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A group of migrants, mostly women and children, turn themselves into the McAllen Border Patrol after illegally crossing the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas on Wednesday. Illustrates IMMIG-BORDER (category i), by Nick Miroff and Joshua Partlow © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, June 12, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nick Partlow)

What do you suppose is the most unpopular teaching in the Bible? Depending on your theological tradition some might suggest that “repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins” is the most unpopular teaching. Another might say Jesus’s teaching on divorce is the most unpopular teaching in the Bible.  Someone else might say that a couple verses on women by Paul are the most unpopular teaching in the Bible.  But I want to suggest there is a thread in Scripture that seems to be unpopular with believers from nearly all backgrounds in more “conservative” churches and more “progressive” churches.  I nominate the Bible’s extensive teaching regarding aliens to be one of, if not the, most unpopular teaching in the Bible.Being an alien is one of the defining characteristics, an identity mark, of the people of God in Scripture.  It begins with Abram who was an alien in Canaan and then Israel who was a wanderer and alien in Egypt.  The Bible refers to this notion multiple ways but in this piece I will focus solely on the word “alien.” Being aliens ourselves, God’s people are called to be especially attentive to others who are aliens.  The word “alien” occurs 73x in the New International Version of the Bible.  Because we so frequently miss this theme I have decided to simply quote Scripture to impress upon us how prominent this is according to the Holy Spirit.

God’s People as Aliens

“the land where you are now an alien …” (Gen 17.8)

“swear to me that you will not deal falsely with me or my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien” (Gen 21.23; cf. 23.4 & 28.4)

“I have been an alien residing in a foreign land” (Ex 2.22, cf. 18.3)

“Then Israel came to Egypt;
Jacob lived as an alien in the land of Ham …” (Ps 105.23)

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth …” (Hebrews 11.13ff)

“I urge you as aliens and exiles …” (1 Peter 2.11f)

Relationship to “Fellow” Aliens

“There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you” (Ex 12.49)

“[the Sabbath is for] .. you, your son or daughter, your livestock or the alien resident in your towns shall do no work” (Ex 20.10; see Deut 5.14f)

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22.21)

“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23.9)

“[Day of Atonement applies to all] you shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you” (Lev 16.29)

“[Sacrifice rules apply to both Israelite and alien] anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among you who offer a burnt offering …” (Lev 17.8; cf. 22.17-18)

“[Prohibition of blood for both Israelite and alien] … or of the aliens who reside among you eats any blood, I will set my face against that person …” (Lev 17.10, see verses 11-15)

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.9-10)

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.33-34)

“You shall have the same law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the LORD your God” (Lev 24.22)

“If any of you fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall help them as you would an alien” (Lev 25.35)

“Any alien residing among you who wishes to keep the Passover to the LORD shall do so according to the statute … you shall have one statute for the resident alien and the native” (Numbers 9.14, see 15.14-15, 29-30)

“Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between on person and another, whether citizen or resident alien’ (Deut 1.16)

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the aliens, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt …” (Deut 10.17-19)

“You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin. You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.” (Deut 23.7)

“You shall not withhold the wages of the poor or needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they may cry out to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt” (Deut 24.14-15)

“You shall not deprive an alien or orphan justice, you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (Deut 24.17, see vv. 19-21)

“[Israelites come to worship confessing Yahweh’s grace to their ancestors who were “aliens” Deut 26.1-11, after the first fruits are offered] you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house. When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so they may eat their fill within your towns” (Deut 26.11-12, see vv 13-15)

“Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” (Deut 27.19)

“These were the cities [of refuge] designated for all the Israelites, and for the aliens residing among them …” (Joshua 20.9)

“O LORD, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance shine forth! … [For] They crush your people,
O LORD, and afflict your heritage. They kill the widow and the alien, they murder the orphan” (Psalm 94.1-6)

“Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the aliens;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin”
(Psalm 146.5-9)

“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,
if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place …
I will dwell with you in this place” (Jeremiah 7.5-7)

“Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses … But if you do not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation” (Jeremiah 22.3-5)

“The princes of Israel in you, everyone in power, have been bent on shedding blood. Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within your borders suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you … It’s princes within it [the land of Judah] are like roarinig lions tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives; they have taken treasures and precious things; they have made many widows within it … The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted the alien without redress” (Ezekiel 22.6-7, 25, 29f)

[In the restoration of all things God promises the aliens an INHERITANCE …] you shall allot it [the land] as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the LORD God” (Ezekiel 47.21-23)

“The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (Zechariah 7.8-10)

All These Alien Passages are the Foundation for the Word of Jesus

We have not touched all the texts that relate to this unpopular teaching in Scripture.  We have only highlighted some of the ones that use the word “alien.”  Scripture talks about this theme in many other ways and even devotes entire books to the theme, the book of Ruth for example where the word “alien” does not occur but Ruth and Naomi are displaced aliens from Moab.  This theme climaxes in the words of Jesus as he describes the scene on the Day of the Lord.  The words of Jesus have the entire sweep of Story of God before him and behind him as he utters these words.  He identifies himself with the alien,

“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 alien/stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me …” (Matthew 25.34-36)

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Israel, God’s people, the church, is to care for the poor, to support the widows and orphans, and to stand in the gap for the aliens.  Redeemed refugees, that is us, make good neighbors to other aliens.  It may be one of the most unpopular teachings in the Bible but it is also the one that proclaims the reality of grace the loudest.

This is a very difficult topic to write about, particularly in this polarized, contemptuous climate in our country. But I do feel compelled and called to address this as it’s happening in real time, and needs attention by those of us claiming Christianity as our way of life.

I have cried so much these past few weeks. I have been involved in more arguments and misunderstandings via text, phone, and social media than I can count. I have “liked” all of my professors and colleagues posts on empathy and compassion for refugees, and felt my stomach physically turn seeing glaringly opposite posts from those I know who defiantly claim America first. All of these people are Christians. Some quote Jesus’ verses about loving our neighbors as ourselves, and some claim staunch nationalism and lack of concern about the refugees. Again, all of these people claim Christ on their hearts. It is such a quandary to read the words from Jesus Christ’s mouth, express them, and for those words of His to be thrown back like a weapon, as if they don’t apply in this situation. I couldn’t be more convicted that I am to love refugees as myself. But I have sweet friends who do not see it that way. Who’s right, who’s wrong?

I don’t want to cry disheartened tears, or wonder anymore who is seeking what, and whose agenda is being followed. I know Jesus’ words. I trust the ones lashing out know them too, they just see the world completely opposite. So, what are we to do? I don’t have an answer unfortunately. Things are just so explosive and quickly responded to online, it’s certainly seeming to me to be more a curse than a blessing, particularly in this arc of intensity.

I see wholeheartedly why atheists have given up on belief in God after seeing Christians attacking each other online just this past week. Ultimately, it hurts everyone. All I know to do to proceed is give my heart to those in need, and follow the commandment Jesus spoke: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love the neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In order to reach some level of peace within our faith communities, and be a positive example for the world at large, the rage and arguing needs to cease, and we must accept that we just disagree amongst ourselves. Truly this is the only avenue I can see to achieve some sense of unity. And as always, my hope, my prayer, my pilot light is that LOVE does and will prevail.

In the 1980s the Black Student Association at Fresno State displayed this slogan, “We have a SIN problem, not a SKIN problem.” It’s a true statement that sounds overly simplistic. Skin problems are still here because sin is still here. Some briefly thought we might be living in a post-racial world. We now realize that sin hasn’t gone away—and with it tensions about race have resurfaced with a vengeance. We live in what could best be described as “a post post-racial world” where distrust & division are rearing their heads in places we thought we’d made great progress.

In Romans, Paul argues that sin is responsible for a divided world. (See my earlier posts.) Sin weaves its way among us: idolatry, greed, arrogance, sanctimoniousness, sexual immorality, bigotry and racism. These divide nations and people. They even wreak havoc in the minds of Christians and in churches. Sin is powerful.

God’s power is stronger still, and the church should be a force for unity. Paul’s words in Rom 15:4-13 summarize the great Romans epistle and its passionate treatise to bring all creation together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

If all creation is to live under Jesus, shouldn’t the church be working toward that goal even now? Yet how are we to bring people together in a world afflicted by a sin problem? Where do we begin?

We see in Rom 15 that Paul has the answer. If sin is today’s problem, then God’s righteousness is tomorrow’s answer. This was Paul’s conclusion back in Rom 11:26, And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” This is a challenging text to say the least. I can give you a nutshell version of what Paul is saying: God is so just and God’s plans are so right that God’s promises of salvation for all will eventually come true—in spite of the apparent rejection of these plans by hard-hearted people. How is this possible? How can God accept those who appear to reject his plans?

That’s why Rom 15:4-13 is so helpful. It lays out the explanation which is essentially a summary of Romans: For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised, on behalf of the truth of God, in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy (Rom 15:8-9a). CliffsNotes’ version: All people now receive God’s mercy.

This is the central thesis upon which Paul builds his most important instruction. This is the foundation for what he tells us to do—and for how he explains his ministry to those who scoff at his love for Gentiles. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (15:7). This has been Paul’s concluding exhortation since chapter 12: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Let love be genuine. Bless those who persecute you. And in chapter 14, Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. In other words, live your lives to God’s glory by welcoming others.

What’s the point? Paul is telling us to stop worrying about how or if God will sort things out. Why? Because God has already taken care of it. Instead of deciding who’s in and who’s out, your job is simple: Welcome people!

But some will retort, “What about 1 Cor 5 when Paul told them to kick out an immoral brother? Paul doesn’t want us to welcome sinners!” This is the go-to passage for this issue, and I understand why. But singling this out without paying attention to the bigger canonical message creates room for unhealthy interpretations. What’s a good way to read this?

When you pay attention to Paul’s bigger message, you see a trend. In 1 Cor 5, Paul is concerned—as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus—about the witness of Christ’s body and about the salvation of all creation. This man’s actions are divisive, and not only within the church. His behavior is disgraceful in the world, too, and it’s destroying the church’s witness.

So he tells them to kick the brother out so they can restore the unity of the church and the integrity of their mission. But notice an often overlooked part of this passage: Send him on his way so that his spirit will be saved on the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5b). The man’s salvation is not the question here. This is all about the church’s mission. Paul tells them to disassociate from him as to add no extra obstacle to the already difficult task of preaching Christ crucified.

I know this doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t simplify hard issues like same-sex attraction or Christian-Muslim relations. But here’s what it boils down to:

God’s righteousness will triumph! In the meantime, we should welcome people! Welcome each other. Welcome your weaker brother. Welcome your neighbor. Welcome those who are different. For God through Jesus welcomed you.

Christ sacrificed everything so that we as sinful people could enter God’s house. Now, we should follow Christ’s example and welcome others. Why? Because God is just, and God’s plans are right. God will do whatever is necessary to fulfill the promises. The image of God is in each of us. If you strip away the sin that divides us—the lies, the falsehoods, the immorality, the prejudices—then we are all humble servants born into the family of God ready to receive the promises of God and to do our jobs for the sake of God’s good purposes.

Yes, we have a skin problem. We can’t help but judge based on what we see. But it’s ultimately a SIN problem. And God has given us the key to overcoming the divides of sin. You must welcome others! Since God has overcome sin through Jesus, we too ought to show welcome.

In 2017, I pray that the church will be more unified than ever as we welcome others under the Lordship of Jesus.

I’ve become heart-weary over the angst and seemingly non-stop feuding on social media over political matters.

Admittedly, I too have posted things, some in jest with silly emojis, some from my soul’s take on the current climate. Somehow someway, and I do not claim to be the bearer of answers, we must get back to civility and the art of empathy.

In the halls at Divinity School, empathy is innate and a cornerstone to our learning. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is not a newly-printed bumper sticker or meme. As a highly-sensitive person, I feel the weight of the pain of my friends who are living in fear. One doesn’t have to agree with anyone, but in order to reflect our Jesus, we need to listen to attempt to understand pain. It may be pain we don’t comprehend. It may be a collective group or those we haven’t paid attention to before. But I remind myself constantly who did Jesus go to? He went to the outcasts. I am a widow, my son is now fatherless in the earthly sense. Jesus comes to us. He goes to the Contributor newspaper saleswomen and salesmen. He goes to the homeless man on Third Avenue in Nashville via my son with a water bottle. He goes to those without. What a good, kind, loving Man is He.

How would His story have played out if He was royalty living it up in a castle, throwing parties and gloating over His power? It couldn’t have because He is the Man of dusty sandals, gentle hands, of little means, and expansive empathy. May we all, no matter what viewpoints we hold, remember Jesus was empathy in the flesh. Our following His lead is the way to peace and harmony. He’s got us in His palm, now let’s hold our neighbors in ours.

A strong woman feeds the hungry, gives to the needy, and visits the sick and imprisoned even when it’s unpopular and uncomfortable.

She accepts her body, her age, and her shortcomings with dignity and gives herself permission not to be perfect.

She speaks, tweets, texts, and posts words of grace from her pulpits and playgrounds knowing that words matter and people are listening.

She knows that building each other up is vital and eternal.

She realizes that the older she gets, the less she knows and she’s ok with that.

She has learned that love is a choice filled with action and the more difficult it is to give, the better it is for her and those she loves.

She’s a game changer and a trailblazer but above all, she is a peacemaker. But don’t be fooled, as a warrior of God, she will fight injustice, oppression, apathy, and hatred for the poor and marginalized. She’ll approach any action needed in a godly manner knowing she will be held accountable to the Creator.

A strong woman handles her grief and fear gracefully and refuses to let either define her.

She is a friend who will love you to your face and behind your back.

Strong women know that strength doesn’t always mean force. Sometimes it means silence.

Strong women realize that even if we vote, love, look, protest, or worship differently, loving our neighbor doesn’t come with conditions.

Strong women know that our strength isn’t our own.

I hope you have a lot of strong women in your life. I hope you mentor one. I hope you love one. I hope you are one.

 

 

My Cole was quite the funny guy.  He loved sports of every variety and could carry on a conversation about it.  But, his mental disabilities made him a contradiction in terms (aren’t we all?).

To the day he died, he absolutely loved Barney the purple dinosaur.

He was always up for one of the silly movies about the golden retrievers–you may remember the most well-known, Air Bud.

If I had a dollar for every time in his almost twenty-two years we heard or sang The Wheels on the Bus, I’d be a rich, rich man.

The wheels on the bus go round and round

                  Round and round, Round and round

                  The wheels on the bus go round and round

                  All ‘round the town.

There are verses about the wipers on the bus going swish, swish, swish. There are verses about the driver, people, and the horn.

Beep, beep, beep anyone?

Those are fond memories for me.

I’d like you to think about the first verse…

The wheels on the bus go round and round.

That is an apt metaphor for the busyness of my life.  Knowing how most of us live I suspect the metaphor works for you too.

Life hardly ever slows down.  Those wheels keep turning because the road keeps coming.

I have my phone set up for silent hours from 9pm to 7:30am.  But even though it may not ding all night long there is usually a long list of emails and texts to deal with as I start my day.

Mondays are usually the worst.  Things pile up over the weekend.  A new set of deadlines approach.  There are fires to be put out.  There is new business to consider.  And heaven knows, there are still things to be done that never got started the week before.

But then, you know that too, don’t you?

The wheels on the bus go round and round…

Life is busy.  If not work, there are more activities in a kid’s life these days than most of us could have ever imagined.

Maybe you’ve heard the old cliché “I’ll slow down when I am dead.”

Yes, the wheels on the bus go round and round.

There have been many times in my life when I was in danger of the wheels falling off. Maybe that describes you even now.

There are two passages I’d like you to remember:

First, Mark 6:30-31, The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to Him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest for a while.” For many people were coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.

 And then Psalms 46:10, Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. (NIV11)

 Life is infinitely worth living, but don’t forget to rest, don’t forget to seek Him.

Be still.
Be very still.

Blessings to you and yours.

Les Ferguson,Jr.

When I turned 40 I decided; in order to keep up with my sons I had to get into better shape. So I did what you were supposed to do, I joined a gym, got an app for my phone, bought some shoes, and buckled down for this life changing experience. The first time I walked in the gym, I was lost. It’s a bit intimidating to see all of these folks who are walking from machine to machine or picking up weights. I decided that I would start on the treadmill, I had at least been on one of those before, and then I would branch out from there. But, this was not like any treadmill I had ever seen, there were buttons, lot of buttons, for my weight, my speed, my incline, and my preferred pulse rate; I must have stood there for 5 minutes looking at these buttons trying not to make a fool of myself before the person on the treadmill beside me said, “You can just press the start button and go faster or slower.”

That day I made a new friend B.J., who was only at the gym for aerobic activity, that’s a fancy way of saying she just came to the gym to get on a treadmill and a bike. She didn’t understand the folks who wanted to lift weights, but “different strokes!” she would always say. She believed that the best way to get into shape was to work your heart, and eat a balanced meal. So, for the first month I would go to the gym, meet B.J. and run for a while, then get on the bike. She answered my questions, gave me advice, and helped make the gym a safer place for someone who had no idea what they were doing.

I was becoming more and more comfortable with the gym, so one day I wandered over to the machines, read the instructions, and met Terry. Terry was an older man who was always hanging out around the machines. I found out that Terry had shoulder problems, and a “machine was the best way for older and injured people to work out.” Terry was the one who told me about muscle groups, he explained that soreness and stiffness were all a part of the process, and he encouraged me to keep working through it. He was a great help to me as I was still trying to figure out what I was really supposed to be doing.

Terry was convinced that I was young enough to make an aggressive step forward, so he introduced me to Tony. Tony was a man who was as wide as he was tall and could bench press more than his weight. Tony had no time for a treadmill or a machine; he was interested in getting bigger and that only happened with heavy free weights. Tony shared with me that tall people don’t get big muscles, but we could still be strong if we worked hard. “We might not be able to look like we have big muscles, but we can all be strong.”

B.J., Terry, and Tony were not the only folks I met at the gym; there was the guy who had a bad back so, he just showed up to stretch and get on the water massage table. There was the woman who just came to eat lunch with the folks who worked there, and there were lots of folks who came in, milled around for 15 minutes and then left. Everyone was showing up to the gym, had a different idea of what you were supposed to accomplish, and were willing to help anyone who wanted to come and get better. I enjoyed my time at the gym, and was given the time to explore, get comfortable, and accomplish some of my goals.

Over the years, I have been a member of different gyms, and even though the locations have changed, I have noticed there are the same type of people at every gym. If you have made a resolution to get in shape, or just be healthier, and join a gym, you are going to find folks who have made great strides in their health and fitness who are willing to help the new folks who look lost. There will be those who only do cardiovascular work, folks who only use the machines, and folks who like free weights. There will be folks who just come to wander around, and those who are there to be social, but they are all there. They show up because they are convinced that their way is the best, and at times, the only way. But in the end they are going to help people who agree with them and those who disagree with them in their effort to get better.

There is a great passage in Acts 15 where the church is dealing with the Gentile question. I don’t want to lean too hard on my gym illustration, but I would imagine that there were many different ideas in that gathering, of what it looked like to be a child of God. There were those who were born and raised in the Jewish faith, who thought the best way to get into shape was by using the free weights. The Jewish proselytes were probably big fans of the machines, while the Gentiles preferred doing cardio. Everyone in the room had their own ideas of what it looked like to get your spiritual life in shape. That’s what makes James’ statement so beautiful. James was not only the brother of Christ, but as a Jew from birth, he was steeped in the culture and belief system of the Jewish faith. It would have been easier, not to mention more comfortable, for James to say that someone must become a Jew and fulfill the Jewish law before they could come to Christ. Instead, he went against his culture and declared “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21).

There will be times when people come to your fellowship, longing for the opportunity to find a community that will love and walk with them. I am sure that there are those who believe the best way to come into a relationship with Christ is through using the free weights of intense study. They love digging deep into the text and believe that anyone who comes to Christ must also dig deep into the scriptures. You also have those who like the machines, they love worship, and spending time together singing and praying. They feel closest to God when they are worshiping Him in times of quiet introspection and corporate celebrations. Finally, you will have those who are invested in the treadmills; they believe that if you are going to be a Child of God you must understand and accept forgiveness, grace, and the love of God. In their minds, the best way to live out a changed life is to show God’s love in acts of compassion and service.

The object of every witness is not to convince people to think like you do, or believe like you do; the object of every witness is to introduce others to Christ. For those who were raised in a family of believers, we often miss how difficult it is to turn to God. Our job is to help people make that transition. People are attracted to Jesus for different reasons, let’s do what we can to help them connect to Jesus; be it on the treadmill, the machines, or free weights.

If the Book of Romans is Paul’s most important letter, then we ought to hone in on passages such as Rom 15:4-13. These ten verses summarize the entire message of book: The good news is that ALL are God’s chosen people—both Jews and Gentiles. Glory be to God!

Paul’s universalist-sounding message brings up a key question. If we are all fellow recipients of God’s promises, then how well are we to get along while we wait for those promises? Shouldn’t ALL of God’s people be united in the knowledge that we ALL fall short of God’s glory in our actions yet through God’s grace we ALL receive the free gift of eternal life through Jesus? Shouldn’t unity be our calling card?

Yet as the past year has demonstrated in the US and elsewhere around the world, the people of God are anything but unified. People whose primary allegiance ought to be the family of faith instead have defined themselves by beliefs on gun rights, health care, questions of race, and political candidates. We’ve lost sight of Paul’s passionate plea in Romans! Why do we fail to hear Paul’s message about the unifying force of God’s grace?

Thanks to Luther and Freud, we’ve changed Romans into a psychoanalytical diagnosis of Paul’s “inner turmoil.” The division between human beings is Paul’s primary concern in Romans, but we’ve lost sight of this. Most folks today assume that Paul, like Martin Luther some 500 years ago, is racked by guilt. They assume Paul feels unworthy. The culprit, according to Luther and according to all those who read Paul through Luther’s lens, is legalism. If not for God’s rules, people would be happy and free.

Luther, needing to break free from the constraints of medieval Catholicism, discovered grace in Romans. It was a needed breakthrough for him. Luther was paralyzed by a sense of unworthiness. Romans freed him from this. While we can all give thanks that Luther discovered God’s grace, we ought to stop assuming that Luther is like Paul. We need to hear Romans without imposing upon it the burden of medieval Catholicism or even of twentieth-century legalism in Churches of Christ. Paul’s journey wasn’t Luther’s. And it certainly wasn’t the same as ours either.

So what is Paul battling in Romans? For one thing, Paul assuredly isn’t bashing God’s instruction as handed down through the Law! Listen to Rom 7:22-23, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Paul is channeling the psalmists who write, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). There is nothing evil about the Law of God. How can there be? In the same sense that there is nothing evil about humans made in the image of God, there is no evil in the good and perfect words that come from God’s mouth.

What then is evil? What is it that Paul and all of humanity struggle with? It’s not God’s Law. Rather, it’s the law of sin and death that wages war on our bodies and on our relationships. In other words, it’s Sin with a capital S. The culprit that destroys us is Sin. Sin ruins people. Sin eats away at relationships. Sin makes us arrogant. Sin causes us to segregate and separate. Sin brings on the problems of prejudice, bigotry, insults, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, violence, greed and idolatry. Sin is the power that wrecks humanity.

When you remove the fiction of “Paul’s inner turmoil” and instead read Romans in this light, then everything changes! This is Paul’s dilemma: How can we overcome Sin that keeps on dividing us? How do we get past Sin that causes me to judge people by their skin color, their education level, their social status, their Facebook posts, or by who they voted for?

Paul is torn by the fact that Gentiles are receiving Christ, yet Jews—who should know best—are rejecting Jesus and rejecting these new believers. The problem, says Paul, isn’t religion or the Law or circumcision or ethnicity or even the Roman Empire. The problem is Sin. God’s instruction hasn’t corrupted the Jews. Sin is wreaking havoc.

When you know the real problem, you can finally look for the real answer. So what’s the answer to the power of Sin? Stay tuned for my final post in this series.

What I’ve loved about Wineskins for over two decades now, is its safe environment to exchange our new ideas, or to even stretch our comfort zone.  I would like to utilize this format now to raise an issue none of us really want to face head-on, yet this common struggle is decimating us.

Take a deep breath, and let’s be brave together.  If there’s one great weakness we’ve mutually experienced through our blessed Restoration Movement, it is the inevitable fracturing within our fellowships.  Our tendency towards fragmentation is the “elephant in the room” and it is our Achilles tendon.

The main factor contributing to our division isn’t necessarily what we typically think it is.  Our main problem does not stem from the way we individually view Scripture, or how we might understand doctrinal positions like women’s roles, or even how we chose to worship.  I think those are all red herrings.

Our inability to maintain unity is due to our lack of one very particular skill.  Conflict resolution.

We are afraid of conflict because we are unequipped to manage it.  Our anxiety levels skyrocket at the mere thought of confrontation.  We therefore repeat an unhealthy cycle, over an over again, one that almost feels like a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Conflict, to be clear, isn’t the problem, but not knowing how to deal with it is killing our brotherhood.

I know about this fallout from a painful and very personal experience.  Several years back as I ministered in what could be described as a fairly mainline church, we eventually called up the “Church Doctor” when our corporate pain was unbearable.  Yes, we reached out to none other than Charles Siburt.  Two years after our work with Dr, Siburt concluded, the pain was still too raw for a slim percentage of our congregation, and nothing would satisfy this small group short of my departure.

This is a story that feels as old as time itself.  A church has a conflict, the minister moves on or there’s a new set of elders installed, and we repeat the same scenario three to five years later.  As a result, we all limp along, somewhat wounded, somewhat cynical.  Could this be why so many of our younger people shy away from our churches?

But that’s not the end of the story.  We can write a new chapter when God happens to breathe new life into those who are open to His moving.  It seems like the Spirit is closest to us in our most difficult times, or shortly thereafter.  And, afterwards, once the healing begins, we learn to apply some of the core Scriptures that instruct us on how to live as a community, on how to get along, on how to be the Body.

If we want to thrive in our congregations and see God’s Kingdom increase, we need a new perspective on conflict.  If you attempt to implement change, you can be sure there will be conflict.  Conflict is almost necessary for growth, because at its basic level conflict is nothing more the friction that happens as two or more opinions are shared.  Conflict is neither evil nor harmful, what makes conflict healthy or unhealthy is how we manage it.

Sadly, in our Movement we haven’t had the greatest history of dealing with our conflicts very well.  The good news is, once we acknowledge our very real problem, we can turn a new page and embrace our differences, and we can overcome our conflicts through practicing the one doctrine that unequivocally bonds us together, that being, Love.  It’s only by this Love that all people will know that we are His people.

Call me old fashioned, but maybe it’s time we revive an old saying in earnest, “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

 

 

Does religion divide people? Is it race, socioeconomic status or politics that separates us? Is our world and are the churches that inhabit that world hopelessly divided by things that we are helpless to control?

As a Jew trained by the prominent Jewish teacher Gamaliel, Paul had learned that what divided people was religion. Jews had the Law and were therefore superior. Gentiles did not have the Law and were therefore inferior. According to Jewish thinking, God’s gift of the Law separated them from others, making them superior.

A Jewish man might therefore pray, “Blessed am I, Lord, that I was not born like these pagans but rather among your chosen people who have the Law.” Or as Jesus portrays the common prayer of a Jewish leader, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I worship properly and I give a tenth of my income. Thank you, God.”

But as he reveals in Romans, Paul finally comes to a different realization. We don’t fully know what changed Paul. Did he figure this out when the bright light blinded him on the Damascus road? Did he spend seven years in the Arabian desert coming to this conclusion? Or was his heart softened by the sorrowful realization of how much he had fought against the followers of the Way?

Here’s what Paul discovered: Sin divides us. Not our birth certificates. Not our ethnicity. Not even the Law. It’s sin that divides people from one another and from God—the sins of arrogance, laziness, anger, idolatry, etc. They all build barriers that keep us apart.

This is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Blood doesn’t divide us. Flesh doesn’t separate us. Sin wrecks relationships and tears the world to pieces.

Think back with me to the story of creation. Why do we have the stories of Genesis 1-2? These aren’t scientific records of how God orchestrated the details of the universe. Instead, they explain to us what’s in the heart of God and what the role of humanity in God’s glorious creation is supposed to be.

One of the most important lessons from creation is that humans are made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image! In other words, the image of God is deeply implanted into each and every person. Stop and consider that for a moment. You are made in God’s image! Say it to yourself, “I am made in God’s image.” But now look around and say about those near you, “They are made in God’s image.” Each and every person has the image of God within them. How can something made in God’s image be bad or evil.

One of the things you learn when you’re married to a child development expert (as I am) is that you shouldn’t call kids bad or good. It’s common to hear even from Santa Claus, “Have you been a good girl?” Or a frustrated parent will say, “Why are you being such a bad boy?” The truth is that kids aren’t bad. They do bad things and make bad choices, but they aren’t bad.

The same is true of people. Can you really say that a human being made in the image of God is bad? Does God make bad things? This is what the creation story teaches us: When done with creation, God said, “It is good. It is very good.” Would you want to argue that God makes bad things?

Now it’s true that there are some people who do some awful things. And this is what guides Paul’s conclusion. The awful things they do that divide people are the result of sin.

But even people who genuinely do good things tend to become smug and self-righteous. This is another kind of sin that creeps in and divides people. The truth is that we are all made in the image of God. But by the same token we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Our actions don’t match the image that is inside us. And this divides us from each other and from God.

Jane Elliott was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa. In 1968 she had the crazy idea of letting her kids participate in an experiment. “Blue-eyed kids,” she announced, “are stupid and will be second-class members of this class. Brown-eyed kids are the best.” So for the next two days she watched with astonishment as previously bright leaders who had blue eyes suddenly became timid and insecure, making unusual mistakes on their assignments. Meanwhile, brown-eyed kids found an amazing degree of confidence. Some previously quiet kids came out of their shells and began to assert themselves, feeling more confident in their roles and in their skills.

Then Mrs. Elliott switched the experiment. Blue-eyed kids were now bright while brown-eyed kids had their rights taken away. It was an astounding test that met with widespread derision—especially there in Riceville—as she began to draw acclaim and curiosity around the country. She even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Elliott asked the kids to write about what they learned. One student, Debbie Hughes, said things that typify the other responses. “The people in Mrs. Elliott’s room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five extra minutes of recess.” When the experiment switched, she wrote, “I felt like quitting school . . . I felt mad. That’s what it feels like when you’re discriminated against.”

This clearly illustrates Paul’s great discovery in Romans. The things that divide us are artificially produced by the power of sin. They are either of our own creation or of a power beyond our control. That’s what Paul says in Romans: “You were slaves to sin.” Sin takes people hostage and through this savagery destroys what is good in all of us.

Think about it for a second. If we all stood in the presence of God, stripped of our sin and aware of being made in God’s image, wouldn’t we get along swimmingly? This is why Jesus came—to undo the damaging divide of sin. Jesus refused to separate people the way his compatriots did. Knowing this, Paul writes in Rom 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The glory of God as revealed in creation is visible when we tear down the divisions and welcome one another as fellow human beings made in God’s image.

So here’s my challenge for you based upon Paul’s massive discovery. What have you allowed to divide you from your neighbors? What obstacle have you empowered to stand as a divider between you and others who—like you—are made in God’s image? And what are you going to do about it? Sin is the divider-in-chief. Let’s stop feeding it.