brings the eternal life of God into every situation and interaction. When we choose ourselves, and when we do all we can to narrow our field of affection and concern, we opt for the opposite.

I am aware of the concerns regarding the context of this passage. It is clear that John is talking about love as it exists between fellow Christians, but let me ask you a question. Does John’s emphasis of the Christian community mean that we are free to be un-loving toward those who are not “in the fold?”

I think you and I both know that this is not the teaching of John or Jesus.

So instead of narrowing our perception of who does and doesn’t deserve our love and consideration, I think it is time we take the calculated risk. We will be taken advantage of. We will be hurt. But that is love, putting ourselves out there that others may know the grace of God by our words and actions, even if it is not received the way we would like. We are not responsible for what others do in response to what we give. We are not responsible for whether or not certain others deserve what we offer. We are only responsible for whether or not we give.

It’s time to decide. Our world cannot sustain any more hatred or self-service. Make the choice today to keep your circle wide. How wide? As wide as the arms of Christ, stretched upon the wood of the cross in the hopes that we all might cease abiding in death, and choose Life.

Peace be with you!

Dismiss Others, Dismiss God

He came to his hometown and began to teach the people[h] in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? — Matthew 13:54-55, NRSV

We limit our perspectives a lot, especially when we are being confronted with information we have already decided not to believe or entertain. Look at how we treat various news sources. If we lean “left” on the political spectrum, we sneer at Fox News or The Federalist. If we tend “right,” we dismiss out of hand reporting done by CNN, NBC, or NPR.

When I was working in ministry professionally, and even still today, my seminary education from Perkins School of Theology would be counted against me under the assumption that I was nothing more than an indoctrinated theological liberal. My lack of military experience counts against me when I argue on behalf of my Muslim friends, or if I dare to question the reasons our brave service members are sent to risk their lives. Knowledge of my past sins sometimes causes others to take any wisdom I may offer with a grain of salt.

For Jesus, in the story I quote above, the fact that he was in his hometown, surrounded by people with whom he had grown up and share life, counted against His being understood as the Messiah. We are told that “he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). Because the people of Nazareth knew His family and His humble beginnings, they missed out on the powerful Good News Jesus had been bringing to other places.

In the same way, when we dismiss others before we even get a chance to hear what they are saying, we miss out on countless moments in which the Holy Spirit might be trying to speak to us. Even if we have heard the same words countless times, this next encounter could reveal something completely different for us to consider and be affected by if we would only leave our ears and hearts open. As Balaam learned in Numbers 22, whatever source we view as unlikely or beneath us may actually be the way in which God chooses to get our attention.

So what does this mean for us?

We must stop dismissing each other just because we assume we know the truth. When we fail to listen and be open to one another, we harm our relationships and potentially limit the means by which God might speak to us. God can do what God wants, but He wants our active participation in Eternal Life, which means loving Him by loving our neighbor. If we ignore, dismiss, or deride our neighbor, it’s safe to say that we are not open to the work of God either.

My prayer for you, myself, and this world of ours is that we may all go forward from this moment with open ears, open eyes, and open hearts. This does not mean that we don’t get to have our own opinions, but it does mean that we don’t let our opinions get in the way of loving and respecting each other, no matter how much we don’t know or how much we think we know. This is a difficult, lifelong, but totally worthy endeavor that can transform and enhance our encounters with our neighbors and the living God. So let’s get started!

Peace be with you!

 

Finding Joy In Poverty

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. — Psalm 49:7, NRSV

There is a song quote that always sticks in my ears whenever I hear it. Granted, the radio has done a great job of playing “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles to death, but every single time it comes on, I listen for the line that reminds me, “You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky.” This insight lined up perfectly with the base text for today’s post, so I just had to make something theological of it.

Psalm 49 discusses the foolishness of believing one’s wealth can essentially cheat death. Those who accumulate and hoard riches, however, meet the same end as everyone else, and “they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them” (49:17). They cannot bribe God for more time, and they will “leave their wealth to others” (49:10). It’s not that resources or having resources are bad things, but we are not intended to simply “have” things.

When God calls Abram (soon to be called “Abraham”) out from his homeland and from his kindred, the promised blessing also comes with a requirement, an intention with which God is choosing Abram. Genesis 12:2 indicates that God will bless Abram so that he would “be a blessing.” God says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God’s callings and blessings come with responsibilities, namely that we respond to God’s grace by sharing the blessings we receive, because none of it truly belongs to us.

Not.

One.

Thing.

This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. God emphasizes to the people of Israel that they are being given “a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13). Jesus addresses the impermanence of riches when He exhorts His followers to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20). Just as we are not permanent, neither are the riches we temporarily possess. All of this is on loan.

The reason this is an important message for today is because it appears we have forgotten that we truly are poor. We possess nothing, as it is all a gift that will be returned when we move on to the hereafter. Further, what we are given is intended to be shared in order that others may share in our abundant life. We are blessed in order that we may bless others. This goes not only for the grace, forgiveness, and love we have received from God, but also for the material gifts we have accumulated.

Now, I know. This sounds like “socialist” or “communist propaganda.” I shouldn’t have gone to college because now I am an indoctrinated “libtard.” Well no. This is a Scriptural and traditional Christian teaching that we have lost or ignored consistently throughout history. In fact, the resistance that we see to certain means of sharing for the common good are great indicators that we have come to believe that what we have is ours and ours alone to keep, to hoard, and to protect, which is completely counter to the teachings of the faith.

Advocating for a brand of socialism or some other governmental/economic system  is far from my intent with this post. Rather, I am concerned with each individual person and our attachments to all that we possess. Why don’t we give or want to give? Why do feel resentful toward projects or movements that ask us to give of what we have that others may share in the abundance of this land? It’s because we believe that what we have is a result of what we have done. It’s ours.

This is a bubble that needs bursting.

I run my own business, but if I did not have people willing to invest in me that I might render them my services, I would not have much of a business. I am, therefore, indebted to them. If my parents had not raised me with discipline and wisdom, I would have neither of those things. If my wife were not forgiving, but also with high standards, I would probably not be married anymore, nor would I be the better man I am today. If I did not have a God that consistently makes me aware of His love and mercy day by day, I would be lost in misery and cynicism, not to mention that it is God who has made all of the things by which I benefit.

These exact same truths pertain to you. You owe someone something for what you have.  “The Big Someone” aside, there are people without whom you would not have what you have. Dependence is a fact of life. As such, nothing that you or I possess is truly ours. Rather, all that we have accumulated is a gift that we are meant to share in order that others don’t go without as we prosper.

If we close our fists to our neighbor, we not only disobey the intent of God (Deuteronomy 15:7-11), but we also fulfill the awful prophecy of James. “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (5:5). There is no issue with accepting the blessings that come our way, but if we do so without a generous heart and life, we fail to fulfill God’s intent for our lives.

Obviously, we cannot compensate for a world full of injustices with our limited resources, and that’s not what I am suggesting. Rather, we should adjust our thinking with regard to giving of ourselves. Instead of judging those in need, why not judge ourselves and ask what we would like someone else to do if we were in that situation? Instead of turning inward and hoarding all we manage to gain, why not look for a way to “pay forward” the blessing which God has brought to us? If we can all change our thinking and renew our minds so that panicky, tight-fisted living gives way to urgent, practical generosity, I believe we can expect more and more manifestations of God’s grace in our lives and in the lives of our fellow humans.

I encourage you to join me in praying for our increasingly self-centered society and world. This includes you and I, because I can certainly admit that it is too easy for me to close my hand when others are in a time of need, fearing that my own limited resources may give out. However, if we remember that we are blessed so that God may bless others through us, and if we remember that we are not called to fear but confidence in the One who generously gives, I believe we can look forward to a truly abundant future. This is not an easy task, but it is made less difficult when we remember that we are all ultimately poor, possessing nothing, but offered everything by the One who loved us first.

Peace be with you!

 

 

 

 

Mercy Not About Us, Justice Not About Others

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… — Matthew 5:44, NRSV

We love mercy and we love justice… As long as they benefit us. Don’t get me wrong, we like people who are merciful and just. We admire them and appeal to their example in certain situations. But when it comes to imitating such people (Jesus, for example), that’s when things get a lot more interesting.

As humans, we don’t like being held accountable for our actions. We value forgiveness most when we would prefer to be receiving it. On the other side of the coin, justice is our friend when it comes to those people getting what they deserve.

Jesus has every reason to leave us in the dust and move on. Throughout His entire ministry of healing, teaching, and releasing us from the powers of darkness, He met resistance. He was crucified by those who He came to guide into the way of peace. His followers were persecuted to a frightening degree, and then, once they gained power, the institution that became known as “the Church” embarked on thousands of years filled with good and holy things that were also marred by endless scandal, violence, and abuse.

Even before the Church was established, humans proved to be greedy, violent, and cruel. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is grace, and it is this merciful grace that is offered to us all still by the One who loved us first.

But it is offered to us all, and we don’t like that. We like when mercy is offered to us, but we deny mercy and forgiveness to those we feel do not deserve it. For example, many of the Christian faith harbor and express hatred for those who follow other faiths (Islam, for example). We feel this way about those who hold different political views or who lead a lifestyle we consider to be inappropriate. Our mercy runs out when it comes to convicted felons, accused persons, and the “lazy” poor who beg for money on street corners. I mean, they’ll just buy drugs with it, right?

All of this judgment is going on in and among people who claim to have experienced the transformative grace and mercy of Jesus Christ… See the disconnect?

If Jesus is our master, and if the God who raised Him from the dead is the One we worship, shouldn’t we embrace their way in our daily lives? Instead of reserving judgment for others, shouldn’t we show mercy as we have been shown mercy, judging ourselves first that we may not come under condemnation?

That’s the way Scripture tells it.

Jesus let’s us know that God is merciful to all, and that is how we ought to be. God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” and so we should “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45, 48). This doesn’t mean we will not mess up, but it does mean that, in the end, we choose to act and speak with love, even to those we feel don’t deserve it. It doesn’t mean liking them or condoning their behavior with which we disagree, but it does mean we are opting to show love and forgiveness rather than condemnation.

Paul and Peter carry this teaching forward in their epistles. Paul encourages us to “not repay anyone evil for evil” and to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17,21). Further, Paul asks us a haunting question later in 14:4. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Judgment is the work of God, for only He can do so justly.

Peter also exhorts his listeners to “not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). This is in line with Jesus’ teaching that mercy and forgiveness not be restricted to the “chosen few,” but it is even for our worst enemies. After all, if we, who so often act as enemies of God, are eligible for mercy, who are we to deny that for others?

It is my prayer that we who are the people of God (yes, I include myself in this) will find our way onto the path of Christ. This is a path that is uncomfortable by nature, and it takes practice. We will be growing into our new, eternal life until we depart this life, but the journey itself will be a source of powerful transformation. If we can learn to choose something different, we will experience something different, and I think we can all agree that “different” is something we could use.

Peace be with you!