Book Review: “Moses: In The Footsteps of the Reluctant Prophet,” by Adam Hamilton

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AdamMoses“Moses: In the Footsteps of the Reluctant Prophet,” by Adam Hamilton. Published 2017 by Abingdon Press. This review refers to the hardcover edition of the book.

So I read a lot, and I post a lot of reviews of those books here on the blog. Particularly I read a lot of nonfiction about Christianity, theology, and the Christian life. These are often some of my most popular posts.

Quite a few of those most popular posts have been reviews about books by Adam Hamilton. He is the Pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, and his church has been dubbed the “most influential mainline church in America.” I don’t doubt that that is true for one second, and Hamilton is certainly one of the most influential mainline thinkers, speakers, and authors out there.

His books have certainly been very influential on my thinking as a United Methodist, and it seems like no matter how basic I find some of his books, they always still find a way to reach me and challenge me. “Moses” is the next book in one of Hamilton’s signature styles: a book that is an enchanting hybrid of biography/history/theology/and commentary for modern life.  Make no mistake, I’m not throwing shade at Hamilton or his books when I talk about them being basic. Basic is what Hamilton does best, and in my opinion it’s something that the church and many Christians need so badly. I’ve sat in many studies with people who have gone to church their whole life, who have read the Bible inside out, and still don’t realize that Jesus’ last name isn’t Christ and that the books of 1st and 2nd Chronicles refer to some of the same sets of events in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings.

I think our churches need basic, and as I said, basic is what Hamilton does best, God Bless him for it!

This book is an account of the life Moses as described in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It follows this great hero of both the Jewish and Christian faiths through his birth, his exile from Egypt, his return as a liberator, his roll as a law giver, his leadership through the Exodus, and finally his death on Mount Nebo. Hamilton hits all the highlights of the story of Moses and offers keen insights and commentary on living our modern Christian lives from each phase of Moses’ life.

Some of the highlights for me were:

How do we treat refugees and immigrants?
How should we react when we come into the presence of the Living God?
How do we look to God for support when we don’t feel like we are up to the tasks he gives us?
Are God’s laws just rules meant to keep us down, or are they meant to set us free from certain behaviors and ways of thinking?
How do we effectively pass on our faith to a younger generation without “forcing it?”

Hamilton explores these questions and many more throughout the book. It kind of feels like he strays from Moses a little bit during the middle of the book, but in return he offers a very well put together commentary on the Ten Commandments and how they still apply to our lives today.

Throughout the book he also offers an account of his trip to Egypt that he took while researching the book and putting together the DVD that accompanies it. He tends to sprinkle these little passages in just the right places, and for me, someone who would love to travel but has to be resigned to armchair traveling, these were the most interesting parts. I’ve been interested in ancient Egypt since I was a little kid. My first reports in school were often about Egypt, and I vividly remember visiting the Ramses II exhibit when it came through Utah back in the 80s. To this day I still have a fascination not just with Egypt, but also the Sinai Peninsula. I just can’t imagine what it would be like to go there and stand in a place where YHWH revealed his presence in all of his holiness. Of course, that can be a rough trip these days, and Hamilton says that he was only allowed to travel to certain sites with an armed escort from the Egyptian military. That was kind of scary to read, and I hope one day to be able to go there in better times.

All in all this was not my favorite of Hamilton’s books, nor would I say that it’s his best book, but it’s still really good and would be a great addition to your library if you like reading about Moses, the Pentateuch, the Exodus, or Bible History. It’s not meant to be a scholarly work on any of those subjects, but Hamilton provides many resources for further reading if this book wets your whistle and you want to explore further. I’ll be teaching it in our adult Sunday School class later this year, and I can’t wait!

 

 

The Great Hell Smackdown of 2017, Part 1

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IMG_1305Two books came in the mail today, two books I’ve been itching to read for quite awhile. I’ve read multiple books and done Bible studies by both of these men. Both authors have inspired me, challenged me, and convicted me. I don’t question the faith of either man, nor do I question their commitments to God and scripture. However, they seemingly both come at at least one issue from opposite sides.

The authors are Rob Bell and Francis Chan. They are both successful pastors and church planters. I would say that they both know way more about the Bible than I do. I would love to have coffee with both of these men and learn from them. What issue between these highly respected Christians is so important they both wrote books about it? The issue is: HELL!!!

hell

OH MY!!!! (By the way, searching Google Images for that was FASCINATING. So many metal bands…..)

Anyway, yes, HELL. Specifically, does Hell exist? Also: why would a loving God willingly send people to Hell? Now here’s what I’ve heard about these two books. I haven’t read either of them yet, but supposedly Bell thinks Hell isn’t really a thing and Chan (along with coauthor Preston Sprinkle) does.

Now the point of this series of entries is not to tell you whether Hell exists or not. I have opinions, but I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not going to pretend that I do once I’ve finished these books either. I’m also not trying to threaten anybody with fire and brimstone. Look, I don’t know if Hell is a thing or not. Respected, knowledgeable Christians often disagree. If there is such a thing, I’m not in any way going to pretend that I know the mind of God on who goes up, and who goes down, so to speak.

But it is an interesting question, and it causes a lot of people no small amount of concern about their own “eternal fate” or the fate of their loved ones. I’ve attended and taught quite a few adult Sunday School classes over the years. I’ve preached a few sermons, and I’ve talked to a lot of people grieving the death of a loved one. More than once I’ve heard people absolutely break down and cry because they think their loved one that just died might be in Hell.

I’ve been somewhat flippant to this point, but this is serious. This question keeps people up at night. This question influences people’s key beliefs and behaviors. As Chan wonders on the back cover of his book “Erasing Hell,” can we really afford to be wrong about this?

A lot of folks think that we cannot, but perhaps a question to go alongside that one is: Is being afraid of Hell really a good reason to call yourself a Christian? I mean, if all you’re getting out of this is your ticket punched for the elevator that goes up when you die, are you really living the kind of life that Jesus desires from his followers?

So I’m going to read both of these books over the course of the next few weeks. I’m going to post some entries about how I see both of their arguments. At the end I have something of a big picture in mind too, because I want to take a look at how two respected, committed Christians can look at the same verses from the same Bible and draw two vastly different conclusions. I think that could be a lesson for all of us, and if time permits, there might be some entries about history and ancient beliefs as well. Now that I have a new laptop that doesn’t give me the blue screen of death (another kind of Hell, actually), I hope to spend some more time on the blog than I have been.

In the end I’ll also see if either of these books changes what I BELIEVE about Hell. Which means it might be helpful if you know I feel about it going in. You might be surprised.

You see, I am not inclined to agree with Rob Bell going into this. Yes, I believe there is a Hell, at least of some fashion. You might be taken aback by this if you’ve read my blog over the years, but yes, I believe that there is a Hell.

Now hold on, don’t unfollow me just yet. I’m NOT saying that I believe per se in what many Christians see as Hell: you know the eternal lake of fire, the guy with the pointy horns, and all of that. I don’t. I largely see that Hell coming from two sources, a literal reading of the book of Revelation and the overactive medieval imagination.

That being said, I do believe that there is some kind of Hell. Jesus talks about an “outer darkness” in Matthew 22:13, or as the Common English Bible puts it, the “farthest darkness.” Also, In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16, after the rich man dies, he is “tormented in the place of the dead” (Luke 16:23 CEB).

Now, I know that both of these stories are parables. I also know that they are rooted in the physical, historical, and political context of the day. They also draw on certain beliefs Jesus had about the afterlife as a Jew. These and other passages that seem to prop up the existence of Hell must be viewed in that context, as all of the Bible should be. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Bell and Chan have to say about them.

An interesting side note to the context of these verses is that in both of them Jesus is referring to the religious elite of his society, not the so called sinners.

So yes, I believe in a Hell of some kind. For me the thought of “outer darkness” or “farthest darkness” probably comes closest. I believe that Hell is an eternal separation from God. God gives each of us free will, and we have to choose whether to abide in him or not. He’s not going to force it. If you choose not to be in God, then I don’t necessarily think you’re going to end up in a lake of fire, but you might find yourself somewhere where you are separated from everything God is: Love, joy, peace, security, and provision. You might be able to do anything you want there, but what would be the point if you cannot experience any of those things listed above?

So that’s kind of where I’m at. Will it change? I don’t know. Watch this space for my continued thoughts on this subject and these books in:

“THE GREAT HELL SMACKDOWN OF 2017.”

 

Some Good In The World: June 8, 2017

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One thing that I suspect a lot of us can identify with right now is the amount of horrible, nasty, disgusting, and downright depressing stories in the news these days. It seems like wherever we look there’s so much hate, violence, and bloodshed. It’s affected me so much that I’ve actually cut off most of my interaction with social media and news sites (which isn’t always a bad thing, my blood pressure has been down lately!)

So I’ve decided to try to combat this with a series of posts highlighting some of the good in the world. I want to point out some folks who truly go out of their way to try to make a difference for the better. I want the merciful, the meek, and the selfless to start getting as much play as the judgmental, the corrupt, and the selfish. This series will be called:

“Some Good In The World.”

And for our first entry, I would like to introduce you to this man:

MuslimManSaves

His name is Noor Lucman, and he’s a former politician and clan leader in the Marawi area of the Philippines. Mr. Lucman is a Muslim, and while most of the people in the Philippines identify themselves as Christians, Mr. Lucman lives in the area of the country with the largest Muslim population.

This has made this area, the island of Mindanao, a hot spot for Islamic Fundamentalists in league with groups like ISIL. Well, last week the city of Marawi was attacked by some militants. Many Christians who lived there were not able to flee the city in time.

Mr. Lucman hid 64 of them in his home. He is quoted as saying that they would take them (the Christians) “over my dead body.” When the situation became truly desperate and they needed to flee to try to find food, Mr. Lucman helped them get through the militants’ lines by helping them pretend to be Muslim.

He saved their lives. Make no mistake, had these Christians been found by the militants, they would have been executed. Mr. Lucman is a hero, and we desperately need more people like him.

And that’s some good in the world!

(Information in this entry is from Reuters, The Independent, and Malaysian Digest.)

Book Review: “Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith,” by Rob Bell

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velelv“Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith,” by Rob Bell. First published by Zondervan in 2005. This review refers to the HarperCollins paperback edition, published in 2012.

This review is the first post I’ve ever written that I know will cost me some followers. Somebody will take a look at “Rob Bell” in the title and instantly unfollow, or somebody will stumble across it through a link or a search, see “Rob Bell,” and think to themselves, “No way can I follow this guy!”

Rob Bell is perhaps one of the more controversial figures in American Christianity today. I’m not really sure why to be honest. Yeah, he wrote that book about Hell, and some people got mad. I haven’t read that particular book, so I can’t really say if it would make me mad or not. Well, I doubt it would make me mad, but I can’t say whether I would agree with it or not. But it is controversial. Some of us at church kind of mentioned the thought of doing a Rob Bell book in our adult Sunday School class and the reaction was pretty much: “How about….No.” Though interestingly enough our book club that meets during the week did actually read this one!

So yeah, Rob can be controversial. That’s going to make my next statement seem even more wild. I think EVERY CHRISTIAN should read this book. Whew, there, I got it out! Now, I don’t generally say things like that about Christian books. I realize that every Christian author writes a book with his or her own particular spin on the faith. It’s all somebody’s interpretation of things. The cool thing about this book is that Bell admits that this is the case. He admits that what he’s writing is his take, his interpretation. This book is his “Velvet Elvis.” It’s his painting. He compares the Christian faith to a picture that gets repainted over and over by each person or each generation. It’s going to be the same picture with same subject, and each person, each “painter,” is going to see things a little differently.

And that’s ok! How many different “Velvet Elvis” paintings have been produced over the years? Lots. None of them is the “definitive” Velvet Elvis, after which no further Velvet Elvises (Elvi?) can be made.

Is there a definitive view of the Christian faith? Well, look around and the answer to that question is clear. We have Catholics and we have Coptics. We have the Eastern Orthodox faith as well. Then if we try to get into all the different flavors of Protestants, we’ll be here all day! If there really is a definitive version of the Christian faith, we must all be a bunch of dolts because out of all the Christians in the world we rarely seem to be able to get more than a relatively small group of people to agree on it!

Of course we all think our version, our interpretation, our painting is the best, right? I mean of course we do! As Bell notes, if we didn’t think our version of the faith was the best, we’d belong to a different version! And that’s ok too! There are going to be differences.

Where we run into trouble though is when we say our version is the definitive version and everybody else should just put their brushes and pallets down, because we got it perfect. Which brings me to something that happened at my place just the other day.

I was getting ready to walk out the door to work, just gathering a few things before I went out to my car. As I was looking out the living room window, I saw a car that I had never seen before pull up in the driveway. This annoyed me, because I was on my way to work and the car parked behind my car.

Great.

Well quickly enough the passenger side door opened, and a man got out and ran to my front door like he was being chased by something. There was a knock at the door, but before I could go down the stairs to get it, I saw the man bolt back to the car, get back in, and then look warily up at my window as the car sped away.

I was wondering seriously what was going on. Did this dude just leave a flaming bag of poo on my porch or what? I went down and kind of cautiously opened the door. There, hanging on the knob was a piece of paper.

That piece of paper was advertising a new church in the area, and hey, I live in suburban Utah, so any church that is not LDS coming into the neighborhood sparks my interest. I knew that this guy wasn’t LDS because he wasn’t wearing the white shirt and tie, and to be honest, I’ve never seen a Mormon Missionary run like that, and I’ve seen plenty of them and count quite a few of them as friends!

Anyway, what was this new church all about? What was the message they were putting out there? Well the first thing the paper did is ask if I was afraid of burning in hell. Not really a great start for me. Then it said that if I prayed a specific prayer (you know the one), then I would be sure I would be going to heaven. Well that’s cool. I just pray that little prayer and then go on about my life in the confidence that I was going to heaven! Sounds awesome!

Oh no, it doesn’t work quite that way. If I prayed that prayer and wanted to go to heaven I should hook myself up with a “Bible believing Church.” This church was not merely a “Bible Believing church,” they are a “Bible Be-LIVING Church,” (Though it did say KJV only, just to be sure).

Yes, the cheese factor was high. I don’t mean to mock someone else’s faith. I believe that most people who look at Christianity this way are honestly concerned about the eternal welfare of others. And that’s fine.

But what about their welfare right here and now?

If I went to that church I’d find some core stuff that I believe in too. I would find that they believe in Jesus, that they believe Jesus died for our sins, that he rose from the dead, and that someday he’s coming back to set everything right. They would believe in One God, expressed in three personages in the Holy Trinity. Those are kind of the basic elements of the painting.

But there would be a lot in their painting that I don’t agree with. There would be a lot of things in their painting that I just can’t deal with anymore. There are things that aren’t in my (Methodist and fairly liberal) painting.

“Velvet Elvis” is Rob Bell’s painting. I quite like it. In his painting God isn’t an ever angry being just waiting to heap tons of shame upon his people. In Bell’s painting God is an ever loving God that wants us to be everything He created us to be. When he gets frustrated with us it’s not because he’s ashamed of us, it’s because he knows how great we can be and he wants us to live up to that. In Bell’s painting God isn’t poised over the world with the threat of hellfire, just waiting to destroy it all and start over, he stands benevolently IN the world through the Spirit working to RENEW it and RECONCILE it. We have a part to play in that as Christians, and just maybe that part isn’t to shame people and hold Hell over their heads. Maybe that part is to tell them how much God loves them and about how he wants them to be able to live life to the fullest, which is something Jesus expressly said he came to do (John 10:10).

For some reason, that particular version of Christianity is off putting to a lot of other Christians, though I’m not sure why. Some of us would rather spend our time standing outside of various establishments screaming, shouting, and telling folks that they’re going to hell. Some of us would rather spend our time playing at being the morality police and heaping judgment and shame upon our fellow human beings who were also made in the image of God. Some of us would rather point out how dark the darkness is rather than try to be a light in that darkness, but as Bell says toward the end of the book:

Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.

Elvis

 

 

Plugging Into The Source: Pentecost 2017

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Pentecost1Then afterward
    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 2: 28-29 NRSV)

I love Pentecost. It would be a total understatement to say that I appreciate the Holy Spirit more and more with each step I take along the path of my journey. I remember one of the first times I honestly felt the power of the Spirit. I was a cantor at the big Catholic church here in Ogden, Utah. Yeah I know, funny job for a Protestant, but I loved every minute of it. But I digress. I believe I’ve posted about this before on some Christmas entries, but it’s still just a powerful memory in my mind.

It was toward the end of Midnight Mass. The Priest, Father Colin, whom I grew to admire a lot, was dressed in his hooded vestments and was processing around the church with the Baby Jesus figure from the nativity scene. When he reached the side altar where the manger was, he knelt, placed the figure in the manger, and as all the lights went out he used a censer over it to release the sweet smell of holiness into the chilly, spacious sanctuary. We then sang “Silent Night,” a cappella.

I felt a rush. I don’t know how to describe it really. It was not adrenaline. I’ve ridden many roller coasters in my time. This was something more than adrenaline. I would say that for the first time in my life my body and spirit both felt fully awake and totally in sync. I felt like all five of my senses were turned up to maximum, and I felt the real, palpable presence of the Living God right there, in that moment.

When the song was over, silence and darkness took hold, and it was like that power, that Spirit, that Presence filled the entire church. I was in awe.

And you may choose to dismiss that. You may choose to think that it was all just an emotional, nostalgic reaction to the moment and the music. But I don’t care, really. I know what I felt, and no one can take that experience from me.

And why would you want to take that experience from someone? I would give anything to have that energy spread out into the world and fill every human being for 1 minute. I have to believe that the world would be a different place afterwards.

I felt it again earlier this year while I was preaching a sermon. I felt that same power, that same awakening, that same presence. I’ve preached more than a handful of times in my life, but I never felt like that. I would not be so bold to suggest that God was speaking through me, my vessel is not worthy of that, but I would say that I could feel that I was saying what he wanted me to say. It just flowed out.

And it wasn’t just me. As I looked through the crowd, there were people crying. When I finished, people erupted into applause and there were even a couple of A-Mens! Now maybe that happens every Sunday at your Church, but trust me, it doesn’t happen very often at all in the older, traditional Methodist Church that I attend!

And you know what? It would have been very easy for me to claim that as my own, as a result of my oh so powerful preaching! It was tempting for sure. Before I ever began to pursue this local pastor program, I confessed to Pastor Gary that I have an ego. He said that the awesome thing about that was that I already knew I did and was facing it head on.

Oh, I wanted to claim that, but I cannot. That was the pure power of the Holy Spirit.

I do not doubt that the Spirit works, but when I think of those moments, those big highs up on majestic mountaintops, I sit back and wonder…..

Where is that feeling right now?

Why I can’t I feel like that every second of every day?

I have a theory about that, and my theory says that I’m not always plugged in. Let’s take a look at the book of Acts.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8 NRSV 

Before his ascension, Jesus promised that a power would come upon the disciples. In John’s gospel, he talked about it as well before he was taken away to be crucified. The book of Acts talks about how these disciples, joined by a new Apostle named Paul, made these words come to fruition.

And what did it look like when the disciples “plugged in” to this power? Acts tells us just a few verses later:

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2 2-4 NRSV

That’s pretty impressive huh? Kind of makes my experiences sound tame by comparison. When the disciples received and plugged into the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church was born. The story says that 3,000 people believed on that one day (Acts 2:41).

That Spirit is still here, it is still available to us, but we have to plug in. A power source is of no use on it’s own, you have to plug something into it. Without plugging them in, the best equipped, most fancy appliances in the world do nothing.  What can I do if I am not plugged in?

It’s hard to say plugged in, for me anyway. Lord knows I try, and I think I’m getting better at it for sure, but it’s hard. I wish I could I say that I was the type of Christian that gets up every morning, kneels at the side of his bed, and asks for the blessings of the Spirit upon his day.

But I’m not.

I wake up every morning, put the alarm on snooze, and then eventually get up like a zombie searching for coffee instead of brains.

I wish I could say that I get plugged in and have God on my mind the second I wake up.

But I don’t.

I try to stay connected to God and plugged in as I go throughout my day. Some days I do pretty well. A lot of days are so littered with distractions, pitfalls, and temptations that it’s really hard.  I stumble into the house at the end of the day used up and weary.

But you know what I’m learning? I’m learning that even on those days Jesus is right there waiting. The Spirit is still available to me right where I am, and just how I am.

That’s part of the beauty of God. He’s still interested even when I’m at my worst, even when I haven’t been “plugged in.” And the great thing is, I can plug back in and recharge.

Prayer
Scripture
Meditation
Devotion
Silence

These and many others are ways that we can all seek to plug in to the Spirit and recharge. Spiritual disciplines can be an amazing thing. Even though they require training, we all have to start somewhere.

More and more as I walk the path I’m finding that these disciplines are doing a really good job of helping me out in between those big mountaintop experiences. Even though I need a lot of work, I’m still thankful for the ability to connect with the Spirit and the availability of the Spirit to me.

How will you “plug in” next?

As this Day of Pentecost ends, I leave you with a wonderful song about the nature of this power:

Feeding On Fear and Violence

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London1Just a little bit ago I was having a conversation with my mom about today’s events from London, where a group of terrorists killed several innocent people on London Bridge. Her and my dad had a cruise scheduled to London and around the British Isles later this summer. However, they’re both having some health issues and it looks like they’re going to have to postpone it. Mom was saying that after reading about the events today coupled with the suicide bombing at pop concert in Manchester a couple of weeks back, that just maybe it was good thing that they’re probably not going. In short, she was scared a little bit.

And you know what? I can’t blame her. After the concert bombing I found myself actually worrying about them going over there. I have to admit that I was a little scared too. A lot of people throw a lot of bravado around saying that if you’re afraid, then the terrorists win. Well, there’s some truth to that for sure. The point of terrorism is to inflict terror and fear. Fear is a common reaction, and my observation is that a lot of people who throw around the bravado have never had to deal with a situation where their life is actually in danger. I mean outside of military or law enforcement personnel, most of us in the United States go about our daily lives free from a lot of fear about our continued existence.

Fear is common, fear is reality. When we see the violence going on in the world fear can be a natural reaction. Then we want to respond to our fears, or have our government respond to our fears, to make it seem like they’re doing everything they can to keep us safe. Then we suggest a lot of things that we probably wouldn’t even speak about under normal circumstances. Maybe we want to prevent members of a certain religion from entering our country. I have heard some people say that maybe we need to develop an internment policy like the US had in World War II with people of Japanese descent.

But then….what about this guy?

Portland1

This man is a known white supremacist, and he’s pictured here literally draping himself in the American flag at a free speech rally. Well, earlier this week he murdered two men and critically injured a third as they tried to come in between him and two girls, one wearing a hijab, at a train station in Portland.

Is there a difference?

All of these killers used an ideology of fear and violence to justify their actions. Both the London killers and the Portland killer did their deeds out of a certain sense of loyalty or patriotism. The London killers likely felt that they were defending their faith. The Portland killer felt like he was defending his country in some deranged way.

What’s the difference and where do we draw the line? Since 9/11 white guys with guns have killed many more Americans than Muslims have. Do we prohibit white men from entering the country? Do we round them up and inter them in camps?

I’m not trying to make light of things, and I’m not peddling a political argument. I’m honestly asking what makes us respond to these situations differently? I’m also wondering how we can respond to the both in a similar fashion without being destructive to anyone?

John has an idea:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18 CEB).

I’ve posted this verse before in response to these kind of events. You know what? It hasn’t gotten any easier for me to live by these words, to try to respond to my fears in this way. It is totally against our instincts to respond to fear and the violence that feeds it with love and mercy.

Yet that’s what Jesus did, and that’s what he calls us to do.

To be honest, it’s tough. Really, really tough. But perhaps through his grace every little bit of progress we make might help make the world a little better place.

This post is dedicated to all who have lost their lives to fear and violence in recent weeks. May God grant them eternal rest and peace and may he give comfort to their families and friends. May He bring healing to those who suffered injuries.

Another Link in the Chain

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0000chains….and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1: 14-15 NRSV)

These words are the words of the apostle Paul, whose writings probably developed the concept of Salvation by grace more than anyone since. Here’s a little background on Paul if you’re not familiar with him, and a good reminder if you are. In the verses above Paul mentions that he is the foremost of sinners, and he’s not kidding.

In the earliest days of the church after Pentecost, nobody set out to rid the world of this new faith like Paul (who at that time was known as Saul). Now most of the Jewish religious elite weren’t thrilled about the new faith in Jesus, but Saul went after them with a particular zeal. Part of the book of Acts details his work. He was responsible for the imprisonment and torture of many Christians. He was also present at, and supervised, the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58–8:4).

Then something happened to Saul. On the way to Damascus to hunt down some Christians, he encountered the Risen Jesus. It was so startling that it literally knocked him off his donkey. This encounter changed his entire life and identity. He took the name Paul and spent the rest of his life talking about the grace of the Christ, whose grace was strong enough to redeem even him.

Think about that for a minute. All of the things that Paul had been through in his life, all the horrible things he had done were crucial to him being able to comprehend the depth and power of God’s grace. Those things made him appreciate that grace all the more, and appreciate the fact that there was no way for him to earn it. No deed or work would ever be good enough. Grace comes totally without merit to people who don’t deserve it on merit.

I’ve found that the same is true in my life. Lately I’ve been thinking about my shortcomings and failures as a chain. This is a big, heavy, dominating chain that I have built for myself. I feel that I every time I fail, everything time I screw up, I fashion another link in the chain that I haul around. It’s a very similar idea to Jacob Marley’s chain in “A Christmas Carol.”

And that chain is huge. Trust me, I’ve done a pretty complete job of screwing up my life. I’ve written about this before, but when I think about it…..

My original intention coming out of high school was to be a lawyer. I screwed that up. That’s one new link in the chain.

After that, I intended to be pastor, but my own ego got in my way. I took things personally that I shouldn’t have. Another new link.

I made a dumb decision to marry a young lady, a relationship that neither of us were ready for in any way, shape, or form. We’re both still dealing with the consequences of that. That’s a HUGE link in the chain.

I became so angry at my own failures wrought by my own egotistical personality and poor decision making that I rejected my church, my faith, my friends, my family, and ultimately even God. That accounts for several new links actually.

My anger enveloped me so much that I became a toxic person. Nobody wanted to be around me at home or at work. Add on a couple of more links.

Eventually I let someone whom I cared about very deeply walk out of my life without ever telling this individual how much they meant to me. That has been absolutely soul crushing to deal with.

But something happened in the midst of all of this. I encountered Jesus in a whole new way. I had always known him in my head, but I finally came to know him in my heart. When my soul and spirit were in the worst shape, when I was at my lowest low, when I had been totally and completely defeated, when my chain was so big and so heavy…..

I encountered the grace of the Living God.

And that God, this Jesus, removed that chain from me effortlessly. If you’ve never felt that, I don’t how to describe it. Perhaps it’s like that feeling you get when you tell someone your deepest and darkest secret, and you feel the relief of finally not carrying that burden.

The weight is off. My chains are gone.

That doesn’t mean life is easy though. Sometimes I like to try and build that chain again. I still think about those things I mentioned above from time to time. I’m still dealing with the consequences of a couple of them. When that happens, sometimes I feel guilty and start forging that chain again, fully intending to make it bigger and heavier than last time.

But the difference is that now I know Jesus is there. I know he will take those chains and break them once again, gently calling me back to him, to abide in him. His ability to break chains came at a price, it is not free. You realize that when you see the scars on his hands, feet, and side.

But isn’t that amazing that he went through that for me, and for you? Isn’t it amazing how know matter how much I screw up, he’ll always be there for me? Isn’t it amazing that no matter what wrong I do that he will forgive me? Isn’t it amazing that as good as I try to be, there’s no way to earn his grace?

His grace just is.

His grace is free.

His grace is indeed amazing, and my chains are gone!

Seeking Refuge Series Part 2: In Their Shoes

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0000refcampThis is the second part in a series of entries I’m writing based on my thoughts on the book “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis” by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir. The first entry in the series can be found here.

In my first entry in this series, I talked about how being able to put an actual human face on the current refugee crisis helps us to see the actual people involved and not just an issue or a political football. I mentioned a few different refugee stories in hopes that we could at least see something we can each identify with. Now I’m going to ask you to do something a little more direct.

One of the first great lessons I learned from literature was about empathy.  Many of us learned this great lesson from Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Consider the wisdom of Atticus:

First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Now apparently Atticus became some kind of raging racist in the “sequel” that may or may not have ever been intended to be released. I don’t know, I didn’t read it. Even that doesn’t lessen the power of these words from the first novel though. “Walking around in somebody’s skin” might seem a bit more, uh, morbid than “Walking in someone else’s shoes,” but the point remains. How we can ever hope to treat another person fairly if we can’t even START to see things from their perspective?

As a matter of fact, many times in the Old Testament YHWH gives the nation of Israel similar advice. Exodus 22:21 states: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (NIV). I quoted a similar verse from Leviticus in the first entry of this series. The message is clear, as the Israelites are now going about forming their own national and religious identity and establishing a land of their own, they are not to oppress foreigners, strangers, or sojourners (depending which translation you favor). Why? Because they HAD walked a mile in the shoes of a foreigner, which is what they were in Egypt.

So how do we even begin to apply this empathy in today’s refugee crisis? I almost didn’t even write this entry because the idea seemed so absurd to me as to border on offensive. I’m sitting here in a very well off area in the richest country ever to grace the face of the earth, typing on a laptop computer, listening to music on a speaker that I can just TALK TO and get to play pretty much any song I want, with my smartphone and my tablet right next to me, full of all the food and drink I can get, with a hockey game on mute on a big TV in front of me, and the only even MINOR discomfort in my life being the allergies that give me a sinus headache. Tomorrow I’ll go to my full time job and sit at a desk in an air conditioned building and make a lot more money than most people in the world do in a week by doing FAR less strenuous work. And I’ll probably complain because I’d rather spend the day reading and drinking coffee!

How can I, or how can anyone at least as privileged as I am, even begin to imagine life as a refugee? I had to start somewhere, so I started with: What if all those things were gone? The TV, the computer, the smartphone, the tablet, the Amazon Echo, the abundance of food at my fingertips, the comfy job….what if I lost all that? Well, if I lost all that I’d still be a damn sight better off than most people in the world.

What if I lost my home?
What if I lost my right to worship as I see fit?
What if my holding on to my faith meant I had to go underground to survive?
What if people were actively looking to kill me or my family because of religion, politics, or even ethnicity?

Well, my guess is I wouldn’t be really worried about not being able to get Alexa to play my favorite playlists anymore.

So if I had to flee with my family, where would I go? Well, we have a cabin in a nearby mountain range. I’d probably try there first. I’d have my shelter taken care of. I’m a former scout that spent many summers there. I could carve out a life at least for a bit. There’s food sources and water.

But what if I had to flee from there? What if I had to leave my state or even my country in such a hurry that all I had was the clothes on my back and what I could carry in a bag? Where would I go? Let’s assume I can’t fly anywhere and have no car. Maybe I’d make a break for Canada, eh? Their culture is very similar to ours, there would be no language barrier, the climate would be more like what I’m used to.

But what if I couldn’t get to Canada? What if we had to flee and none of us could get to Canada? What if our only option was to head south to Mexico? Given our President’s caustic remarks on Mexico and our country’s rather toxic views on immigration from Mexico, how do you think we’d be treated if that shoe were on the other foot? Hopefully they’d be nicer to us than many of us have been to them, but are you willing to bet your life and the life of your family on that?

Let’s say we actually make it to Mexico and manage to get across the border. I mean hey, if we build Mr. Trump’s wall that would be no small task! But let’s say we get across the Great Orange Hedgerow and make it into Mexico. I speak some Spanish, probably enough to communicate my basic needs and get the gist of conversation around me, but let’s face it, many places in the USA have become so hostile to any kind of multiculturalism that not speaking another language isn’t viewed as a weakness, but as something to be proud of! Imagine your average Trump twitter troll having to exist in Mexico!

Did I mention that you had to give up your precious guns when you cross the border? That’s right, you’re on their turf and you play by their rules. Did I mention that you probably had to sell anything of intrinsic value that you had left just to get food and water for the journey? Did I mention that your one set of clothes has become filthy and ragged from walking hundreds of miles? Did I mention that you haven’t seen a shower in weeks, let alone a laundromat?

Your feet are killing you.
Your kids can’t walk the distances that you can, so you either have to stop all the time, imperiling yourself as you flee, or carry them.
Your back hurts too.
Your one pair of shoes is shot. The busted blister on your foot is probably infected.

And some guard with a really big gun urges you into the American refugee camp in a not very calm or patient demeanor. Even if you speak a little Spanish, he speaks way too quickly for you to understand.

That’s right, a camp, such as the one pictured above. The book “Seeking Refuge” points out that the vast majority of refugees have no real valid chance to be resettled into a third country. Most of the world’s refugees have to stay right there in that camp….sometimes for YEARS.

Could you do that? Would you go nuts? You and your family get to live a tent with multiple other families. You have to share the space. You have to share the same bathroom facilities, you have to share the small amount of food and resources that are provided by relief organizations. Maybe even some of the same organizations that you’ve slagged on for being “a bunch of bleeding heart liberals” who “just want to give people shit for sitting on their asses.”

Oh and by the way, let’s say you don’t trust one of the guys living in the tent with your family. Maybe you see him staring at your young daughter a little too much. Maybe she comes to you and tells you he tried to force himself on her. You go to the “authorities” and maybe they tell you that they’ll look into it after they resolve other complaints. Maybe they tell you they’ll take the guy to another tent if you pay them money you don’t have. Maybe they’ll just laugh at you.

Then the ultimate indignity. Maybe you’re sitting with a group of people around one of the few radios in the camp listening to the news. You know enough Spanish by now that you can at least surmise that they’re talking about refugees…about you.  Then someone else in the group translates and says that the people in that country think that you’re a threat to their security and need to be removed. Maybe things are getting bad there now too and they don’t want any more of their resources being squandered by people just sitting there being lazy, and who don’t even speak the language!

Could you take that? Could handle going from your sweet, cushy American life to a refugee camp that might border on squalor?

Could you handle having everything that makes you “you” stripped away from you and sold to the highest bidder?

Could you put up with the total loss of your agency, the loss of all power to affect ANYTHING going on around you?

I’m not sure I could. Be honest with yourself. Could you? That’s why I shifted from “me,” to “we,” to “you” throughout this little exercise. I wanted you to have at least a chance to come to grips with those same stark thoughts that I did.

Maybe you say that it could never happen here.

Are you sure about that?

Maybe you really should consider walking a mile in their shoes before making another crack about refugees or lazy immigrants.

Editorial Note: In no way do I want to make people think that this scenario above is how people in Mexico might treat hypothetical refugees. In fact, I spent parts of two summers doing practical missions work in Mexico, and everyone I ran into was full of love and hospitality, no matter how “gringo” I was, and spoiler alert, I was very “gringo.” I was just inserting examples of some of the concerns that refugees face in the country to which they flee, a country that often does not let them work, has major cultural differences, and sometimes cares very little about their security. I was also trying to make the reader think of what it might be like if other people talked about us the way we often talk about them.

 

Seeking Refuge Series Part 1: Refugee Stories

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0000refugeeWhen an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-34 NRSV)

It’s funny how putting a human face on something, on an “issue” tends to make us see it in a different light. This happens all the time. For example, a number of years ago some members of family changed their stance on gay rights and marriage equality after a friend of our family’s came out. In what seems almost unbelievable to me, they now set around a table with our friends and treat these two young men just like any other young love birds! It’s really been quite a remarkable thing to witness.

So today I want to apply that thinking to refugees. If you’ve followed me for awhile you know that this is something I care very deeply about. This isn’t meant to be a “political” post either, it’s meant to be a “human” post. We need to stop seeing these folks as a political football and start seeing them as human beings with red blood just like us, with hopes and dreams just like us, and fears and concerns, just like us.

Recently I’ve been reading a book on refugees and resettlement called “Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis,” by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir. These gentlemen all work for World Relief, one of the biggest NGOs that work to help refugees. If you know World Relief, then you know they are pretty much a staunch evangelical organization. These guys aren’t what you would generally call “bleeding heart liberals” or “progressive mainline Christians.” What they are is an evangelical Christian organization that takes the Bible’s commands about refugees and helping others very seriously, and that’s awesome!

One chapter in the book looks this thought of “humanizing” refugees straight in the eye by telling a few different stories. One is of a veterinarian and his family who were forced to flee the escalating violence in Syria. After trying to find a safe place in their home country they fled to Turkey, where the laws did not allow this man, Rami, or his family to work and sustain themselves. Rami and his family eventually registered with the United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR) and after months and SEVERAL interviews with both the UN and various US agencies, Rami and his family were resettled to the United States with legal status. Within a couple of months, all the adults in the family had jobs and were able to meet their rent and begin repaying the loan for their plane tickets to the USA. Rami hopes to continue his work as a veterinarian after completing English courses and US licensing requirements. He and his family and children are grateful to the USA for the chance to live a peaceful life. (Bauman et. al. 51-54)

The book also tells a story about a woman named Deborah. Deborah is a Christian, and was being persecuted in her native Burma for her religious beliefs. Deborah’s husband had passed away, and she decided to flee Burma with her two young kids. They managed to make it all the way to Malaysia, where they were forced to live with several other refugee families in a single family dwelling with only one bathroom. Deborah spoke English, which helped her land a job working with a refugee aid organization in Malaysia, where she registered with the UNHCR. Finally FOUR YEARS after her resettlement case began, her and her children were allowed into the United States. They settled outside of Chicago where Deborah works to cover all their obligations and is heavily involved in a local church. She too is thankful. (Bauman et. al. 55-57)

Those are just a couple of stories from the book I’m reading. Just google “refugee stories” and you can find a whole lot more. I encourage you to do just that.

Oh, and by the way, there are many, MANY refugees still living in the country to which they originally fled, and most will stay there, as refugee resettlement tends to focus on only the most vulnerable cases. The UNHCR website relates the story of Sam.

0000Sam

Sam is originally from Afghanistan. He was forced to flee the country at 17 after both of his parents were murdered just because they were musicians. He managed to make it to Greece and started to build a life. One night he was walking home when he was ambushed and beaten by a mob. They left him unconscious in the road, where he was discovered by a passer by and taken home.  It kind of a sounds like what happens in the story of the Good Samaritan, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, the question for all of us is, how many suffering people are we ignoring in the streets of the world while we walk on by in our everyday lives and whine about being “safe” or someone “taking our jobs?”

Sam is quoted as saying this on the UNHCR site:

For me, one of the greatest challenges facing society, the government, and organizations like UNHCR, is combating hate. I wish that all could understand this: we are forced to flee our homes, we’re not coming here to cause trouble. I wish they could understand we’re all human beings, living under the same sky.

Think about that quote next time you hear people on the news complaining about refugees or fear mongering about refugees.  If you’re a Christian, spend some time in Scripture honestly grappling with it’s teachings on welcoming the stranger. Pray about it.

Then just maybe seek out some refugee stories in your own community.

This is part one of a series that I’m going to do on the refugee crisis as I read through this book. If you miss further entries you’ll be able to find them under the “refugee” tag or the new category I’ll be making called “Seeking Refuge Series.”

Book Review: “A Way Other Than Our Own,” by Walter Brueggemann

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0000Walter“A Way Other Than Our Own,” by Walter Brueggemann. Published 2017 by Westminster John Knox Press. This review refers to the paperback edition.

A large number of the Christian authors that I read cite Walter Brueggemann on a regular basis, so I decided to finally go straight to the horse’s mouth and check out some of his writing for myself. I’m really glad I did too! Over the last few years I’ve had some terrific companions for Lent including NT Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Adam Hamilton. This book is up there with those as one of the best devotionals I’ve ever read.

The tact that Brueggemann often takes really strikes a chord with me right now, right where I’m at in my faith. He talks a lot about Christ versus Empire and Christ versus a consumerist culture. This tracks really well the “new monastic” movement of Shane Claiborne and others, something that also really touches my soul.

Many of the devotions in this book move along those lines, encouraging the reader to disengage from the narrative of the the world, the rat race, if you will, and embrace the narrative of Christ, the road of peace. Brueggemann doesn’t promise that taking this path will be easy. It requires submission and obedience to Christ as we truly travel “A Way other than our own.” While not easy, traveling this way with Jesus can result in fulfillment and a great sense of peace as we seek to better be the people He wants us to be.

Sometimes my concern with these kinds of books that ask us to step away from the world for a moment give me pause. I think there can be a fine line between choosing to just walk a different path IN the world and totally disengaging from the world, which I don’t believe that this is what God asks us to do. However, after reading through this devotional I can firmly say that while Brueggemann certainly advocates that we march to the beat of Christ’s drum, we continue to march in the world as a faithful witness.