Category Archives: Vintage Content

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What to do with the Stranger?

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“You shall also love the stranger,
for you were strangers in the land of Egypt
(Deuteronomy 10:19 NRS).
 
I was a father to the needy,
and I championed the cause of the stranger”
(Job 29:16 NRS).
 
I was a stranger and you welcomed me” -Jesus
(Matthew 25:35 NRS).
 



(Image courtesy of welcomestrangerband.bandcamp.com)
 
As my country continues its centuries long struggle with immigration, a hot topic that sprung up as soon as the first European set foot on its shores, I was thrust once more into considering what our response should be as the Church upon reading this article: Church Groups Ship Illegals Deeper into US.  Having been born and raised in the United States, I am sincerely grateful for all the joy I have experienced within its borders, and all the liberty I have enjoyed in its freedoms.  I cannot fault others for wanting to live here, nor can I totally disagree with those that want to ensure that there is order and safety preserved.  As a Christian, I struggle with how to find the right path between two warring sides of the immigration debate.  As one who openly accepts the call of Christ to love all people, I re-read the above Scripture passages, and found myself feeling the conviction to welcome the stranger.
 
Repeatedly, and in far more than the three passages I cited above, the Bible commands us to welcome the stranger.  Who is a stranger?  Anyone who is not me, my family, or my current neighbor is easily definable as a stranger.  As Scripture urges us to recall a time when we were strangers, even if that is not us personally and literally, but as the spiritual descendants of a people who were strangers in a strange land, wandered lost in the wilderness, and then sent into the Promised Land where they were strangers once more.  If that is my spiritual heritage, then I cannot dismiss the plight of the stranger, the very same person modern political discourse labels “immigrant,” and the more pejorative term “illegal.”  I wrestle with how to offer hospitality without incapacitating the recipient.  I want to support programs that emphasize education and accountability, because Christ calls his disciples to teach and equip others.  Much debate centers around giving up what we have at the expense of those who are already here, and I used to be very concerned about that.  Then I stopped to consider how much I have, and how much we have as a nation, and I think we can afford to be generous, but not blind.  I believe that we can welcome and help people to find their place in our country, just as we welcome people and help them find their place in our churches.
 
Hot button issues like immigration always seem to cultivate deep divides among people.  There is passion on both sides, and truth spoken there, too.  I could spend the rest of my life bouncing back and forth between the polarized positions, but how will that ever bring real relief to those who suffer because of this issue?  How will I ever stand before the one who declared himself to be a stranger and honestly say that I welcomed the stranger, if I refuse to act on this which is so much more than an abstract issue, but about real people and their struggle to survive?  I can start small, close to home, and refuse to take advantage of their day labor.  I can support those community initiatives that teach English to those who are not fluent speakers.  I can refuse to persecute those who are not card carrying immigrants and citizens, but offer them acts of kindness and mercy.  I can stop looking at them as enemies, and start looking at them like they are Christ come to receive my hospitality, because that is exactly what he says to do in the Gospel of Matthew.  When someone takes exception to my words and my actions, I can stand tall and say that I am following the call of my Savior, and I have no shame in that.
 
Prayer:
Christ, my compass and guide,
Help me to navigate the ways of this world.
I long to be a means of your grace for others,
But I find myself frightened by the possible backlash for doing so.
I know I have nothing to fear,
So I place myself and all my trust in you.
I will speak your words to the stranger.
I will welcome them as you have welcomed me back into your fold.
I will love as I have
been loved, despite my willful disobedience.
May I be a spark shining in the darkness of this discourse,
That calls us to see the people, not the issue.
May I serve and love like you,
And may this bring honor and glory to your name,
Always and forevermore.
Amen.
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Worship: What the Found of God’s Flock Did Not Know was Lost

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(Image courtesy of matome.naver.jp)

It is all too easy to become comfortable as a Christian.  After all, Jesus said that he would send the Holy Spirit to be of comfort to us, and it is.  The acknowledged presence of God and the relationship born of faith provide us with this sense of peace, and in that we can find this safety that enfolds us.  So how does God shake things up and keep us growing ever more in our faith?  Since my theology of a God of grace precludes me from believing that God sends pain and suffering upon us, I am left with thinking that God transforms things and experiences around us to enable God to speak to us in new ways.  One of the most consistent places for God to do just this is worship.

Worship is where the people of God come to give their thanks and praise.  It is one of the means of grace through which God conveys God’s love and redemption of us in Christ Jesus.  It is where the Body of Christ gathers to be manifest, edified, and equipped to continue the ministry and mission of his Church.  It is where we confess our sins before God and one another to be reconciled to each other.  For those who go to church to worship regularly, this can start to feel rote even stale over time.  While it is always our responsibility first and foremost to enter into worship with gratitude and openness to hear and see God in new ways that day, we are all aware that keeping the excitement in our worship is neither easy nor always the reality.  Yet, what if our worship was the place where we could encounter God in a radially different way?  What if we entered into that sacred space at the appointed hour only to discover something we had never encountered before, some new facet of our Lord?  Worship provides this opportunity in a way that no other time or place can.  When the people of God, created by the Father, called by the Son, and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, gather in one place for the sole purpose of worshiping God, then anything and everything can happen.  The tragedy is that we have become so used to worship that we can forget to expect that such a miraculous encounter can and should occur.  We almost issue challenge to the clergy and laity that lead us in worship to move us, find new ways of making us feel, but that is a moot point if we do not come intentionally seeking to take part in that unveiling of God.

Each and every Sunday in worship, God seeks to reach out and touch in us unexpected ways.  No matter how long we have been in the Church and at worship, even if it has been our whole lives, there is always something new God can say or do that will rock our world.  God chooses to do this in worship, provided we are willing to be open and receptive to it.  When we get too comfortable and stop seeking these radical encounters with God, then our worship feels stale, even to us.  Our worship becomes a place of motion rather than movement of the Spirit.  We do not respond to it here and now, so much as recall what we are supposed to do, but even that is always with an eye on the past, what was done and said.  We serve the God who was, is, and ever shall be.  God is doing new things now, making all things new today, and that must include our worship as well.  Are we actively seeking to make our worship new?  I am not talking about throwing out all the tradition and historical practice, liturgy, format, and music, but looking at how God desires to invigorate it in new ways this day so that we, in turn, can be invigorated, too?  We get so comfortable in Christianity over the course of the long run, that we can forget what it was like to be shaken loose from our blindness to see God like it was the first time.  We must endeavor to resurrect that mindset and that willingness so that we can have the openness to see what God is doing new now, and then, edified by the worship of our God, we can go back out into the world to proclaim God’s Gospel and glory in new ways to reach a new people and bring about new growth in the ultimate transformation of the world.

Shake the Crumbs Loose

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(Image courtesy of craigtowens.com)

On time, during the course of his earthly ministry, Jesus was approached by a Canaanite woman, someone who worshiped pagan gods, looking for healing for her daughter.  When Jesus told her he came for the lost sheep of the House of Israel, she rebutted with her proclamation that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.  Through the tenacity of her faith and persistence in pursuing what she believe possible, Jesus healed her daughter.  This story has me thinking about how we can not only ensure that others eat the proverbial crumbs of Christianity, but
provide greater access by shaking them forth.  The Church is a great resource of many things which people need and often go without.  Even beyond the faith in Christ, the Church and its members possess great means and access to material resources.  We give our money as part of our tithes and offerings, but what about all the other things we have?

It is American culture to take what we do not want or for which we no longer have space and sell it.  We employ garage sales, yard sales, eBay, and Craigslist to help us rehome our no longer wanted artifacts and we make a little money while doing so.  But what about those that could really use some of the things we no longer want, that become the crumbs of our lives?  Could we not go a little further and find the ways to get then into the hands of those that need them, like children that do not have age and seasonally appropriate clothing?  We could see if someone just getting back on their feet in an unfurnished apartment could use that piece of furniture.  Before anyone takes all their stuff and dumps it into the unsuspecting hands of their local church, I want us to be intentional about making sure we don’t just sweep the crumbs off our floor and throw them onto someone else’s.  We can take the time to search out those who could benefit, and find the programs, agencies, and individuals who have the ability to help us be connected to those we could serve in yet another way.  Framed through faith, relationship after all is what our lives are all about: relationship with God and others.  This may be one more way we can help others encounter Christ in the selflessness it takes to ensure that we can pass along what we have, but no longer desire or need.  It will take a little more work, yes, but it will never compare with the work that Christ endured to bring us salvation.  So where are your crumbs, and how can you make sure that they go to those who have not yet taken their rightful place at the table as Children of God?

A Prayer to Our Heavenly Father

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(Image courtesy of marcusjlewis.com)

Our heavenly parent, our Father above,
You knew us before our existence was known by anyone else.
From the very beginning, you have watched over us.
Now we ask for you to guide us in your ways.
Raise us up to be the sons and daughters you deserve and we long to be.
Teach us your wisdom,
Endow us with your power,
Even as you envelop us in your love.
No matter who our earthly parents are,
Despite any relationship we have with them,
You are our eternal parent without equal.
The love of this world simply points back to the perfect love you rain down.
We have been nurtured by the Holy Spirit to walk in the light of the Son.
May you have cause to be proud of us,
The way we speak your truth in love,
The way we act from compassionate hearts,
And the way we seek to enact justice in your holy name.
In you we are all connected.
In you may we all be grounded.
We lift our prayers of thanksgiving and praise for you, O Lord.
Glory to God in the highest,
And may there be peace among your children on earth.
Amen.

When Society Tells You How to Feel…

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(Image courtesy of retailmba.com)

This past Mother’s Day increased my awareness of how much society attempts to dictate how we should feel, especially on certain holidays.  Many national holidays, such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, are secular, non-religious in nature.  It is an important distinction, because religious holidays often acknowledge both ends of the emotional spectrum, from the joyous to the sorrowful simultaneously.  For instance, even Christmas, while filled with joy and celebration at the birth of Jesus Christ, implicitly contains the mourning that such a human state of sin exists that God would have to offer God’s self for us in Jesus Christ upon the cross, and so be born in human form that day.  The Bible not only acknowledges the full breadth of human emotion, but it catalogs it from the awe and wonder of creation in Genesis, to the mourning and sorrow of Lamentations, to the anger and injustice of Job, to the joy and celebration of the resurrection in the Gospel accounts.  We are not compartmentalized beings that only feel one emotion at a time.  Often we find one emotion spilling over into another, such as when a moment of happiness gives way to sorrow that a loved one who passed away is not there to share in it.

That is normal, healthy, and even part of the design of humanity.  God can love us and simultaneously mourn our broken, sinful state.  God can be angry at us for our willful disobedience, and still pour out blessings upon us.  As those created in God’s image, we manifest this emotional ability with regularity, so why should we submit ourselves to a human designed plan of forcing ourselves to conform emotionally on an specific occasion?  I would argue that we should not.  I am a mother, but I am also a woman that has lost a child, so Mother’s Day is not all brunch, flowers, and smiles for me.  Yet I was very aware of how taboo such feelings are, much less their articulation on Mother’s Day, but they are authentic and true, so why should I pretend to be otherwise?  Tomorrow many people will celebrate Fatherhood and their fathers.  I love my father, and he is still around for me to honor, but you cannot be clergy and not be aware of how many people find such a day difficult, if not impossible.  There are those who never had a man to call father, whether due to death or abandonment.  There are others who lost their father for the same reasons.  There are those who have a very broken relationship with their father, those that suffered abuse at the hands of their father, and those that simply feel ambivalent about their father.  A day where we assume all men are fathers is equally painful and unjust.  There are a good deal of men who wanted nothing more than to have a child, but could not.

I am not saying that Father’s Day is evil, or that any secular holiday is innately antithetical to Christianity, but I am saying that as the Body of Christ we need to be extremely cognizant of what we are calling forth in secular holidays and how that will impact people, many of whom are extremely vulnerable on these days due to the emphasis they place upon feeling a very specific way.  So let us not assume anything tomorrow.  I’m not going to say “Happy Father’s Day,” because I don’t know what that might conjure up in other person, but I feel called to say, “God bless you,” and, “God love you.”  Those are true statements that are for all people.  They are true and valid for fathers and mothers, widows and orphans, young and old, men and women, sinners and saints.  Those kinds of statements are more than tag lines and Hallmark epithets.  They are verbal reminders of grace and love from God and embodied in God’s people.  They are redemptive statements that seek to heal the hurt of this world, soothe the sorrow and ease the burdens.  These statements express, not only what we feel, but who we are, and who others are that receive them: they are beloved.  Being a beloved child of God is not about appreciation, but restoration and no secular holiday could ever promise that, much less deliver.  So no matter how you feel about tomorrow, may we strive to help all people feel a little more loved and discover a little more hope.  For that is the will of God, the Father.

Believer’s Insurance: Courage of God

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Somewhere yesterday the strange marriage of my recent annual lump payment for my renter’s insurance and my son’s insistence that we listen to the audio companion CD for his David & Goliath book repeatedly in the car yielded this insight: Christians have this spiritual insurance born of our faith in God that is courage from knowing that God is real and our aid.  I pay for insurance so that I do not have to be afraid when something goes catastrophically wrong with my house.  If there is a fire or storm damage, then I will have the means to rebuild from the impact to my stuff and my life.  While I hope I will never have to use it for something so negative, I know that I can and will be able to go on.  Our faith in the Lord is very much like this.  We come to understand that God is not only with us, but for us.  God is here when we are in need of strength, perseverance, and assurance when things get bad.  A couple years ago I had to be cognizant to recall that truth when trouble hit my family.  I knew in my heart that we were going to be all right; we were going to survive that or any other ordeal, because God is with us.  God was, is, and we are going to be better than all right.

After the umpteenth time listening to the narrator recount the biblical narrative of David fighting Goliath, it occurred to me that what David had was more than courage in himself, this notion that he could do anything at all, but that God was his courage.  God was his strength.  It was not that David, the young man, perhaps even just a young teenager, had killed a lion and fought off a bear, but that God had been the strength that allowed the weakness of his youthful form to triumph against adversity.  God’s might perfected any flaws in David.  David was acutely aware of this, something profound for even adults this day.  David did not just know it, but he publicly acknowledged it, and was willing to risk his own life to bring honor to God by preemptively giving God the glory for a triumph that had not yet happened, and was frankly against all odds.  That is how strong David’s faith in God was.  Yet with one blow, Goliath had been defeated, and God was the reason why.

Our faith is our insurance for when things get bad, and they will eventually in the course of our lives.  Trials and tribulations will always come when we live in a world of sin and death.  Yet we do not hide in fear or shrink at the presence of suffering, because we know that God will overcome all obstacles when we live in faith.  When we are willing to proclaim with our lips, our actions, and all that we are that we know the Lord is our strength, our protector and shield, then we can stand before any threat and triumph.  The believer knows that it is not because we are stronger, smarter, or more deserving than anyone else, but that we allowed the existence of God to be revealed and the might of the Lord to overcome us.  No matter what I have been through, it is not because I am better or more capable than anyone else, indeed, I am just as frail, fragile, and mortal as anyone else, but I can stand here this day with the full knowledge that God has carried me through all adversity.  God is not my motivation.  God is my mode of living.  God is the courage I need to stand up against sin and battle the forces of evil that threaten me, my family, and others all over the world.  God is my ability to make change in me and others for the ultimate transformation of the world.  God is our reason and our way, and our faith in this eternal truth ignites the power of God for us.

Biblical Lessons from Being a Bill Collector

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“Pay to all what is due them– taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:7-8 NRS).



(Image courtesy of money.msn.com)

My first real job, one that required me to fill out a W2, was working as a bill collector in debt collection.  Not the norm for a nineteen year old, but it paid really well and I was good at it.  It opened my eyes in ways that formal education never has, and it revealed just how vulnerable to temptation human beings are.  The Bible tells us not to be in debt.  The Apostle Paul exhorted the church in Rome to be solvent, letting only one debt go unpaid, and that is the one we have to continually love one another.  That debt will never be paid, void, or canceled.  So why are so many of us up to our eyeballs in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, and struggling just to stay afloat on line after line of credit?

There is no easy answer, no simple explanation to that question.  The answers are as numerous as the persons who find themselves in that financial state of being in debt.  With the exception of healthcare debt, much of personal debt results from greed.  We want, but we cannot afford, so we buy on credit.  It is not that we wanted an Italian sports car or even a multi-million dollar mansion, but that we wanted something just out of our reach, and we used a line of credit to extend our reach to grasp something we wanted, but not necessarily needed: a slightly nicer vehicle, a house with a bigger yard in a nicer neighborhood with the sweet deck out back, an updated wardrobe, the latest technological gadget, a memorable vacation with all the stops pulled out, and other things we all would love to have, but have a hard time accepting might not be in the cards.  So we allow ourselves to fall into the temptation to buy on credit without a clear and defined plan of repayment, and that often means cutting back or cutting things out all together.  Maybe if we had been just a little more patient, we could have even deferred the purchase and it would have been within our financial means at a future date.

What does any of this have to do with God?  Everything.  Many of the behaviors and mindsets that allow us to become in debt are the very same that prevent us from being in right relationship with God and one another.  They are the things that lead to sin.  Greed and the notions that we deserve certain things, so we need to do what we can to get them, even if that means ultimately stealing from a financial institution that has its own bills and responsibilities to pay its employees.  Our inflated sense of self at the expense of the communal living of the Body of Christ allows us to refrain from considering how our actions affect others, impact them negatively, and fracture our relationships over something as eternally insignificant as money.  Our emphasis on ourselves also detracts from our emphasis on God.  I have yet to meet the person who went into debt to tithe, because tithing requires us to be intentional about our finances and how we spend, as well as save, so that we gave give to God.  If we were as obsessed with giving to God as we are about acquiring, then we would not go into debt, but work all the harder to ensure that we were honoring God rather than giving into our temptations.  Lastly, we are embarrassed of our debt, and so we lie about it, and lie to avoid confronting it.  As a bill collector, people lied to me all the time, almost every conversation.  They would lie about their name, whether they were home, if they sent a payment, if the debt was valid, etc.  They lie, and so they sin.  

Somewhere in heaven, God shakes God’s head at this quagmire of debt we have allowed ourselves to become imprisoned within, and mourns the ways in which we have let debt become a destructive force in our lives.  We are supposed to be earning a living to support ourselves and the Church of Jesus Christ, not going into debt to have things that will never bring us the kind of eternal joy that our relationship with God can.  While we pine away for that next thing, we could be meditating on the Scriptures or working out how to enact our faith tomorrow.  As we reach for the credit card or click “bill me later,” we could be reaching out to others with our actual hands in the service of love, acts of kindness and mercy.  We have this massive debt to love one another, and we can only make payments on it when we consciously choose to stop racking up the monetary kind.  We are called to serve God, not our desires.  We are called to withstand the temptations of this world, not become enslaved to them as debtors.  With God’s help and our purposefulness, we can overcome.  The Father gave us the power to choose.  The Son liberated us to live as free people.  So now let us embrace the power of the Holy Spirit to reject the forces of wickedness that disguise themselves in material wealth and credit lines without means of repayment.  Let us take a road less traveled and live to give of ourselves, our time, and our money for the glory of God.

Prayer:
Free me, Father,
From the lure of debt.
Liberate me, Lord,
From the temptation to acquire at all costs.
Help me to refrain from living beyond my means,
And live within your grace instead.
May I become the master of my money,
And give it in your praise,
Rather than owe it to my greed.
Amen.