Naive White Male Makes Discovery in Foreign Land

Several times in my life I have found myself in a position of making a purchase in a market in a foreign country. In one of these countries I knew a smattering of the language, and the other, I found myself at a severe disadvantage knowing almost nothing about the language and less than I’d like about the culture at large. However, in both countries I found myself expecting everything to be cheap. I found myself valuing things as less than they would be at home. In some cases this was true, based on basic exchange rates, but in others I found myself surprised. (Now, some of this is my inherently trusting nature that renders me hopelessly naive at times.)

Today I wondered about that. What caused me to value someone else’s artwork or handiwork as less? Was it simple cultural familiarity bias where I assumed other countries were further behind? Was it pride? Was it relying on hearsay and assumptions built up over a lifetime? Was it a combination of all of these? Regardless, I was humbled and realized how much more I needed to grow in my understanding and appreciation for other cultures outside my own.

I wonder if this is how the disciples felt whenever Jesus raised up someone who, in that culture, was valued less. How did the disciples feel when they came back to find Jesus chatting with a divorced, unmarried, Samaritan woman? (What judgments are you unconsciously passing on her yourself?) How did the disciples react when Jesus touched a man with a skin disease – an unclean person? What did the disciples say when Jesus said that a Roman centurion, one of the hated, oppressive gentiles, had more faith than anyone in Israel? The disciples suddenly found themselves in a seemingly foreign land realizing that people had way more value than they thought.

We struggle with this ourselves today in America. How much to we value the immigrant, the foreigner God commanded his people to respect and care for? How much do we value women, and all of the struggles they face? How much do we value those with a different skin color, with all of the present and historical abuse they’ve suffered?

In our families, how much do we value our children? Do we show it by our actions, by our forethought, by our considering their dreams, hopes, and fears? Jesus raised children to a new level when he said, “Let the little children come to me.” He made them a priority, much like God did in the Old Testament – funny how that works, right? God taught his people that children are blessings, gifts that don’t belong to us as parents, but are gifted to us to raise, guide, disciple, and protect. Children are more than children, they are human beings, too. I know this sounds cliche, but a reminder of the value of children is needed on occasion.

How do your actions show what and who you value? How do your actions teach your kids who you choose not to value? What might you change about your habits to show your children to value all people?

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What if you could dash it all to pieces… and start over?

There’s been a lot of anger surrounding ideas concerning immigration, racism, sexual assault, consent, abuse, and so many other issues I’m having a hard time remembering which one of them has priority at the moment. It can get difficult to trek through all of these issues, but I had a thought the other day to help deal with some of these. It’s an exercise even kids can do.

Have you ever asked yourself what a perfect society would look like? Have you ever gone through the exercise of deciding how you would build America if you could do it all over again? What would you keep? What would you scrap? What do you think your kids would say in response to that question?

Now, there are some people who would say that America is fine, as is. I wonder about those people. Seriously? There are absolutely no problems that need fixing either present or historically speaking?

Try the exercise and ask specific questions. Start with the fun ones. What would be the national style of food? What language would your country speak? Would you have specific national clothing? What would be the most popular books or movies? Who would be the people celebrated in your country? And after you’ve got the fun stuff talk about, move on to the difficult stuff…

What style of government would you have? What responsibilities would that government have? What would you do about poverty? How would you handle immigration? How would you handle diplomacy with other nations? What would your cities look like? Who would manage the resources of your land? How would you avoid extreme inequality? How would you regulate industry? What would your justice and prison system look like? How would you treat criminals? How would you handle healthcare and illness?

It’s easy to just copy and paste whatever our current US system is doing. Often times we don’t recognize our own blind spots and weaknesses until we do an activity like this. Which is more important, infrastructure or military, freedom or order, compassion or justice? Asking ourselves what we see as priorities for life can give us insight into ourselves as individuals as well.

While I would like to sit here and go on and on about my personal beliefs and how Scripture and church tradition as well as wisdom from people I trust has guided the development of those beliefs, it wouldn’t be productive. See, I understand that a blog doesn’t have the kind of punch to change someone’s mind… but you do. Can you hold your beliefs and views under extreme scrutiny, comparing each detail to Scripture, to Jesus, and come out with all of them in tact?

I’m not going to get all cliche and ask, “How would Jesus vote?” Instead, I’ll just ask whether or not our society, our families, our churches reflect Jesus’ conception of the Kingdom? Do our lives look as though “His Kingdom [has] come?” Or do our lives look more like that other extremity?

What will you change to help your family better reflect the Kingdom? How will you act to help your community better reflect the Kingdom? How will you engage your family to serve the city around you?

Were You Expecting A Cakewalk?

What would it feel like to literally give up your life for someone? What would be your last thoughts as life left your limp body? Would you wonder whether anyone would appreciate the sacrifice? Would you wonder if anyone would even know what you had done? Would anyone remember you?

We often see laying down a life as literally dying, and that could be the case for any one of us. Jesus, though, asks us to pick up our cross daily and follow him. There is only one place that Jesus leads carrying a cross, though… Golgotha. When faced with that grotesque vision of a skull-shaped (or maybe that’s just my imagination interpreting too much) hill littered with the remains of previous executions: nails that had seen one too many uses, wood chips broken off of sturdy cross beams, drops of dried blood, what is our reaction? Does the fear and revulsion compel and convince us to turn around, drop the cross and run? Or do we hear the still small voice, barely audible saying, “Here lies victory. Keep moving forward.”

The crux, literally, of the Scripture is the cross. Jesus, on the cross, is the clearest picture of God we have. It’s terrifying and awesome all at once – the victorious God suffering humiliation and self-giving. The Great I Am feeling the pain of rejection and satisfaction of a world redeemed all wrapped up in that paradoxical moment. And in those eyes that lock onto ours, full of mercy and sorrow, there’s an invitation, “Through here lies the victory. Come. Die. Live.”

Each day is an opportunity to die. “He who loses his life will find it.” Every choice a splitting pathway between selfishness and selflessness. If the cross is the clearest picture of God, then our pathway to being more Christlike lies through a thousand moments of self-giving, pain, sorrow, but ultimately victory and celebration.

The way of the cross leads through those moments of conflict when we look into the eyes of another human being who truly wants to see us hurt and serving them wholeheartedly in self-giving love, eating our own pride as we take each motion. The way of the cross leads through the path of confession, speaking painful words that disappoint and hurt those around us, but lead to healing and reconciliation. The way of the cross leads through owning our mistakes… in front of and to our kids. The way of the cross leads through the tunnels of weakness and humiliation in order to access a different, divine sort of power that Jesus used to triumph over the darkness.

We need this sort of reminder – as many Christians have forgotten over the centuries just how painful the way of Christ is. Especially in this time where worldly power is being called out for its many abuses and injustices. The Church has always been tempted to be chummy with worldly power, and often pays dearly for its partnership. Worldly power is just that, worldly.

When is it hardest for you to model Jesus’ self-giving love? How do you model that conviction through pain to your children? How do you show your family the grace, compassion, and self-giving nature of Jesus?

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?

Christmas Is Coming…

Advent has begun.

As I write this, it is mid-November, and I have been listening to Christmas music for half a month now. This year our church has decided to be a little more low-key about the Christmas season. Our huge Bethelehem Walk is on a break, so for this year I get to savor Christmas. I’ve also had two cups of coffee in quick succession this morning, so I’m pretty excited about life!

The original advent lasted hundreds of years, and not just a month before Christmas. The Jewish people were resting all of their hopes on God’s promises of freedom and an end to the exile. Sure, the physical exile was over, Jews once again lived in Judea and Galilee, and there was a Jewish king on the throne and a high priest in the Temple. But things weren’t right… all the way. The king wasn’t from David’s line. The high priests were a wealthy family who had a hand in politics. Oh, and Rome had its grubby little (well, not so little) paws all over the territory. Rome had a special interest in this region of the world because of Egypt and the surrounding area’s ability to grow wheat to feed a gigantic empire. There was peace on earth and goodwill toward men… so long as you stayed in line, were actually a man, not a slave, and had the coveted status of Roman citizen. So, maybe the Pax Romana had a few caveats…

The Jewish people languished under Roman rule. What did it even mean to be Jewish under Roman rule? How long would God wait to overthrow the Romans and reestablish His Kingdom on earth? Hadn’t the seventy sevens been completed? Hadn’t the time arrived for the anointed one to appear, who would lead Israel to freedom and power, and create a new world where the nations fell under God’s generous rule? Maybe if they followed the rules even more strictly, something would happen. Maybe if they created monastic, apocalyptic communities to purify themselves, something would happen. Maybe if they prayed enough, or sacrificed enough, or were faithful enough, something would happen. But all they could hear was the deafening silence…

One young lady, though, received a visit. She was told to not fear, to find joy in the favor God had given her. She was given an opportunity. And, unlike many of the men of Scripture, she asked one question, and accepted her mission. What was that mission? She was to carry the Son of God. She was to give birth and raise a child who would grow up to be both king and high priest, who would represent Israel in Himself, who would shoulder the burden of the curse of the Law in order to break its power. This child would be God with His people – a more concrete presence than Israel had ever experienced, a walking, talking Temple.

Last year at this time, I was waiting with broken heart to hear two words, “I’m pregnant.” I, too, was anticipating a child, but one who hadn’t been promised. I was heartbroken, feeling exiled myself. I wondered what I needed to do to get God’s attention. I knew where God was, though, present with me as He has always been with His people. He sat with me as I wept, angrily pleaded, and finally accepted my situation. He listened, and let me continue waiting. What are you waiting for? What has you feeling exiled, broken, oppressed?

This year, though, is full of joyful expectation as I look forward to celebrating my little girl’s first Christmas. Don’t read into this that God always grants our requests. Read into it that I had hope over three years of trying and waiting. And my hope did not disappoint. Hope and trust are our greatest gifts, our greatest tools for dealing with the difficult times of life.

We must, like the 1st Century Jewish people, continue to hope against despair. We must stare into the face of the oppressive forces of this world with hope and trust in God firmly in our hearts, minds and hands. We must work and carry on, and day, one hour, one step at a time.

I encourage you to find time this Advent to stop and rest in God’s peace. This time of year can be a struggle, but look for the peace. Look for the moments of quiet anticipation. Maintain hope. Maybe, like Mary, you too can carry Jesus with you through this season.

Do your Christmas plans make time for calm, stillness, and peace? How does your family’s holiday schedule form your child’s priorities?

Your Kid Is A Theologian

While I was praying the other day, I was struck with deeper meaning to a verse I had read over and over again, but something new rose out of the old. The verse was Genesis 1:27 “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This is going to come as a shocker, I know, but kids are made in God’s image, too. (I’ll wait while you pick your jaw up off the floor.) It seems obvious, but what didn’t seem obvious to me was the implication that kids have the ability to teach us about God as much as we have the ability to teach them. (I would argue, though, that perhaps they have much more to teach us.)

My first example is an elementary-age girl in my children’s ministry, whom I will call Lana for the sake of safety. Lana is so full of love, energy, and enthusiasm, that she cannot help but throw her entire body at the objects of her love in a kind of linebacker-style tackle that, if you’re not ready, could easily knock a fully grown man to the ground. Her boundless love, and preferred method of showing it, reminded me of the story of the prodigal son, when the young man’s father runs at full tilt, crashing into his son with all the force of longing and love built up from sorrow and expectation. I expect God is like this whenever any of his children turn back to Him – smothering them in a love that has all the force of hurricane-strength winds.

I learned about the simplicity and effectiveness of prayer from a little girl named Michelle (again, name changed for safety.) Even at around 2 years old, she got the concept of praying. She would pick up her toy phone and say, “Hello God? Kissy, Alex, Baby Re-re. Bye.” (Let’s take a moment to collect ourselves after that level of depth and adorableness on display.) This little girl understands that God hears us – and that God cares about what we care about. We had so many people praying for us the week my daughter was born, but I was absolutely humbled by the prayers of this little one. Luke encourages us, often with pictures of nagging neighbors and widows, to continually pray and to not let things go. Regardless if I have the words to say, I know that even a two-year-old’s prayer can be more effective than hours of prepared words.

I see Jesus’ compassion in one of our young men, named Jeffrey. Jeffrey is the kind of kid who can be crazy, bold, and exude more energy than several kids his age at a time. And yet, I have seen him put others first in more than one occasion. I watched him help every other child obtain a candy bar before he attempted to reach his own. (I had taped them just out of jumping reach to get them to help one another, and he did so without prompting.) I’ve watched Jeffrey tip his own Easter egg basket to let eggs fall out behind him when he saw little ones show up late to our church Easter egg hunt. Paul, in Philippians, says that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself humble, taking on the very nature of a servant. He became obedient, even to death on the cross. Jeffrey reminds me, often, of what it means to show Jesus’ compassion, humility, and servanthood to others.

Finally, my daughter has taught me vulnerability. She depends on her mother and I for everything in life – safety, food, cleanliness (because diapers don’t change themselves.) Little Bit is a perfect example of how we live before God, vulnerable, dependent on Him for all of our needs – as we pray “give us today our daily bread.” Our dependence on God is no weakness, as the Israelites knew, and often forgot, but rather our greatest strength.

What have your kids taught you about God? I, for one, am looking forward to learning so much from my daughter as she continues to grow with each day.

Get Out of the Lifeboat and Storm the Gates!

I have odd collections of associated images when it comes to the phrase “storm the gates.” For starters, old black-and-white images of soldiers leaping off of ships onto the beaches of Normandy come to mind, their terror and determination coming through in a way only those cameras can capture. Many of those pictures were taken by one war photographer, Robert Capa, that ran onto the battlefield at Normandy armed with nothing but his trusty camera. So, he was shooting his own side, but ironically in a frantic bid to preserve those brave soldiers as they stared down machine gun nests and the rising tide of the Nazi forces waiting beyond that point.

Next, I see grizzled Aragorn and the remaining Fellowship of the Ring riding with all of their might toward the gates of Mordor, their battle cries ringing clear and sonorous off of the Black Gates. Each soldier fully expected to die a painful death, or spend an eternity as a prisoner of Sauron. And yet, they miraculously survive due to the efforts of a few small hobbits exploring a volcano deep within enemy territory.

I bring the idea of storming the gates to your attention, because I think Christians have had a wrong mindset for years when it comes to evangelism and the world in general. The way many Christians talk about dealing with the world and the unchurched is by speaking in terms of a lifeboat. “Come with me if you want to live!” We say in our best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice before handing over a tract on salvation and inviting our friend, or a complete stranger, to church. There is a fear that this whole planet could spontaneously combust at any moment, leaving those outside of the “Jesus Lifeboat” stranded swimming in a river of fire and death.

Now, regardless of your views on the afterlife, this sounds like a retreat mentality, not the mindset God desires of his people. This isn’t Dunkirk, everyone, this is Normandy. We don’t have a lifeboat, except to ferry us to the battlefield!

When Peter made his confession in Caesarea Philippi, Peter stated clearly that, “You (Jesus) are the Messiah[…] You’re the son of the living God!” (KNT) Peter made a bold claim that day, and bolder than you may think. See, “son of god” was a term used by Romans for the emperor. So in a way, Peter is proclaiming that Jesus has more claim to rule the world than Caesar, in a place named after Caesar! And before that, Peter claims that Jesus is the Messiah, not just any anointed king, but the hoped-for ultimate King sent by God, who was God, who represented His people and would free them from sin and exile! Again, Peter in other company would have drawn some sharp gasps from Romans and Jews alike. And Jesus responded with: “and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell won’t overpower it.”

So the gates of hell. Gates, if you know, are part of the defensive structures of a city or fortress designed to let in allies and keep out enemies. Let me say again, gates are defensive structures, not offensive ones. I’m saying it twice because the idea struck me harder than a sack of old hammers. On the cross, Jesus already destroyed the power of sin and death, he rescued his people from oppression and exile. So the great commission is not so much a cruise ship’s warning alarm to fill the life boats – it’s the trumpet call sounded “CHARGE!” We’re not pulling people into life boats and giving up territory for destruction, our marching orders are to bravely move forward taking enemy territory in the name of Jesus Christ. And we take territory through acts of compassion, mercy, justice, charity, kindness, honesty, truth, and perseverance.

Consider what God called the Israelites to do after freeing them from slavery: to march ahead and capture land. So if God has freed us from slavery to sin, our next move is to do the same.

We can’t afford to retreat. As the church retreats from compassion and charity, what casualties are left behind? Who picks up the slack that the church leaves behind?

Be strong and courageous. Do not lose hope, do not be discouraged. The Lord your God is with you, wherever you may go. Joshua 1:9

What can you do to begin playing offense with your compassion and love? What gates do you need to storm in Jesus’ name with justice and generosity? What steps can your family take to begin impacting the community around you?

Photo Credit: “Face in the Surf” by Robert Capa