Category Archives: Faith

Running Through "Acts"

This is a new type of blog post for me: the public note pad.

I spent this evening reading through the book of Acts (yeah, the whole thing) in preparation for my New Testament II class with Dr. Robert Brawley. In true twitter style, I thought I would just shout out the first thoughts that came into my head out of this reading, before giving myself, or my readers, the benefit of careful reflection.

• Reading books of the Bible in their entirety, in one sitting, is something I should do more often; so much is missed when we break up our readings — whether done in the interest of spiritual enlightenment or intellectual stimulation — into short pericopes. A lot is happening in Acts in a short amount of time, and most of it is very interconnected.
• Paul really knows how to get to the point. I could take a lesson or two from him in that discipline, and many others as well. He finds words that connect to people in their current contexts. He doesn’t waste time with flattery;* he doesn’t sugarcoat his messages; he doesn’t weigh people down by giving out more information than the present moment requires. And man does he know what to say when you want to put a room on edge. (Acts 23:6)
• Don’t fall asleep when the sermon get’s too long; you just might fall out of a window.
• Acts seems to make some strong differentiations between traditional baptism, such as the kind administered by John the Baptist, and the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” From Pentecost through the episode at Cornelius’ house, no one really seems to understand what’s going on with the Holy Spirit. Paul acts like he has a handle on it later on, but doesn’t really take the time to explain what is happening. What is the second baptism, and what relation does it have to the “baptism of repentance” that John called for? Why is it granted to some and not others? Was the fiery phenomena the early apostles experienced unique to that time in the life of the church, or is it something believers should be looking for today?
• Pentecost was apparently marked as a holiday of the church year early on; Paul was hurrying to get back to Jerusalem to celebrate pentecost after several years of missionary work, although he was still persecuting the church when the actual “Day of Pentecost” occurred.
• Apparently, in chapter 16 Paul is kept from going to Asia so that Luke, the author, can join the trip for a while. The only indication readers have of this, however, is the abrupt change from the third person “they” style of narration to the first person “we” and “us.” The perspective shifts back and forth at several points later in the account as the journey progresses from city to city, and year to year.
• Secular life and religious life seem very compartmentalized in Acts; i.e., even in the midst of intense religious controversy — such as dueling pharisees and sadducees debating the doctrine of immortality while simultaneously stoning a man to death — life goes on. The normal Roman citizen is completely oblivious, and, other than in the interest of pursuing an odd sense of curiosity, probably couldn’t care less. The exception, of course, is Paul’s life. He blends ministry, work and daily life together in a way that seems to either baffle or captivate everyone else.
• Apart from the sadducees, most of Paul’s opposition comes from people with financial interests at stake: the men exploiting the young prophetess, the magicians, rival philosophers and the silversmiths who sell idols to pagan worshipers. None of these people are confronted by Paul, but they all take offense to him and his work.
• Peter seems to step up and take control of the Jerusalem church right away. No one seems to question this, but how his leadership role came to be is not really spelled out either.
• Paul is the man.
• Barnabas seems to be the nicest guy ever.

Well, that turned out to be a little longer than I thought. In an effort to both write more blog posts and spend more time reading, I plan to begin doing more of these on-the-fly lists of thoughts. Dangerous, I know.

* In most of Paul’s letters, eloquent, theologically rich salutations seem to be the norm. In public speaking, however, at least within the narrative of Acts, he has little space for extraneous words.

Who is Jesus?

An excerpt from a poem by Mother Teresa, written in 1983 during a hospitalization. That old lady knew her theology; but more than that, she knew Jesus.

Who is Jesus?

You are God.
You are God from God.
You are Begotten, not made.
You are One in Substance with the Father.
You are the Son of the Living God.
You are the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

You are One with the Father.
You are in the Father from the beginning:
All things were made by You and the Father.
You are the Beloved Son in Whom the
Father is well pleased.
You are the Son of Mary,
conceived by the Holy Spirit.

You were born in Bethlehem.
You were wrapped in swaddling clothes by Mary
and put in the manger full of straw.
You were kept warm by the breath of the donkey
that carried Your mother with You in her womb.
You are the Son of Joseph,
thee Carpenter, as known by the people of Nazareth.
You are an ordinary man without much learning,
as judged by the learned people of Israel.

Who is Jesus to me?

Jesus is the Word made Flesh.
Jesus is the Bread of Life.
Jesus is the Victim offered for our sins on the Cross.
Jesus is the Sacrifice offered at the Holy Mass
for the sins of the world, and mine.
Jesus is the Word — to be spoken.
Jesus is the Truth — to be told.
Jesus is the Way — to be walked.
Jesus is the Light — to be lit.
Jesus is the Life — to be lived.
Jesus is the Love — to be loved.
Jesus is the Joy — to be shared.
Jesus is the Sacrifice — to be offered.
Jesus is the Peace — to be given.
Jesus is the Bread of Life — to be eaten.
Jesus is the Hungry — to be fed.
Jesus is the Thirsty — to be satiated.
Jesus is the Naked — to be clothed.
Jesus is the Homeless — to be taken in.
Jesus is the Sick — to be healed.
Jesus is the Lonely — to be loved.
Jesus is the Unwanted — to be wanted.
Jesus is the Leper — to wash his wounds.
Jesus is the Beggar — to give him a smile.
Jesus is the Drunkard — to listen to him.
Jesus is the Retarded — to protect him.
Jesus is the Little One — to embrace him.
Jesus is the Blind — to lead him.
Jesus is the Mute — to speak for him.
Jesus is the Crippled — to walk with him.
Jesus is the Drug Addict — to befriend him.
Jesus is the Prostitute — to remove from danger and befriend.
Jesus is the Prisoner — to be visited.
Jesus is the Old — to be served.

To Me—

Jesus is my God.
Jesus is my Life.
Jesus is my Love.
Jesus is my All in All.
Jesus is my Everything.

What to do with Christmas

Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated by the apparent secularization of Christmas? As the baby Jesus shares the spotlight with Santa Claus, and glowing, mailbox-size candy canes pop up alongside nativity displays, it’s easy to grow nostalgic for a time when the celebration of Christmas as a Christian holiday was unfettered by commercialism — when reverent worship services and quiet family gatherings weren’t juxtaposed alongside raucous winter festivals and velvet-clad pop stars.

But was there ever really such a time? Why did Christians begin celebrating the birth of Jesus to begin with?

Despite its contemporary prominence in Christian culture, formal celebrations of Christmas did not begin until the fourth century. Easter, not Christmas, was the focal point of the year for the early church. The gospels themselves reflect this: only Matthew and Luke give any account of the birth of Jesus, and they vary greatly in details and significance, while all four gospels share a powerful record of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. When Christmas celebrations began to take shape in the church, Christians combined elements of the nativity stories presented in Luke and Matthew with other traditions that had been picked up along the way. The first record of Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus is found in the Philocalian Calendar of 354. Long before this, however, December 25 had been a high point in Roman culture.

Traditional calendars marked December 25 as the winter solstice, and it was popularly celebrated as the birthday of the pagan god Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The festival for Sol Invictus fell right in the middle of two other popular Roman feast days — the harvest festival, which began on Dec. 17, and the New Year’s festival that typically lasted five days (ending on what also became an important Christian holiday, the Day of Epiphany, or “The Twelfth Day of Christmas” according to one obnoxious Christmas jingle)

Naturally, it made sense for the church to take advantage of the existing excitement that surrounded the winter festival when forming a new holiday to celebrate the birth of God’s son. From the very beginning, Christmas has not been a day set apart for Christians to retreat from the world; rather, it has been a day Christians use to celebrate with, and hopefully, transform the world. Taking unholy things and making them holy, as the 4th Century Christians did with the pagan worship of Sol Invictus, is a fitting way to remember the reason that Christ came into the world to begin with. He has transformed us, unholy as we are, into new creations. Let us continue searching for new ways to do the same.

Questioning God, or Standing in Awe?

By the tender mercy of our God,
      the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
      to guide our feet into the way of peace.

This evening Kristen and I met with a few friends for a great time of Bible study and fellowship. We didn’t have a program or a lesson guide, we just took turns reading a chapter or two of scripture and then sharing whatever thoughts came to mind. In two and half hours, we moved through the first four chapters of Luke. Our discussions were broad and deep, covering questions that were both lighthearted and serious. It was a meaningful gathering that I was glad to be a part of.

Among the questions that rose out of our reading was the starkly different responses Zechariah and Mary received when they questioned the angel Gabriel. If you are not familiar with this story, I suggest you read it for yourself. The first people we meet in Luke’s gospel are Zechariah and Elizabeth — an elderly couple of priestly lineage who have lived good lives, were respected in their community and were seen to be “righteous before God.” Despite their highly exalted social and religious status, however, Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children of their own. As Elizabeth was already beyond the normal age for conception, it seemed unlikely the couple would ever have a son or daughter to carry on their name, yet they remained faithful to their God and their people. In ancient Israel, because there were many priests, but one central temple in Jerusalem, the priests were divided into orders; each order was assigned two weeks out of the year during which the priests of that order were responsible for maintaining the altar and offering prayers at the Jerusalem temple. Each day, lots were cast to determine which priest from the order would enter the holiest part of the temple to burn incense at the altar and pray for the people. This was a big honor, and on this particular day, it fell to Zechariah. The elderly priest made his way into the temple, as perhaps he had done before. A great crowd of people stood outside in the courtyard of the temple where the general population met to pray, but Zechariah was responsible for carrying those prayers into the sanctuary, where he would send them up to God wrapped in a sweet cloud of incense.

Then the story really gets interesting. While the incense offering is burning at the altar, the angel Gabriel appeared before Zechariah. Zechariah was startled, but Gabriel comforted the old priest and assured him that his prayer had been heard. Elizabeth is going to have a child. He will be a great prophet among the people, and will even be great in the sight of the Lord! Good news, right? Then Zechariah said the words that would be on anyone’s mind, though few of us would have the courage to speak in such a moment: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years (if you know what I mean).” Gabriel responds to this inquiry by silencing Zechariah’s voice and apparently rendering him partially deaf, at least temporarily; All of his senses will be restored once the boy is born and Zechariah follows the Lord’s instructions to name him John. That seems to be kind of a harsh move against a faithful old priest, but once John is born, Zechariah’s joy positively overwhelms everything else. This is good news indeed!

A few months later, Gabriel makes another visit. This time he calls on a young girl named Mary who is betrothed, but not yet married, to Joseph. Gabriel gives Mary a similar message, announcing that she, too, will have a son. While Mary doesn’t have the issue of age to worry about like Elizabeth did, she still has some questions about how she might possibly become pregnant with a son, as she has never done any of the typical things that precede pregnancy — like having sex. “How can this be,” she asks the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Instead of sealing up her tongue or rebuking her for a lack of faith, however, Gabriel simply assures Mary that while this message may not make since at first sight, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

So, to sum up the dilemma:

  • Elizabeth and Mary both cannot have children; Elizabeth because she is too old, and Mary because she is a virgin.
  • Both are told they will miraculously conceive sons.
  • Zechariah asks “How will I know this is so?” and is punished for a lack of faith.
  • Mary asks “How can this be?” and is gently reassured of God’s presence in her life.

What’s going on here? Why do these two people get such different responses in such similar situations? I have heard many explanations on this before. Some people see the subtle difference in the questions posed by Zechariah and Mary and infer that Zechariah’s question expressed a since of disbelief, while Mary’s was simply innocent curiosity. I don’t doubt that attitude is very important in weighing how we frame our questions to our friends, or to God. I can respect this view, but for me, it has never seemed quite sufficient. There simply isn’t enough information given for me to honestly interpret the attitudes and feelings of Zechariah and Mary. One major difference between the two situations I do notice in the text, however, is setting. A great deal of effort is put in to explaining the setting of Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. Zechariah, as well as his wife, are both of priestly lineage. Zechariah’s order was on duty. A lot was cast (basically, the priests asked for God to make a choice clear) and Zechariah’s name came up. Zechariah left the praying crowd and moved into the sanctuary. Zechariah lit the incense offering. Zechariah stood by the altar and prayed. Gabriel appeared and announced that God had not only heard Zechariah’s prayer, but that was he was going to bless his family in a special way. The only word we have concerning the setting of Mary’s meeting with Gabriel is that it was in Nazareth — a small town about 65 miles away from Jerusalem. We don’t know if Mary was at home, visiting with a friend, at work in the field or walking down the street. What we do know is that she wasn’t in the temple — she wouldn’t have been allowed into the sanctuary where Zechariah had met Gabriel.

I don’t say all of this to imply that God can only speak in special places, or in certain ways. Clearly this story, and the ones that follow it, demonstrate that is simply not the case. What I do think is made clear by this story though, is that while Zechariah and Mary were both very surprised at Gabriel’s presence, only one of them should have been surprised. Zechariah had gone through a lot of effort — a lifetime of effort, one could argue — to make his case before God. Zechariah had done everything he could possibly do to demonstrate his respect for God and to show that he was sincere in his prayer. Zechariah was asking for God to intervene in his life, yet he was astonished when God actually showed up. Mary, on the other hand, probably wasn’t hoping to find herself pregnant at this point; she certainly hadn’t asked God to intervene on her behalf. Her surprise is understandable, and she is granted a little understanding.

It is not lost on me that of course, someone went into the sanctuary to offer prayers at the altar every day, yet every day an angel did not show up to deliver a special message from God. In fact, it had been sometime since God had moved among his people in a powerful way; prophets had grown silent; visions were rare; people were complacent.

But is that really any excuse? If we believe that God is alive and well, then we must not be surprised when he makes his presence known. If we pray to God expecting him to hear and honor our prayers, then why should we be surprised when we see him act? If we don’t believe our prayers matter, then why even go through the motions?

If, on the other hand, we come before God in awe and reverence, eagerly awaiting his command and longing for his blessing — just as that old priest did many years ago — then it will be our great joy to find him waiting for us, right there where he’s always been.

Adventures in Hebrew, episode one

God’s RocketShip

One of the most exciting elements of my Divinity School work this semester has been the opportunity I’ve had to study Hebrew with Dr. Barry Jones. I’ve never been very good in the foreign language skills department. In high school and college I dabbled in a couple of different languages, but simply trying to get a handle on the nuances and grammar of my own native tongue has been more than enough to push my linguistic abilities. For brevity’s sake, however, let me simply say that Hebrew is fun.

Working through scripture in its original language has been challenging and invigorating. Each little gain in understanding of these sacred texts opens up new truths and insight for me, but I still have a very long ways to go before reading a book, or even a sentence, in Hebrew is as natural and clear as it is in English. So why bother with trying to read the Bible in its original language? Aren’t there already enough English translations available? Haven’t hundreds of translators and scribes been pouring over these texts for thousands of years already? What can I possibly find in the original languages that hasn’t already been identified, dissected and translated by other, more qualified biblical scholars?

Probably nothing.

But that’s not really why we read the Bible, is it? It’s true that some people spend great amounts of time and effort scouring the letters and phrasings of scripture for secret codes, looking for hidden messages that supposedly reveal everything from the date of the apocalypse, to which candidate will win the 2012 presidential election in the United States of America. Others aren’t searching for secret codes, but they are reading the texts in hopes of finding a special verse or word that supports their own presupposed view of God and what he deems to be right behavior, as opposed to reading the lessons and stories of scripture with fresh ears, trying to understand them within the context of the overarching message of the gospel.

Whenever I move through the pages of the Bible, I know that I am walking down a path that many, many people have tread before me; I take comfort in that, and I do not for a moment hope to go one step further than anyone else has already gone. At the same time, I believe that God’s truths aren’t simply passed down from one generation to the next like genetic characteristics or inherited wealth. For scripture to have any real value for an individual, it must be read and understood by that person. If we hope to gain even a glimmer of understanding into the nature of God, we must, each one, seek him out. Knowing how God has worked among the human race in the past is a good place to start. The better informed we are as to the nature of God, of his relationship with mankind, of his movements in history and how he has revealed himself to others, the better equipped we are to identify his presence in our own lives as we seek to live within his will. This is the primary reason that I read the Bible — to know God.

One of the simple benefits of understanding the original language of scripture came through this week’s vocabulary lesson. Among our list of new words to learn for the week was the verb נשא (pronounced: nă•sá) which means to lift or to carry. This is the verb used in Exodus 20:7, the third commandment, translated in the NET (and similarly in the KJV) as “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. In my experience, most people have understood this to be an admonition against using a name for God as a frivolous slur or in conjunction with obscene language. The verb נשא certainly does support this interpretation. The commandment makes it clear that “lifting up” the Lord’s name to invoke a curse is a sordid thing to do — unless of course, you really, really mean it. However, נשא has another meaning here that, at least in this case, seems to fit this context better than the traditional understanding of “lifting up” God’s name alongside other language that is in poor taste.

The second meaning of the verb נשא, “to carry,” seems to fit in well with the rest of the Exodus story, and even with the rest of the Biblical narrative. Beginning with the exodus and continuing on for much of history, God’s people were not associated with a particular place; they were not known for their great wealth and possessions; they were not known for military superiority or for their hold on a valuable resource. They were known by the law they had been given, and by the God, Yahweh, who gave them that law. As they roamed through the wilderness, carrying all of their few possessions with them, they always found themselves to be strangers in foreign land. What kept them together — what set them apart from the other nations that surrounded them — was their identity as a people chosen by God, called by his name. This act of “carrying” God’s name was not a small thing for the Israelites — it was the most important thing they had!

In 2 Chronicles 7, during a relatively brief period of prosperity and national wealth in the history of Israel, God reminds Solomon, the great king, of this first treasure the Hebrew people had claim to, saying:

“If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

When the prophet Jonah was sleeping onboard a ship in peril, the ship’s crew woke him up and asked him who he was. Jonah didn’t tell them his name. He didn’t tell them which town he was from, who is parents were or what he did for a living. He simply said, “I worship Yahweh.” This statement, of course, wasn’t entirely true. It was simply the latest in a string of mistakes Jonah had made. He claimed to be a worshipper of Yahweh, but in reality, he was caught in the act of fleeing from the Lord, of ignoring his responsibilities and following his own desires. Jonah was “carrying” the name of the Lord, but he was not living as one who truly belongs to God.

As Christians, we often divert our attention and make known our disapproval when we hear the name of Jesus used as a statement of anger or frustration, but are we as quick to hold ourselves accountable when our actions or words — though they may be perfectly acceptable by society’s standards — are not worthy of one who carries the name of Christ? How many Christians today pay lip service to God when it’s convenient, but don’t put forward any real effort to follow his commandments to honor the Lord in all we do, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Is it worse to ignore God altogether, or to acknowledge him in word but not in deed?

Let us strive to never carry the name of Christ in vain.

The God Who Sits in the Dark

I first met Hugh Hollowell last March when he came to First Baptist Church of Raleigh to speak to a group of Campbell students, myself included, who were participating in a poverty simulation. I had heard a little bit about the work he was doing through Love Wins Ministries and I was excited to listen to what he had to say about serving the people who are often neglected by the church, about his motivation for social ministry and how he came to Raleigh. Hugh’s enthusiasm for loving people is contagious. His approach to ministry is not typical, but it is important, it is profoundly simple, and it is a faithful representation of what it means to be the presence of Christ in this world.

This video is the work of Craig Spinks, founder of Recycle Your Faith.

los vivos y los muertos

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, and won strength out of weakness … Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus — the pioneer and perfecter of our faith — who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 11:32-34, 12:1-2 (NRSV)

Tuesday was a busy day. For anyone following the classic Christian calendar, November 2 was celebrated as All Souls Day — a day of remembrance and prayer for all of the saints who have gone before us. For those of Mexican ancestry, Tuesday was the final day of celebration for Día de los Muertos. Contemporary symbolism associated with the Day of the Dead draws on mixed traditions, but the key focus is to celebrate the lives of family and friends who have finished their mortal journey, offering prayers of thanksgiving and blessings on their behalf. And of course, for those of us in the United States, six-times-out-of-seven, the first Tuesday in November means Election Day.

Kristen and I have always been intrigued by the colorful decorations and beautiful art that comes along with Día de los Muertos, but beyond that, I’ve never really given much thought to either religious celebration. Voting, on the other hand, is something I’ve taken very seriously ever since 2004 — the first election I was eligible to vote in. This year, however, being aware of all three events, I was struck by the serious juxtaposition of these very different activities.

Honoring deceased loved ones, celebrating life with friends and family and praising God for the gift of grace that leads to eternal life is a very corporate experience. Whether it’s done in Spanish or English, with dancing skeletons and paper flowers or with fragrant incense and solemn liturgy, prayer and worship are acts that compel us to join together, offering the best of our community up to God.

Voting is done in private. It is uncouth to talk about who or what you voted for. Whenever political ideas are shared with a gathered group of people, division, frustration and contentious arguments are not far behind. Voting is also a symbol of personal power — and rightly so! Each person has the right to cast a vote for the candidate or issue that she believes is best. Each person’s vote is weighted equally: the voting booth knows no economic class and has no bias towards race, gender or intellectual ability. Voting reminds us that each individual has the power to enact real change in the world. Of course, for our votes to hold on to that power, they must be joined with the votes of thousands of other individuals — but standing alone in a voting booth, its easy to feel like my vote is the one that really matters. It’s easy to be consumed by the lure of individual power.

I’m afraid that this fever of individualism isn’t confined to the voting booth. It permeates every aspect of our culture — even our religion. We use words like “personal Lord and Savior” to remind others, and maybe ourselves, that we have been chosen to be among God’s elect. It is a wonderful truth, revealed in the first two chapters of Genesis and affirmed throughout scripture, that the almighty Creator of the universe is also a deeply personal God that calls each of us by name. But we must never forget that it is God who first called us, and not the other way around. When we move into relationship with him, we are doing it on his terms, not so that we can have him at our disposal like a personal assistant, but so that we can fit into the specific place made for us in his creation. I’m afraid that sometimes we may shout out “I am a child of the King!” so boldly, we forget that every man, and every woman, and every child has been crafted in the very image of God.

Individualism has no place in Christian community. We may have unique gifts that enable us to work towards the specific tasks God has set before us, but we are really not living for God if we’re living in isolation from his people. We may do great things tomorrow, but let’s not kid ourselves; we are, indeed, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and we wouldn’t be able to do much of anything without their support.

As you seek to serve God today, take the time to remember those who have gone before, and be sure to spend every opportunity you get celebrating life with those who walk beside you.


I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains by itself, alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain.

— Jesus (John 12:24, NET)

I haven’t had much creative energy lately. It’s been all I could do just to squeeze out the bare minimum amount of writing I needed to get done for class. I’ll have several ideas for writing captivating blog posts or deep, reflective essays in my journal, but when it comes time to put pen to paper, it all just seems like gibberish. It’s hard for me to take the time to sit down to write. I don’t do this often, but I thought it would be a good time to share someone else’s thoughts. This excerpt came up in my devotional time this week, and it has stuck with me. Last summer, as part of my Bible study lesson on submission as a spiritual discipline, I used this simple metaphor from Jesus to drive my main point home: that it is only when we offer ourselves up to God, and pour ourselves out for others, that we truly find our own identity. Anthony Bloom continues with the gardening motif, which I find helpful. Let me know if you get anything out of it.

Basically humility is the attitude of one who stands constantly under the judgement of God. It is the attitude of one who is like the soil. Humility comes form the Latin word humus, fertile ground. The fertile ground is there, unnoticed, taken for granted, always there to be trodden upon. It is silent, inconspicuous, dark and yet it is always ready to receive any seed, ready to give it substance and life. The more lowly, the more fruitful, because it becomes really fertile when it accepts all the refuse of the earth. It is so low that nothing can soil it, abase it, humiliate it; it has accepted the last place and cannot go any lower. In that position nothing can shatter the soul’s serenity, its peace and joy.
Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer

Healers and Hoarders

I don’t make a habit of starting up, or even joining in on, political discussions nowadays, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe good discussions aren’t important. They are. It just seems harder and harder to have a good, honest, respectful talk on controversial issues with any depth. It seems like so many people are quick to make up their minds on the best course of action, either to one extreme or the other, and thus, debate and discussion becomes futile at best — and aggressive shouting matches at worst.

I hate the fact that the word “politics” in our culture has come to mean something along the lines of professional networking, image-crafting, backstabbing, people pleasing and basically anything else that will advance a politician’s idea of personal success. Politics, at its core, is about making policy. Families make policies — whether they know it or not — for how the household will be run. Businesses make policies for how they will operate. Societies make policies for how citizens and aliens should be treated, how justice will be administered, what services should be provided for the community and what should be the responsibility of the individual. Crafting these policies is a never-ending process; it is a process that each person should take seriously, contributing in whatever way he or she can.

Politics are important, but still, I tend to be silent. I have found that the more I learn, the less I know, and the less prepared I feel I am to make a black-and-white decision on a technicolor issue. So I listen, I learn, and I think. I think about when it will be appropriate for me to lend my voice to the discussions. Should I speak up for what I believe is right if I find myself working as a pastor in church one day? As one charged with mentoring and shepherding the flock, should I weigh in on the real issues of the day? Should I write letters to the editor of the local newspaper, speak at community meetings, and explain my views to my parishioners? Or should I be silent? If I find myself working as a reporter again, should I write editorial columns aimed at persuading my readers to join me in advocating the policies I see as most beneficial to society? It would mean harsh letters back; it would mean every news article I write from that point forward would be taken with a grain of salt, or simply disregarded, regardless of how hard I work to present a fair and balanced perspective. If Kristen and I are blessed with the opportunity to serve as international missionaries, should we limit our work to preaching the gospel and sharing with those in our small circle of friends, or should we become vocal advocates for the real needs of the people we are serving? Would we even have a right to an opinion on national policies in a country we live in, if we are not citizens? Would we have a right to share our opinions on policy in the United States if we no longer spend our lives here, no matter how passionately we might care for the land and people of our native country?

I think about these things, but right now, I mostly stay silent. That doesn’t mean I don’t wrestle long and hard with the issues of the day though. One of the things I find myself swinging back and forth on all the time is the increasing role government plays in health care. There are hard feelings on both sides of this debate. I believe that although the health care reform bill passed in Congress during this last session, and it is already in the process of being phased into effect, the policy making on this issue is far from over. It will continue to be controversial, and will continue to be a topic of debate, as it should be, probably for as long as our society exists. Regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself on, I have found nearly everyone — whether they admit it in as many words or not — agrees that changes need to be made in the health care policy of our government. Either insurance companies have too much free range and it is too difficult to get the basic health care a person needs in our country, or else government is already shelling out way to many tax dollars to people who only abuse the Medicaid and Medicare systems, encouraging personal irresponsibility and destroying the hard work of the very people who drive progress in our world.

One way or another, something has to change.

When I hear stories of how, just in North Carolina in the past few years, billions of dollars of government money have been siphoned off by phony mental health providers who claim to be serving the poor, but are actually only lining their own pockets, using fraudulent Social Security Numbers and stolen credentials to bill the government for services to people that don’t even exist, I nearly cry when I think of the percentage of my family’s income — not even a drop in the government bucket though — that we pay in taxes each year. When I walk down the street in Raleigh and I meet a woman who has fallen through the cracks in the system, who lives on the streets, who has been overlooked all of her life and doesn’t even have the interpersonal skills necessary to apply for help, if help was available, then I wonder how we let that happen.

I hear doctors tell stories about patients that play the game and milk the system for everything they can get. A woman comes to the hospital emergency room, without fail, each month, bringing in one of her children with a cold or coming alone when she has a sore throat. She parks her new Mercedes at the curb. Walks up to the receptionist with an air of entitlement, flashes her gold bracelet and diamond ring in the poor nurse’s face when she doesn’t get service fast enough, pulls out her iPhone to call her friend and complain about the poor state of things in the emergency room, and then walks out the door with a bag of free medicine, having stuck the taxpayers with the entire bill. Stories like this are endless.

Then there’s the poor single mother of three. She dropped out of college to raise her kids. She works three jobs. Her young children ride the bus back and forth to school, come home, fix their own dinner, don’t get any help with their homework, go to bed, wake up and start all over again, all without seeing their mother because she’s working around the clock just to get enough money to pay the rent and keep the water turned on. She doesn’t have a dime left to spend on health insurance, and she certainly can’t pay a hospital bill. But then her 7-year-old boy gets sick. He needs a blood transfusion and a heart transplant. Does he have any less right to it than the child of a stay-at-home mom who spends her days trying out new recipes and swapping parenting tips with her friends while her lawyer husband — who, by the way, worked hard and made it through law school on a scholarship because his parents were able to tutor him three nights a week from the time he was four-years-old until he graduated from high school, number one in his class, thank you very much — pays the bills?

Or how about the young college grad. She comes from a pretty well-off family, not rich, of course, but they’ve worked hard and never gone without much. Growing up, she was the model student and model daughter. She worked hard in high school and got into a good college. Then she got sick. As it turns out, she has a rare disease that makes it excruciatingly painful, if not impossible, to move through the activities of a normal day. She get’s the latest medicines and has to have frequent surgeries, but she always maintains a good spirit and pushes through. She draws strength from her illness and wants to learn more about what has happened to her. She goes to medical school. She misses class all of the time because of her disease as her minor surgeries become more and more frequent. To make up for it, she works three times as hard as the other would-be doctors, and graduates at the head of her class. Then she finds out, while all of her medical expenses and surgeries were covered under her parents’ insurance plan before, now that she is out of school, she is no longer covered. No health insurance provider in his right mind would offer her a policy. She can’t get insurance — she has a pre-existing condition. She can’t get treatment — paying the bill is simply impossible. She made all of the right choices and gave it all she had, but now, she is out of luck.

The anecdotes are endless.

One way or another, change needs to happen. What kind of change, though, depends entirely on your perspective.

Politics are never black and white. Do we extend generous resources and care to help those who need it, even when we know people are abusing the system and stealing from the community chest to fund their own personal frivolities? Do we stop offering handouts and encourage people to take personal responsibility, to prove their worth first, to work hard and give back to society before expecting to get something for nothing?

What is the Christian response to this? For people of faith, making the right decision doesn’t often seem easy either. Jesus told his disciples to “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” and “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back.” The same Jesus warned his followers not to “give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.” So what is a Christian supposed to think about health care reform? The great thing about looking at Jesus’ as our example is that he didn’t just tell us how to live, or tell us how we should treat people. He showed us. He wanted to make the right course of action perfectly clear, even in the hardest of times, so he lived life as God intended each of us to live — and, as it turns out, he also took health care pretty seriously.

Now on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten men with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance, raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

When he saw them he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went along, they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He fell with his face to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. (Now he was a Samaritan.*)

Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to turn back and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to the man, “Get up and go your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Luke 17:11-19 (NET)

Abundant thanks didn’t come back to Jesus for his healing work. The vast majority of those he served were too focused inward to even acknowledge the gift they had received; none of them really seemed concerned about paying back the favor. Yet Jesus keeps on doing this kind of thing again, and again, and again.

Politics are never black and white. Understanding what Jesus would do, however, is often crystal clear. That doesn’t make following him any easier though.

* That is, he was an alien in Judah; An outcast, no doubt hanging around town looking to steal work from the poor Jews who have lived there for generations. He even tricked Jesus into healing him just like he was one of the native, legal Judaeans. It’s a good thing he came back to thank Jesus, huh? Who knows what Jesus would have done if he would have known the truth about this guy.

Faith Enough to Forgive

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”

“Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

So the Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this black mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Luke 17:1-6 (NET)

I came across this passage from Luke during my devotional time this weekend. I’ve read it and heard it so many times before, the temptation is to let my eyes glaze over it without really listening. But I did listen, and I heard something I have missed all those times before in my haste to move through the book and get on to something fresh.

Normally, my mind is drawn to the serious warning Jesus gives to anyone who might lead another into sin. This business about the millstone around the neck is tough stuff; it’s hard to get past that.

“Could Jesus be talking to me about this?” I’ll think to myself. “What if I don’t mean to lead anyone else to sin, but it happens anyways? Am I still responsible? This is kind of a scary lesson. Maybe following Jesus isn’t really for me after all; it sounds pretty risky.”

This is where my mind usually stops, but for the Christ, this is only the beginning. As if this grim admonition wasn’t enough for one day of contemplation, the lesson moves on to another tough subject — forgiveness.

Offering true forgiveness is rarely an easy thing to do, but here Jesus is making it the explicit responsibility of his disciples to hold one another accountable, and, when the time is right, to eagerly offer a warm embrace and a full measure of forgiveness. It’s as if failing in these two charges could push us down the dangerous path the Teacher first alluded to. Repentance, and then forgiveness, are the markers believers must use not only in their own quests after God, but also in any efforts to lead others to Christ as well.

Then, before anybody (I’m looking at you, Peter) can second guess what Jesus means by forgiveness, the Master tells his disciples: “Even if a man wrongs you seven times — that’s seven times in a single day — you must be ready to offer him forgiveness as soon as he comes to you. Don’t put it off! Forgive him, just as your Father has forgiven you.”

Forgiving an abstract sin in the name of Christ to help your brother or sister move forward in faith can be a great joy, but forgiving another person who has seriously wronged you personally is much harder to do. Forgiving someone time and time again, over the course of a lifelong relationship that just never seems to fall into sync is one of the most difficult tasks we can deal with — one that never gets any easier as we get more and more opportunities to practice it — but still, it can be done. But forgiving someone for a serious wrong, and then to be injured again by the same person a moment later, only to forgive him again, and then to have the cycle repeat itself seven times in one day? How can I possibly do that? The best effort I think I could muster would be to just stay away from the offending party so that I don’t lose it altogether and go off the deep end.

But that’s not the action Jesus has called us to. We can’t just sit idly by while another person flounders in a sea of ever increasing sin. We have a responsibility to reach out a steady hand and offer quick forgiveness.

I’m sure my feeble response would echo that of the other disciples: “Lord, increase my faith! I know I can’t do this without you.”

Increase my faith!

That is a prayer I have voiced many times before, though not usually in this context. Typically it is connected with another clause, such as “Increase my faith so that I can be patient and trust you, God, to show me the job opportunity you have for me.” Or “Increase my faith so that I can stop stressing over my financial situation and believe in your promise to meet my needs.” Or even “Jesus, please increase my faith so that I can step into this ministry opportunity you’ve set before me; give me the words to say, and the courage to say them, so that you may be glorified. Increase my faith!”

I’m not sure that my prayers have ever been in line with this teaching. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “God, increase my faith so that I can learn to forgive as you do. Increase my faith so that I might know, as you do, that my brother isn’t going to be a slave to this cycle of sin forever. Increase my faith so that I can understand how each small act of love chisels away a piece of the chain that’s keeping him, and me, from living in the fullness of your kingdom. Please, Lord, increase my faith.”

I have often prayed for a stronger faith to help me climb the mountains I have set my sights on. Perhaps a better place to start, if I’m really serious about growing in my faith, is here, at the place where Jesus has pointed me to. Maybe it’s best to start here, with the faith necessary to forgive; or maybe, as far as faith goes, forgiveness takes everything we have.