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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 23: Faith is a Good Start

 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  Matthew 25:34-36,40

Religious circles emphasize the importance of faith. Faith is the belief in something beyond what we can see or fully understand. It provides a broader vision than our eyes can see and a more sensitive hearing than is possible from our ears alone. Faith acknowledges that for all we know and for all the information we have available to us, there is much that is and will always remain a mystery. Religious faith acknowledges a higher, benevolent power that assures all things work together for good. Christians name that power God.

I believe developing a faith in something larger than ourselves and in purposes larger than our circle of attention is important for our individual and collective development, regardless of whether that faith is a religious faith, and regardless of whether we express that faith in a church. Developing faith is a practical way to live. Jesus, in Matthew 17, says that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The implication is that a small amount of faith can increase whatever power is available in order to overcome tremendous challenges.

Faith is a multiplier. We can accomplish more with faith in something beyond ourselves than we can accomplish alone. I want to emphasize the word accomplish. One purpose for the gift of faith is to accomplish something. Not that faith, alone, is not worthwhile. The apostle Paul says we are “justified” by faith, or made right with God. That we establish a faith connection with a higher, benevolent power is one thing. We might even worship that power on Sunday mornings, but are we using the power of that faith to improve the lives around us? God’s power unites with ours, through faith, in order to co-create – God with us – a better world. I believe faith should inspire us to work for justice, to feed the hungry, to welcome strangers, to house the homeless. Jesus modeled a life-giving faith and dedicated himself to meeting the needs of a broken world. He valued his time with his Father, going away from the crowds frequently to pray, but he used that connection to renew his ability to serve. The faith of Jesus is an active, achieving faith, and that type of faith leaves a mark.

The writer of James proclaims that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). The Bible is full of stories of ordinary people who responded in faith and accomplished extraordinary things. Why would we believe anything less is in store for us? Our faith is a wonderful thing, but our faith calls us to greater things. True faith inspires and empowers us to make good things happen in our world.

Faith, by itself, is only the beginning. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

A Reverse Mission

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Matthew 5:7

In his book Here and Now, Henri Nouwen writes, “I have become aware that wherever God’s Spirit is present there is a reverse mission.” He refers to the common realization that those whom we believe need our help – our mission field – often have more to offer us than we have for them. Nouwen continues, “The poor have a mission to the rich, the blacks have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the ‘normal,’ the gay people have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living. Those whom the world has made into victims, God has chosen to be bearers of good news.”

I first heard about reverse missions on a mission trip to Honduras. While my church sends mission teams to Central America every year, I was surprised to learn that Central American churches send missionary teams to the United States, too. This was an easier idea to process once I spent time with some of the people of Honduras. Were they poor? Certainly. Did they lack some fundamental needs like clean water? Yes, they did. Did I return home feeling I had done God’s work in Honduras? No, I did not. I came home feeling like God’s work had been done to me in Honduras.

When we feed the hungry or house the homeless, we perform acts of mercy – meeting a need that another cannot meet on his or her own. Jesus says those who are merciful – those who give mercy – will receive mercy. This is exactly what Nouwen writes. And it fits perfectly with what I experienced in Honduras. What I gave, what I accomplished on behalf of those I went to serve paled in comparison to what I received. My first hint of a reverse mission occurred at the church services I attended the day after I arrived. There was energy and joy beyond anything I had experienced in church before. Congregants praised God with abandon, and reached out in loving fellowship to others (including our mission team) as if we were long-lost members of their own family. I was perplexed that people lacking in so many basic necessities could be filled with such joy. But they were.

I went to Honduras on a mission – to give some of what I have in the United States to the people of Honduras. I left Honduras with the knowledge that much of what we value in the United States is of little or no lasting value, and much more valued here than it should be. We are distracted from our true blessings of love, relationship, and fellowship, by the sheer abundance of our dominating distractions, like perpetual internet access and cell reception. Our relationships become shallow and impersonal. Deep, loving, and healing connections happen face-to-face, not text-to-text.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be a blessing; be blessed.

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Life Notes

Less Human

Terrors frighten them on every side, and chase them at their heels. Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling. Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly, such is the place of those who do not know God.  Job 18:11-12, 21

Recently, I heard a radio interview with a Syrian refugee. He had been displaced from his home and life by the intense violence and unrest there. In describing the desperate state of his homeland and fellow Syrians he said, “Nothing makes you less human than being hungry.” My life is so sheltered and blessed compared to the lives of so many that it is difficult to imagine being that ravenous. I recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which illustrates how we cannot strive for higher, more human traits when our most basic needs are left wanting. When a person has no sense of security – no food, roof over their head, or basic space of their own – they cannot worry about how their words or actions will impact others, and so they may act in ways less human. Fundamental needs must be met before other more human traits can manifest.

It is difficult for those of us in first world countries to imagine such a degree of desperation. Typically, when we say we are “starving” it means we have not eaten for several hours, not that we have not eaten in days, or that we have not eaten adequately – ever. When we say we need “space,” we do not mean we need protection from the elements or criminals as much as we need a break from the abundance of people and material goods around us. I recall the secured fortresses around most living spaces in Honduras and understand them to be the result of their desperate need for safety. It seemed to me, at first glance, there were many needs the money could be better spent meeting than on personal security, but basic needs always come first.

We all hunger for different things in our lives and some of our desires cause us to be less human to others. Obviously, not all of us hunger for things as basic as food and safety. Rampant gang violence, civil wars, and other acts of lethal violence seem to occur mostly in poor countries and in the poorest sections of first world countries. Perhaps the conditions that result in the widespread loss of innocent human lives continue because the basic needs of the perpetrators are not being met – and so they act in ways we consider less human. The finger of judgement I point at these wrongdoers, however, ultimately points back at me. What am I doing to assist with the basic needs of people less fortunate than I am? What am I doing to feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and protect the vulnerable? If I am honest with myself, I am doing far too little. The Job passage above implies these are the conditions of the “ungodly” or of “those who do not know God.” Perhaps we can best help them know God by finding ways to feed them.

Come home to church this Sunday. The body of Christ needs you.

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Life Notes

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 1

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Luke 6:20-21

As I prepared for my recent mission trip to Honduras, I checked the State Department’s website for information. There were 3 countries with travel warnings for U.S. citizens: Chad, Syria, and Honduras. Robbery, kidnapping, and murder rates of U.S. citizens are particularly high in those countries. I had not thought of Honduras as a particularly violent country, but there were hints of the violence visible immediately on our arrival. There were armed guards at the airport – military personnel grouped in twos or threes, all carrying machine guns, patrolling the corridors. In addition, most housing and business areas looked like fortresses. Concrete walls, razor wire, barbed wire, and electric wire surrounded most of the homes and housing areas we saw. Doors were metal and windows barred. Many businesses had armed guards standing at the door. As we drove to and from a church service on Sunday, we were warned to keep the tinted windows of our van closed so locals could not see the van was full of white people. Beggars and panhandlers populated worksitethe street corners, walking into traffic seeking money. The church where we worked during the week was locked down tight, and at least one worker (and two dogs) were there 24/7 to discourage looting of the tools. You get the picture – crime is rampant, and the measures taken to keep violence out also kept people like me locked inside. Honestly, one of my initial thoughts was whether I was being protected from the people of Honduras, or if they were being protected from me. Perhaps the truth was some combination of both, and I found that sad.

The parts of Honduras I became most familiar with – the work site and the mission house – were hardly filled with anything likely to be stolen in the United States. They were, however, valuable in Honduras – basic as they were by our standards. For a hungry person with few options, even a worn-out shovel could be traded for a meal. Our landfills are full of items that would have much utility in third-world countries. No doubt, many U.S. families throw out more food in a week than some Honduran families consume.

The poverty I witnessed in Honduras led to various types of desperation. People went to great lengths to protect what little they possessed. Large numbers of people sought tips for providing various unsolicited “services” – pumping gas, carrying luggage, helping guide cars into parking spots, selling cookies or pirated CDs at restaurants. What I witnessed was the desperation of poverty, and it was a side of humanity largely foreign to me, at least to this degree. I remember the line from an old Bob Dylan song, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.” I think I observed the conditions that breed criminals and terrorists. I witnessed hard realities in one small area of one small, third-world country among the dozens that populate so much of our planet. I do not know the solution to poverty or the desperation it brings. I only know that having witnessed it, I can no longer not see it.

Come home to church this Sunday. Pray for those caught in the desperation of poverty.

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Life Notes

 

Swallowing Camels

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe … (but) have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  Matthew 23:23-24

 Too often, I lose sight of what really matters. Usually, it is easier to get lost in the details of an issue than to focus on the bigger picture. The minutia in our life is clear-cut, but the whole-life-view is blurry. We have sayings that capture the sentiment: “He cannot see the forest for the trees,” or “She majors in minors,” or “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Jesus said it even better: “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” We immerse ourselves in the small stuff while neglecting the reason for doing the small stuff.

Jesus reserved his harshest name-calling for two groups of people: the scribes and the Pharisees. These two groups were devout and pious about their religion. In their attempt to do everything “right,” they did nothing righteous. In fact, because they did not understand religion’s larger purpose, they led others astray. They made following the religious laws the focus of seeking God, and ignored God’s issues of justice, mercy, and faith. Jesus called these obsessive zealots “hypocrites” and “blind guides.” That was strong language for such “holy” beings. It is little wonder they had Jesus crucified.

How does one eat a camel?  Just like one eats an elephant – one bite at a time. We consume our days in endless details, leaving no time or energy for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith and Gulp! We just swallowed a big bite of camel. As time passes, we get used to the taste. Not having to deal with the squishy, impossible-to-solve issues of faithful followership can make the lingering aftertaste of camel fur almost pleasant by comparison. Straining out gnats is so much easier, and at the end of the day, we feel like we accomplished something. Unfortunately, straining gnats does not bring us into relationship with Christ, nor does it move God’s will forward on earth.

Clearly, we cannot accomplish anything worthwhile without paying attention to certain details. We also cannot mistake the details for the end goal, however. If, at the end of the day, everything on our to-do list has been checked off, we should be a step closer to something else of larger importance. Small tasks are like fruit flies – kill one and a hundred more appear. Eventually, we may have to allow a few gnats into our soup in order to focus on our purpose on earth. We are created in the image of God, and we, in partnership with our spiritual brothers and sisters, were created for great things!

Come home to church this Sunday. Better to eat a few gnats than to swallow a camel.

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Never Forget 

This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.

Luke 22:19 

One tragic moment can turn life around, in ways so painfully new;

But in our sorrow, in a thousand ways, we will remember you…

Excerpt from Never Forget

I work in the air-medical transport community and over the forty-plus years of its existence, our industry has lost more than 300 of its associates in the line of duty. An air-medical accident – most commonly a helicopter crash – usually occurs because of poor decision-making on the part of one or more people. Of course, we all make poor decisions, but some decisions have more severe and irreversible consequences than others. In most public-service endeavors – EMS, fire, law enforcement, military – losing a comrade in the line of duty creates sudden, long-lasting, and violent shock-waves that reverberate far beyond the family and friends of the ones lost.

Remembering is important. Near the end of the last meal with his disciples, Jesus blessed and broke bread, poured wine, and told his closest companions to remember him every time they ate and drank. This request was not made out of a narcissistic fear of being forgotten. Rather, the request was made out of a knowledge that his friends – and us today – would need to remember, not for his sake but for ours. Whenever we form a close bond with another – through marriage, friendship, or profession – we become a part of a family that is larger than our single existence. When we lose a person in that family, we often need to re-member, to reestablish and celebrate that bond, and to have that person in our presence again, if only in our memory.

Some are reluctant to dwell on memories of loved ones because they find it too painful. In reality, it may be more painful not to remember. In his book The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes, “The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.” Cherished memories may hurt by reminding us of what we have lost, but repressing those memories will hurt more.

Keeping the memory of a loved one alive helps our healing process. Indeed, when someone close to us passes, remembering is a primary way to reconnect with them. We cherish items they valued; we return to the scene of the accident; we linger over their pictures. By remembering, we bring a past reality to the present again. While the memory is not as tangible as the reality was, it often allows for a renewing of our focus on today and tomorrow. We remember the sacrifice and the love of others who valued us enough to put their lives on the line for us. We remember our spouse, our friend, our co-worker, our Savior; and the memory of that bond strengthens us today. When we remember, we honor our loved ones and keep their impact upon us alive.

Come home to church this Sunday. Re-member into the family of God.

My song, Never Forget, can be heard at my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.Com.

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