Sojourners

We have a tendency to get bogged down and distracted by the great amount of negativity surrounding the biblical texts in our culture and society. Maybe it’s the way Christians use the Bible to devalue women or to promote hate, or maybe you’ve been sucked into the scientific debate that focuses our attention on peripheral concerns instead of the beauty of our text.

One biblical concept that restores my faith in the glory of the bible is the sojourner, or the alien, the person dwelling in a foreign land. The cultural chasm between the biblical world and ours is sometimes difficult to cross, but we are keenly aware of what it means to be a in a foreign land.

The life of the sojourner is challenging, isolating and long-suffering. Last week, Canada declared Mexico a safe place to live. That will cause alarm for any who are aware of the growing violence and organized crime making many cities extremely dangerous places to live.

Canada’s designation is not about the living conditions in Mexico or the safety of travel; it is a statement determining how we are going to treat Mexican immigrants. The statement makes certain immigration possibilities unavailable, most notably the refugee status.

We are keenly aware of our borders and cultural surroundings. We feel out of place when we are unfamiliar with language, cultural practices and the unspoken societal rules. We become vulnerable.

Addressing this vulnerability in the sojourner, Leviticus sets an ethical standard far above the societal standards of the time, and even challenges us today.

“You are to not oppress the alien…you are to consider the sojourner a citizen among you…love the alien as yourself…For you were once an alien in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Law codes do two things. First they determine a minimum ethical standard and dictate appropriate actions. Second, every law code contains a motivation. We are most familiar with punitive measures as the motivation, and the Leviticus law code often includes punitive motivation.

When addressing the treatment of sojourners and aliens, however, Leviticus calls for the highest ethical standards: love them as yourself.

The motivation behind the law also changes its impact considerably. Instead of simply dictating actions, the law continues, “for you were once aliens,” and calls the reader to identify with the alien, to identify with the ‘other.’

Found right in the middle of a strict religious law code is this magnificent concept of the sojourner and a call to empathy.

The practice presses beyond any rule that could be put in place. The practice is to identify with the ‘other.’ The practice is empathy.

When you identify with the ‘other,’ the world changes…first in your own eyes…then through your actions.

A version of this article was published in the Maple Ridge News, February 22nd, 2013.

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Redefining Jihad

My JihadWe have a way of organizing our experiences, memories and thoughts that produce some pretty prejudiced outcomes. It prevents us from listening to what someone has to say when we disagree. It prevents us from treating people as individuals with dignity and respect. It has the power to destroy faith and religion.

As a Christian I often find myself fighting against those that have come before me. It is not direct conflict. It is the influence others have had on those I encounter. To explain my faith or my beliefs, or to help someone find faith in a world and culture like ours, I regularly have to redefine Christian language that has been misused and abused by other Christians.

Our Muslim neighbors are experiencing this on a scale unknown to the modern Christian, as their words, their beliefs and their faith have been co-opted by extremists for global terrorism. The actions of a few Muslims have given certain Americans and Christians all they needed to hate and dismiss the many faithful Muslims around the world.

In October of last year, a conservative Christian began a New York add campaign to slander Muslims, referring to them as “savages”, asking the viewer to “defeat Jihad.” A pivotal concept in the faith system of Islam is the ‘jihad,’ but it has become synonymous with ‘terrorism,’ as it has been used by both extremist Muslims and extremists Christians to instill fear into their listeners.

Yes, ‘jihad’ can be defined as a militant holy war on behalf of Islam, but it is better represented in the faiths of millions of Muslims as a ‘personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline,’ as worded by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Under that definition, Christians should not only stop using ‘jihad’ to strike fear into Americans, they should also find a place of reverence and respect for Muslims seeking to more closely align themselves with the heart of God.

The first responses to these hate-ads came from the Christian group, Sojourners, and a Jewish group, Rabbis for Human Rights – North America. Each posted their own ads beside the others in the New York subway stations. They called for love of our neighbors, asked us to choose love over hate, and to reject bigotry. It is an amazing and unique moment to see that type of respect between religions that they (we) can stand with and support one another.

This is wonderful and truly representative of the best of religion, but it doesn’t address the deeper problem in the anti-islamic ads. The real issue at hand is that the millions of faithful Muslims who understand ‘jihad’ in their personal devotion are stereotyped and categorized with the extremist. Our Christian and Jewish ads, while a beautiful gesture, do not understand the depth of the Muslim experience in North America and fail to draw out the necessary introspection in ourselves.

Myjihad.org has launched a national ad campaign to reclaim their language from those who have abused it for political power. In an effort to redefine the word ‘jihad’ in the public sphere and to begin reversing the negative stereotypes, their ad campaign truly speaks to the root of the problem.

Go take a look at what ‘jihad’ means to different Muslims, and share in the process as Muslims reclaim ‘jihad’ for its intended, faithful use.

God is a Mystery

While talking with the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu commented on the greatness of God, saying, “The glory of God is a mystery.” In a world where lives, families, communities and nations have been built upon our knowledge of God, where this information determines our politics, our ethics, our beliefs, and how we treat our sisters and brothers of humanity, Tutu reminds us that God is a mystery.

It is his following reflections that really begin to make us think: “God is actually quite incredible in many ways. But God allows us to misunderstand her…but also to understand her.”

“He can watch us speak, spread hatred, in his name. Apartheid was for a long time justified by the church. We do the same when we say all those awful things we say about gays and lesbians. We speak on behalf of a God of love.”

It is the Christian that can do (and has done) the most damage to the faith of another, or the faith of multitudes. We have watched Westboro Baptist Church drag Christ’s name through the mud, and we’ve watched Christians committing hate crimes, burning down mosques and treating the LGBT community with the kind of hatred only found in the self-righteous Christian.

As Tutu reminds us that part of God’s glory is in God’s “incredible reverence for [our] autonomy,” we are reminded that we can use this freedom and our knowledge of God to oppress God’s people, or we can use this freedom to liberate God’s people.

In these instances and thousands of others, Christianity is used and abused for the sake of power, to control, to maintain the status quo, to promote and sustain the elite. Isn’t it ironic—a little too ironic (sorry)—that God has created a world in which we are given autonomy of thought, belief and speech even at the hindrance of God’s work, yet we use this precise freedom to control and create power structures over others, stifling this God-granted autonomy.

Our God is omnipotent and chooses to love us in a way of pure sacrifice. We, in turn, choose to run with this love and freedom to create and gain power, which our loving God is relinquishing. Ironically, these are our feeble efforts to imitate our loving God…to hate, to oppress, to attack. These are our efforts? This is our legacy? This is our impact on our communities?

In following his thoughts through, Tutu sheds light on religion, “And you have to remember that religion is of itself neither good nor badReligion is a morally neutral thing. It is what you do with it…Religion is good when it produces a Dalai Lama, a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King.

He asks, “What does your faith make you do? Make you become?

This is the question to ask of our faith. The fruit of your vine is your witness and the glory of God.

 

Find the full story of Tutu’s interaction with the Dalai Lama in THE WISDOM OF COMPASSION: Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insights by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan.

When in Texas…

Photo Credit: Flickr user M Glasgow, used under CC license

Photo Credit: Flickr user M Glasgow, used under CC license

In Fort Worth, Texas for the Christmas season, we found ourselves sitting in the midst of the heightened gun control debate following the recent Newton shooting.

We were trying to get to a pajama party at a museum with a special Omni screening of The Polar Express for the kids, but we couldn’t make it through the sea of trucks gridlocked in L.A.-like traffic within a 2 mile radius of the museum (and conveniently the convention center hosting the Lone Star Gun Show). According to later reports, this gun show had record numbers that rivalled the opening hours of Black Friday shopping.

Blown away by the number of military style assault weapons being carried down the street in plain sight by average people, my thoughts naturally turned to crime, gun control, the debate, and their connection to the highly political Christian right.

I live in a strange place, between worlds and worldviews. I grew up in Fort Worth, where the 2nd Amendment is biblical, where personal liberties are biblical even at the expense and danger to the broader community, and where the gun show is the only show more popular than church. Currently, however, I live and work outside Vancouver, BC, where they are quick to give up personal liberties for the safety and security of everyone.

The distinctions between the two show up in a number ways, and I find myself fighting internally over the line between personal liberties and how they impact the broader community. Often I’m concerned with how someone decides what is best for me or how I should protect myself, but I’m keenly aware of how my actions and the actions of others impact our community.

David Heim responded to these recent debates with a quote from Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish scholar, who wrote, “Just as it is forbidden to sell idolaters articles that assist them in idol worship, it is forbidden to sell them articles that can cause harm to many people—for example, bears, lions, weapons, fetters and chains.”

It seems common sensical to him that it is your business to care for the community first, regardless of the cost to your own wealth or liberties. He speaks to a specific people, called to a different ethical standard than the rest of society. His comments understand that others will sell and collect things that bring harm to their community, but your role, as God’s people, is to care for your community and to minimize the potential harm.

We would like to argue that the Bible defends our personal liberties, but truthfully the Bible is a communal book concerned with communal activities. The laws provide ways to naturally care for the community, particularly the vulnerable. The prophets speak against the abuse of the powerful, who forsake the betterment of their community for their own wealth and power. Jesus returns dignity and worth to individuals outcast by society, and the early church takes to communal living in way that cared for one another as Jesus had taught.

More guns and more access leads to more violence in the same way that more television programming and more access has led to more tv viewers for more hours. It is an ethical question: do we concern ourselves with our liberties or our communities?

Asset-Based Ministry (Part 2): Biblical Perspectives on Community

The concepts of Asset-Based Community Development has been effectively used by churches and faith communities to engage their congregations, explore new outreach opportunities and transform communities. While the approach is primarily practical, there are some key biblical concepts that corroborate ABCD principles. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m going to provide some of these connections to aid others in bringing ABCD into faith communities.

Pivotal to asset-based principles is the assumption that every person has not only value but also assets beneficial to the community. So use them. There are two biblical areas that I’d like to highlight. 1) Jesus spends a great deal of time calling us to see value where it was, and is, traditionally ignored. 2) The process of community throughout the Bible, and particularly the early church, gave rise to natural solutions through engagement. When finished, I believe we’ll see that not only are ABCD principles valuable to health and life of the church, but they are actually core Christian values found first in the life and teachings of Jesus and the early church.

On multiple occasions, Paul likens the church to a body, giving readers a vision for both the value of the individual and a vision for working within the community. 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 reads:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

This illustration highlights both the individual and the community aspects of ABCD. We must identify the unique gifts of every individual if we are going to be faithful to the call of community. As Paul continues, he clearly notes that the body of Christ can only function in this way. Even those who appear to be weak or of lesser value, he writes are to be lifted up with even more value than the others. We cannot deny anyone in our community of their gifts and talents.

If we understand this as properly restoring dignity to those in our community who are often left behind, then the function of the body must also be one of engaging the parts of the body. Just as ABCD calls for the engagement from the unique gifts of the community, so does Paul’s body illustration. What good does it do to identify the value and skills of an individual if we fail to engage them and provide a space for those gifts to be used? A body must engage all of its parts to function in the most fruitful and impactful ways.

The greatest struggle for the church in engaging these people might not be in finding value but in releasing control. It is certainly difficult to look beyond our social structures that relegates certain people in our communities, but once we do it is even more difficult to relinquish some of our control to allow these individuals to have a true stake in the community. Only through a sense of ownership can someone have a stake in the community, and that requires church leadership to let go of some of the power and allow more involvement as individuals (especially those relegated into the background) shape the identity and direction of the church.

This is asset-based ministry, and it is not simply a practical method for growth and engagement, it is a core value of Christianity and a central theme throughout the Bible.

Pink Shirt Day: Lessons from our Youth

Source: pinkshirtday.ca

Source: pinkshirtday.caIn 2007, a 9th grader wore a pink polo shirt on the first day of school, and the bullying ensued. He was physically threatened and called a homosexual (probably not the bullies’ chosen verbiage) because he wore a pink shirt. Two older students had heard enough and decided to buy 50 pink shirts from a discount store for students to wear the next day. They contacted as many students as they could to provide a “sea of pink” the next day in an effort to stop bullying in its tracks. In addition to the 50 discounted shirts, literally hundreds of students showed up to provide a truly unique “sea of pink” to support victims and to stand up to bullies. There was never another comment about the pink polo.

This “sea of pink” envisioned by these two (17/18 yr. old) boys has sparked a movement, and yesterday was the 5th annual Pink Shirt Day, where more than 160,000 students and teachers across Canada will wear pink to demonstrate support and to shed light on the serious nature of bullying.

Fast forward to 2010, when another 18 yr old boy, Dharun Ravi, took a different road when he chose to use the webcam on his computer to view his gay roommate with another man, tweet about it, and invite others to view. As his trial gets underway, it is still unclear if there were any criminal actions involved; however, the intent to mock and bully (regardless of the reason) certainly appear to have been his motivation. Unlike the first story, nobody stood up to this bully. Instead of setting an example to follow, he followed the example that was set.

The truth is that bullying doesn’t stop when you turn 18 or 19. Some grow up and mature, but many more discover that institutions, politics or accepted beliefs can be used to mask their bullying as legitimate responses to minorities and outcast. Disparagingly, the church is often one of these institutions and Christian faith is often one of these belief systems manipulated to mask hate and bullying.

Ironically, it is the central figure of our Christian faith that is most notable for standing up against hate and discrimination. The shame of persecutors who marginalize and bully in the first century is consistently brought to light in our gospel accounts. Whether it be a Samaritan, a child, a sinner, a hated tax collector, a disabled beggar, an unclean disease ridden man or a woman, Jesus teaches through his actions of love that we are not to live with hate and superiority that has captivated the world. It is a constant in Jesus’ ministry.

This may be best exemplified by a woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. As the story goes, the woman is brought before Jesus, having clearly sinned and broken a Jewish law that is punishable, according to the law, by death through stoning. Jesus calmly receives the crowd, asks “he who has not sinned” to throw the first stone, and tells her to be on her way and sin no more. She is at fault. The crowd has reason to hate. Punishment is written in the law books. Yet Jesus stands in opposition to hatred, even when it is masked by religious tradition.

I don’t know if the two boys with a vision for a “sea of pink” were Christian. I do know that they resemble Jesus better than many Christians. Our youth yesterday stood up against the oppressive powers and the passive bystander. Jesus taught us to learn from our children; however, we often fail to see their value in our society and expect little from them. In response they often live up to our expectations.

Pastor Seeking Pastoral Advice

When I began applying for ministry positions last year, I sent every potential church my resume accompanied by my wife’s resume. Primarily, I wanted to be clear that my vision for ministry is a partnership, that she brings unique experience and value aside from me, and that we have worked as a team in the past and intend that for our future.

We did not consider the unintended consequences of being in a full-time ministry with a family, and I’m curious about what others have experienced and how they have overcome some of the logistical challenges of ministry. It’s frustrating that anytime one of our children is sick in the family Jenna has to give up her worship time to stay home and care for them. When they’re healthy kids are challenging enough with two parents available to corral them on Sunday mornings, but I’m utterly useless jumping up and down to ensure everything is running smoothly, making sure to spend time with our visitors and of course spending most of the time up front (these things, I signed up for). All of that adds up to Jenna losing a large part of her worship time altogether, with the rest of it greatly degraded and distracted. There are a lot of sacrifices that come with doing ministry (maybe for discussion in future posts), but we didn’t intend for this to be part of what was sacrificed for ministry (and/or maybe family).

This is certainly not a unique experience for pastors’ wives (or husbands), as many parents take on this burden for various uncontrollable and legitimate reasons. Still many other women take on this role because it is expected of them due to misguided biblical perspectives, lazy men, and mothers attempting to fit others’ expectations.

For our family, and for Jenna, this isn’t really acceptable. Together, we’ve been through times where we lacked regular worship and a strong faith community (the latter of which is not missing here), and it is extremely burdensome on spiritual health and growth. We know the end of that story, and it’s not acceptable. This is simply too significant to ignore until it goes away as kids become more independent and manageable on Sunday mornings.

I’m looking for some logistical/spiritual guidance on these matters, hopefully from some seasoned pastor/parents. Where’s the work around?

 

Jenna’s reflections on these thoughts:

Like all moms of young children my time with them is so precious to me. I love being with them and loving them through all the little struggles of daily life. And like all moms (and dads), Bradley and I sacrifice a lot of personal time to do so. As a pastor’s wife, I, unfortunately, give up my entire Sunday morning worship time.  Bradley is busy managing his responsibilities and I am trying to keep Khaim from running down the aisle during communion. I take communion in the playroom, alone or surrounded by a group of boisterous toddlers. My connection with God on Sunday mornings is much different; I miss being able to be engrossed in a worship song and question a sermon (although I get to do this throughout the week as Bradley and I talk through his thoughts).

In a similar, but very different regard, Bradley misses a bit of his own Sunday connection time. Worrying about his sermon, the power point or soundboard problems, he is unable to fully surrender to worship. In that way, I think we are both looking for ways to rekindle our worship in the absence of “our church time.” Any thoughts?

A Week in Review

Here are some interesting reads that I found valuable throughout the week…

Religious-Political Rhetoric: Where’s the line?

The religious rhetoric seems to be at an all time high in the political campaigns of Republican presidential hopefuls, and interestingly, there is no evangelical to be found. Rick Santorum, however, is filling in quite well.

Last weekend Santorum made a media splash when he criticized Obama’s “phony theology.” The firestorm of responses from the media and the public required Santorum to “clarify” that he wasn’t attacking Obama’s faith, but only his worldview, which puts the value of the earth above the value of humanity. You can be sure that his highly charged language achieved their aims, and his conservative base heard the statements clearly, further engraining their skepticism of Obama’s faith. Similar to a lawyer leading a witness (and the jury), it can be stricken from the record, but the damage has already been done. Even if stricken from the record through clarification, the intention to cast doubt on Obama’s faith, or orthodoxy-ness, has already taken root (especially given Santorum’s history of similar comments regarding Obama.).

It may be one thing to talk openly about your faith informing your political decisions. Turning the political debate into a theological debate is quite different and is more appropriate in an elders’ meeting.

The Huffington Post Religion ran a great piece earlier this week that highlighted the first presidential candidate attacked for religious beliefs, Thomas Jefferson. What was Jefferson’s response to the accusations of being an atheist and a heretic? For the most part, he simply ignored the accusations, believing that his policies, actions and leadership would speak for themselves. He felt his personal life (and personal faith) should be of little concern to the American people.

Faith is certainly an indicator of decisions a candidate will make in the Oval Office, but Jefferson may have had the better campaign strategy here. If Santorum has crossed a line with his religious rhetoric, it will ultimately cost him a presidential election primed for the Republican Party.

Dirty political campaigns, especially when charged with theological and religious rhetoric, make great news and even better SNL skits, so I’ll watch with eager anticipation if Santorum gets the nomination.

Giving up Washing Diapers for Lent

Lent, Lenten Season, Sacrifice

Lent, Lenten Season, SacrificeMy tradition doesn’t really follow the liturgical calendar, and I’ve learned about many different Christian traditions after being involved in inter-denominational communities, like seminary and ministerial associations. That being said, I’m joining millions of other Christians this year in giving up something for lent, something that I haven’t done for several years and never really took seriously when I did participate.

Lent is a time of reflection and spiritual discipline. Jesus spent 40 days praying and fasting before beginning his ministry, and likewise, the Lenten season is intended for us to center our lives on what really matters, the heart of God. When we give up something as a spiritual discipline, we intend to call on God for help during times of weakness and distraction. It both draws us to God in humility and draws us away from sin and distraction in the world.

The obvious thought is that I should give up Dr. Pepper, but I quickly realized (as my Tuesday Dr. Pepper rolled over midnight into Ash Wednesday) that 1) I’m from Texas and giving up Dr. Pepper is not realistic, and 2) I felt like I could be more creative and productive in my Lenten sacrifice. Washing diapers is the bane of my existence, and it would be a huge load off my soul to give up washing diapers, but I decided the negative impact on Jenna would adversely affect my ability to successfully sacrifice washing diapers. So I gave up on that too. Those of you that know me might be shocked to hear what I have decided to “sacrifice.”

For Lent, I’m giving up raising my voice in frustration. I’m a very easy-going, happy-go-lucky, comedy-loving person, and this isn’t really about anger, yelling or rage, as that’s not my struggle. To gain attention, out of frustration or for some kind of ineffective emphasis, raising my voice has become more common than I find acceptable. I deal with almost all things in a calm and even-keeled manner, but life is stressful, kids seem to get louder everyday, and sometimes my reactions reflect these pressures instead of my love and gratefulness for my family. At some point, I told Jenna some of my own childhood experiences, and one line really stuck with her: “I don’t remember my Dad ever raising his voice.” This is a statement I want my kids to say about me someday. It will require me to rely on God, to seek persistent humility (even in writing this), and to continually ask for peace and patience.

Additionally, in the spirit of making these 40 days an active spiritual practice, I’m committing to blog everyday during Lent, hopefully not about my above failures. This is an effort to keep my mind churning and my faith fresh, because when I am consistently blogging, I am consistently seeking God’s truth in the world around me. I pray this will be uplifting for myself, my ministry and my readers.

While this is a 40 day commitment, I have sought out “sacrifices” that can be life changing if these 40 days can help me grow in faith and consistency.

What have you given up for Lent? Is it helping you rely on God?