Growing up, church seemed to be the place which held all the answers. For anyone to question the “answers” meant you were either rebellious or lacked faith. Today I run into Christians who hold on to that relic of an idea–needing to have all the answers, never questioning.

Somehow my faith journey and reading Scripture and prayer leave me with more questions.

The obvious understanding of the atonement theologies have become less than obvious.

The obvious position of a Christian in politics has evaporated.

The black and whiteness of life has turned to gray. 

I have discovered tension in my beliefs. And I am ok with that. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in an absolute. But this Absolute God in Scripture seems to prefer being painted with small brush strokes made in the stories of people. 

I guess I am learning to live in the tensions of faith rather than trying to resolve them.

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When the world and Christians say violence is the only answer to stop violence, I go back to the One who said, “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemy,” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

When the Church pushes people out and makes those on the margins of society feel unwelcome in the House of the Lord, I remember the One who ate with sinners, turned over tables in the temple, kept a crowd from stoning a sinner, let the unclean touch him and he touched the unclean, and offered Living Water to one who was on the outer edge of her community.

When my own failures sucker punch me over and over and over, I remember how Peter who denied Christ three times, was still offered a place in shaping and spreading the Kingdom of God.

When my seeing things dimly and having some doubts is judged as lack of faith, I remember the One who chose fishermen and women to be his disciples rather than those who were arrogant in their faith.

And once again, I am saved by Jesus.

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” ~Henri Nouwen

Hospitality has become an industry in the USA. We pay someone to treat us like we are valued and important. We pay them to serve us.
But hospitality was an ancient practice which influenced how honored a family was and a virtue for Christians in the early church. Lactantius states:

“What is more consistent with the heart of justice than our affording to strangers through kindness, the things we freely give to our own relatives through affection?”

Early Christians saw the welcome of Christ into the family of God as something we need to reflect to the world. God made room for us in Creation and Redemption. Now we make room for others to express the extravagant hospitality of God to our world.

But as Henri Nouwen states, hospitality is not just about making room for someone else. It is not just an expression of welcome or caring for the need of the one who is in need. Hospitality is creating space for the other person to experience value and love–to experience God and therefore, be changed by the encounter with unconditional love and mercy. We are not the initiators of the change. We are the space creators, the event planner who creates the space for people to encounter our Lord. The space created is not just a one way conversation–like our church services often are–we preach to people. But the space must also respect the dignity and gifts of those who are welcomed. Hospitality recognizes not jus the need of the people but also the gifts of the people. And when a person is not just valued in our service but also valued for what they bring, they experience fully the grace of God. Because in Creation, God partners with humanity to garden Eden. In Redemption, God creates space in His family for us and then partners with us in spreading the Gospel. God’s hospitality not only sees our need for space and redemption but also to use the gifts God has given us.

Unfortunately, too often we get in the way. When we fear that sin will continue if we continue to give to a person or allow them to be part of our fellowship, we close them off to the space where change can happen. When women cannot use the prophetic voice or the gift of preaching, we keep them out from experiencing God’s grace fully. When we dismiss people as heretics, we leave people out from the place of experiencing God–a place for change. John Wesley stated that Anathemas get in the way of loving neighbor. Its not that we cannot disagree, even with passion, but when it gets in the way of hospitality, we keep people from places we experience God.

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Mark 15:43 “Joseph of Arimethea took a risk…”

To love is to risk:

to risk rejection,

to risk being taken advantage of,

to risk the pain of loss,

to risk not being loved back with the same passion or compassion.

 

To love is to risk.

Joseph of Arimethea risked reputation, honor, and perhaps even his life as he showed one last act of love for Christ, asking for the body of his Lord to bury respectfully.

How often do I play it safe? I justify not loving someone because they will continue in sin. Or I justify not loving someone because they will just take it for granted or use it and reject it.

But the commandment we have been given is to love. Love God and love neighbor. I will be held accountable for what I have done with the love I have been shown. Have I embraced the love of God shown to me? Have I embraced the love my fellow human beings have shown to me? Have I allowed that love to grow in me, transform me, and shine through me? Or have I used it for my own selfish gains?
I will be held accountable for how I have loved others. Have I sought to love others as I love myself?

But I won’t be held accountable for what people do with the love I share with them. They can reject, use, misuse the love God has given them and the love I show. And they will be held accountable for that. All I am called to do, is love.  I am called to share the love of God as I have been loved. Will I risk everything to love?

In Mark 15:21-32, I read about Simon of Cyrene. Mark called him a passer-by. Simon was in Jerusalem for the Passover–passing by the parade of those to be crucified to celebrate the time God passed over Israel and brought deliverance. Simon was passing by when he was forced to carry Christ’s cross–when he was forced to participate in an injustice. Most of the stories told of Simon of Cyrene have hailed him as a hero, helping Christ carry his burden. I don’t want to take the fact he alleviated the Lord’s burden away, but in honesty, Simon participated unwillingly in the crucifixion of Christ. He was forced to help the Empire execute an innocent man.

How often have I unwillingly, or even willingly, participated in injustice. 

When I have been silent as I heard a racial joke, I have participated in injustice.

When I have kept quiet as someone stated, “this must be a bad neighborhood” and the only difference seen is the race of the people who live there.

When I have locked my doors, clutched my purse, or thought the words “this is a bad neighborhood” based on who I see on the porches.

I have participated in the injustice and created a culture where an armed George Zimmerman would feel the need to follow a young African American boy. I have helped create a culture where Trayvon Martin felt he had to fight for his life. 

I don’t want to be like Simon of Cyrene–a passerby who participates in an injustice, willingly or unwillingly.
Christ have mercy on me for my past participation in injustice.

“Monster”                                    “enemy”                     “deranged”

“The face of evil”                                          “demon”

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These words and more describe people like Tsarnaev, the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. Rolling Stone Magazine has put Tsarnaev on their cover. There are many who are upset and even outraged over the Magazine’s choice.

But  I am thankful. Because Tsarnaev doesn’t look like a monster or the face of evil. He looks like you and me–normal. We expect criminals to look disheveled, greasy, unkept, ugly, or “demented.” But Tsarnaev looks normal.

This challenges me.

1. If he looks normal–like a friend, like me–its a little harder to keep throwing those labels of “monster” on him. He looks too normal. When I am able to label someone as “evil” or a “monster” I can easily dismiss Jesus’ words of loving my enemy. I can easily justify giving into the anger, bitterness, hatred, fear, and violence in response to Tsarnaev’s actions. And suddenly, the cycle of violence takes another turn, for I keep the violence in me. But this photo that Rolling Stones has placed on their cover challenges me to stop justifying my hatred, unforgiveness, and violence–even if the violences is only name calling and emotions within me. If I cannot demonize my enemy, I might be able to actually obey Christ’s words.

2. Rolling Stone’s picture of Tsarnaev reminds me that I am always a choice away from evil. People who share similar stories can respond differently. One will overcome evil with good. The other may succumb to the evil and participate in it. What in Tsarnaev’s story gave him the choice of evil? Why did he see participation in evil and violence as the only option? The picture on Rolling Stone’s cover presents someone with a story–a story which has gone horrendously wrong for him and for so many others. And I humbly must admit, that my story is always simply a choice away from going horrendously wrong.

And so Rolling Stone’s cover has challenged me to choose not to give hatred, anger, violence a foothold in me. I will not repeat Tsarnaev’s choice–even in my thoughts. I will not let the violence in my mind and heart remain. The anger, the hatred, the bitterness, the violence has to stop somewhere. Let it stop in me. I will not demonize those who do violence. I will view them as human beings. I will not allow others to dehumanize another person in my presence. Like the cover of Rolling Stones has challenged me, I will present the picture of the Gospel–in all of its offense and pain and glory to the world around me.

So why do I give my power away? Why do I feel I need to justify myself to someone who ignored requests to sit down and discuss our frustration with each other earlier, but as I leave this church, she sends a letter explaining herself and her actions to me? She couldn’t be bothered to hear my side or work through the issues when we were going to still have time together. And yet I feel like I want to write back and explain myself now.

But I won’t. I am going to let her have the last word. She has felt the need to justify herself to me. She has gotten the weight of a broken relationship off her chest. 

And I will bear the weight of that broken relationship without infringing on her any more. 

But I wonder why I want to write back. Why do I want the last word? What inside me feels it needs to justify itself? Why am I giving her power over me?

Do I need to be right?

Do I need to fix things and people?

I don’t know. All I do know is that I am feeling a little broken today. 

 

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Escapism. In my culture, faith almost seems like a ticket for escape. Your “get out of jail free” card. We escape the Wrath of God and Hell. Those who believe in a rapture believe Christians escape the Tribulation. And when we face problems and hardships, we pray for escape. “God get me out of this”

I have prayed for God to remove the people who were causing me problems. I have prayed for a miracle to get m .e out of the present problem. Praying for escape. We are like Houdini trying to escape our current situation.

The problem with that is we miss a lot in our journey always looking for an escape route. Now I believe God delivers but if we are only looking for God in the escape route–in the act of deliverance, I fear we are missing Emmanuel in the midst of the problem and situation we are already in.

That person who is the thorn in my side may be there to help perfect love in me. If I can learn to love and forgive them, I am one step closer to how Christ loves me. And I am able to understand Christ’s love for me better when I love like He loves.

I have learned to embrace grief instead of looking for the out or snapping out of it. I don’t want to wallow in grief but there is a Divine Beauty in the midst of loss. The severity of our pain is met with the severity of God’s mercy. I would miss that if I simply looked for the way out.

God is the Great I AM. The Present Tense God! How often have I missed God in the present because I was wallowing in my past or focused on the future for deliverance?

I don’t want my prayers to be prayers of escape any more. As Amy Grant’s new song says–O How Mercy Looks from Here!  God is present to me–now in the midst of the pain, the mundane, the joy. I want to be present to God as well so I can see how mercy looks from here

In seminary, I served as an adult leader in the local UM youth group. This past week, one of the students from that group was killed in a car accident. She was 19.

The news spread by Facebook. People asked for prayers to be said. People promised prayers for the family. As I messaged with friends from the church, the pain they were feeling in Kentucky was tangible here in New York. And so I promised prayer as well.

And then apologetically, I confessed to one of my friends, “I know prayer is powerful but I still feel helpless.”

In some of the Christian circles I have been in that statement would have caused chaos as people tried to fix my faith. Thankfully with these friends, it was accepted, acknowledged and left open ended.

We are taught prayer changes things. It is repeated time after time how prayer works. And these are not just cliches for I have heard wonderful testimonies of prayers being answered. Perhaps it is the mixture of teachings of faith minus doubt and the power of prayer which made me feel treacherous when I admitted feeling helpless when all I could do was pray.

But perhaps it is when our prayers leave us helpless, we find the true power of prayer. When we cannot manipulate the circumstances and work out the issue on our own, we have come to the end of ourselves. When there is no conversation we can imagine and re-work in our head that will make things better, we have come face to face with how small we actually are. When prayer is all we have and we still feel helpless, perhaps then, we begin to catch a glimpse of the greatness of a Grace which takes the time to hear prayers from very fragile creatures and walks through this mess with us.

I still feel helpless. But somehow being present to this vulnerable, uncontrollable, unfixable moment filled with pain and anger, we find the Great I AM is also present. 

 

What if the depth of your faith is not determined by how “blessed” you are with things but with how gracefully you suffer?

What if faith grows richer and fuller in the midst of failure and suffering rather than prayers answered in a timely manner with the answers I pictured?

What if the closer to God we get the more silent God gets?

What if faith is more about letting go of my image of God at every stage and embracing a more reckless God?

What if my clinging to my comforts and my definition of God’s promises, my image of God, my expectations are what is really holding me back from knowing God?

What if faith is actually a fist raised in resistance in the midst of horrible circumstances and enormous doubts declaring I will believe anyways?

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