“With those who…”: A Post of Joy and Sorrow

A few weeks ago our congregation was able to participate in a joyous occasion. The Hmong ministry that holds their afternoon services in our building was having ten (!) baptisms, and they wanted to do it with us during our morning service. Both congregations watched, clapped, laughed, and rejoiced as one by one each new believer entered the water and was baptized into Jesus the Messiah, assisted by our minister, Pastor Charles Robinson, the Hmong minister, Pastor Don Vang, and myself. It was a wonderful time, full of joy and thankfulness.

Then this past Saturday afternoon the news came that Pastor Don Vang had suddenly passed away of an illness. We were all shocked and speechless, and saddened for his family. He leaves behind a delightful, hardworking wife, sons who are also ministers, and a very sweet and encouraging daughter in high school. Because of timing and clarity, his wife wanted the news broken to their congregation all at once at their service the next day. She asked my father, Pastor Robinson, if he would break the news and deliver a brief message to the group.

Running a church errand, I arrived minutes after the service had started. The scene was heavy. Pastor Vang’s teenage daughter has been acting as their ministry’s worship leader and there she was, leading the team and congregation in worship, barely a day after her father’s passing. She wept as she struggled to sing; my mother went up, stood behind her, and held her as they all continued to sing. Her mother was standing near me, also crying and singing; I hugged her and together everyone cried and sang.

After my Dad’s words, there was more crying and hugging; but there was also prayer and encouragement. Pastor Vang’s wife went around to everyone, embracing them and telling them “he loved you very much”. His daughter knelt down by the smaller children, explaining what was happening and that “we will see him again”. I got to speak and pray with a woman Pastor Vang baptized twenty years ago who said she wasn’t “ready to let go of him yet”.

These moments felt like a complete contrast to the joy and celebration of the baptisms weeks earlier; yet they also felt quite connected, as if the other side of the same coin. The Bible verse that kept running through my mind was one of Paul’s instructions he gave for how to be the Church Body: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans12:15).

Paul’s emphasis on this “with-ness” promotes a love that does for each other what Christ did in being “God with us”. The test of a congregation’s genuine love for each other is their willingness to dive with each other into the deep—the deep joy and the deep sorrow. Being willing to enter into someone else’s joy and sorrow demonstrates that the love we always talk about is genuinely there. When the darkness overwhelms, it’s another’s love that brings the light. There’s always someone in your Church community who needs it; I encourage you to be the one who brings it.

A helpful insight on the Prodigal Parable

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-sonI recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a dual contemplation of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and Jesus’ parable upon which it was based.

Within his book, Nouwen shares many great reflections that are likely familiar to you from the multiple sermons, devotionals, and teachings you’ve heard through the years on the oft-taught parable—the younger brother discovering his father’s love, the older brother realizing he is not forgotten in his father’s love, the father throwing dignity to the wind to share with his sons his loving and joyful heart.  There were many fine and thoughtful insights throughout the book (and for that reason is well worth the read), but there was one I had never heard before that touched me very deeply.  Nouwen himself, having already spent years contemplating the painting, the parable, and what God conveys through them, hadn’t thought of it, either.

It was pointed out to him during a difficult season of his life while he wondered if he should continue ministering at a community for the handicapped.  While speaking with a friend of his, Sue Mosteller, he was postulating whether he was more like the younger son or the elder.  She eventually commented “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”

Nouwen said her words struck him like a thunderbolt.  She continued “You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right.  The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.  Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.  We, at Daybreak, and most people around you don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother.  We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.”

For many years, I’ve also lived from a position of one who is seeking affirmation.  By trying to be the perfect son, a good older brother, or the best kind of friend, I’ve longingly searched for acknowledgment of my existence and the affirmation of my worth.  In the deepest sense, I long to be loved.  Oddly, I know that I am, and yet I frantically continue the search.  It’s as if continually living from a position of one who continuously needs affirmation repeatedly prevents me from being affirmed.  Like with Morpheus’ quip, it’s like I’m trying to draw strength from my weakness.  If I really wish to experience the strength of affirmation, I must experience it from the stronger position of one who gives it to those in need of it.  Therefore, while the short term result of Jesus’ parable is how two brothers reclaim their sonship in their father’s joyful presence, the long term outcome may be that of sons who grow up into fathers themselves, reflecting in their character the love and joy of the father whose compassion shaped it in them.

Such an outcome can be our own if we take the love we’ve received as God’s sons and daughters and through it step up to take our place as fathers and mothers from whose hands of blessing flows the compassion that welcomes back the hungry hearts who’ve been longing for their home.

Kingdom righteousness in the context of enemies | Matthew 5:43-47

As Jesus moves to conclude his commentary on the surpassing righteousness his disciples shall embody, he says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”

The first part of Jesus’ statement is a quote from Leviticus 19:18 where the Israelites are commanded to not hate their brethren, countrymen, or the sons of their people, but to love their neighbor as they love themselves. What did this love look like? They were to leave certain sections of their crops for the poor to pick during harvest; they should pay wages when and to whom they were due. They were to act with complete integrity without lying, stealing, or showing partiality instead of fairness. There was to be no mockery of the disabled or any slandering or standing against a neighbor. In these ways and others, each Israelite was made personally responsible for the corporate harmony of the covenant community.

The second part of Jesus’ statement, however, is no Law quote. But considering Israel’s unique sense of heritage and how the land of the people had long been occupied territory with the Roman Empire’s presence creating an atmosphere thick with tension and hostility, it’s easy to see how the circumstances may have helped nurture a resentment or hatred for their enemies that was deemed generally acceptable. While “hate your enemy” was not commanded or explicitly taught, the sentiment was pervasive and everybody generally understood it and acknowledged it’s “when the chips are down” mentality. Jesus did not.

Speaking much to the culture’s contrary, he said “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Love your enemies. The Leviticus 19 text Jesus referenced had already established what loving their neighbor looked like; Jesus extends its content to be applied also to enemies. That means using our resources to be hospitable or giving them needed sustenance. It means treating them fairly, not getting back at them. It is likely the Jewish community, much as we often do, limited their definition of neighbor to their sphere of likeminded individuals; but as Jesus later conveyed in his story of the good Samaritan, neighbor is determined by proximity, not preference. Even if those in our proximity are enemies.

Pray for those who persecute you. When we tell enemies “I’ll pray for you”, we often say it smugly as something of a retaliatory attempt to seize moral high ground, a sort of self-vindication; if we actually do take time to pray for them, it’s sometimes done with hope they will feel our pain or repent of putting us through it or that they will “see things our way” or that “justice be done”. The Leviticus 19 love was to shape within the individuals of the covenant community a sincere desire to see and effort to make each of their neighbors prosper in holiness and harmony with God, each other, and creation. The same desire and effort for our enemies is nurtured by praying for them. Love and pray; to do for our enemies what we would do for ourselves. But why?

Jesus continued “…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…” This is an echo of Jesus’ earlier peacemakers beatitude, but how or why does loving our enemies and praying for their peace reveal us to be the Father’s children? Jesus explains “for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Both the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous, are creatures who live within and benefit from God’s blessed creation. Creation is a context that connects us all, a familial framework of lifeforms. If we all live beneath the Father’s sun and receive the Father’s rain, we are revealed as sons or agents of the Father by being a brother to creation, evil though it may be. When we love and pray for our enemies, we are participating in the Father’s redemptive work to bring his estranged sons back into the family fold. Love and prayer, for neighbors and enemies, is the work of witnessing redemptive reality.

We all understand the difficulty of what Jesus is calling us to do; in many ways we’re often incredulous to these words. I think Jesus understands that. So he proves his point with some provoking questions: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

If Christ’s kingdom community only loves cliquishly, we neither proclaim nor produce redemptive reality; “what more” are we doing than perpetuating a standard that possesses no cross-shaped magnanimity for bringing humanity into redemptive reality? Participating in redemptive work requires from us a love and prayerfulness that goes the distance, suffering long the hostility of our fellow creation for their sake. When we consider the weight and vastness of eternity, loving and praying for our enemies is not too much to ask. What’s more, when we begin to perceive our enemies as fellow creatures whose redemption Christ is pursuing, we stop seeing them as enemies.

Love and pray. Jesus would do both of these for his enemies while hanging upon the cross. This way of love and prayer for enemies is a cross-shaped lifestyle in which we constantly crucify our “Us vs. Them” prejudices in order to bear witness to what brings us together and restores us as children to the Father’s blessedness.

Introduction to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’

IMG_4556 - CopyHaving set the stage of Jesus’ redemptive reality, Matthew now begins to share the substance of Jesus’ redemptive reality.  The “Sermon on the Mount” is the first of five discourses Matthew records throughout his book.

The context for Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is created by three preceding moments: (a) Jesus’ proclamation to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; (b) Jesus’ healings which demonstrate his kingly authority to establish God’s kingdom reality on Earth; (c) Jesus’ discipleship call for the fishermen to follow him by participating with him in his kingdom reality.

The context for the “Sermon on the Mount” is the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven; the contents for the “Sermon on the Mount” reveal how we participate in and give witness to that kingdom reality.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.  He opened His mouth and began to teach them…”

As he speaks, the redemptive reality of God’s reign begins to be formed in their minds.  The words that flow from his mouth form a way of life afresh with the freedom of his grace and the healing of his holiness; upon this path is a King who reigns over us, a Messiah who walks with us.

In this sermon, Jesus speaks with us, reveals the blessedness of his reality, teaches us to pray, calls us to trust, implores us to forgive, shows us how to live and love.  We learn how to perceive ourselves in relation to the redemptive work he is doing in the world, how we are to redemptively interact with all people, how to live out a righteousness that consists of the character of Christ.

In this sermon, Jesus reveals what life as a citizen of God’s kingdom actually looks like and how our participation gives witness to what will bless the world.

 

Guardian of Goodness in an Unsafe World | Matthew 2:13-14

Joseph, Mary, and toddler Jesus had just received a visit from some eastern astrologers hailing him as “king of the Jews”, expressing wonder and worship as they bowed down and brought him gifts.  It was a remarkable moment, probably giving everyone pause to ponder what God was doing behind the scenes.  But soon after they departed, Joseph had a dream in which an angel warned “Get up!  Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”

Awake and alert, Joseph gets up, readies Mary and the child, and flees to Egypt in the night as Herod’s rage violently descends upon male toddlers of Bethlehem.

It’s a quick story, but poignant.  Jesus’ birth narratives are often read with a “Silent Night” sense of peace and otherworldly wonder; so saturated with serene surreality, we can’t help but hope the story remains so forever.  But like Joseph’s startling dream, we are given a rude awakening here as a very real and actual danger is inserted into the story.

As discussed in the previous post, the incarnation of Jesus is incendiary.  As a toddler, Jesus was no threat, but as an idea, he ignites all manner of reactions in the human heart.  The idea of a new king on the block provoked Herod so sharply, he reacted with mass slaughter.

It’s a moment that adjusts our perceptions of what life with Jesus can be like.  The Jesus story is truly one of joy and peace, but it often plays out in settings of uncertainty, risk, danger, sorrow.

Though a saving story, his is not a safe story.  But it must be this way, for only in distressing settings can Jesus be contrastingly seen as the “Prince of Peace”.

What this new perception does is prevent us from elevating the way of Jesus to some fantastical journey lived for idealism or adventure.  It guards us against perceiving Christian spirituality as something lived out on some higher plane, far above the noise of everyday life.  Christianity must be lived out in the world as it actually is.  As seen in Herod “and all Jerusalem with him”, the way of Jesus is lived out in neighborhoods of apathy, hostility, chaos, uncertainty, suffering, sorrow.

But it is also lived out by neighbors of faith, hope, and love.  Again the text presents us with Joseph who embodies faith, hope, and love by throwing himself into his duty as husband and guardian, packing up his family, and getting them to safety, preserving for all humanity the hope who would save the world.  It’s not sexy work, but its goodness at work.

As I drove into town this morning, I heard a story on the radio of how local preachers were attempting to calm the rioters in Baltimore by linking arms and marching through streets covered with glass and debris, discouraging violence and calling for peace as they go.  I don’t know what became of their efforts, but I’m thankful efforts were made.

Whether in faraway lands or local neighborhoods, wherever injustice, anger, violence, and suffering are present, goodness needs witnesses—men and woman of faith, hope, and love who will step into the uncertainty or danger in order to preserve hope and heal the wounds human horror has waged upon human hearts.  Just as toddler Jesus needed Joseph, hope needs good guardians.

As one trying to walk the way of Jesus, you are one of those good guardians, preserving hope today in the hearts afraid of tomorrow.

A Humane Moment at the Hospital

I spent most of yesterday at the hospital; my Mother was having a simple surgery in the late morning.  After praying with her and saying “See you later”, I went out to the waiting area, which was actually very comfortable and has pretty decent coffee.

I had been doing some reading for about an hour when an older woman sat down a few steps away from me.  I hadn’t noticed until a middle-aged man came over seconds later and said “Hi, I’m (somebody); I’m going to sit with you here until your friend arrives.”

At first she politely resisted—“Oh, that’s okay, you don’t have to”—but he stayed.  He whispered something and she immediately started talking to him about everything.

Apparently her husband had gotten home from work that morning and, while she was still there, he suffered a stroke, unable to talk or move.  While she was speaking, two nurses came out and calmly but urgently gave her a form and said they needed her consent for immediate surgery, to remove the blood clot in his brain.  After she signed, they returned to the surgical area, and she continued talking to the man.

I had finally looked over my shoulder to see the woman: she appeared in her sixties; she was kind of heavy, with black and salty hair, glasses, wrinkled hanging skin, but she had the sweetest voice.  And in that hurting moment, it was a shaking voice, as she tried holding it together.

The man sitting with her was so patient, calmly asking her a question here and there, but letting her do the talking.  She told him how she wasn’t supposed to be at home at that moment, but was glad she was, commenting how “someone was looking out for him”.

Sitting a few steps away, I wanted to go over to her, hug her, hold her; but it was enough for this man to just sit there, kindly, calmly, and be there.

Eventually the woman’s friend arrived, the man wished her the best and left, and I went to the restroom and cried.  It was a humane moment—humanity’s resilient beauty present in hurting chaos.

I couldn’t stop my tears again when I related the story to my Dad later; I don’t know if that man was a hospital volunteer or a chaplain, but how he functioned and interacted with this woman touched me deeply.  There is a level of love I believe we were all created to live out.  It’s lived out patiently, calmly, kindly.  It’s lived out in unimpressive settings toward very average humans in what are often unsung moments and are content to be so.

I don’t know how that woman’s story or her husband’s played out, but similar stories with similar themes play out around us every day in homes and apartments, tables and cubicles nearby; you are more than capable of being the one who can be there if you let yourself dive to a deeper level of love.  This is how we make moments humane.