Thursday, March 24, 2016

God's Kitchen


I decided last month that I wanted to bake a birthday cake for my son’s eighth birthday. I made his first birthday cake, an ice cream cake that melted when the freezer door had been left open overnight. Scarred by the incident, I had not made a cake since. But I found a silicon mold of R2-D2 and I decided that I would use it to make his cake this year.

My favorite part of baking (aside from eating the final product) is the moment just after assembling the containers that hold all the ingredients on the kitchen counter. Canisters of flour and sugar, cans of baking and cocoa powder, sticks of butter, a carton of milk or buttermilk, a box of salt, bottles of oil and vanilla, and roll of parchment paper. I love this moment because I know that I am about to turn a portion of each of these ingredients into something delectable. Using science, these trusty stores of my kitchen, and the right amount of heat for the right amount of time, I will create something for tomorrow that did not exist yesterday. I love that feeling.

God does too. In fact, God often uses a similar process. He gathers together groups of people who have different backgrounds, interests, and passions. By all appearances, these groups do not obviously seem to fit together. And yet, while they are gathered together, they worship the same God. They sing hymns. They hear a word proclaimed from God’s Word. They take their place at the Lord’s table. But they are sent out from that gathering changed. They are gathered as individuals, like separate ingredients for a cake, but they are sent out as one people commissioned with a single purpose.

Imagine the satisfaction God derives from gathering Jews and Gentiles, males and females, blacks and whites, English and Spanish speakers, Republicans and Democrats, the skinny and fat, young and old, the introverted and extroverted, the gullible and cynical, the smart and less smart, the beautiful and less beautiful together as a church. God looks at them all and relishes in the delight that comes with knowing that this seemingly random collection of people are the right ingredients in exact measure to carry out their purpose. A mission that could not have been accomplished by any of these individuals is now on its way to being achieved because God took a group of persons and made them a people. God has created something for tomorrow that did not exist yesterday. And you’d better believe God loves that feeling.

Are you a part of a church? Do you allow the limitations of individual ingredients to keep you from trusting the cook? Perhaps it's time for you to allow yourself to be mixed into the batter as one of the ingredients. You won't always be sure how you fit together with the others. But if you can trust that God is the one who gathers the ingredients, maybe it's worth trusting that whatever God is doing with the church will turn out to be delectable in the end.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Way of Love


All ideologies are dangerous. Every system of ideas has its breaking point. Most people seem able to recognize the lines that should not be crossed within the system of their own beliefs, but we see evidence of many who cannot.

The Islamic State is reading the same Quran as the Muslims that fear them more than we do. These radicals sentence Muslims to die for refusing to adhere to their strict interpretation of the Quran or for refusing to pledge the allegiance to their leader and self-styled Caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. This is why so many of the Syrian refugees are Muslims. ISIS has driven out those who recognize that they have taken their fundamentalist Islamic ideology to its dangerous extreme.

The Westboro Baptist Church is reading the same Bible that you and I read. We share a belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We share a desire to live lives that are shaped by Scripture. Yet they obsess over OT passages that condemn handpicked sins from the OT and conclude that God hates one kind of sinner. Not only that, they believe it is their mission to spread the word of God’s hatred for this type of sinner across the country. We look at them and shake our heads. How are they not able to see where they have crossed a dangerous line in their application of some passages of scripture at the exclusion of the broader message of God’s universal love for all sinners and saints alike?

Almost every week now, we are inundated with images and soundbites relating to another mass shooting. Is it a white supremacist? An apocalypse junkie? A jihadist terrorist? Or a mentally deranged psychopath?

But does it even matter? Whether the violence is born of ideologies of hate, fear, religious zeal, or a sick person’s paranoid delusions, they are all evidence of our inability as a species to develop any system of ideas that, when taken to a dangerous extreme, don’t threaten the lives of others. Yet, there is another way. Jesus lived another way. Jesus lived out the way of love.

Many people were threatened by Jesus, but he refused to be a threat to anyone. Even when his enemies came to the Garden of Gethsemane to take him by force, Jesus showed more concern for his arresters than he did for himself.

Love is a single idea. It is not a system of ideas and, therefore, cannot be termed an ideology. But love is dangerous. Love may not be dangerous to our enemies, but it can be dangerous for us. Love is always a risk. Love is never a sure bet if our goal is to preserve our own lives or to overcome our enemies. But love is what our world needs.

There are threats everywhere. Outside threats. Inside threats. Threats that look like us and speak our language. Threats that don’t. In the face of those threats, we who call ourselves Christians have to decide whether we will live our lives by the same code of love that Jesus did. Will we choose to live as people who refuse to be a threat to anyone? Even our enemies? In other words, are we ready to love our enemies?

Some of you are thinking, “That’s too risky. It’s just too dangerous. Our enemies cannot be trusted.” I don’t think Jesus would argue any of those points, but he would challenge us to decide whether we are going to live his way of love or live according to some human ideology.

I don’t believe that all ideologies are the same. Some are better than others. Most are not that threatening when held in humility and moderation. I suspect that most of us hold ideologies we barely recognize as such and that they are fairly innocuous in nature. But if you want to be an extremist, there is only one choice for those who would follow Christ:

Be an extremist of love.
Refuse to be a threat to anyone.
Resolve to be a friend to all in need.
When struck across the face, turn the other cheek.
When insulted, offer blessings in return.
Do not repay evil with evil.
Do your best to live at peace with everyone.
Don’t take revenge.

But love.
Love God.
Love your neighbor.
And love your enemies.

That is the extremist way of Jesus. The way of love. And if we can't trust this way when we feel threatened, then we never really trusted Jesus' way in the first place.

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

Purge


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.

Grace.

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.