Something strange happened to me the other day. Well, it wasn't necessarily strange, just unexpected. My five-year-old son likes to tag along with me everywhere, so he was happy to run errands. We stopped by the bank where he got a lollipop and popcorn. Then it was on to City Hall to pay a utility bill. Our Civic Building is a beautiful historical building with classic architecture. As soon as we walked in he asked if we could take the stairs all the way to the top, so we did. After climbing the four stories, the descent put us at the opposite door we came in, which empties into Civic Center Park. There, you will find a couple of memorials. One to fallen police officers, and the one pictured here for three fallen soldiers. We ventured out into the park in the nice weather, and since it was Memorial Day weekend, I decided to stop our jovial stroll and pause and look at this memorial. My son asked, "Daddy, what's that for?" I told him, "That's for soldiers who died protecting our country." He replied, "What soldiers?" So, I stopped my rush of errands a little longer to read the plaques. I have been to this park many times, and I'd seen this memorial, and I knew it was for fallen soldiers. This was the first time I put faces with the statues. We looked at each photo on the three plaques, and I read each one out loud to my son. Some liquid started flowing from my eyes. I felt it. These young me would be about my age with parents, families, and friends like me. I felt the loss our community must have experienced to inspire this memorial. These lives are still meaningful. Be sure to pause and remember more than just fallen soldiers in general. Feel it.
In order to live, we have basic needs: food, water, shelter, air, etc. There's one on the list that gets neglected because we think we can go without it: LOVE.
Are You Sure Love Is Necessary?
When human beings are first created, God says, "It is not good for a human to be alone." (Genesis 2:18) And as great as dogs are as companions, God searched through all of the animals and found no suitable companion among them. So he made more humans, in God's own likeness, God formed man & woman. What is God's likeness? "God is love." God is Three-In-One, Trinity. Relationship. In that likeness, we human beings are made. The perfect image of that Love in the flesh is Jesus Christ. Jesus knew that we weren't made to live alone, but in love, so he gathered close friends, disciples and taught them to do the same. We need Love, God's Love. It is part of our God-given nature, the way we were originally created to be. Even though hunger, thirst, safety and oxygen often seem more urgent, what's the point of surviving if you don't have love?
Denzel Washington and The Apostle Paul
It went viral this past week, Denzel Washington's address to the graduates of Dillard University. In it, he gave some pretty good advice, but one thing in particular stood out to me:
In this text, tweet, twerk world that you've grown up in, remember that just because you're doing a lot more, doesn't mean you're getting a lot more done. - Denzel Washington, 2015
Most of us, stay pretty busy doing a lot of things, with little time to add much else. In one of the most quoted scriptures on the subject of Love, The Apostle Paul says something similar about doing things. All those things you do can be empty or meaningless:
Paul makes it clear that love is "the most excellent way" of living. In fact, living without it is no life at all.
First, I think we need to clarify what Love is. With the word "love," it is often a Princess Bride type of moment: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Is it a feeling? Is it an action? Is it a belief or a thought? Are there different degrees of it: infatuation, attraction, etc.? In many ways, it is hard for all of us to conceive the same concept of love. We use the word a lot, but often, I'm not sure we are all saying the same thing.
In this particular instance, we are talking about the Greek word used in the new testament: AGAPE, God's love. It may at times look similar to other loves we see because romantic love and family/brotherly love have similar characteristics. There are two main passages of scripture I use to define love. One I've already partly quoted above: 1 Corinthians 13. In it, Paul defines what it looks like for the church to share God's love. It was a way to bring the church together in unity even though they all had different gifts/talents/abilities/roles/positions. Love is their higher calling, a deeper purpose and meaning.
The other is Jesus' words in John 15:13,
No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.
Not many of us get the chance to actually physically die for our friends. Some do, but not all. So I don't think Jesus wants us to go around looking for ways to die for each other, but he is giving us himself as an example. Our sacrifice of love is not one time on a cross in physical death, but daily taking up the cross to love generously. It is sacrificing our selfishness, and finding ways to live selflessly.
Because there is such a diverse understanding and implementation of the word "love," I wonder if in the church, we shouldn't use a special word to talk of Agape, God's Love. Let's call it, Grace.
I was born and raised United Methodist. If there is one word I hear used over and over again to describe God's love in Jesus Christ, it is Grace. In fact, when I was 10 years old, my grandmother had me memorize Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and not by works, so that no one may boast." Emphasizing reliance on Grace is great! But sometimes we get confused on what that means.
Sure, God's love is a free gift that you didn't, nor could you earn, but that doesn't mean you do nothing. Too often, that's what I see and hear. People claim God's love and grace as a "get out of hell free card," which it is not intended to be. One may sit waiting for God to do something, when it's perfectly within her/his means and ability to do something of their own (empowered by God's love). Or, one may keep doing harmful things, things they know aren't right, and claim grace saying, "God will forgive me." Yes, but you're making a mockery of God's love.
Grace Is Meant To Be Responded To
God's love, Grace, is intense. It is overwhelming. When Paul writes "Love is Patient," he's not just telling you to be patient and wait. He's inviting you to think about how Patient God is with you. All of your wandering (and wondering). All of your failures, your doubts, your brokenness, your fears, your lies, your mistakes. All of the things that you've done wrong, or have been done to you. Through all of it, God is patiently loving you with open arms. Longing for you to see His Grace. That is a patience that we can only hope to achieve in a lifetime. God longs to be your first love, THE love of all loves. Sure, you may not believe it, but God loves you anyway. You may have seen Christians fail at it, badly, but still God showers us with Grace and Love. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:8, "Love never fails." And the Psalmist many times says, "God's steadfast love endures forever." It is the one constant truth you can rely upon for eternity. That's why you need it so badly, and life without it is not much of a life at all.
This concept of love is overwhelming. It's more than an emotion or action or thought. It is all of that rolled together. It inspires crazy things (just Google "crazy things people do for love" and see the stories). Love inspired God to leave the perfection and power of heaven to become human like and me, just so there could be more love. Radical Love suspends our logical thinking, and I'm glad it did for God too. I have Life because of it.
Grace compels a response. Grace is not opposed to Effort. It is opposed to Earning. When you love someone, you show it. You show it whether or not they love you back. You show it, even if there is little chance of receiving it back. Do the same with Grace, God's love. It's not like you will run out. Love will even inspire you to love enemies (I think Jesus said something about that too).
Do The Right Things
Grace is not an excuse to not show effort. In fact, God's grace is so transformative, it should produce the most effort you've ever put into anything. You do a lot of things in the day. Some are substantial, others are trivial. Do they all lead to Love? Is your life busy, yet empty? Maybe you're missing the one thing you really need: Love. Let Grace grow in your heart and life. Let the knowledge of God's love in Christ Jesus overwhelm your being. Respond to it and show it. Let it increase more and more, not because you earned it, but because God's love never ends. Love first, then see what happens.
There are many types of different non-active Christians. There are those who used to be, but were hurt or turned-off by the church. There are those who went to church as a kid, but never really owned the practice of faith for themselves. There are those who have never had any connection to Christianity except for what they've seen, read or heard from others; and even then, that is probably very little. I want to focus on this last group, which may be harder than I realize. But, I think if I focus on that group, I can probably pick up some of the others along the way. (I suppose I could be wrong about that.)
Do You Connect?
I have a lot of questions about what life is like for a non-Christian, mainly because, I've never really been one. I was born into a "Christian home". My dad is a United Methodist, and my mom was raised Roman Catholic, and my step-mom was raised Church of God (Anderson, a holiness church). I was baptized as an infant, and raised in the church. My dad is a more charismatic type of United Methodist, and he took us to other denominations' (or non-denominations') mid-week services that had different worship experiences than our Sunday mornings. I was active in my United Methodist youth group as a teenager, and in inter-denominational Christian ministry. My friends were mostly Christians of some sort: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. I went to college and was involved in the United Methodist Campus Ministry, the First UMC, Campus Crusade for Christ, Campus Christian Fellowship, etc. I've read the Bible pretty much since I was old enough to read, and I've always thought of the voice in my head as an ongoing prayer conversation with God. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is about all I know. I'm not perfect at it, but I can talk the talk and walk the walk...in my sleep. I'm NOT saying this to brag. I'm saying this because I realize how different I am from the Mission Field. I'm realizing that in many ways I live an insulated life, in a "church bubble."
My language is different. My priorities are different (to a degree). The things I think about are different. The books I read are different. How I want to raise my kids is different. How I choose to spend my money is different (again, to a degree). My general worldview is different. I don't fit-in to one particular political party. I listen to different music and radio stations. Out of all of these, I think the biggest differences that impact my practice of ministry is Language and Worldview.
In order to connect with the mission field, I need to be able to speak the language. And, I need to talk about things that people care about. If I can't do those two things, then it will be almost impossible for people to hear me. Fortunately, I hope (and know) The Holy Spirit can make up for my lack of connection. But I still want to do my best to connect, especially with the language I use. Too often, I use "churchy" words, or overly-theological concepts. How do I translate the good news of Jesus Christ to language people can hear, both actions and words?
You're not THAT Different
Truthfully, in many ways, I'm not that different from the mission field. Since I'm serving in the Midwestern United States, and only an hour from my hometown and place of birth, I can identify with a lot of the people around me. I'm a white, middle-class, American, and so are most of the people in my community. There is a lot of overlap in language, music, priorities, and worldview. Emphasizing those gives me a way to connect. Probably the biggest connection I can make with someone is that we face similar struggles, and together, with Christ, we can make it. That's good news!
How do you overcome a lack of connection with the mission field? Simple: Get Connected! Find ways to make friends with those you're trying to reach. Make sure it's true friendship and not just a means to an end of "conversion" so you can get another notch in your belt and feel good about yourself. The real motivation here is Love, God's love. Find ways to run in different circles, become friends with people in your community (people outside your church attendance/membership) and learn their language, priorities, worldview, struggles, etc. Walk with them and guide them to follow Jesus Christ. Of course, this means you have to be doing your best to follow Jesus too.
I'm not really an expert on this. I'm learning as I go. Will you help me? How do you make new friends and connect with the mission field? How are you investing in people's lives? How do you cross cultural barriers? How do you overcome self-made barriers, or a lack of confidence in the ability to connect with strangers? How do you escape getting caught in "churchy" language?
What ideas do you have, or what has worded for you? What have you read that helps you with this?
If you haven't made reaching your mission field a top priority in your following of Jesus Christ, then I highly suggest you consider it and think deeply about these questions. Why? Because God's love compels you.
This past week, there was "the fight of the century" in boxing, a bout between Mayweather and Pacquiao. I heard many commentators in the media say that watching and paying to watch the fight was supporting Mayweather's domestic violence and misogynistic attitude towards women. The commentators with this perspective were encouraging people to not watch the fight, and not give money to support that. The funny thing is, WE DO THAT ALL THE TIME. We unkowningly support things we disagree with by how we operate as consumers. We even KNOWINGLY support things we disagree with in the name of convenience and comfort. We do things we don't really want to do, which sounds a lot like a scripture passage.
Romans 7 has always been an impactful passage of scripture for me. It reminds me that biblical heroes like Paul had similar struggles to mine. He obviously had a habit of doing things he really didn’t want to do. He says it’s not really him that does it, but “sin that lives within me.” What does Paul mean by that phrase? I'm not sure we can totally decipher exactly what he meant when he wrote it (or had it written), but I think I have an idea what it could mean for us today as USAmerican Christians.
As I try to live my life as a follower of Christ, I encounter a huge problem that I can’t escape. Much like the one Paul describes in Romans 7 saying, “Who will save me from this body of death?” Here's the issue: the taxes I pay to the government support things and pay for activities that I don't agree with. Also, many of the products I buy fund companies, directly or indirectly, that have policies and activities I don't agree with. In addition, my parents and the culture I live in, have influenced, shaped and formed, my thinking and habits to perpetually do things in ways that benefit oppressive systems--sin. Much of this happens without much active participation on my part. These types of issues are almost inescapable.
The bits and pieces of "Empire" (read as "oppressive systems") that pervade my thinking and living are "dwelling within" me. I cannot escape where my money goes when I pay taxes or buy certain goods. I can try, but it is near impossible to completely eradicate it. "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24).
Paul's answer, "Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ." He then goes on to write Romans 8, speaking of "Life in the Spirit." God delivers us from the oppressive systems, even though we still participate with and benefit from them. We are to live "Life in the Spirit" instead of "in the flesh." I'm proposing that "life in the flesh" and "the sin that lives within me" are not only the temptations we face on a personal level, but the ways our culture/society has shaped us into patterns of behaving and thinking that are contrary to the Kingdom of God. What then, are we to do?
Consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive in Christ.
Surrender your power to the power of Christ.
One day, the Kingdom of God will be fully embodied on earth. It has already begun in Christ and The Church.
The Empire employs a divide and conquer strategy, keeping us focused on arguing and fighting each other instead of the systems of control that oppress us: white vs. black, rich vs. poor, Christian vs. Muslim, gay vs. straight, red vs. blue, liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, etc. Anything to keep the machine of oppression going under our noses. Or, The Empire keeps us focused on anything but its oppressive ways. Perhaps interpreting scripture to keep you focused on your personal temptations, and accusing you. This is why reading Romans 7 with this slight difference is eye-opening.
Is the U.S.A. a bad evil empire? No, not completely. Is the U.S.A. a perfect country? No, not completely. There are a lot of good things about our country, and I'm glad I live here. We may even be the least of evils, a place that is still full of hope for those seeking a better life. But don't be fooled to thinking that we've reached the promised land. Corruption is rampant. Who/what is to blame? Greed, Hubris, Abuse of Power, Selfishness, etc.
But the fruit of the Spirit is: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Gentleness, Faithfulness, and Self-Control.
[There are a couple of things that have converged to make me think about this scripture in terms that are political rather than spiritual. In the past, I always thought of it as a spiritual-only type of statement, but it’s much more real and tangible and holistic than that. I recently heard premiere Old Testament Scholar Dr. Walter Brueggemann speak about ideas from his books Out of Babylon and The Prophetic Imagination. The host of the lectures was Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO, whose pastor, Brian Zahnd, also spoke. I recently read Brian’s book, A Farewell to Mars. Both Brueggemann and Zahnd point out the political nature of the New Testament. That is a document portraying a rebellion against the principalities and powers of oppression The Roman Empire (and the Hebrew Bible would contain stuff characterized as Babylon). Also, I am preaching through the first chapters of the Book of Acts, which basically tells the story of the beginnings of this rebellion against the principalities and powers. All of these different things caused me to reflect differently on this passage.]
Growing up evangelical, I was taught that saving people from eternal torment in hell was why telling people about Jesus was important. Now that I've been shaped by more voices and experiences, that doesn't seem to be good enough anymore. In fact, "turn or burn" preaching seems to be a real turn off to most people, adding to the perception that Christians are judgmental and condemning. Besides, as effective as it is, I have never really thought that using fear as a motivator is ethically or morally correct. Meaning, I don't think God wants us to use fear to motivate people.
Let's take a look at the question: "Why is reaching the lost important?" First, who is "the lost." That's pretty judgmental to assume that some one or a group of people are "lost." What does it mean to be lost? In a literal sense, it means some one who doesn't know where they are, or how to get where they want to go, or maybe they don't know where they're going. In Christian circles, I've heard some say it means "people who don't know Jesus." I thought this for quite a while, and still do to a degree. The more I think about it "lost" isn't a judgment of someone's character or pre-eminent eternal destination if they're not "found." I tend to think of lost as "naive" or part of unjust systems without knowing it. In this sense, we are all "lost"...almost hopelessly. We all participate in unjust/sinful systems without knowing it, and many people bury their heads in the sand. We go through life trying just to be "ok" and survive with some enjoyment here and there. Occassionally, we may become aware of how we participate in unjust systems, but we find a way to push it aside, deny it, and get back to being "ok." Could this be what it means to be lost?
I think most people come to a place where they realize just how lost they are. You get to a point in life and you think, "How did I ever get here?" Then we find a way to get back to "ok." We buy some more stuff, or change jobs, or move to a new place. We change our relationships even through difficult things like divorce. All trying to find some kind of existence that's "ok."
What if, Heaven is real, and there's more than just "ok"? What if all of this stuff we're using to feel "ok" is keeping us distracted from the reality of the kingdom of heaven? What if we've been led astray by shiny things that promise to make us "ok" when really, there's abundant life breaking in to every moment all around us? This abundant life isn't things that decay and fade, but things that last: love, joy, peace, hope.
For me, reaching the lost is urgent and important, not because I'm afraid God is angry and going to punish and torture them eternally, but because with each breath, and each day that passes is a day they're missing out on The Kingdom of God. It's another day they're missing out on The Abundant Life (John 10:10) that Jesus brings us. It's another day of missing out on the deep joy of life with Christ. It's another day of missing out on the celebration of heaven.
I don't want anyone to miss out on another day of life with Jesus Christ. I don't want anyone to miss out and live another day without the radical, extravagant Love of God in Jesus Christ. I don't want anyone to miss out on another day of 'real' heaven. Heaven on earth that is already here, but not yet complete. That's why sharing my faith and showing God's love is important and urgent.
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?