Archive for 2015 – Page 2

Jesus is a Prayer Shamer

These mass shootings are starting to seem routine.

In the wake of the San Bernardino murders, all the politicians and talking heads were behaving predictably. Those who support more gun regulations were using the shooting as another opportunity to press that point home. Friends of the NRA were doing everything they could to avoid touching the question of why it’s so easy for murderers and terrorists to get their hands on assault weapons.

Then The New York Daily News disrupted the whole conversation by publishing this:

God Isn't Fixing This

Immediately, pro-gun partisans cried fowl. This was “prayer shaming“. An assault on faith. Maybe even a new front on the War on Christmas.

It’s interesting how different our interpretations can be sometimes.

I’ll admit, the headline is pretty troubling from a theological perspective: GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS. As a follower of Jesus, I believe exactly the opposite. My faith teaches me that God is the only one who can mend this mess.

But then I keep reading on to the sub heading: “As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” Well, that just sounds a lot like the Bible.

The Bible’s prophetic tradition has no time for cheap expressions of religiosity in the face of suffering and evil. God is fed up with people who “draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.

Jesus himself quotes this passage from Isaiah when speaking to the Pharisees, the most devout and religious people in his time period. He calls out the religious leaders of his day in ways very similar to last week’s headline in The New York Daily News. He denounces the many ways in which pundits and politicians mouth pious words and humanitarian sentiments but do nothing to address the daily injustices experienced by ordinary people.

These leaders are those who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger.” They’re the ones who say all the right words while failing to act. They say “peace, peace!” where there is no peace. They dress the wound of our people as if it were not serious.

As strange as it may seem, The New York Daily News may have actually gotten this one right, from a Christian perspective. A snowflake or Christmas tree on our coffee cup isn’t going to make our country a more Christian society. Religious words and calculated condolences aren’t going to restore God’s peace to our streets. The religion of Jesus and the prophets is a sincere faith expressed through positive action for change.

In the words of James, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Thoughts and prayers don’t cut it. Neither does self-righteousness.

What would it take for all of us – Red State and Blue State – to seek peace and pursue it? What would it look like for us to practice a public faith that is focused more on compassion and less on being right? How can we become more like Jesus, willing to stand up to the hypocrites who mouth the words of God in order to deceive and distort?

Related Posts:

Jesus Commands You to Welcome Refugees

What Are You Afraid Of?

Take a Break for Beauty

There’s a reason that all the most important American holidays are towards the end of the year. The light is growing dimmer, our skies are overcast, and the leaves are falling off the trees. Everything seems to conspire to make these days dreary and devoid of color. And we’re not even to winter yet. We need all the encouragement we can get. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas – our celebrations get bigger as we move into the darkest days of the year.

Here where I live, it’s been raining, misting, and spritzing for the last several days. A cold drizzle to accent the mid-afternoon twilight. Lethargic from the weather and unable to concentrate on my work, I decided to take a little break. I went for a walk in a part of town I’m less familiar with. I decided to get outside and see what I could see, rain or no rain.

I was well-rewarded. Just a few minutes into my walk, I took a random turn down a dead-end street and found myself at the entrance to a wooded nature trail I didn’t even know existed.

Setting foot on that path, something shifted inside me. The soggy leaves squished under my feet and raindrops splashed me from treetops. The air had changed. The sights, sounds, and smells of the city were suddenly far away. I was enveloped by a sense of peace and presence.

There was life here.

The dim, inanimate world that I had inhabited just a few minutes ago had been transformed. The rocks and moss under my feet seemed to breathe beneath me. The trees welcomed me into their forest. In a flash, the world had been re-enchanted. The land was alive, and I was a part of it.

I would have lingered there on the trail as long as daylight remained, but I had to return to work. Still, the sensation of aliveness remained with me for the rest of the day. When the darkness seemed too much to bear, all I had to do was remember myself standing on that wooded path, flanked by the mossy trees. I was rooted again in a community of living beings that thrives even in the short, dim, rainy days of late fall.

I’m grateful that I took the time to go exploring. I’m glad I took a break for beauty. There’s so much more to this existence than meets the eye. Life is here, all around us, if we’re willing to see it.

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Do the Work

Give Thanks, Let Go

Do the Work

When I was in high school, my friends and I had a rock band. We played some original songs – with lyrics by yours truly – and a ton of Oasis covers. It was a lot of fun, and we probably weren’t bad compared to other garage bands our age group.

Still, pretty much anyone could have guessed that we weren’t going to sell a lot of records. We never did a paid show at a venue. We had a good time dressing up and playing rock star, but we weren’t ready for the heavy lifting that it took to be real musicians.

I was the worst. My spot in the band was lead singer, but that’s where my contribution stopped. We really needed a rhythm guitarist or a bassist, but I didn’t have the patience to practice either instrument. Eventually, several members of the band went on to other projects – without me.

This was really hurtful at the time, but in retrospect I can’t blame them. I wasn’t pulling my own weight. I didn’t practice on my own time, and wasn’t really thinking about the success of the band. I was more interested in the image of being part of a band than the hard, repetitive work of developing my craft as a musician.

This wasn’t the first or last time that I would put image before substance. In high school, I wanted to be a fit and healthy person, but I didn’t want to exercise or change my diet. In college, I wanted to be an expatriate novelist (who doesn’t?) but I never disciplined myself to write. And so on. Throughout my life, I have often pursued an image of the kind of person I would like to be; but I haven’t always taken seriously the question: Do I actually want to do the work?

If not, that’s a problem. Because the work is where it’s at. 99% of an artist’s time is spent at the easel or doing promotion, not receiving accolades. Writers spend years, sitting at a desk – writing, editing, agonizing over their work. Athletes and musicians train and practice a thousand hours for every five minutes of glory.

At the end of the day, it’s the work that makes a life. If I don’t like the daily grind of writing, it doesn’t really matter how glamorous it is to be an author. If I don’t want to spend most of my available time practicing at my instrument, I’m not cut out to be a musician. Pro athletes have to love the thousand hours of training just as much as the moments of glory. They’re a package deal.

Where’s the work that I’m called to do, even if the glory never comes? What’s the thankless, slogging labor that I find rewarding in and of itself? For me, that’s the litmus test of fulfillment. Rather than seeking out an image that suits my ego, wholeness comes when I pay attention to the daily activity that makes me come alive.

The work doesn’t have to be picturesque or fashionable; in fact, it almost certainly won’t be. Nobody lives in the limelight most of the time, not even rock stars. But if I’m true to the work that God created me to do, I’ll find peace in that. And maybe, some days, even a little bit of glory.

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Who Do You Compare Yourself To?

Give Thanks, Let Go

Give Thanks, Let Go

Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance. It is a time to give thanks for the harvest just brought in, the work of a whole year coming to fruition as we enter the holiday season. As winter arrives, we gather around the table with family and friends. We rejoice together in the warmth of our radiant homes.

It is no coincidence that the Thanksgiving holiday comes at this time. As the daylight is growing dimmer and shorter each day, our hearts are drawn to that which is most dear to us. Gathered together in our warm and well-lit homes, we prepare for months of dark and cold. Surrounded by the abundance of harvest, we prepare ourselves for leaner times to come.

Now, just as we have everything, we have come to the season of letting go.

Winter is coming. It’s a time of renunciation. A period when precious things will be taken away. The table will be empty, the house will grow cold. Life will change in ways that we can’t foresee now, and that we wouldn’t welcome even if we could.

The joy of Thanksgiving is best experienced in the knowledge that winter is coming. The reality of loss and limits, of emptiness and pain, frames the joy and fullness that we experience now. The present moment is brought into focus in light of the truth: This too shall pass.

To give thanks, we must let go.

Real gratitude doesn’t cling to food, or wealth, or status, or even to life itself. There’s true joy to be found in the pleasures of our lives, but only when we renounce our ownership of them. This present moment is alive and special precisely because it only lasts for a short time.

What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving? Who are the people, places, and things that bring you joy? What would it mean for you to hold them lightly, in the knowledge that nothing really belongs to you?

What are the possibilities that come with winter? What beautiful things might need to be cleared away in order to make space for the next chapter in your walk with God? Could even this life as a whole be a moment that is passing away, yielding itself to even deeper love and peace?

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What Are You Afraid Of?

When there are armed killers in the street and you’re running for your life, where can you hide? When the country you grew up in is no longer safe, when masked men with militant ideologies are massacring the people you love, how will you react? When your children don’t have enough to eat and the bombs are falling, where do you go?

These are not hypothetical questions. For the millions of Syrians who have been forced to abandon their homes and risk their lives seeking refuge abroad, this is daily life. In these circumstances, there are no good alternatives. Will you stay and face the guns and bombs? Or will you risk the uncertainty of ocean crossings, international borders, and weeks of walking in the baking sun, carrying your children in your arms?

People across America are afraid. We’re anxious that terrorists may find a way to sneak into the United States and carry out mass murders like in Paris. Politicians are calling for a beefed up military response to ISIS. Many governors are saying that we should keep refugees out of the United States; welcoming them would just be too dangerous.

I was astonished by a quote published in The Washington Post, talking about the intense fear that many in our country are feeling: “I have never been fearful of anything in my life because I put my faith in God,” said Kathleen Jones, 58, a vice president at a medical equipment company. “But I went out this week and bought a pistol.”

It took my breath away when I read these lines. What is it about the terror attacks in Paris that made Ms. Jones feel that she could no longer rely on God? Is ISIS so strong and God so weak that now, after 58 years of faith, she needs a pistol to protect herself?

Then I got to thinking about Jesus’ story of the two men building houses. One built his house on top of the sand, while another built his on the rock. When a big storm came, the house with a sandy foundation was washed away, but the house with a foundation on the rock was able to withstand the storm.

The kind of fear on display in America today reveals that many of us have built our homes on a sandy foundation. It’s easy to talk about love, peace, and forgiveness when you’re doing well and no one is threatening you. But your real convictions are revealed when the storm comes.

The storm arrived a long time ago for the people of Syria. As we speak, they are begging for sanctuary in our country. Violence and terror has driven them out of everything they’ve ever known, exposing their families to unthinkable dangers. Their displacement, their need for help is obvious for anyone to see. Are we willing to see?

We wanted to believe that we were kind, loving people. And it was easy as long as nothing was at stake. But then Paris happened. Now we fear that God might not protect us after all. Now we’re ready to buy a gun and lock the door. We’re willing to tell millions of people, fleeing with their families from the devastation that ISIS has wrought, that they’re not welcome. They might be dangerous. Better safe than sorry.

These are the thoughts and reactions of a people whose house is built upon the sand. Such beach combers are scattered and fearful in the face of danger. They fall easy prey to deceitful leaders who would use our terrified confusion to enslave us, and attack those who are most vulnerable. This is how tyranny is born; it is on sandy ground that atrocity is birthed.

What are you afraid of? Do you fear the huddled masses from Syria, looking for room at the inn? Or do you fear the moral consequences of turning away families that in so many ways resemble the holy family of Jesus Christ in that ancient Christmas story?

It is in times like these that our faith really matters. Where have you placed your trust? What is your foundation? I pray that each one of us will take this critical moment in our history as an opportunity to re-commit ourselves to rock of the gospel, which is good news to everyone who is desperate and looking for help.

Related Posts:

Jesus Commands You to Welcome Refugees

Paris Must Not Be Another 9/11

Jesus Commands You to Welcome Refugees

Jesus Commands us to Welcome Refugees
Despite what you may have picked up about Christianity from some of our more loud-mouthed brethren, Jesus did not spend his time denouncing gay people, foreigners, or people of other religions. And, believe it or not, he rarely talked about hell. But when he did… Buckle your safety belts, America.

In the Book of Matthew, Jesus tells a story about Judgment Day, when every person is held to account for the outcome of their life. In the typical American Christian cosmology, this is the big moment when God rewards those who said the right prayer and accepted Jesus into their hearts. Everybody who didn’t say that prayer and didn’t believe all the right things? Into the furnace.

But that’s not what we find in Matthew 25. Instead, we learn that when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead, he’s going to have a very different set of criteria. It’ll go something like this: When I was hungry and thirsty, did you give me food and drink? When I was a stranger, did you welcome me? When I was naked and sick, did you clothe me and care for me? And when I was in prison, did you visit me?

We’re going to ask him, When did we ever meet you as a stranger and welcome you in? When did we ever see you hungry and thirsty, or naked and sick, or in prison? And Jesus will say, You did see me. I was there with you every time you encountered a person in need. And whatever you did – or didn’t do – to them, that’s exactly what you did to me.

This will be a big revelation for all of us: A nice surprise for those of us who cared for the least of these, and a rude awakening for those who turned away and ignored those in need.

When Jesus judges the world, according to this passage, he won’t care what you think about him. He’s not going to praise or condemn you for your knowledge about God, what church you went to, or how much money you put in the offering plate. When this age is over and each one of us stands before him to give account, the question he will ask us is, Did you care for the stranger? Did you feed my sheep? Did you really love me, showing it in the way you treated those least able to repay you?

What will you say?

At this very moment, there is a debate taking place across the United States. We’re arguing about whether we should welcome refugees from the Syrian Civil War. These are families fleeing for their lives. They’re men, women, and little children clamoring onto boats and risking everything to escape a flood of extremism and violence. They have come to the shores of the Western world, begging for shelter from this terrible storm.

These folks have nothing left. They are hungry and thirsty, naked and sick. They have arrived as strangers at our doorstep, asking us to welcome them into our homes. Do we dare to turn them away? Can we honestly call ourselves followers of Jesus and turn away the least of these, our brothers and sisters who find themselves in such desperation?

If we turn our backs on the Syrian refugees, we reject as irrelevant the claims of Jesus. We deny the truthfulness of the Bible. We renounce the Christian faith altogether.

Let me be clear: You cannot ignore these refugees and be a follower of Jesus in any real sense. To reject the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the weak and despised, is to reject Jesus himself.

The very heart and substance of the Christian faith lies in hospitality to the stranger, accepting the danger that unknown people can represent. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, has already ruled on the question of the Syrian refugee crisis. All of us who claim to follow him must open our arms wide and embrace our Syrian brothers and sisters – whether they are Christian or Muslim, or atheist for that matter. Let them come. Let each and every one of them find room at the inn.

Our country stands at a moral crossroads. We have a decision to make. Will we be a nation that turns away the very people that Jesus has commanded us to comfort and serve? Will we choose the path of fear and isolation in the face of so much suffering? Will those of us who claim to be Christians choose instead to renounce our faith in exchange for the false security of Fortress America?

Will you throw away your faith and cower in fear?

You don’t have to. There is another way.

Do you hear the call of Jesus to clothe the sick, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger? Now is our time. Despite the panic and confusion, despite the shrill calls for sealed borders, there is an alternative. Now more than ever, we must welcome the stranger and hold fast to the profession of our faith.

In this time of crisis we have an incredible opportunity to show what true, fearless love looks like. Do you have the courage to embrace it?

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Paris Must Not Be Another 9/11

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Paris Must Not Be Another 9/11

Paris Must Not Be Another 9/11

Just like you, I was horrified when I learned of last week’s terror attacks in Paris. The scale, precision, and barbarity of these crimes are hard to fathom.

My first reaction was sadness for the victims and a desire for peace. My second was a sense of mild panic. If they can do this in Paris, they can certainly do it in my city! My third reaction, I’m not particularly proud of:

I thought about how much I’d like to see the people responsible for these acts hunted down and destroyed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about 9/11 lately. I remember the way that we as a nation went through this same three-step process. We went from shock and sympathy to fear and paranoia, and finally to the conviction that we must annihilate those who attacked us.

It all happened so quickly.

The world’s first reaction to 9/11 wasn’t a call to war; it was a process of grieving. The whole world was shocked. President George W. Bush got on television and quoted from the 23rd Psalm. People around the globe flew the American flag. They prayed for us. Even folks who were normally our enemies expressed condemnation for the attacks. Never before or since has the world loved America so much.

But soon things began to change. We started to panic. No one knew whether there might be more attacks on the way. Thousands ran to the supermarket to stock up for the apocalypse. Gas stations were overwhelmed by lines of vehicles, rushing to fill up before it all ran out. There were reports of profiteering; some stations marked up the gas to several times its normal price.

Before we could even process our grief, we went straight to fear.

In the days and weeks following the attacks, our leaders chose to exploit that fear. We could have treated 9/11 as a terrible crime to be prosecuted. We could have deemed it a threat to public order, punishable by law. We might even have taken this terrible day as an invitation to turn the other cheek and walk in the way of forgiveness.

Instead, our national leaders – of both parties – declared war.

Through this so-called war on terror, we would launch a disastrous invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that continues to this day. The United States would spend trillions of dollars and destroy millions of lives in a futile and short-sighted invasion of Iraq.

Rather than destroying our enemies, we multiplied them.

As I mourn the precious lives lost in the city of Paris, I pray that the people of France will avoid the terrible lost opportunities of my nation. It is not too late to turn hatred into love and forgiveness. There is still time to mourn and seek comfort. The whole world is ready to feel the pain with you. I promise.

Right now, my dear brothers and sisters in France have an opportunity to show their true hearts. We are all longing to see how very different the French people are from those who wrought such terrible bloodshed in their streets. We in America failed to embrace our opportunity, but that doesn’t have to be the fate of France.

I am praying that the Holy Spirit will touch the hearts and minds of the French people, now and in the days ahead. May you become a nation that shows the rest of us the way. May you become a people of God’s peace.

Je t’embrasse.

Related Posts:

The False Atonement of Osama Bin Laden

A Thousand Miles Away – Remembering 9/11