Love in the Midst of Hate

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(Image courtesy of manvsdebt.com)

(Image courtesy of manvsdebt.com)

The human response to sin is to hate, to hurt.  The divine response is to love.  As people of God, we are called through Christ to alter our response away from the sinful inclination which continues the cycle of suffering and evil in order to embrace the way of the Lord: loving in spite of the pain and anger.  God moves beyond the demand for retribution to offer all humankind grace, a way to grow beyond our wrongs.  In order to embody Christ we must do likewise.  That is a tall order, a difficult task without parallel.  So it is that Christ sent the Holy Spirit, to equip us and strengthen us.  Fortified with the presence of God, we can resist the temptation to respond in kind to a wrong.  We don’t have to sacrifice our righteousness to an earthly notion of justice, which encourages us to hurt as we have been hurt, to hate those who sin against us.

The hard truth about sin is that even experiencing the ramifications of someone else’s sin can degenerate our moral state.  It quickly tears down our defenses against evil, and we find ourselves all too ready to cross the line into our own sin and manifested evil.  We witness this in the escalation of violence, as well as the war of words opposing groups engage in all around us.  Yesterday I had the abhorrent experience of witnessing it in my own son.  Feeling like another child was being mean to him, he responded with his own written brand of meanness.  Yes, this is why we teach our children to write, so they can more readily sin, right?  As I got down on his eye level and made him recount the events that led to that moment, I recall asking him if he wanted someone to write awful things about him.  His immediate and adamant reply was no.  “So why do it to someone else?”  That question rings in the forgiveness of the cross: Why keep sinning as others sin against us?  We have been forgiven by God, granted grace for every single sin, yet we demand restitution often in the form of suffering, pain, and humiliation when we have been wronged.  Restitution becomes perverted by our sinful response into retribution and that belongs to God alone.

I was filled with such sorrow at the actions of my son.  My beloved had hurt someone else.  Yes, he had been hurt too, even hurt first, but his participation in the sinful response of humanity just left my heart aching, my spirit downtrodden.  I want more for him as well as from him.  I want him to live out the grace which he was born into, because Jesus Christ died on the cross almost two thousand years before my son was born.  The grace has been ours ever since that day on Golgotha.  I suspect strongly that this is a taste of what God feels for us, God’s own spiritual children, adopted through Christ.  I think that God feels the same emotional hurt at our sin, each time we lash out at another.  So God plants seeds of love through us, the willing disciples of Christ.  We love in the midst of hate.  We forgive in the midst of the cries for blood.  We set aside our desires for God’s will.  Little by little the love wins the battle for space in a world of hate.  Slowly but surely holy healing expands in a world of hurt and vengeance.  Our role is to ask where we can be the light of love in the midst of hateful darkness today.

Skylanders Trap Team & Lessons of Redemption

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This past Lent I preached a sermon about making the season of penitence that precedes Easter meaningful to my then four-year old son.  Not an easy task considering how many adults do not find meaning in Lent.  One day we were playing a video game together: Skylanders Swap Force, which involves many not inexpensive accoutrements in the form of action figures that you swap out on a portal that brings their digital counterparts to life in the video game.  My son is in charge of the swapping.  Well into this one gaming session he turns around and asks me what the point is.  “Are we just trying to beat the bad guy?  Beat Kaos?”  No, I tell him.  There will always be a bad guy, and if you defeat one another will rise up.  We are trying to free the people of Skyland, who are being held as slaves.  We are liberators and all the Skylanders must work together with their gifts and graces to accomplish this mighty and worthy task.  Ok, so I got a bit preachy, but I made my point.  He understood at the ripe age of four that there is strength in numbers and we have a role to play in liberation.  That is how I made a connection to Lent for him; by helping him see that Jesus liberated us, so that we can, in turn, liberate others.

I thought I was done using Skylander games as theological metaphors, and then Activision developed Skylanders Trap Team:

(Image courtesy of thetoylocker.blogspot.com)

(Image courtesy of thetoylocker.blogspot.com)

Kaos and his evil minions are back, and so are the Skylanders.  This time they come to trap bad guys in traptanium crystal keys, but they don’t stay there like some envision eternal hell.  Oh no, there is a great plan at work in their capture.  They are transformed from enemies into companions who join the battle against evil.  Redemption!  A fundamental tenant of Christianity is right there before my very eyes.  So when I start telling my now five-year old son about the vital role of redemption in our lives, I can point to taking your mortal enemy, i.e. Kaos, and having him become your greatest ally.  Now Activision doesn’t call it love, but I took artistic license.  I told my son that perhaps being stuck inside the traptanium key is like being stuck in the belly of the fish for Jonah: you have nothing but time to reflect and see where you’ve gone wrong.  Then, when you are freed, you think twice about returning to your old ways, because they never got you anything but trouble anyway.  I can’t help myself, so I continue by telling him the story of Paul, who was first known and feared as a man named Saul.  He hated Jesus and his followers, tried to have them destroyed, even bringing them in to be killed.  But God can transform all things, and God redeemed Saul, made him Paul, and set him on a new path of telling everyone about Jesus.  Jesus’ greatest enemy became his greatest champion, and only the redemptive love of God can bring that kind of transformation.  That is what grace, unmerited favor and forgiveness, does for us: it lets us become something wonderful and holy, of God.

Trap Team isn’t even out yet.  It won’t be released until the first week in October, but my son is super excited.  He wants to see what it is like to play as one of the guys we have been fighting against all this time.  He wants to have them on our team.  I relish that at his age he doesn’t hold a grudge.  He is all ready to have Kaos come join his team, and help him accomplish the mission of the game.  Faith like a child.  It reminds me that we are not to hold grudges, but pray that this very same kind of redemption can happen to everyone, even our greatest foes.  In my time on earth, I have made some enemies, but now I have to consider what I would do if they suddenly wanted to come join me in my endeavors.  Can I forgive?  Would I welcome them as prodigal brothers and sisters in Christ?  I surly hope so, but for now, I can practice in Skylanders.  God be praised if this becomes just a warm up for the real thing.  What a miracle and blessing that would be!

The Homer Simpson Mode of Prayer

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(Image courtesy of users.belgacom.net)

(Image courtesy of users.belgacom.net)

 “Dear Lord, the gods have been good to me and I am thankful.  For the first time in my life everything is absolutely perfect the way it is.  So here’s the deal: you freeze everything as it is and I won’t ask for anything more.  If that is okay, please give me absolutely no sign.  [pause]  Okay, deal.  In gratitude, I present to you this offering of cookies and milk.  If you want me to eat them for you, please give me no sign.  [pause]  Thy will be done.”

That is the prayer Homer Simpson “offers” in an episode of The Simpsons as his wife, Marge, is trying to inform him that she is pregnant with the child that we come to know and love as Maggie.  In Homer’s world, God does things for us to make us happy.  But the Bible is clear that God is calling us to take actions that will make us holy.  If God wanted us to be happy as the supreme state of being, then God would only have to lobotomize us and increase the remaining levels of endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.  Instant happiness is within our chemical brain make-up.  However, God has something better in mind for us.

Those who come to know and love God, and seek to enact God’s will quickly discover that happiness is only one of the many layers of holiness.  To seek to be made holy as God is holy is to pursue righteousness that changes us, those around us, and the world itself.  Transformation brings out the marks of the Creator in everything, every person.  We see the beauty buried under sinful inclination, and watch as it is unleashed upon the world in acts of kindness and mercy.  Suddenly happiness is greater than our own personal happiness as it becomes a social state.  We can glimpse this when Christians gather together to worship, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, become the Body of Christ, united in our love of the Father and purpose of glorifying Christ.  When you can look around and see your joy reflected in the faces of others, you find a depth to happiness that you cannot witness in just yourself.  So, sorry Homer, but we cannot be happy to stay where we are.  There is always more and better to behold as grace unfolds.  We cannot act as though this is the best there is, for we are not yet united with our Lord in the Kingdom to come, and there remains suffering all around and in others.

So we pray, individually and collectively.  And then we stop, stilling our bodies and minds, to hear the response of God.  At times it is assurance, and other times it is a call to action.  Whatever God has to say to us, we cannot simply spit out our personal petition, and hurry God along into agreement.  God knows what we need and hears what we want, but God is too good to give into our selfish desires.  God seeks to transform us, not spoil us.  Growing into a mature Children of God we were created to be is the pinnacle of our existence.  It is to discover selflessness as a way of being, and becoming directional conduits to move others to God.  God’s goodness flows to us and through us to others, and then we direct their joy and gratitude back to God.  Their happiness is our happiness.  We revel in the collective, the paradigm for the Kingdom of Heaven: unending worship in the eternal presence of God Almighty.  Let’s slow down, ease the pace of our prayer.  Let’s pause to discover the response of God, and look not for the temporary state of happiness, but the infinite nature of thankfulness: joy and contentment, even in the face of tragedy, the midst of suffering, and the presence of evil.  For we trust that God will triumph over all of them, and God’s victory shall be our own.  It is not happiness by which we live, but hope.  Thus we pray as those who long to see that hope, our holiness, realized, not our own happiness made manifest.

Birthday, Blessings, & Being 34

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(Image courtesy of ottalovemuffin.com)

(Image courtesy of ottalovemuffin.com)

Yesterday I turned thirty-four.  It was a milestone for me, because now I have outlived Jesus.  It is a striking thought, recalling that he was killed at the age of thirty-three.  He had so much life left in him, so much more he could have done for others, and I believe would have gladly given to the world.  Yet our sin struck him down.  Our disobedience to the will of God nailed him to the cross.  What have I done to deserve to outlive Jesus?  Nothing, not a thing.  Yet here I am, at least one day older, and I realize what a gift time is.

Yesterday also taught be about what a gift relationship is.  I had over a hundred people take the time out of their day, and pause their lives to wish me a happy birthday.  Every Facebook post, phone call, e-card and text message just struck me as humbling.  Before long I was so overwhelmed by the gestures that I started praying my gratitude to God, then I thought of another way to use these well wishes: I started praying individually for every person who contacted me.  I scrolled down my Facebook page, lifting those people up in prayer and thanking God that they had come into my life.  Sometimes people walk into our lives, sometimes they fall into them, and a feisty few come crashing in, but they all make an impression, they all left an impact.  Some of these relationships were founded upon my birth, others from my childhood, and all at various points along my life’s journey.  Some are religious.  Some are even Christian.  Whether they conceptualize it this way or not, they are all a blessing from God to me.  Relationship is one of the primary ways that God blesses us, changes us, and transforms us.  We discover this in our relationship with the Lord, but we should also recognize that many people are vessels for that same impactful relationship.

Two thousand years ago, Christ came to us at the birth of Jesus.  From the day he was born, he crashed into lives, and others crashed into him.  He not only impacted others, but he allowed them to impact him, to expand his blessings and offer his healing power.  We are called to no less.  I mourn that I have not done more in the past thirty-three years for the glory of God.  When I think that Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted only three years, I am put to shame for the ways in which I have tarried on the path of discipleship, but then I have experiences like yesterday and I realize that I have been a vessel.  I have done some things in accordance with God’s will, and they bear fruit in the relationships I have been blessed to have.  Today marks my time of re-dedication.  Today I want to continue what I stumbled upon yesterday, and pray over my relationships.  So I’m taking time to go person by person through my contacts, my Facebook friends, my Twitter followers, and my blog subscribers.  I might not get through every list every day, but I am trying.  So know that if you are nestled among the relationships in those places, you are appreciated, being prayed for, thanks is lifted up to God for you, and you are beloved.  Not just to God, but to me, too.

When Faith Makes You A Freak

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(Image courtesy of hqwallbase.com)

(Image courtesy of hqwallbase.com)

A freak is a label, sometimes a social death sentence, cast upon a person for their unusualness.  Sometimes their “abnormality” is visual in the way they appear through their choice of clothing, body adornment, or personal styling.  Sometimes they are deemed a freak because of their behavior, acting in such a way that they appear to go against the grain.  Jesus calls his followers to both.  In a world that is all too happy to put on drunkenness, hatred, and an obsession with the personal pleasure of sex, Christ calls us to put on righteousness and be clothed in grace.  He asks that we be luminescent beings in the darkness of this world, overshadowed by sin and oppressive evil.  Our actions should be just as stark in contrast.  When the rest of the world passes them by, leaving them to wallow in the suffering they may or may not have brought upon themselves, Christians are to stop and be a means of grace, a presence of God for others. We cannot go about our merry way when another beloved of God is in pain, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise.  We respond, because God responded first to us.  This makes us freakishly devoted to those most readily rejected, and many times their rejection becomes our own.  We are stigmatized for the love we share, but when we indulge in hatred, then we simply wrongfully and wretchedly stigmatize our Savior.  So we are a set apart, called aside to be unusual, not to draw attention to ourselves, but to direct people back to our Lord.  Freaks because of our faith.  Freaks because we do what no one else will do, love whom no one else will love, and go where the world refuses to tread.  When, because following Christ means it is only a matter of time, we are branded freaks, then we should recognize that we have crossed over from the secular to the sacred.  We have entered into the realm of being holy as God is holy in order that others may discover that they are loved so much that they may be remade holy, too.  Don’t go with the crowd.  The crowd crucified Jesus.  Be those freaks at the foot of the cross.  Be those freaks that proclaimed the grace of the Gospel at their own expense.  Be those freaks that stood out because their faith was more than a profession of words, but a transformative way of being, loving, and honoring God.

Faith in a Faithless World

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(Image courtesy of hil001.blogspot.com)

(Image courtesy of hil001.blogspot.com)

It is so hard to watch someone lose faith.  Faith is hard to keep.  At times, it can feel impossible to hold, but what will tether us if we let go of the lifeline to our Lord?  I can see why people fall prey to doubt and despair.  I can understand the havoc tragedy can bring upon us.  Yet there were dark, desperate times of deep despair in my life, and the only reason I am here and not dead, especially by my own hand, is because I have this faith.  It is strong, vibrant, alive, and growing.  Yes, it grows even now.  My faith is not that there is a God.  I know there is a God, because I have a personal relationship with God grounded in experience and encounter.  I have faith that God will keep God’s promises.  That is where the difficulty lies.  We all like the promises of God, the hope of things unseen, but glorious in concept, such as eternal life in the Kingdom to come where death and sorrow are no more.  Yet those promises can feel very distant when you lose your job, when you cannot afford basic necessities, when your spouse destroys the life you have made together, when death steals away your beloved, and when you discover that you body is being destroyed by sickness.  In those times of immense suffering, faith seems futile.

I would love to use the past tense, but I have to say that even now there are days when the only thing that gets me through is that I know God will be my help.  I often would like that help in the form of financial security, physical healing, or restoration of things from my past that are now broken, but that is not always possible, nor what is really best for me.  Can I trust that God will provide?  Can I place myself in the hands of the Lord who has ultimate providence?  There is no alternative to consider.  No human can stand beside me without sinning.  No school of thought, no humanly contrived philosophy can bring me the hope of Christ.  That is God’s alone to give, and God has.  It is because I have faith in God to do what God has promised through the Scriptural accounts of the covenants, the prophets, and the Gospel, that I can tolerate the pain, the suffering, and the abiding despair.  Faith does not just wash them away.  It does not eradicate them from my life, because people keep perpetuating sin and birthing evil in my world.  But then God does something wonderful, merciful even: God sends people into my life to walk with me, to stand beside me, to sit in the sorrow with me, and to pick me up when my legs give out.  In those time when I thought, “It’s just you and me, God,” I was wrong.  God comes to me in others, vessels of love and hope.  They become the assurance in physical form that God’s promise is true, that my hope is secure.  And suddenly I feel the faith as tangible as the ground beneath my feet, the air in my lungs, and the heart beating in my breast.

Faith draws us closer to one another, just as sin pushes us away and pulls us apart.  Faith knits us back together when we are broken, torn in pain.  Those who have this faith as I do, I need them.  I need their presence to lean upon, to share my burdens, to help me carry my cross as I struggle to follow Jesus.  I need to see God in them, so that I can feel that much closer to the one who made me, forgave me, and redeemed me.  I need their love to reflect God’s love, without which I would surely die.  We cannot claim faith in God and let people be alone.  We cannot use our belief to insulate us and sequester us from others.  We have no right to withdrawal from others, especially when we could be the means through which God provides strength and comfort for God’s beloved.  So we go into the darkness to find those that dwell there.  We journey into the pain to be a salve of the Balm of Gilead.  We allow the suffering to radiate back to us that we can be fully present with those who feel fully alone.  Faith in God’s promises is the light in the dark, the hope in the despair.  It is the way in which so many who claim Christ have survived to proclaim his glory, and it is God’s chosen means of saving us.  All the while, God’s grace and love are transforming us, and we will see this one day, if we but hold on long enough.  It is always easier to hold on when someone else’s hand is wrapped around your own.

Taboo Grace: Forgiving Sinners Like Us

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Christians want forgiveness.  We want to be reconciled to God.  Therefore, we want God to grant us grace, but we simultaneously seem to loathe granting grace to others.  We are all too ready to stigmatize, categorize, and cast off those we hold in our view as sinners, as if our sins are minor in comparison.

(Image courtesy of mtholyoke.edu)

(Image courtesy of mtholyoke.edu)

When Pope Francis performed Holy Matrimony for twenty couples, including those who had been already living together, some people within the Church were furious.  “But these people are living in sin!”  Well, they were, but now they are married, and they are able to express their love, commitment, and bond as they like.  Perhaps we could go so far to say as God intends for married people to do.  Either way, they went from those living outside of grace to those who had been blessed to live within it.  Is this not the transition Christ came to help us make in all of our lives?  It breaks my heart in two to listen to people withhold grace, sanction people by playing gatekeeper to the most precious blessing God has given to us.  During his earthly ministry, people approached Jesus and he forgave them, healing them both physically and spiritually.  He reconciles all people to God through the blood of the cross, and yet we have the audacity to deny someone that grace, as if we could.

I do not excuse sin.  I have certainly sinned myself, and I live with the consequences of that as well as living with the knowledge that my sin has hurt others.  I have been hurt by the sins of other people, even to the point that one sin almost destroyed me completely, but by the grace of God, I was able to have victory over sin, including my own.  In the liberation that follows accepting the grace wrought of Christ, I want others to discover this wholeness that comes from redemption.  I want all people, even those who call me their enemy, to have this.  It changed my life.  It is changing me even now.  It can change others, and so it would change the world.  But if we hold grace hostage to our approval of others, then we truncate its transformative power and limit its reach.  So there were couples “living  in sin,” or more aptly put: having pre-marital sex, and Pope Francis offered them the means through which to move from that place to one of blessing, redemption, and grace.  Good for him.  Good for us.  God reveals that God can redeem and transform all things, all people, and all circumstances.  We should expect nothing less of an all-powerful and all loving God, and God should expect that we would do nothing less than model that to the fullest extent of our beings.

We all sin.  We all stand in the need of grace.  God offers grace to us all.  If we are unwilling to turn around and offer that same grace to others, then we backslide into sin.  Maybe it is now a different sin, but denying another the love and reconciliation Jesus died to give us is surly a sin.  While there are people who think there are unforgivable sins and even unforgivable people, I whole heartedly believe Christ dispelled that in the Gospel accounts.  God took one of the greatest enemies to Christianity, Saul, and transformed him through a profound encounter with the Risen Christ into one of the single greatest advocates Christianity has ever known, and perhaps will ever know.  Granted grace for his persecution of the Church and his role in the death of Christ’s disciples, Saul became Paul, a man who would die spreading the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the known earth in his day.  Such a radical receipt of grace gives us hope that we can be remade into the servants Christ deserves, heralding his triumphant return, and spreading his Gospel of grace, truth, and love to every living person.  So look at the sinner who turns your stomach, and turn your heart towards them.  Grant them grace, so that they can be free from their sin, and you too can find freedom from their sins.  You have been freed from yours.  Now go break the chains of those who remain captive to sin with the liberating power of God’s love.