Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fear, Neighbors, and Refugees

Fear is natural. Life is filled with unexpected turns, accidents, diseases, and even people who intend to do us harm. Even though we all know that we are more likely to be harmed in another way, being intentionally harmed by another person is more terrifying. Maybe it’s scarier because it is personal; maybe it’s because it is so unnecessary. But it’s scarier despite being less likely.

Statistics also show us that we are more likely to be harmed by someone we know well than by a stranger. Still, the idea of a violent stranger is more terrifying. Our primal fears are activated by strangers and the stranger they are, the scarier they become. If the stranger lives a different lifestyle, has a radically different socio-economic background, or is of another race or religion, our fears multiply. And all of this happens inside of us before we even have a moment to consider whether our fears are justified or fair.

First, let me say again that fear is natural. We need not be ashamed or apologize for our fears. Fear keeps us from doing stupid stuff that could harm us or others. Fear motivates us to take precautions that rarely matter (like fastening our seatbelts) until they do.

But second, let me also say that we should never be controlled by our fears. We all agree that there are times to rise up above our fears and act courageously. Whether it is speaking up against a bully or putting our lives in jeopardy to help a neighbor, we admire bravery and collectively shame cowardice.

As far as I can tell, we all agree on these first two points. The differences of opinion arise when we start trying to sort different scenarios into those where fear leads to responsible precautions and those in which fear must be squelched in the name of courage. It should be noted that this is hard and that reasonable minds will differ in pursuit of such wisdom.

I have seen evidence of such differences (between reasonable and unreasonable minds alike) this week in regard to our nation’s response to the humanitarian crisis of refugees from Syria and elsewhere created by the Islamic State. As troubling as I find the political in-fighting and posturing of Governors, legislators, and key members of the executive branch, I have been far more troubled by the tone of discourse between friends (and friends of friends) on social media. No one has ever been convinced by someone who sees the world differently because that someone called them na├»ve or heartless. These conversations only serve to further entrench us into our initially held opinions. As Christians, I urge you all to stay out of these conversations. We can expect this kind of discourse from others, but not followers of Christ.

The best conversations we can have about this crisis, in my view, are the ones we have inside of ourselves. And I encourage you to have a vigorous internal conversation about this particular crisis because it intersects with the heart of the gospel.

Late in the summer, I preached a series of sermons on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable was Jesus’ response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Based on my reading of the parable, Jesus’ answer to that question is, “Everyone.” The person who lives next door to you and the person who lives in a distant land. The person who worships with you at your church and the person who you believe worships God incorrectly. The person in need—even if it is possible that we are being lured into a trap.

Of course, I don’t expect Washington (or Austin) to make their decisions on the basis of Jesus’ parables—though I’d be glad if they did. In the end, they will let in who they let in and keep out who they keep out regardless of whether you and I ever come to an agreement on which people should be sent which way. Still, what will we do when and if we are confronted personally with the need of these refugee strangers? Will we be like the religious elites of Jesus’ parable who go on about our business? Or will we respond like the Samaritan?

Fear is justified in the face of danger. But courage is warranted in the face of need. Even the need of a stranger. Even the need of a Muslim stranger.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Life Between the Rains

Droughts are not uncommon here. It seems like there is at least one stretch of drought each year. This year has been no exception. Strangely, however, despite the drought this year, we are well over our average annual rainfall to this point of the year. We just happened to get all of our rain during the wettest spring of my lifetime and a record-shattering rain last weekend.

Like a year where all the rain comes at once to interrupt what is otherwise a dry year, the life of faith is often a journey in which the experiences of spiritual joy and intense closeness to God are but momentary interruptions of what is otherwise a test of endurance in the face of God’s silence and seeming distance. During periods of closeness to God, it can seem as though all will be well forever. Our reservoirs of trust are full. The flowers of hope are blooming in our hearts. And the fields of our prayer-lives are a flourishing green. We feel as though life as it should be. We think, “This must be what it feels like to be close to God and to live like those who have great faith.”

And these times of closeness don’t disappear all at once. We hardly notice it at first. After all, no land needs rain every day to thrive. But one day, we notice that the fields of our prayer-lives start to crackle under our feet. The only flowers of hope to be seen begin to look suspiciously like the weeds of doubt. And the reservoirs of trust start to recede to previous drought levels.

“God was just right here,” we say. “I remember it like it was yesterday.” But if possible, we feel God’s absence even more keenly than we felt his presence in our lives. A voice of experience inside us urges patience. This is not the first time we’ve struggled with the seeming absence of God. “God will return,” we try to reassure ourselves. “I will feel close to God again someday soon if I can just endure this drought.”
But when we are in a season of spiritual drought, we feel as though it will never end. We can feel our faith withering in the heat and we can see no rain in the forecast. We think, “Did I really experience God’s presence back then or did I merely whip myself up into a bit of euphoria because circumstances allowed me to believe that what I wanted to be true actually was?”

Droughts are tough because they last so much longer than wet spells. Even if we spend a few weeks in a year feeling an intense closeness to God, we are likely to spend the rest of that year without that feeling. Most of us find this disappointing. And there is nothing wrong with admitting our disappointment with God or the nature of living a life of faith.

And yet…

Our disappointments often say more about our expectations than they say about our realities. What if the Christian life of faith was not to be built upon those moments of intense closeness to God? What if instead the life of faith was intended to be built upon obedience and trust? What if those experiences of intense closeness to God were all we needed to survive? And what if the absence of those experiences were exactly what we needed in order for God to shape us into the kind of people our lives of faith were supposed to form?

Praying when we feel close to God is a natural outgrowth of what we are already experiencing. Praying when we don’t feel close to God is a transformative practice that shapes who we are becoming in God’s absence. Living in hope when God feels near to us is simple. Living in hope when the fields produce no food (Hab 3:17) is an act of faith that shapes us most in God’s absence. Continuing to obey God in trust when our reservoirs of trust are drying up shapes us in ways that obeying God won’t when our reservoirs are full.

Could it be that in order to become what God intends for us to be, we need God’s absence as much we think we need God’s presence? How might that change the way we approach the spiritual droughts of our lives?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Welcome Mats

Let me begin with a confession. I am not a naturally hospitable person. I do not always handle impositions or interruptions with grace. Yet, if you asked me about hospitality, I would tell you that the practice of hospitality is the primary Christians are called upon to manifest the virtue of love in their lives.

Hospitality is about more than hosting people in your home. It is about being an open person—open to impositions, interruptions, and the neediness of others.

I can recount times in which I offered hospitality to strangers. I listened as they shared their stories. I purchased food for them if they were hungry. I have let them into Caritas to find clothing. I have been hospitable. Sometimes I get it right.

I have also dodged phone calls from needy friends. I have walked the other way when I saw a stranger in a parking lot who was about to ask me for help. I have avoided eye contact with people to discourage conversation. I have also been inhospitable. I often get it wrong.

But before I got it right or wrong, God got it right. We are all recipients of God’s hospitality. Our lives exist and are rooted in space that God has carved out for us. Without God’s hospitality, we could not exist much less survive. In God we live, move, and have our being.

If we think about God’s act of creation as an act of hospitality, then we cannot think of ourselves as people without needs—needs that can only be filled by others—often at no obvious benefit to the people who help fill our needs.

When I withhold hospitality, I generally do so because I am experiencing another person’s neediness in a critical way. I see them as needy in ways that I am not and cannot imagine myself being. We may invoke terms like laziness or cite another person’s lack of self-control. But, however we see it in others, we are enabled to see it that way because we have neglected to see the ways in which we are in the same position.

 As Americans, we recoil at the idea of being or being perceived as needy. But neediness cannot be avoided. We have needs that we cannot meet ourselves: air, food, water, companionship, shelter from the elements. We may play a role in meeting those needs that minimizes the impact on other people, but we cannot meet those needs for ourselves in the same way God can for God’s self. Every breath we take is an act of dependence upon the hospitality of God who created the world in which we live. We cannot survive on the moon or in any other place in the universe of which we are presently aware. But here we are. Alive and well. Free to take each breath of air for granted.

The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we are to be people who forgive others as we are forgiven by God. A reminder about the hospitality of God should function the same way. We are to be people of hospitality just as God has shown us hospitality. If called to share our belongings, we share as God has shared with us. If we are called to listen, we listen as God listens to us whenever we pray. If we are called upon to befriend, we befriend as God has befriended us.

Just as God’s Son has become God’s welcome mat for us, we likewise should become welcome mats to others.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Hell hath no fury like children who catch their parents throwing away their old stuff.

So…we are thankful for camp.

While our daughter was away this week, we updated her room. When we moved here, she was 4. She wanted a pink room and we obliged her. At ten, she is sick of pink and she has been begging us to paint her room a different color. We also sorted through her belongings and purged. Whenever we do this in any of our children’s rooms, we are amazed at what we find there. Apparently, they do not throw away anything. Homework assignments, artwork, birthday cards, candy wrappers, toys, artwork, missing library books, long neglected stuffed animals…and did I mention artwork? That says nothing about the out-of-place coat hangers, Legos, and tiny rubber bands used to create friendship bracelets.

I stopped counting how many trash bags we carried out of her room. She will not miss many of the items we discarded, but if she had been there we would have had to negotiate every single item. Like a dragon nesting atop a hoard of treasure, a child cannot bear to part with any item they once enjoyed.

So…we are thankful for camp.

Children aren’t the only ones of us that could use a healthy purging. And I am not referring to the people featured on Hoarders either. I am talking about all of us. We carry hurt, disappointment, anger, and habits from the past that encumber us in the present. When was the last time you purged?

There is no shame in having been hurt by another person. We are humans and humans hurt one another. Yes, some of us have been hurt in ways that the rest of us could hardly fathom, but purging requires us to forgive the ones who hurt us regardless of how deeply we have been hurt. Forgiveness is the only action a victim can take to be freed from the power those that hurt us hold over us.

Disappointments are difficult to bear. We are people that are fueled by goals and those goals become expectations. When we fail to meet those expectations, the sensation of failure can be hard to bear. Marriages fail. Careers stall. Children make mistakes. Yet, most of us would be happier if we could forgive ourselves. Yes, we could all do better if we had a second chance at living our lives. But you only get one go at it and while you think you could have done better, I bet you could have done a lot worse. Give yourself the grace you would give your children or your friends and you can begin to purge your disappointments.

Holding on to anger? Anger is a secondary emotion. Is it covering for hurt? Disappointment? You cannot purge your anger until you determine what is causing it. You weren’t born angry. Don’t settle for a life lived in anger.

And what about old habits? Lust. Gossip. Chemical dependencies. Yelling. Defensiveness. Do you have any on your list? Is there something in your life you figured you’d have eliminated by this stage of your life? Purge it today. You will be glad you did tomorrow. It will be like arriving back home from camp to live life in a happier and more peaceful place.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Cultivating Grace

Do you remember the first time you planted a seed and watched it grow? I remember plunging three toothpicks into an avocado at school. The toothpicks held the seed atop a glass of water. A few days later, the seed had a tap root descending into the water and a shoot growing from the top. I am confident that the seed did not go on to produce a fruit growing tree, but it could have if it had been planted and cared for properly. The concept amazed me. Yet, what amazed me most is that the seed inside an avocado could produce a tree. If I had loved guacamole as much then as I do now, I might have found a way to keep the plant alive.

None of this is news to you, but stop and consider it anyway. Avocados come from avocado trees and avocado trees come from the pits inside a single avocado. Only God could have  managed to imbue such elegance into reproduction. Imagine a new car sprouting from the engine of your old car or a new computer from the motherboard of an older model. Nothing besides living creatures can do that.

Well, almost nothing. There is at least one other thing and it too originates with God.


A little grace is like a little seed. The size doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it takes root and, when it does, it can disseminate grace itself.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables tells the tale of Jean Valjean. Valjean served a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children during an economic depression. When released from prison on parole, he sought refuge in the home of a bishop. During the night he stole valuable silverware from the bishop. He was caught by the police, but the bishop insisted to the police that the treasure had been his gift to Valjean.

The bishop showed Valjean unwarranted grace. He had no reason to assume the grace would take root, but it did. The grace changed Valjean’s life. Valjan became the source of similar gifts of grace to others in need throughout the rest of his life.

That is how grace works.

As recipients of God’s grace, we demonstrate whether or not that grace has truly germinated in our own hearts by how much grace we extend to others. Do we become sowers of the seeds of grace ourselves or do we remain callous toward those who wrong us? If the latter, we are no better than the unmerciful servant who denied his debtor’s pleas for mercy after receiving greater mercy from his lender (Matthew 18).

I find it too easy to approach grace as though it was a scarce resource, but you cannot waste grace. Grace is not depleted by liberal dispensation. It is depleted when its dispensation is limited.

If grace was a scarce resource to be preserved, we’d be justified in our reluctance to extend grace to those we suspect will waste the opportunity that grace affords them to become gracious themselves. Yet, conserving grace is as absurd as conserving acorns. We can afford to extend it to everyone in every direction in the full knowledge that, while grace will frequently fail to germinate in the lives of others, it will occasionally surprise us as it takes root in the hearts of those we expected to abuse our graciousness.

That is why asking Jesus how many times we are to forgive a brother or sister is absurd.  That is why Paul tells us to think about what is most noble and lovely in the people with which we are in conflict. That is why God extended all of us forgiveness when we humans least deserved it: at the cross of Jesus. You never know when an act of grace will change someone forever.

As recipients of grace, we must be cultivators of that grace if we have any hope of demonstrating that God’s grace has taken root in our hearts.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Sin of Paranoia

You are so paranoid, you probably think this article is about you.

Paranoia can be natural. It is cultivated in the soil of distrust. When subjected to constant passive aggression, spouses can become paranoid that every gesture of displeasure is directed at them. When a family’s home is burglarized, members of that family can be startled by the slightest sound in the night. When citizens learn of high crimes by government officials that were themselves followed up by elaborate cover-up schemes, they begin to see evidence of nefarious conspiracies where none exist at all.

Yet, whether it is a spouse who assigns motives to dishes left in the sink or Texans worried about American troops staging an invasion from abandoned Walmarts (up next: Canada will stage a take-back of Quebec from a Tim Horton's outside Montreal—you heard it here first), paranoia never paints us in the best light. But the real problem with paranoia is that it is a symptom of an infection. Paranoia is evidence that you’ve been infected by other sinful attitudes.

Like a runny nose, paranoia is not always the symptom of the same sinful attitude. More than one can surface in the form of paranoia. Let’s take a look at two.

1. It is easiest to think others are actively opposed to us when we habitually think the worst of others.
The actions of others have to be interpreted before they can mean anything to you. You have a choice about which motives you will assign to the other person. If you constantly assign bad motives, you are likely falling into the trap of the speck and the plank. Jesus accused the Pharisees of fussing over the specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the planks projecting from their own eyes. They were obsessing over who worked on the Sabbath by plucking a head of grain while harboring sins of hatred and pride in their hearts. It isn’t just the Pharisees. We too find it easier to spot the sins of others than to identify our own.

To avoid falling into the trap of the speck and the plank, we can appropriate a piece of advice Paul issued to the Philippians. Paul was addressing an unspecified conflict between two leading women in that church. To address the conflict, Paul does not try to determine who is right or wrong. Instead, he says, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

If paranoia is the symptom, then Paul’s advice is the prescription. It’s the opposite of paranoia.

2. Whenever we panic over current events and live in fear of the potential implications of Supreme Court decisions or presidential elections, we demonstrate a lack of trust in God. Our lives are short.

History is long and winding. And while peoples and nations have preferred to craft their tellings of history to make their causes and values appear triumphant, the people of God have preserved an alternative history.

The history of God’s people can be messy and present its own issues (e.g., divine sanctioned genocide in the OT), but the Bible is remarkable in that it frequently paints its greatest leaders (i.e., Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul) in an unfavorable light. Yet, whether it is Abraham’s deceit, Moses’ murder, David’s adultery and attempted cover-up, Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, or Paul’s murderous persecution of the church, God proves to be trustworthy.

The story is not dependent upon these human heroes, but rather on their faithful, unthwartable God. If God can overcome the missteps of God’s own leading characters to preserve the flow and purpose of the story, then adversaries do not stand a chance. Ask the Egyptians. Or Nebuchadnezzar. Or Saul of Tarsus. God is worthy of trust and is underserving of paranoid worshipers.

So, perhaps this article is about you.

But paranoia is only permanent if we let it be. Think better of others. Trust God. Eradicate the infection of sinfulness that manifests itself in paranoia.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Counter-Intuitive Nature of Self-Care

You were up early this morning and it looks like you will be up late tonight. Your day has been a near endless stream of tasks—all deemed urgent or at least necessary. You have accomplished much, but it hardly feels like victory because tomorrow will be the same. So too will every other tomorrow in your foreseeable future. Emotionally, physically, and spiritually, you are running on empty. You know you need self-care.

Where do you turn? What do you do to take care of yourself?

A few of you naturally turn to exercise, solitude, and prayer. Good for you. While the rest of wish we were more like you, we tend to turn elsewhere.

Like the fridge or the pantry. Or alcohol. Maybe even drugs. We turn to mind-numbing television or an escapist novel. We call the friends that won’t judge us for the way we choose to unwind. We surrender to pornography. Or we fire up a video game.

Most of us use at least one unhealthy behavior to help us cope with stress. And since the unhealthy behavior reduces stress (at least for the moment), we justify the behavior.

It’s my guilty pleasure. My one vice. No one is perfect. Don’t judge me.

The problem, however, with these forms of self-care is that they do nothing to alleviate our stress. They merely numb us to it for a time. And as good as it feels to numb ourselves to the stress of our lives, numbing is not a long term self-care strategy. Conversely, it can be dangerous.

Consider the last time you paid a visit to a dentist to have a cavity filled. The dentist injected a numbing agent into your mouth so that you would not experience pain during the procedure. That is a good thing. Yet, when the dentist finished filling the cavity, it took an hour or two before your mouth regained feeling. In the meantime, the dentist warned you to be careful not to bite your cheek or your tongue.

Unable to feel pain, people have gnawed holes in their mouth with their teeth while their mouths were numbed. The numbness was a good thing while the dentist operated the drill, but it became a bad thing when you chewed a hole in your cheek unaware of the damage you had been doing.

So if you decide to watch a television show tonight as you relax and try to escape your stress, fine. I probably will too. But what else are you doing to take care of yourself?

The ways we need to answer that question tend to be counter-intuitive. It’s when exercise is the last thing that we want to do that we need it most. It is when silence and solitude are the most frightening that we need them most. It is when prayer seems the most pointless that we need what prayer does inside of us the most.

And it will always be easier and bring more instantaneous gratification to have a beer or a bowl of ice cream instead, but numbness can be dangerous. It can make you forget that your current lifestyle is unsustainable without healthy self-care strategies. It can lead you to believe that numbness is the only way to cope. And once you’ve gotten there, you’re no further than a step or two away from finding yourself under the power of a self-destructive addiction.

How can you take better care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

Stop numbing and start tending to what you really need.