I aim to think through everything in life from a theological perspective. What I mean by that is that I try to look at the world and form my opinions and take actions in the world based on my understanding of who God is and who God wants me to be. I aim to operate based on who Jesus is, and where I feel like he’s leading me to go. I make every effort to allow the Spirit to guide me as I read Scripture and pray, not that I will become more knowledgeable about Jesus, but that I’ll become more obedient, living my life by the words and teachings of Jesus.
What I hope for the people in my church and for people who claim to be followers of Jesus is that each of us view the world in this way – through theological lenses. My great hope is that we will look first not to our own opinions or our own politics or our own preferences, but that we will look first in all things to God and aim to see the world and live our lives in response to that.
This week, the events in Charlottesville and the response to those events demand that we be theological in our words and in our actions. Very often, being theological requires us to speak into situations that have been politicized. Although it’s been politicized, this is not a political situation, this is a theological situation. Who is God in this? Who are we to be in light of who God is? This is an important time to proclaim theological truth, what we believe about who God is and what God opposes.
Evil is real. Racism is real. Hatred is real. Injustice is real. Oppression is real. Sin is real. What has happened in Charlottesville and what continues happening around the country in the name of white supremacy is indefensible and it is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. There is no plausible way to deny that.
Yet hope is real. Love is real. Forgiveness is real. Grace is real. Reconciliation is real. Justice is real. Jesus. Is. Real. There’s no possible way to stop that, no human effort of hatred and violence that can overcome the love of God. It will not be defeated.
There will not be two sides with very fine people in the end. In the end, only the side of love will prevail. Only the side of goodness will prevail. Only the side of truth will prevail.
When I became a follower of Jesus, I pledged my whole life to follow Jesus.
When I became a follower of Jesus, I pledged to follow a leader whose love and grace transcend the borders of nationality, race, gender, ethnicity, and any other human category.
When I became a follower of Jesus, I pledged to follow a leader who laid down his life not only to save his friends and the people who looked like him, but in order to extend grace even to the people his friends considered enemies.
When I became a follower of Jesus, I gave up my rights to myself and said I would instead give it all to him so that I might be shaped and molded in the way he saw fit.
When I became a follower of Jesus, I gave up my “freedom of speech,” and I made a vow instead to speak life, truth, grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness, even when it’s difficult, even when it doesn’t serve my own interests.
I don’t believe it’s possible to simultaneously follow Jesus and defend the words and actions of people fueled by hatred and self-concern. I don’t believe it’s possible to follow Jesus into a white supremacist rally unless you’re following him there to oppose it. I don’t believe it’s possible to follow Jesus to a podium and do anything other than clearly denounce the evil and hatred that have been unleashed by white supremacist groups and their allies.
This is not a time to be silent. This is not a time to waffle. This is not a time to defend the indefensible.
This is a time to pray for wisdom and forgiveness. This is a time to grieve. This is a time to listen actively to those for whom the effects of this hatred are a daily reality. This is a time to proclaim the truth of our faith.
The book of Revelation contains some of the most beautiful, hope-filled images of what’s to come and toward which we are called to work. I’ve been drawn to this image over and over again in the past several days, and I continue to gain hope from the beauty these words contain.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” Revelation 7:9-10
May it happen soon.
It’s never as easy as we think it is. We want things to fit neatly into our system, into our worldview. We want to feel like we have some level of control over the situation. We want to feel like there’s nothing to fear because if we can control something, we don’t have to fear it. If we can figure something out or master something, we can tell it what to do. We can fix it. We can legislate it into order. And so we approach issues with an agenda, hoping to find justification for the beliefs we already hold.
I am writing this from Amman, Jordan, where I’m spending my spring break with a small team from the U.S. trying to see, hear, and experience the Syrian refugee crisis from one of the places where more Syrians have fled than almost any other place in the world. Jordan’s population has grown by 20% over the last five years as Syrians have fled across the border that Jordan and Syria share, to the north of Jordan.
Tuesday morning, our team started the day by introducing ourselves to each other. One of the themes that emerged from all of the introductions was our desire for unfiltered information. We each said we had a desire to hear what’s actually happening here in an unfiltered way. When we finished introducing ourselves, one of the World Relief staff people said that it is actually a very rare thing to have a group who wants to hear unfiltered information – who just want to hear the facts as they are. He said, “Coming to issues like this with a genuine sense of curiosity is rare.”
Typically, people have already formed their opinions when they come in and they’re looking for information to back up their preconceived notions. This is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in our world, particularly in the United States, when many people would rather only hear the truth that backs up their worldview rather than allowing their worldview to be shaped by the truth. This is not a “one side” or the other issue, it’s a widespread epidemic of fact-anemia. Don’t give me the truth, only give me my truth that I already agree with. This is a dangerous spot to be in as a person and as a society. It’s dangerous as a follower of Jesus to already have in mind what Jesus should say before we go to him to find out what he actually does say. When we only look for Jesus to back up our opinion, we’re no longer following Jesus, we’re asking Jesus to follow us. That’s not discipleship, that’s idolatry, and we’re all guilty of that in some way, shape, or form.
So, on Tuesday, we huddled together in a small room at the World Relief office and we dug in together as different staff people from this region and from the World Relief headquarters shared with us as much unfiltered information as they could about the current crisis in the Middle East and how World Relief is responding to that crisis.
Then, on Wednesday, we visited in the homes of refugee families, mostly near Zarqa, which is situated between Amman, the capital city of Jordan, and Mafraq, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with somewhere around 80,000 refugees living in it. One of the things I’ve learned on this trip is that only 10% of refugees live in refugee camps. Ninety percent of them are trying to find their way outside the camp for a variety of reasons, one of them being safety. Many refugees are women and children whose husbands and fathers are still in their country of origin or who have been killed somewhere along the journey. Many of these women do not feel safe inside refugee camps, because the tents are not secure.
Over the past few days, we’ve learned and been exposed to many things, many difficult realities. We’ve learned about the work of World Relief here in the Middle East. We’ve sat in the homes of refugee families who’ve left everything behind because bombs were detonated in their neighborhoods, their family members were killed, their homes were burned to the ground by government officials.
Our assumptions have been challenged, our pre-conceived notions have been confronted all the way around. As much as we’d like to make this a partisan issue in the United States, the reality doesn’t fit neatly into our partisan worldviews. There are things happening in reality here that are challenging to the core convictions of people on every side of this crisis.
We have so much to process from this trip and from this experience, and I’m still trying to get my brain wrapped around all of it. This seems like such a massive problem, how in the world do we begin to shine some light into the darkest of situations?
For Christians, I don’t think this is primarily a security issue. This is not even primarily a humanitarian issue. I think this is primarily a theological issue.
How are we to treat people who are made in the image of God? How do we extend the grace and love of God in the most difficult of times and situations?
I am continuing to pray and process and will look forward to sharing more of what I’ve learned when I return home.
In the meantime, keep praying for the people who are here, the people who are affected most by this crisis, the people who face daily realities that most of us would never dream of facing.
I really have no idea what to expect on this trip. In a weird way, I’m hoping to have my heart broken. Not because I really want to have my heart broken, but because I’m hoping to, at least in some small way, step in to the suffering that people are experiencing here. Even if just for a moment, I hope to step in to solidarity with people who are hurting, with people who have had their hearts broken, and I hope that by doing so, my heart will also be broken for them. Often people sing and say to God, “Break my heart for what breaks yours.” That’s my prayer as I prepare to go on this trip.
They are probably mostly unfounded, but I’m recognizing that I do have some concerns for my safety on this trip. Three years ago when I traveled to Israel, there was only one time that I felt unsafe (outside of the airport in New York, but that’s another story!), and that’s when a friend and I ended up missing our cab in Jerusalem and walking a couple miles back to the hotel by ourselves at night. No incident happened then that made me feel unsafe, I think it was just the uneasiness of it all, being in a different place, not understanding the language, feeling helpless if I needed to be able to explain myself to someone.
I guess I have some similar concerns about this trip. Different place. Completely foreign to me. There are language, cultural, and religious barriers. And then if I’m perfectly honest, there’s the added complexity that I feel of being an American right now in the Middle East. It’s a complete question mark to me: What’s the attitude of people in the Arab world, the Muslim world, toward Americans right now? What’s the coverage of our politics been like here? What’s the perception the people here have of “regular” Americans? Are we seen as a threat? Are we seen as intolerant and oppressive? Are we seen as the enemy as much as many Americans see Muslims and Middle Easterners as the enemy right now? Will all of that play into our safety and how we’re treated here?
Maybe this is my first heartbreaking insight, this fear that I’m facing – I guess what I’m really asking and what I’m really fearing is “Will I be treated here the way that many Middle Easterners and Muslims are treated in our country right now?” For just a few days, I guess I’m experiencing this from the other side, what so many people face as they make the trip from here in the Middle East to there at home. I don’t know the language. I don’t know the culture. I don’t know what I don’t know. I fear the perception that other people have of me for things that are not of my own doing.
I’m facing that for less than a week this week, what’s it like to face that for the foreseeable future? What must that feel like? What does it feel like to flee from your home for fear of your safety and the lives of your children and to go to a completely new and foreign place where you have no idea how you’ll be welcomed and who will greet you when you arrive?
Most people this time of year think about going to the beach or the mountains or to Disney or having a nice staycation at home. Never one to do what everybody else does, next Sunday night, I am hopping on a plane and flying across the ocean so that I can spend spring break in the Middle East. Here’s why:
One of the hottest items in the news for the past several weeks has been the refugee crisis, particularly in Syria, as the government in the U.S. has been embroiled in a political and legal debate about admitting refugees into our country. I’ve never been one to believe what I hear without digging in on my own, so I’ve tried to become more aware of the facts of the situation. As I’ve done that, I’ve found a lot of information about this crisis that’s deeply troubling to me.
Since 2011, civil war in Syria has caused more than million people to flee from their homes. Around 6 million of those people have fled their homes yet stayed within the borders of Syria, and about 5 million have fled the country altogether as refugees.
Sometimes numbers don’t compute into reality in my head. So, just to try to get your head wrapped around that number, imagine for a second that every man, woman, and child, every nursing home resident, every hospitalized person, young and old and everything in between within the city limits of Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Baltimore, Oklahoma City, Portland, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Atlanta, Memphis, and Nashville suddenly had to flee their homes in the middle of the night in order to save their lives and the lives of their families. Every single person. The populations within those city limits combined would get us somewhere in the ballpark of that 11 million number.
About half of the refugees are children. About half of the children still in Syria are no longer enrolled in school, because so many of the schools aren’t safe. There have been over 4,000 attacks reported on schools in Syria. Cluster bombs, bombs filled with smaller projectiles and explosives designed to wreak havoc over wide areas as large as several football fields, have been dropped repeatedly by Syrian jets on crowded school playgrounds filled with Syrian children. As a parent, I can’t even begin to imagine those kinds of conditions, and I can’t think of anything that would stop me from doing whatever I could possibly do to keep my kids safe and to get them out of those circumstances.
About 10% of the refugees who’ve fled have sought asylum somewhere in Europe. Between October 2011 and December 2016, the U.S. has admitted just over 18,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement, which is slightly more than one tenth of one percent (roughly .16%) of the total number of displaced Syrians. Roughly 90% of the people who’ve fled their homes have remained in Syria or ended up in one of Syria’s border countries, most notably Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
The vast majority of refugees end up in refugee camps or as urban refugees within their own country or neighboring countries. They often flee under the cover of night with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and they end up in places where they have poor shelter, limited access to water, sanitation, and food, where they’re not allowed to work in order to provide for their families, where they don’t have quality healthcare, and where they’re often despised, feared, and less than welcomed by the citizens of the countries to which they’ve fled.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says these words: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick, and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me…whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Refugees, people who’ve fled their homes, their countries, their livelihoods, who’ve left behind their belongings and often even their family members who were too vulnerable to make the trip, embody all the qualities of the people Jesus wanted his followers to love and serve. They are hungry. They are thirsty. They are strangers. They are naked. They are sick. They are confined to refugee camps.
This is likely the largest humanitarian crisis of our generation – there are more refugees in the world right now than at any time since the end of WWII. Sadly, we’re seeing that desperately hurting and vulnerable people, persecuted and rejected people, people who have inherent worth and dignity because they are made in the image of God every bit as much as you and I, people for whom Jesus died, are often being used as political pawns by the leaders on “both sides” of our country in this ongoing debate. It’s difficult to understand and discern fact from fear-based information in a time and a season like this, and often, I’m not sure what to do or what to say.
Here’s what I do know: the times when crisis and pain and devastation are at their worst in the world are the times when followers of Jesus have an opportunity to rise up and be at their best. That invitation, to learn how to share love and hope and grace with people who have been forcibly displaced, abused, and persecuted, is beckoning to me.
So, I am choosing to spend my spring break going to the middle east to meet and hear the stories and learn from these people who have lost everything, to try to understand what’s really happening on the ground in a way that’s unfiltered by our American political system, and ultimately to begin to discern how followers of Jesus like you and I might be able to love them and serve them in their suffering, both here at home and around the globe.
At the end of the day, the call of Jesus on his followers is to welcome the stranger, whether that stranger be next door in our neighborhood or halfway around the world. We have neighbors to love down the street and we have neighbors to love on different continents, and loving each of them well isn’t mutually exclusive. So I’m going to see if I can understand the story of those who we consider “the stranger,” while also becoming a bit of a stranger myself for a few days so that perhaps I can empathize in a new way.
I look forward to sharing what I learn and some of the stories that I hear both while I’m there as circumstances allow and when I return, as well as thinking with you about ways that we might continue to faithfully respond to events and in times like these.
If you’re the praying type, please be in prayer for the small team of people who will be making this trip, for our safety but more importantly that our eyes and hearts would be opened to the ways we can continue to love and serve our neighbors, both near and far.
***In order to prepare for my trip, I have been reading the book Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis, and I highly recommend it. It provides a balanced, faith-based approach to this crisis, and explores it from a variety of angles, sharing statistics and information about the global refugee crisis as well as the process for resettlement as a refugee in the United States. Click here to order a copy and read it along with me. I’d also encourage you to watch the documentary Salam Neighbor, filmed last year in a Syrian refugee camp to get a little more insight into what life is like for those who’ve fled their homes. Click here for more information on that film.
Here are a few other links with helpful information and statistics:
If you look around today, you might see it and wonder what it is. You might be tempted to motion for people to wipe it off. You might think someone hit a bump in the car while putting on their mascara. You might wonder if someone got too close to a fireplace or a fire pit this afternoon. You might just be bold enough to whisper, “I think you have something on your face,” or to ask, “What is that thing on your forehead?”
If you see it, know that it’s not accidental. Today, Christians around the world celebrate something called “Ash Wednesday.” On Ash Wednesday, people will gather in churches all across the globe to pray, and the service will end with someone smudging ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of those gathered. If that’s new to you, I’ll own it: sometimes we Christians do weird things.
However, Ash Wednesday is a really important day, a day to consider a couple of themes that are significant no matter where you fall on the continuum of faith. Today, followers of Jesus around the world pause to pray and think about these two themes:
1) Our own brokenness and sinfulness, the fact that although we often want to do what is right and be in a right relationship with God and with other people, we can’t do it on our own. We lash out. We make mistakes. We say things we wish we wouldn’t have said and do things we wish we wouldn’t have done. As much as we desire to be perfect, or at least to be really good, we simply can’t achieve it by our own effort. On a day like today, you might ask yourself, “Where am I hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally, to myself, the people around me, and to God?”
2) Our own human mortality. We’re not permanent residents on earth. One of the phrases often said on Ash Wednesday is, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” We don’t have unlimited time in our lives. As morbid as it may sound, the places with the most unreached potential in the world are graveyards, filled with people who missed opportunities because they assumed they could always take advantage of them at some other time. On a day like today, you might ask yourself, “If my time on this earth is limited, where am I wasting that time? How can I better use the time I have to love and serve my neighbors? How can I better use the time I have to love and serve God?”
And so Christians across the globe will gather today to celebrate Ash Wednesday, where they will read scriptures such as Psalm 51, which is printed below, and someone will place ashes in the sign of the cross on their forehead to remind them of their brokenness and their mortality, but also of God’s victory over both of those things through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Ash Wednesday begins a season in the church called “Lent.” Lent is the 40 days leading to Easter (not counting Sundays.) The 40 days represent the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness before he started his ministry.
Lent has the potential to be one of the most powerful times of the year if we will dig in to its meaning and purpose, but it’s sometimes a confusing season with mixed messages. People talk about giving things up, but it’s not always clear why. At the core, Lent isn’t intended to be a time of self help or kicking off a new diet or exercise plan. It’s not a time where you’re supposed to torture yourself by giving up your favorite things in life just to see if you can do it. During these 40 days, followers of Jesus focus intently on their relationship with God. Lent is a season of the year for deep contemplation and self-reflection, a time to give things up or take things up in order to grow closer to God and to other people.
Sometimes people give things up that get in the way of their relationship with God, like technology or social media, alcohol or certain foods. Sometimes they make an effort to give things up as a way to change harmful patterns of behavior like sarcasm, snarkiness, and anger. Sometimes they give up eating a meal out per week in order to give the money to people struggling with hunger. They make intentional decisions to cut things out of their lives like selfishness, fear, grudges, greed, and envy.
Sometimes, in addition to giving things up, followers of Jesus take things up, they try to form new habits or routines in order to grow in their relationship with God. They decide to spend the 40 days in the car praying instead of listening to the radio. They decide to get up early in order to develop a habit of spending time with God or to write. They decide to write 40 encouraging notes to people who need them, call 40 important people in their lives to say thank you, or do a small act of kindness every day.
Below is Psalm 51, which is a traditional Ash Wednesday reading. Take a minute to give it a read, and as you read it, ask God to show you some things you can work on during the next 40 days as you try to follow Jesus more closely. Try to think of at least one thing you’d be willing to give up, and at least one thing you’d be willing to take up during this season. Write those things down. Consider sharing your list with someone close to you and asking them to hold you accountable to give up and take up those things.
As you think and read and pray, remember this: We might be imperfect, and we might have limitations, and we might not be able to do all the things we want to do or be the people we want to be. But even in the midst of that, we have a good God. A God of mercy. A God of love. A God of grace and forgiveness. A God of second and third and seventeenth chances. A God who wants us to experience joy and fulfillment in life. What can you do over the next 40 days to connect more closely with that God?
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Last weekend at The Village, we started a new series called “Rooted.” I issued a 21-day challenge for everyone in our church to begin and end every day by trying to “till the soil,” so to speak, to allow God to grow more deeply in our lives. We have a 21-day reading and prayer plan (you can subscribe and follow along here), and I’m going to be writing some unpolished thoughts from my journal here.
TODAY’S READING: ISAIAH 40:28-31
Yesterday morning at The Village, we started a new series called “Rooted.” I issued a 21-day challenge for everyone in our church to begin and end every day by trying to “till the soil,” so to speak, to allow God to grow more deeply in our lives. We have a 21-day reading and prayer plan (you can subscribe and follow along here), and I’m going to be writing some unpolished thoughts from my journal here.
TODAY’S READING: MARK 1:35-39; LUKE 5:16
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
“Everyone is looking for you!”
That’s what the disciples said to Jesus when he went off by himself to spend time praying. They didn’t see the same level of importance for it as Jesus did. For him, it was crucial. For them, it was peripheral, an extra bonus.
Taking intentional time out of our schedules to pray isn’t easy, it’s not something that people around us understand or applaud or encourage. (Even this morning, I got up early to do this before my family was awake so there wouldn’t be any distractions, and right in the middle of my journaling, as if to say, “Not so fast, sucker,” our dog started whining to go out.) The pressures on our time and the distractions in life are relentless!
It says here that even Jesus had to sneak away to lonely places early in the morning before the sun was up and anyone was awake in order to find this time, and even his disciples questioned his priorities. “Why are you off praying by yourself when everyone is looking for you?!?! How do you have time to pray when you’re supposed to be saving the world?”
The thing for Jesus, though, is that his prayer life is what fueled the rest of his ministry. Every time Jesus does something significant, there’s significant prayer that happens before it or during it. Martin Luther, the famous 16th century priest, once said something to the effect of that on his busiest days he knew that he needed to spend 3 hours praying before the day started instead of just 2 hours.
Most of us, myself very much included, feel like we’re too busy to pray. The reality, though, is that we’re probably too busy not to pray.
Today is the Winter Solstice, which means that tonight is the longest night of the year. Christmas is a time when we talk quite a bit about light, but for many people, it’s one of the darkest times of the year. Here are some reflections from my friend Liz Madaris, one of the most faithful and thoughtful people I know.
Recently as I stood in line at a popular coffee shop waiting for my daily caffeine drip, I struck up a conversation with the woman waiting in front of me. We exchanged our observations about the busyness of the season and how the day ahead would include attempts to cross off numerous items on our holiday shopping lists. The line was long enough for me to inquire about her holiday plans, and the joy in her voice as she related long held family Christmas traditions fueled my own excitement as I, too, began to anticipate the time I would spend with my own family this year—especially since I will be celebrating Christmas for the first time with my four-month old daughter.
Later that day I spoke to a friend who had suffered a miscarriage last December. Though she has since experienced the joy of a new pregnancy, she continues to mourn as the reminders of her loss seem freshest during the winter months. The contrast between these two encounters reminded me that many people struggle to experience peace, joy, hope, and love this time of year due to varying circumstances. I thought of another friend who related that she had lost her father to cancer the day after Christmas 34 years ago. For her, this time of year evokes painful memories of losing a beloved parent—even three decades later. There are those who are experiencing the frailty of one’s human body, those who are battling terminal illness, and those who have suffered the unspeakable grief of losing a child. There are those who do not have a place to sleep and food to eat, and there are those whose family’s dynamic may prevent joyous celebration. There are those who suffer alone and those whose suffering we witness in pictures and video on the news and through social media. How can any of us turn our faces away from, most recently, the incomprehensible horror in Aleppo and the murder of innocent children? For many this Christmas season, the cold darkness of the winter nights is a reality, not only in the literal sense of frigid temperatures, but also due to the painful darkness of isolation, depression, worry, and fear.
Throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas, we take time in our worship to light candles and reflect upon the hope, peace, joy, and love offered to us through the coming of Jesus Christ into the world over 2000 years ago. During the birth narrative in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read that, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel—meaning God with us.
God with us.
We reflect upon the love of a God who dwells with us—a God who took on human flesh in the form of Jesus. This very God who chose to walk among us 2000 years ago, continues to reside with us today. It is through the power of Jesus, that we are able to bear witness to the hope, joy, and peace of the kingdom of God. In fact, when Jesus traveled to Galilee to begin his ministry, he proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near!” “Good news” is translated in the New Testament from the Greek word Euangelion—which eventually became what we now know as the word Gospel. The Gospel—the Good News—is embodied in the person of Jesus. The Good News of Christmas is that Jesus was born so that God could dwell among us. We serve a God who is quite literally “with us” and with the coming of Christ we also experience the hope and nearness of God’s kingdom on earth—a kingdom of hope, joy, peace, and love. The story doesn’t end there though. The Good News is two fold. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be kingdom-bearers—agents of grace and mercy in the world. Because God is with us, we have been equipped to share the love of Christ in tangible ways that bear witness to the kingdom of God.
While we will sing “Joy to the World” over the next few days, there are many who wonder how to cling to joy. Let us remember those who grieve during this season and may we refrain from the offering up of empty platitudes. As we approach the longest night of the year this Wednesday, known as the winter solstice, there will be those for whom the longest night does not seem to end. Rather, the darkness and bitter cold will linger because the sting of grief does not simply fade as the night does with the sun’s rise. But while the end of the longest night does not promise an end to grief and sorrow, it does promise that the darkness of tomorrow’s night will be shorter and the light of day will surely increase—much like the hope and light we receive from Christ’s birth gives us the assurance that God is with us always.
It is likely that you too have experienced a form of grief around this time of year—the ending of a relationship, dreams that seem out of reach, an internal struggle that won’t allow reprieve—there are many more we could name. While the good news of Christmas is for all to embrace, it is perhaps most pertinent for those of us who grieve. Jesus did not enter into a world of blissful merry-making, but into a world of grief and chaos and injustice and death. Jesus entered into the world so that our darkness would be illumined by the light of the in-breaking kingdom of God—so that Jesus could be God with us.
Just as God is with us, we are called to dwell with and pray with those who mourn. We are called to let the suffering know they are not alone during the longest nights of the year. Let us acknowledge those who bear the pain of grief this season and whisper to them that God is with them—as are we. As a community of faith, we are called to bear witness to the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst today and tomorrow—during the longest night and each night thereafter. Though many may find it difficult to cling to joy this season, may we cling to the promise that God is indeed with us. May we be peacemakers and embodiments of Christ’s light to our neighbors—tonight, tomorrow, and always. Amen.
The sun came up this Wednesday morning in beauty as it is prone to do. As predicted, as it did, we woke up to a reality where roughly half of the people in our country were excited and celebrating, and half of the people were shocked and grieving.
I’ve seen and heard stories coming from both sides this week. People who are joyous about the outcome because they’ve felt forgotten by the system and they are desperate for a chance to regain their livelihood, and people who are deeply sad and legitimately concerned for their future because of the rhetoric they’ve heard over the past several months from our president-elect. I’ll admit, I’m feeling a deep sense of sadness because of what I’m seeing and hearing and the division that we’re encountering. We’re divided. We’re raw. No side is immune from the ugliness of it all.
On one side, there are people of integrity who weren’t necessarily excited about the choices, but who voted reluctantly for the candidate they thought had better economic policies or would appoint Supreme Court nominees that matched their values. These people are being demonized and vilified and labeled as racists and bigots by people who don’t know them or their hearts or their values. But one vote doesn’t sum up the totality of a person.
On the other side, there’s a woman in a neighborhood near mine who stepped out her front door Wednesday morning only to hear a neighbor across the street yell out at her, “Now that Trump is president, maybe we can get the ni***rs like you out of our neighborhood.” I’ve heard story after story after story after story like this in the past few days, where people feel emboldened and legitimized in their acts of hatred. We can’t pretend like things like this aren’t happening and just hope they go away. We have to be better than this as people.
Confusion. Joy. Despair. Excitement. Uncertainty. Hope. I think we’re all across the spectrum this week as people.
As a pastor and as a person of faith, my first question is always this: as followers of Jesus, now what do we do? If we’re excited this week, what do we do? If we’re grieving this week, what do we do? No matter which side we’re coming from, what do we do now?
I’ll share this thought. No matter which way you voted this week and no matter how you’re feeling about the results, I think what you do today as a follower of Jesus and what you continue to do day after day after that is at this point significantly more important than what button you pushed in the voting booth on Tuesday. We’re at a crucial moment in history where our words and our actions and our responses matter a great deal. Our posts on social media matter. Our eye rolls matter. Our ability to listen and learn before speaking matters. Our willingness to search out the best in other people matters.
As we’ve said on repeat to our boys this week and as we say on repeat to them every day, your job today is to love your neighbor in the name of Jesus no matter who’s siting in the Oval Office or who’s been elected to sit there come January. You are going to hear a lot of things, a lot of messages, a lot of disagreement, and unfortunately, a lot of hate, and it’s going to be coming from all directions. But your job today and all days is to stand for truth and for justice and for peace and for love and grace and mercy and forgiveness because you follow Jesus, not because of who’s been elected. If you claim that Jesus is King of your life, the President doesn’t set your agenda, your allegiance to Christ does.
If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, while the office of president is a powerful office, the president doesn’t hold the power to set the agenda for your life, because you’ve already given that power to King Jesus.
What does that mean? If you’re a follower of Jesus, it means if your neighbor is hurting this week and you disagree with them, don’t shout at them. Recognize and try to understand their hurt. Love them. If your neighbor is sick and they voted differently from you, pray for their healing. If your neighbor has a need but they look different than you do, serve them. If your neighbor, in fear, said they were going to move somewhere else if one candidate or another was elected (and by the way, people on both sides said it), don’t gloat at them about how they ought to get out of your country and don’t let the door hit them on the way out. Listen to them, embrace them, and try to build bridges between you and them. In doing so, you can show the rest of us what’s possible when Jesus is King and we lay aside our own agendas to be agents of his kingdom.
Never before in my lifetime has the church had such an opportunity to rise up and show the world what’s possible between people who say that Jesus is King and the love of God is above every other virtue. With every word: Jesus is King and God is love. With every step: Jesus is King and God is love. With every action: Jesus is King and God is love. If you’re spewing hatred in the name of Jesus or unleashing judgment with the hashtag #godbless, you may need to check again which Jesus you’re proclaiming or which God you’re talking about, because my fear is it may not be the real God, but instead one you’ve made up to back up your own opinion. Rather than pointing fingers at the way other people are failing in these things, maybe many of us would be better off by looking first in the mirror and correcting what we see there.
My great prayer is that people of faith will stand together today and say we are part of this upside down kingdom where we respond in unexpectedly gracious ways, and we’ll allow the vision of this kingdom to shape who we are and what we do. That we’ll fight every temptation to spew toxins of hate, and instead we’ll show a divided and hurting world what this kingdom we’re part of looks like. We’re part of a kingdom where the broken are mended. We’re part of a kingdom where the sad are made whole again. We’re part of a kingdom where people who are hurting are comforted. We’re part of a kingdom where people who are sick are healed. We’re part of a kingdom where people who are divided on everything are able to come together because there’s something bigger than them at work in the atmosphere. The kingdom comes to bear on the world through us, when it isn’t just our mindset but our life’s work.
This Sunday morning, we will gather together at our church. We’ll sing songs of praise to God. We’ll pray together. We’ll read from an ancient text that’s full of life and truth and beauty and a vision for our lives and for our world that will go on long after we’re gone from this earth – a text that proclaims throughout its pages that Jesus is the King of All Kings. And we’ll ask God to align us more and more and more to his will and design for us. And in the light of who God is, we’ll recognize our brokenness and ask for forgiveness for all the ways we’ve made it all about ourselves, trusting in his grace and love and mercy to make us whole and make us one.
And we’ll do it again the next Sunday, and then the next, and then the next, every time asking for the courage and the strength to go out into our neighborhoods and workplaces and schools and streets and put the love of Jesus into practice in real and tangible ways. Asking that no matter what else is going on around us, that God would make us more and more and more like Jesus.
That’s our work. That’s our task. That’s our job. And it is a big one. So whether you’re exuberant this week or whether you’re in shock and mourning, or whether you have no idea what to think or say or do, the work is the same. Love your neighbor, both the one who lives next door to you and the one who lives across the world from you. Serve them. Seek their welfare. Pray for them. Repeat again and again and again and again, hoping that someday, we’ll see the vision of God’s kingdom come to earth fully as it is in heaven.