I Am Sure Glad Genghis Khan Wasn’t the Messiah!

I’ve recently begun playing an “empire building” game… mostly because my laptop cannot run anything more recent than 2007. Besides the game’s AI playing a horribly ironic prank on me (making my chosen world leader, Genghis Khan, start on an island with no exit…), it’s been an interesting exercise in considering how I would run a civilization. My tendency is to play defensively and work toward world peace and unity… except with the Genghis Khan playthrough, because that wouldn’t make sense, would it? I do pause and consider my actions before attacking another city…

That aggressive method of world diplomacy goes directly against what I’ve been reading in Zechariah. In between all of the promises of blessing, encouragement to complete the work on the second temple, and charges to live faithfully in regards to one another, one passage jumped out at me. On my first reading, I found myself shocked at the mention of Judah being given so much compassion and mercy by God that they would weep at what their hands had done in fighting off the nations around them and beg for God to spare those same nations that had threatened them.

I sat and meditated on that idea for a while. What kind of compassion would we need to have within us to weep for our enemies… as if they were our only child? What kind of compassion and forgiveness would we need to weep for a terrorist killed in action? Or an abuser, oppressor, or someone else who has harmed us? What kind of heart change is that?

We hear of stories where families forgive the murderer of their loved one. That family may go as far as to fight against the death penalty for a lighter (albeit still severe) sentencing. I wonder what that struggle to forgive looks like… Maybe God still has some work to do on me, but the idea of weeping over that person’s misfortune seems so far out as to seem absurd.

And yet, God’s compassion and mercy are so great that we celebrate His generosity every Christmas with the gift of Jesus. Unlike my Genghis Khan, God chose to inaugurate His Kingdom with a child, with a living testimony, with a sacrifice, and with a resurrection. As powerful as God is, the picture He gives to us is a King entering on the back of a donkey, a King coming to conquer with peace, humility, and liberation. As I look at my own daughter, with her beautiful blue eyes, I wonder how hard Joseph’s world was rocked holding Jesus for the first time. Joseph held a King, a Redeemer, the Messiah.  All the hopes, dreams, and prayers of the Jewish people leading to this. Was it what he expected?

And Mary… was her compassion big enough to weep for those who had crucified her son? Did Joseph have enough to forgive those who called his son crazy, or demon-possessed as Jesus began his ministry?

How is God molding you into a picture of His love and grace, compassion and forgiveness? How do you model compassion to your children?


Quit Being So Wretched

Have you ever found yourself frustrated at someone because they continue apologizing long after you’ve forgiven them? I certainly have. Sure, the first heartfelt apology is good, clears the air, and paves the way for a restoration of relationship. The second shows that the person is truly contrite, illustrating that they have thoroughly thought through their actions. The third begins to show cracks in the thin veneer of genuine repentance and begins to point to a person’s focus on reputation rather than relationship. The fourth tends to lead toward resentment, and so on.

There are so many Christians who consider themselves wretched, unworthy insects being dangled over a fire by an angry God. (Points if you got that reference.) It does seem odd to me, though, how someone who has been chosen out of love for a grand new kind of life would continue to view themselves as wretched. See, the wretchedness of sin was something we used to live in. It is something we still struggle against, just as we do the dark powers that continue to strive for our worship and allegiance, but it no longer defines us. Paul even says distinctly, after describing the life of sin, that “you were that.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) Paul uses the past tense because these things no longer define us.

Consider this analogy: Would you allow a child, spouse, friend, or even a passing acquaintance to continually put themselves down? Would you allow your child to continually say, “Daddy, I’m so unworthy to be your kid. I’m a terrible person”? Would you allow your spouse to say, “I’m a wretched, ugly human being. Why do you love me?” Does the thought of your spouse or child saying these things to you daily make you sick to your stomach even a little? Now consider what God must go through every day.

If we continue to claim the sin that used to define us, what separates us from those of God’s people who longed to return to Egypt? Those men and women were tasked with wandering for forty years and dying out partly because they allowed their former slavery to define them. Instead of reveling in their new freedom given to them by the God that chose them, they instead continued to see themselves as slaves. They were, in effect, continuing on in their wretchedness instead of their God-given freedom.

As followers of, co-heirs with, and adopted family of Jesus, we have also been chosen and given freedom by God. We, who are in Christ, have become a new creation – the old is gone and the new has come! (2 Corinthians 16-18) We are called out of the world to be a witness to that same world. And as a serious question, if the world looks into the life of a Christian and that Christian is calling himself or herself by these low names, what kind of hope will that portray to those looking in? Is there any joy or hope to be achieved in following Christ if all that person can see is an endless repetition of self-abasement?

Repentance is one thing. It is an act that involves acknowledging our wrong attitudes and actions and returning to the way God has set out for us. It is an action primarily focused on God, and our relationship with him. Self-abasement seems more focused on us, and punishing ourselves to appease our own sense of rightness.

We are more than conquerors and are currently sharing in the victory of Jesus over sin and over death. He has defeated the dark powers and is on the throne. His Kingdom is here, and is coming. We are ambassadors of that Kingdom, with the freedom and authority provided by that position. We bow no longer to the power of sin, and our old identities are no longer valid. We gave those up when we came up out of the water that day we we renounced all other allegiances. Our identity is children loved by a Heavenly Father, redeemed by our King, and guided by a wise Comforter. We are no longer slaves.

I cannot give as balanced a view on this in one blog post as is probably necessary. But I will ask the question: how do your words and actions reflect God’s character? Does your life of victory look inviting? Does it look worth the challenge and sacrifice? Or does it seem dreary and not worth the effort?

What do your kids hear when you talk about God? What do others infer about God’s character from the way you talk about Him? How does your family’s life reflect the victory of God over sin and death?

Blessed Are the People You Don’t Like

It’s Advent, which means that it’s a time for thinking through the amazing gift God gave through Jesus. About the coming of the King that we have both experienced and hope for. We are joyful, yet solemn as we ponder the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life.

I have always, for some reason, focused on the Shepherds in Luke’s account. After all the bombast, tension, and drama of the announcement of the birth, Caesar’s outlandish (to us) demand, and the cathartic sigh of relief as the child is born; we find ourselves face to face with the 1st century equivalent of a migrant worker. Shepherds had a stigma around them, of being smelly, unclean, and unfit for civilized society. They were asked, maybe not so politely, to make sure they stayed outside town with their sheep unless needed. Migrant workers today are paid little, work like crazy, and are still stigmatized as being a problem for modern society.

I wonder if Jesus thought about those shepherds who came to visit his family when he scanned the crowd before he began his famous Sermon on the Mount which begins in Matthew 5. As he scans the crowd, he notices faces that are hopeful, yet realistic in their expectations of whether or not this new teacher would except them. He had healed many but would he present them with something more than standing outside the Temple, with something better than the label of “sinner”, with something freer than the Roman oppression, or greater still the oppression of sin and death?

I imagine Jesus making eye contact with people whose stories he had heard from their own mouths as he began, “Blessed are the poor in spirit[…] the mourners[…] the meek[…] people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice[…] the merciful[…] the pure in heart[…] the peacemakers[…]!” Suddenly, those “outside the fold” were welcomed into a group, a family, and in a way, the Temple itself. Jesus, the place where heaven and earth meet that the temple could only foreshadow, was welcoming all who heard him into the Kingdom, into the presence of God. Did he promise an easy journey or that they would remain the same? No. Jesus showed clearly in the teachings that follow this welcome that the Kingdom requires all who enter to undergo radical change, above and against the wisdom of the world.

What would the beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) look like if after every “Blessed are” you put a person or group you disagreed with or disliked? What would they look like if you were honest and put those you despised and feared in them? How much would your outlook change if instead of seeing others as outsiders, as enemies, you saw them as having received the same welcome from Jesus that you received?

How do you answer the cliffhanger at the end of the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15:11-32)? Does the older son come in and celebrate with the father, or sulk outside and refuse to welcome his younger brother? We have a choice every day to celebrate with God, to welcome into His Kingdom, or to sulk outside in the cold and the rain.

So what do you choose during this season of generosity and hope and joy? Do you choose welcome, hospitality, and the giving and receiving of forgiveness, or a cold, bitter, sulk outside?

Photo Credit: Shepherds’ Field | by Seetheholyland.net via Flickr


Words You Can’t Take Back

There has been so much bile and venom spit during this election, I’m kind of hoping that everyone has run out for the next decade. That’s probably a lot to hope for, but I did want to say a few words on Election Day.

Remember, once everything is over, we will all have one president. We’re called to be a people who pray for the leaders of this country. And, honestly, I’m not sure most Christians have taken that to heart the past 8 years. Either way, a little under half of the country will have to eat their words with some roast crow and humble pie for dessert.

Once the election is over, we’ll need to reconcile. We’ll need to apologize. We’ll need to work all the harder to make sure that we stay “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Let’s work for justice, let’s protect liberty – all of it, yours and the other persons you don’t agree with.

Pray for this country, its leaders, and its people. Pray for peace, for justice, for unity. And then, most importantly, be a peacemaker, a seeker of righteousness, and a force for unity.

(And remember, your kids will hear what you shout at the TV tonight.)

Photo Credit: Election 2016 | by DonkeyHotey Election 2016 | by DonkeyHotey vi Flickr

How Marvel’s Civil War can teach us to talk about race

With a lofty title like that, you’d think I would at least have some kind of real credentials for this sort of thing – a degree in race history, history, or social psychology. Nope. I’m a white guy with glasses, a laptop, and a mug of funny-sounding tea beside him. (It’s Numi Chocolate Pu-Erh for those that are curious. Rich, flavorful, and energizing.)

Anyway, so I never really put up any kind of review of Marvel’s Civil War, which my wife and I saw, in costume, as a female Captain America and Tony Stark, respectively. We both enjoyed the movie, though we still hold to the sides we went in supporting. I supported Tony Stark (Iron Man) in his push for more supervision of superheroes, while my wife supported Captain America and his push for continued liberty in the way superheroes could and should respond to situations. Both sides had pros and cons, and, in the end, side is irrelevant. The main thrust of the movie is depicting what happens when two sides draw a hard line in the sand and begin shouting at the other side, “no, you move.” Both sides care about people, about individuals. Both sides are legitimately trying to find the best way to do what they believe is right. Both sides make painful mistakes by responding emotionally and irrationally, despite peaceful solutions being within their reach.

And here’s where we start talking about Dallas, Baton Rouge, and every other racial problem we have going on in this country right now. At this point it would be naive to refuse to recognize that there is still inequality and that there are issues inherent in the system. As a white guy, I have to come to grips with the fact that the system is weighted in my favor.

I read a piece on the Slate website that discusses how we could better address the race issue. (Click here to read.)

Saletan, in this article, describes a bait-and-switch situation into which we are all seemingly falling. Much like Stark and Captain America in the film, the general population is assuming that there are only two groups at play here. Yes, we would be amiss to not rightfully point out that there are tensions between blacks and whites but we also need to understand that the grand majority in both parties would much prefer a peaceful, fair, just solution to the problems at hand than more violence. There are also groups who claim membership on both sides who enjoy violence and want things to come to a head in a confrontation for the ages. Much like the agent of division in Civil War, these groups want to see someone destroyed and division is often the greatest weapon.

After the Dallas tragedy this weekend, I watched as people began pulling into groups, one side for and another side against the police. Can we all agree, that policemen, in general, are trying to do the right thing? And can we all admit that there are a worrying number of bad apples in the bunch who ruin the character of the whole, and that there are some rectifiable training and systemic issues that create problems?

But, on the other hand, can we also support peaceful protest for change while understanding that there are those seeking to cause trouble that can initiate violence on that side prompting action from law enforcement?

Basically, both sides contain real, breathing, feeling, dreaming human beings. We all make mistakes and can all make great strides toward making a better world for everyone. We can grieve for both sides at the loss of life. We can be angry with both sides at the problems we have all created over years of complacency. We can give support to both sides without compromising who we are as people, as believers, as God’s people who strive to heal this world.

I have also been warmed by the outpouring of love on the ground for those families who have lost loved ones this week. We should all watch for those opportunities to seek after healing, forgiveness, and, importantly, building a better world for tomorrow.

The ending of Civil War leaves the viewer with an uncomfortable tension. There is no resolution. Relationships are not healed in any meaningful way. Each individual now carries with them the memory of conflict, of felt betrayal. One character, though, extends an olive branch, giving a ray of hope to the broken Avengers. This olive branch is a cell phone, and the giver offers his help in a time of need. The phone isn’t used right then, but we’re left with a hope, however small, that healing is possible. I have to hold that same hope for America right now. The phone is sitting there waiting for someone to call, to ask forgiveness and start the process of healing, rebuilding. Maybe we’re not ready for that kind of honesty, yet. So we wait, fitfully, for that day.

How have you talked about this past week’s events with your family? Have your kids asked questions about why there’s so much violence? How have you responded? How do your children hear you discuss issues of race, violence, and conflict? Do they know which side you’ve chosen?

Faith, Trust, and Biting the Dust

One of my recent sticking points has been a focus on defining faith, for myself, as trust. Listening to the podcasts I listen to (“Unbelievable?,” etc,) gives me look into the way people view religion from outside the fold. Often, most people only hear faith outside a religious context in the realm of marriage. And remaining faithful is remaining true, trustworthy, to and of the promises made during the wedding ceremony.

I have also been noticing a large downhill slide in American society when it comes to trust. Philosophically, and scientifically, there has been a trend the last century or so of proving that nothing can be trusted, even our own thoughts and brains. I am not so certain why we as humans need so desperately to prove that trust as a social construct is naive at best and foolish at worst. The idea is so far removed from anything that could engender connectivity and, well, faith in humanity.

I have see this distrust manifesting itself politically and economically as well. Consider the current two party system where one is highly distrustful of large corporations and the other is highly distrustful of government. (And a smattering of smaller parties that are distrustful of both sides, plus corporations and government.) Watching each side tear down the other with all the ferocity of a ravenous bear certainly makes me question whether any side really has the right viewpoint.

But, maybe, this goes to illustrate a deeper point about the state of our world and what God is doing in it. Consider that having trust in another human will almost always lead to disappointment, one way or another, small or large. Being flawed beings, we take most chances to prove ourselves such by unintentionally, or otherwise, hurting our friends, family, acquaintances, constituents, customers, or congregants.

The Psalmist reminds us that: “Man, his days are like those of grass; he blooms like a flower of the field; a wind passes by and it is no more, […] But the Lord’s steadfast love is for all eternity toward those who fear Him…” (Psalm 103.15-17a)

While we as humans might fail, God continues to work in and through our fragile “clay pot” bodies in order to build the Kingdom. God’s plan may not be entirely visible, but He never fails and we can trust God no matter what. In some ways, this allows us to have some forgiveness for those who do not live up to the standard. On the other hand, we also can see where injustice and selfishness are rampant and work to bring them to and end.

How do you talk about trust and faith in your home? Do you focus on the person, or on the action, the injustice, the mistake itself? Do you give chances to repent and restore in your home when trust is broken? How do you work to rebuild trust when a mistake is made?

Sin Ain’t Fair

I can remember a few times growing up where either my brother or I would make the choice to misbehave. It’s shocking, really, but confession is good for the soul. Anyway, so we would be given the option to straighten up or risk losing the opportunity to participate in the family activity that day, whether it was bowling, mini golf, a movie, or whatever. The problem with having two kids involved is that if one child is unable to go to the activity, the whole family ends up staying home… And that happened a few times. Is that fair? Should the whole family be punished for the actions of one member?

Our justice system, in theory, is designed upon individual responsibility. Whoever does the crime does the time. For the most part, this is absolutely right. I mean, it wouldn’t make sense for a whole family to end up in jail because one member decided to run down the main thoroughfare robbing food trucks wearing nothing but his skivvies.

But is the family free of consequences? Not really. I mean, how many families have you seen broken and suffering because a family member has been convicted and sentenced. How many children wonder where a parent has gone and has trouble understanding their situation? How many children deal with abuse, alcoholism, the effects of drugs, or neglect?

So in Exodus 34, when God’s traits are listed, He is called forgiving, compassionate, blessing families to the thousandth generation. We like that part. We don’t like a little further down where God is described as not acquitting the guilty and punishing to the third and fourth generation. But what does it mean?

It means sin isn’t fair. The consequences of sin aren’t just individual. Western Culture (an academic term which you can probably read as “the way Western Europe, Britain, the US and Canada think”) has bought its own story that if a person makes a mistake it is his and his alone. “You do you,” is a common phrase. This is where we get the idea of relativistic morality, another academic term that roughly translates to “I get to decide what’s right and wrong for me.”

The problem with this type of morality is that it leaves off how our actions affect others. Sure, we generally only see the effects of our actions on ourselves, but that just means we’re horribly nearsighted. An abusive parent has much further reaching consequences than just one child. Addiction slowly wears away at relationships and health, which affects more than the addict. Racism and hatred are more far-reaching in their consequences than heated dinner table arguments. Children pick these things up, figure they’re the way life works, and adopt them into their own lives.

Children of addicts can become addicts themselves. Children of abusers can become abusers themselves. Children exposed to hatred can adopt that hatred themselves. Many don’t, but they have to fight hard to keep away.

Sin is like a virus rather than a punch. A punch affects one person and can heal quickly. A virus infects others and takes time, and often outside help, to recover.

On the other hand, good deeds aren’t fair either… blessings go to the thousandth generation, benefiting those years down the line! The whole system may not be fair, but it’s actually more skewed toward blessings than sin.

What are you handing down to your children? Are you handing down sins or blessings? How are you escaping the pain you might be carrying?