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I received this note from a kid at school the other day. I especially like the second line. “I love God and Jesus so you have to love God and Jesus.” I can hear her attitude loud and clear and it cracks me up. This sweet, innocent child of God has some bad theology to sort out. But don’t we all?

I hope a kind soul gently breaks it to her someday that not everyone is going to love God and Jesus. I hope they go on to tell her that regardless of what others choose to believe about God (even choosing to live against God) doesn’t negate the way God expects her to respond to them. She still has to be kind to them. Still has to protect them, go the extra mile for them, feed them, visit them, walk alongside them, and help them. She still has to show them Jesus even if they refuse to see him because loving someone doesn’t mean accepting the choices they make, it means accepting the Christ and his wildly, radical call to love your neighbor.

I hope someone opens a Bible and shows her that Jesus died for us while we were still enemies so we have no excuse to exclude or mistreat ours. Maybe they’ll also show her the Gospels and she’ll realize that our Savior built a church on relationships not rules and regulations. Maybe she’ll strive to be a friend to others regardless of how or what they choose to believe. Maybe she’ll be so moved by the way Jesus loved, healed, and associated with sinners that she’ll eagerly welcome them and do the same. Maybe she’ll be so busy she won’t have time to protest, oppress, or ignore others made in the image of God.

I hope she chooses not to listen to some in the church when they say love is a nice idea but won’t work in the real world. Jesus certainly thought it would. I hope she sits with the outcasts and hears their story. She might find out they loved God and Jesus all along.

More than anything, I hope someone gently teaches this sweet kid that loving God and loving other is what we have to do and we have to do it in a way so genuine, others might even decide to love God and Jesus, too.

 

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I was trying to get the attention of one of the kids at school the other day but the student wasn’t responding. At first, I thought he was in his own little world. Then as I said his name a bit louder, I decided he was flat out ignoring me. As I got even closer I wondered if something was wrong. Maybe he wasn’t ignoring me. Maybe his hearing needed checking. I was growing concerned. After all, this kid was one of the sweetest in the class. As I repeated his name, another teacher asked who I was calling. She laughed when I told her and then offered his correct name. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been listening. I had been calling the wrong name the entire time.

That story came to mind while I stood in the parking lot of the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando recently. The scene where 49 people were killed is our country’s deadliest mass shooting. Surrounded by the memorials left by friends and family, I fought the feeling that kept rising in the pit of my stomach. A feeling of despair and heartache; a feeling that, although evil’s days are numbered, it had won a battle that night. I thought of the mothers who had buried their precious children. The kids who would never again hear the sound of their parent’s voice. The siblings who would tearfully stare at the empty chair this holiday season. The loved ones who, with broken hearts, would never forget. I read the notes pinned to the fence that had been put up around the gray building. I stared at the pictures and the smiling faces now gone and it dawned on me that as a church we haven’t always done a good job of loving our neighbor. We do alright with the neighbor who looks, votes and lives pretty much the way we do. However, some neighbors don’t always fit the mold we have created. They love, live and sin differently. We aren’t nearly as brave as the expert of the law in Luke 10 when he asked Jesus point blankly who his neighbor was. Maybe we’re too afraid of what Jesus would say.

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Empathy begins when we agree to meet others in their darkness. It flourishes when we refuse to cast stones and instead listen and care even when we don’t understand. It changes lives when we share our hope in Jesus as we call people by the name God bestowed on them. A name of love. A name of worth. A name God gave to the world long before the world had the inclination to rebel. A name spelled out in John 3:16. One given to all creation but especially to those created in his image. It was echoed again in Mark 12:30-31 when Jesus instructed those who were listening and those who would someday read. How often we forget that loving God and neighbor are also acts of salvation.

Jesus never said we would be known by where we stand on issues, how well we debate, boycott, vote, quote Scripture or lambaste those who live differently. As the bride of Christ, he instructed us to love so powerful and purposefully that it will become the very definition of who we are and why we’re here. We will be known by how well we love or by how well we don’t.

God wasn’t in our empty church building that Saturday night twiddling his thumbs waiting for our decent and orderly worship service the next day. No, he was in a Florida nightclub comforting those he had watched take their first breath. He loved them, wept for them and held them as they took their last.

If we want to change the world for Christ, then we need to be telling the world who they are. They are loved. They matter. They were made for a purpose. The one who is calling them is bigger than the lies and brokenness of this world. They were made in his image and he gave his only son so that they may have life. He will never leave nor forsake them. He will never disappoint or discourage.

People will never listen to us if we continue calling them by the wrong name. They know where we stand on issues. Church, let’s show our neighbors how well we love.

 

The Mennonite professor stood in front of his Christian Ethics class at a local seminary. It was the first day of class. “Take out a sheet of paper and answer the following question: What should we have done after 9/11? Quickly write down what you think we should have done.”

Students scribbled furiously for a couple minutes before the teacher interrupted and declared, “I don’t want to know what you wrote. But I do want to know one thing. Who is your we? When you started to answer, tell me which we came to mind when I asked what ‘should we have done’ after 9/11.”

The point was simple yet profound. The students’ we was “we Americans.” For most people in the class at this seminary, their first impulse was to answer for the United States of America. They wrote down what their country should have done after 9/11.

Some had no doubt assumed this would be a discussion about the merits of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars or the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and all the changes that came with it. But the professor needed to deal with a more profound issue. Even these seminary students were thinking as Americans first and Christians second. Their we was the American nation-state.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking as Americans. If you’re a fellow American, then we share a common identity as Americans. We live in a great country. Citizenship provides us with real advantages that we can enjoy.

As Christians, however, our first we isn’t supposed to be our national identity. The we of the Christian faith has nothing to do with birth certificates, passports, skin color, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth or even geography. For followers of Jesus, our we is all those who belong Jesus. Our primary identity is the Kingdom of Heaven. We are children of God, fellow heirs with all who claim allegiance to Jesus.

Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). Or elsewhere, “For [Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15). And again, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of on Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).

If you want to belong to Jesus, you must also accept that you belong to his people. Your primary identity is in Christ and in the fellowship of faith. Will your country save you before God? Will your ethnicity remove your sins? Will your passport form you into the image of Jesus? Only your identity as a follower of Jesus can do these things, and Christians ought to think as Christians first. Everything else should lie in submission to the we of faith.

I am deeply troubled at what I see in the American church today. It’s sad and disheartening to see what so many people think. Their posts and their comments reveal a primary loyalty to something other than the community of faith.

In one sense, I’m grateful that the truth is coming out. We’re seeing things as they really are. We’re discovering that the we for many of our fellow Christians in the US is not the biblical we but rather an ethnocentric we. Instead of sharing primary allegiance with believers across the world from among people of every nation, language, race and ethnicity, they only feel solidarity with those who salute their flag.

These Christians would have been right at home in Rwanda where ethnicity trumped God’s Kingdom. It has been widely noted that Rwanda was the most Christianized nation-state on the African continent at the time of the genocide. Bowing to incitement and fear-mongering, Christian Hutus massacred Christian Tutsis in barbaric ways. Loyalty to a race was more important than loyalty to Jesus. (I wonder who taught them this version of Christianity?)

It’s bad enough that too many American Christians have fellow Americans as their we rather than fellow believers. Still worse is the fact that some Christians sort themselves out in even narrower terms. Their we is Americans who share the leanings of their political party—either Republican or Democratic. And some go even further by saying that their we is only those who support Trump or Hillary or their particular wing of their party. That’s the we they think of above all else.

Have Christians really fallen this far from Paul’s vision of the people of God? Sadly yes, they have. Of course, we ought to admit that first-century Christians struggled with this as well. Early Jewish Christians struggled to accept believers who weren’t Jewish. And within a century the tables had turned to the point that Gentile Christians had difficulty accepting Jewish Christians who didn’t give up all Jewish practices. But that reality doesn’t lessen the target at which we are to aim.

As Christians we are habitually tempted to focus on the wrong we or to simply make our version of we far too small. In this day of political rancor and hatred, however, can some of us agree to redefine our we in terms keeping with Paul’s vision for the people of God? Let’s be clear that it’s not just Paul’s vision; this is the biblical vision: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:10). Thanks be to God for those who have the vision and the courage to define their we in keeping with our spiritual reality in Christ Jesus. Are we in this together?

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While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,
and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and
placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby,
keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them,
and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news
that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David
a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
(Luke 2:6–11 NIV11)

Tension. Tension can be defined as the state of being stretched tight; as a strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other.

Tension.
Sometimes tension is a blessing.
Often tension is a curse.

Sometimes tension serves as a motivator, a deadline for when work must be done.
Often tension and its accompanying stress keeps us from doing what we must do.

Tension. 
Sometimes we create it.
Often it is created for us.

Depending on the circumstances or situation, tension is my enemy or my friend.

We all live with a certain amount of tension.
Christianity is not immune.
We sing this world is not my home and it isn’t. But in the here and now, that’s where I dwell. And so I live within the tension of striving for Kingdom realities in a world whose values are totally opposite.

Tension.

Paul says in Ephesians 2:6 that we have been lifted up with Jesus and seated with Him in the heavenly places. And yet as another song says you can still find me living below in this old sinful world.

Tension.
I am a Saint.
I am a Sinner.
I have been declared righteous through faith even though at times I succumb to temptation, I fail miserably.

The Apostle Paul once had a dialogue about tension that so resonates with my experience of life…

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
(Romans 7:21–25a NIV11)

Such is life in the now and not yet.
Such is the reason I cling to the story of Immanuel, God with us!

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).”
(Matthew 1:22–23 NIV11)

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