Monday, November 13, 2017

Esther: It's tough being a woman

I gave the following devotional to a gathering of courageous women of God at a ministers breakfast, recently.

Esther is a wonderful story full of intrigue and reversals, despicable characters and unlikely heroes. And although within its pages a man chooses a woman to become his queen, we must refrain from thinking Esther's story is a romantic tale. For the king in question selects his queen based on selfish reasons and not for the sake of love. Yet Esther's story clearly speaks to us of profound love – God's love for his people and his commitment toward them.

Interestingly enough, the book which bears her name begins without any mention of Esther nor of the Jews, the very people God calls her to save. Quite the contrary, the book begins with the story of a pagan king named Xerxes trying to impress his nobles, his officials, and all the military officers of Persia and Media by throwing them a great banquet. A banquet that lasts for 180 days. (History tells us Xerxes planned a military excursion and he pined for the support of all his political friends.)

Xerxes follows up with another banquet for all the people in the fortress of Susa. A banquet in a lavishly decorated hall where the guests were given vasts quantities of wine and food. Xerxes holds nothing back from his guests. So much so, he even offers them his Queen. After seven days of feasting and drinking, Xerxes makes a disastrous request. In his inebriated state, he tells his eunuchs to bring Queen Vashti to him to parade her around his drunken guests.

From the very first chapter of the book, the narrator gives us a crystal clear understanding of King Xerxes character and temperament. A man willing to put his Queen in a vulnerable position, commanding her to parade herself in front of men who have indulged themselves without limits for seven days solely for their pleasure and for Xerxe's own selfish ends. But then Vashti does what no one expects. She refuses the King's inappropriate request. And in a fit of rage, he banishes her.

That fateful day, Xerxes could have never imagined that his ill-conceived request would set off a chain of events that would culminate in the deliverance of God's people. Yet here begins the story of Esther.

A table decoration with an unintended selfie.

As we've already noted, the story of Esther includes a wide variety of interesting characters, including powerful leaders and vulnerable subjects. However, as the story unfolds we soon realize that the true leader in the story is not necessarily the man with all the power, resources, and prestige. On the contrary, in the book of Esther the true leader emerges from obscurity – a lowly woman forcibly removed from her home and then hidden within the royal palace – one who enjoyed none of advantages of her male counterpart.

God, too, remains hidden within the pages of Esther's story. Throughout the entire book, never once do we hear his name mentioned. Unlike Xerxes who preferred the spotlight and desired celebrity – God never calls attention to himself. Nor does God perform any attention-seeking miracles. He doesn't part the red sea, feed five thousand people, nor heal even a single blind man. Throughout Esther's story, God remains cleverly behind the scenes. Hidden, but never absent.

Likewise, Esther chooses obscurity over prominence. Surely, the safest course of action for a woman in her day. Have we not already witnessed what happened to women who sought autonomy and spoke their mind? They were banished. It was tough being a woman in Esther's day. No matter who you were or where you lived, if you were a woman, you were vulnerable. If a queen in the royal court received no protection from the selfish whims of powerful men, how safe would a lowly, Jewish woman be in a pagan household?

In Vashti and Esther's world, men like Xerxes often wielded their power selfishly, indiscriminately, and impulsively. Personal agendas took precedence over their subjects well-being. After Xerxes banished the Queen, his personal attendants suggested that he send out agents in each province to find the most beautiful women and bring them into the royal harem. Xerxes had a harem full of women already. But in order to look powerful and authoritative, Xerxes took the most beautiful women away from their families – without consideration of their hopes or their dreams - and brought them to his harem. Esther was one of these women gathered in the raid. She had no choice in the matter. 

Women face unique challenges in our world. They always have. The story of Esther, as well as the stories of Ruth and Hannah, Abigail and Michal, Elizabeth and Lydia prove this point. It's tough being a woman. But as women, we can better appreciate the difficulties these women encountered and the hostile environment they lived in, because although times have changed, some things have not. And although all these women faced enormous disadvantages, they also shared one great advantage – God remained by their side. Sometimes hidden. But never absent. 

We share that advantage with them. 

How did Esther become a savior to her people? How did she survive and thrive despite a persistent enemy, manipulative leaders, and a hostile cultural environment? This is how: Esther relied on the Spirit's guidance, she used the brains that God gave her, she asked for help from trustworthy people, and she planned meticulously and waited patiently before she acted.

Women of God, we belong to a sisterhood of courageous women that began with the creation of Eve. A sisterhood that includes the likes of Queen Esther, Judge Deborah, the prophet Miriam, the apostle Junia, and the teacher Priscilla. A fellowship of women that includes every sister in this gathering, all woman in your church, and every woman around the world. We may have never met, but we are all connected – by our shared stories, experiences, and most of all by the Spirit of God.

Therefore, sisters, let's not make life more difficult for each other. Rather let's bear one another's burdens and treat the wounded among us with compassion. Let's be generous in our love, in our prayers, and in our words. Let's endeavor to listen better and encourage more. Like Esther, we may feel hidden and insecure. But God is with us and among us. Hidden, but never absent.

Yes, it's tough being a woman. But together we are a force to be reckoned with. 

These questions prompted a courageous telling of events from the lives of the women who attended that day.

Ester: Es difícil ser una mujer

Valientes líderes de la Ciudad de México

Ester es una historia maravillosa llena de intriga y de reversos, personajes despreciables y héroes improbables. Y aunque dentro de sus páginas un hombre elige a una mujer para que se convierta en su reina, debemos abstenernos de pensar que la historia de Ester es una historia romántica. Porque el rey en cuestión eligió a su reina por razones exclusivamente egoístas y no por amor. Sin embargo, la historia de Ester es sobre un amor profundo: el amor de Dios por su pueblo y su compromiso con ellos.

Curiosamente, aunque la historia es sobre Ester y cómo ella salva al pueblo de Dios, el libro comienza sin ninguna mención de Ester ni ninguna mención de los judíos. Muy por el contrario, el libro de Ester comienza con un rey pagano llamado Asuero que trata de impresionar a sus nobles y sus funcionarios y a todos los oficiales militares de Persia y Media, dándoles un gran banquete. Un banquete que duró ciento ochenta días. La historia nos dice que Asuero planeó una excursión militar y que necesitaba el apoyo de todos sus amigos políticos.

Entonces Asuero da otro banquete para todas las personas en la fortaleza de Susa. La Biblia describe una sala profusamente decorada donde los invitados reciben cantidades enormes de vino y comida. De hecho, el narrador hace un punto para decirnos que Asuero no puso restricciones a sus invitados. Él les dio todo lo que quisieron. Fue tan "generoso", que incluso les ofreció a su reina. Después de siete días de festejar y beber, Asuero estaba "alegre del vino." En otras palabras, estaba bastante borracho. Y en su estado ebrio, el Rey le dice a sus eunucos que le traigan a la Reina Vasti para que la pase delante de sus invitados ebrios. Asuero usó su riqueza, su comida, su vino para impresionar a sus invitados, y ahora Asuero quiere usar la belleza de Vasti para influir en ellos también.

En este capítulo, el narrador nos da una comprensión muy clara del carácter y el temperamento del Rey Asuero. Asuero estaba dispuesto a poner a su reina en una posición muy vulnerable por desfilarse frente a hombres que han estado bebiendo sin parar durante 7 días. Los hombres que se han entregado sin límites, ahora tendrán una mujer muy hermosa desfilada frente a ellos para su placer. Así que sin pensar en sus necesidades, sin pensar en su seguridad, Asuero quiere usar a la Reina por sus propias razones egoístas. Y Vasti se niega.

Ese fatídico día, Asuero nunca podría haber imaginado que su solicitud mal concebida podría iniciar una cadena de eventos que culminaría en la liberación del pueblo de Dios. Pero ahora, la historia de Ester comienza.

Como ya lo hemos señalado, la historia de Ester incluye una gran variedad de personajes interesantes, incluyendo a líderes poderosos y sujetos vulnerables. Sin embargo, a medida que la historia se desarrolla, pronto nos damos cuenta de que el verdadero líder en la historia no es necesariamente el hombre con todo el poder y el prestigio. Por el contrario, en este cuento, el verdadero líder emerge de la oscuridad: una mujer humilde sacada a la fuerza de su casa y luego escondida en el palacio real, que no disfrutaba de ninguna de las ventajas de su homólogo masculino.

Dios también permanece escondido en las páginas de la historia de Ester. A lo largo de todo el libro, el nombre de Dios nunca se menciona. A diferencia de Asuero, que prefería el centro de atención y quería que todos supieran su nombre, Dios nunca llama la atención sobre sí mismo. En el libro de Ester, Dios no realiza milagros. Él no separa el mar rojo ni alimenta a cinco mil personas con unos pocos panes y peces. Él ni siquiera cura a un ciego. A lo largo de la historia de Ester, Dios permanece detrás de las escenas. Escondido pero no ausente.

Del mismo modo, Ester eligió la oscuridad sobre la prominencia. Para Ester, ese era el curso de acción más seguro para una mujer en su época. Sabemos lo que les sucedía a las mujeres que decían lo que pensaban, ¿no? Eran desterradas. Era difícil ser una mujer en los días de Ester. No importa quién era o dónde vivía: si era mujer, era vulnerable. Si una reina en la corte real no estuviera a salvo de los caprichos egoístas de los hombres poderosos, ¿qué tan seguro sería para una mujer judía humilde en una casa pagana?

En el mundo donde Vasti y Ester vivían, los hombres como Asuero a menudo ejercían su poder egoísta, indiscriminadamente e impulsivamente. Las agendas personales tuvieron prioridad sobre el bienestar de sus sujetos. Después de que Asuero desterró a la Reina, sus asistentes personales sugirieron que enviara agentes en cada provincia para encontrar a las mujeres más bellas y traerlas al harén real. Asuero ya tenía un harén lleno de mujeres. Pero para parecer poderoso y autoritario, Asuero se llevó a las mujeres más bellas de sus familias, sin tener en cuenta sus esperanzas o sus sueños, y las llevó a su harén.

Ester fue una de estas mujeres reunidas en la redada. Ester no tuvo otra opción en el asunto. Solo puedo imaginar lo que Ester y esas otras mujeres sintieron en ese momento. Y aunque Dios pudo haber parecido escondido a Ester, y a todos los judíos en ese momento, no estaba ausente ni ignorante de su difícil situación.

Las mujeres enfrentan desafíos únicos en nuestro mundo. Ellas siempre las tienen. La historia de Ester, así como las historias de Rut y Ana, Abigail y Mical, Elisabet y Lidia prueban este punto. Es difícil ser una mujer. Y como somos mujeres, podemos imaginarnos mejor las dificultades que ellas enfrentaron y los entornos hostiles en que vivían porque, aunque los tiempos han cambiado, algunas cosas no han cambiado. Y aunque todas estas mujeres enfrentaron enormes desventajas, también tenían una gran ventaja: Dios estaba de su lado. Compartimos esa ventaja. Y tenemos una a otra.

¿Cómo se convirtió Ester en un salvador para su pueblo? ¿Cómo sobrevivió y prosperó a pesar de un enemigo persistente, líderes manipuladores y un ambiente cultural hostil? Así es como: Ester confió en la guía del Espíritu, usó el cerebro que Dios le dio, pidió ayuda de personas confiables, y ella planeó meticulosamente y esperó pacientemente antes de actuar.

Mujeres de Dios, pertenecemos a una comunidad de mujeres valientes que comenzó con la creación de Eva. Una hermandad que incluye a personas como la reina Ester, la juez Débora, la profeta María, la apóstol Junia y la maestra Priscila. Una comunidad de mujeres que incluye a todas las hermanas de esta reunión, a todas las mujeres de su iglesia, y a todas las mujeres de todo el mundo de las que todavía tenemos que conocer. Pero todos estamos conectados por nuestras historias, experiencias y, sobre todo, por el Espíritu de Dios.

Mujeres de Dios, porque la vida ya es lo suficientemente dificil para nosotras, seamos muy amables unas con otras. Aligeremos mutuamente las cargas y atendamos a los heridos entre nosotras con compasión. Seamos generosas en nuestro amor, en nuestras oraciones, y en nuestras palabras. Intentemos escuchar mejor y alentar más. Al igual que Ester, podemos sentirnos escondidas e inseguras. Pero Dios está con nosotras y entre nosotras. Sí, es difícil ser una mujer. Pero juntas somos una fuerza a tener en cuenta.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Is it a passion or is it idolatry?

A wise person once said that an educator's job is not to offer all the answers, but to help their students ask better questions. Today, I'm asking you to help me ask better questions as I grapple with a difficult concept.

Is it a passion or is it idolatry?

I imagine most people have a passion for a few things in life – whether it be a fulfilling career, a particular talent, a worthy cause, or even a treasured collection. I also trust most of us believe that any passion, no matter how noble, needs boundaries so as to keep our intentions pure, our perspectives clear, and our relationships healthy.

Yet, we all know (or at least suspect) that someone we love has inadvertently crossed the line from passionate advocate to idolatrous proponent. But when, when does that happen? When does a passion become idolatry? How do we know when we've crossed the line? What questions can we ask ourselves to discern if a once healthy passion has now become a destructive idol?

Here are a few questions I've come up with today. I would like your help with discovering more.

Has our concern for our passion superseded our concern for the well-being of others? In other words, have we chosen to not love our neighbors as ourselves?

Do we assume our passion is “God-given,” but differing passions do not have the same seal of approval? In other words, are we tempted to use the Lord's name (in vain) to validate our position and invalidate others?

Has the expression of our passion encouraged productive conversation or do we express our opinions solely for the immediate gratification of “likes” and “Amens”? In other words, do we covet affirmation more than the truth?

Has advocacy for our passion tempted us to misrepresent the narrative or the character of another in order to discredit their point of view and undermine understanding? In other words, are we guilty of bearing false witness?

How would we respond if whatever we are passionate about was suddenly ripped from our grasp? Would life still hold meaning? In other words, does our hope rest in what we can hold and possess or does it rest in something less tangible and more eternal?

These are the questions I am wrestling with today. And probably will for many days to come. What about you? What better questions could you help me to ask?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What brings us together

Just over a week ago, Mexico's Independence Day brought a nation together to celebrate. Likewise, Stuart and I joined together with our friends and family at Teen Challenge Mexico (Reto a la Juventud) that Sunday afternoon to enjoy their festivities.

Lively songs, traditional dress, and wonderful food brought a smile to everyone's face.

Only a few days later, though, a tragedy brought the nation together once again. We watched firsthand as Mexico City rallied in unity, not in celebration, but in collaboration with local emergency personnel to rescue the trapped, give aid to the hurting, and comfort the distressed.

As clean-up, rescue and recovery efforts continue throughout our city, signs of hope and encouragement pop-up as well. The sign posted below replaces the building collapsed above. 

Neighbors give tribute to the lives lost and thanks to all who helped.

This past Sunday, our love and concern for everyone at Teen Challenge Mexico brought Stuart and I back to worship in unity with our friends and family: The Lord is in this place.

El Señor esta en este lugar. El Señor esta en este lugar. Para sanar, para curar, Para romper toda obra de maldad. Para sanar, para librar mi alma.

You Can Help!
The need is great in Mexico City, as well as Oaxaca, Chiapas and surrounding areas affected by the intense earthquakes that shook our cities. You can make a tangible difference by giving directly to our relief efforts here: Mexico Earthquake Relief fund   

The need is also great in our own Puerto Rico, recently devastated by Hurricane Maria. Let's all be as generous as we can today to help our fellow Americans: Hurricane Maria Response

Mexico City Missive ~ Special Report: After the earthquake

Monday, September 11, 2017

No easy journey

Every resident at Teen Challenge Mexico enters the program at different stages of recovery. Some while still reeling from the effects of withdrawal. Others after months of soul-searching. Regardless, Stuart and I watch and wait, pray and rejoice over every milestone reached, every hill conquered.

Theirs is no easy journey. Each graduate testifies of the struggle and the heartache that accompany the process of recovery. Indeed, for every life mended and every relationship restored all must acknowledge and grieve that which cannot be recovered or healed. Yet hope remains. Though consequences can never be ignored, in Christ lives can always be redeemed.

With this hope, day after day, week after week our front row guys persist. Because they know (and we know) Jesus can move mountains.

Cristo puede mover montes
¡Sólo Dios puede salvar,
mi Dios puede salvar!
Por siempre, autor de salvación
Jesús la muerte venció,
Él la muerte venció

If you or someone you love in Mexico has a problem with drug or alcohol abuse, click on the link below. ¿Problemas con el uso y abuso de las drogas y alcohol? Hay solución.

Monday, August 21, 2017

What's mine to do?

In a recent blog post, Lynne Hybels spoke of her commitment to join Bread for the World and other Christian leaders in fasting and prayer on behalf of the world's most vulnerable on the 21st of each month .

By example, Hybels encourages us to fast and pray for those experiencing physical hunger on a regular basis and for those whose decisions affect them. To pray for our own hearts to be broken more deeply for the vulnerable and marginalized. She also shares many other valid prayer points and concludes with the prayer, she says, “that has so often changed the trajectory of my life: God, what is mine to do?

My discomfort today reminds me that too many in our world live most every day with hunger pangs. But my discomfort also provokes me to action. As it should. Because the kind of fasting the Lord expects is the kind that loosens the chains of injustice and shares food with the needy (Isaiah 58:6-9).

I know I can't do everything or be everywhere, but I can ask, O Lord, what's mine to do? Friends, let's join together to fervently fast and pray, and then let's decisively act on behalf of the hungry and the oppressed in our world today. 

Visit Bread for the World for ideas on how you can be involved.

Likewise, consider contacting local ministries in your area (like The Rescue Mission in Fort Wayne).

Wherever you are, feel free to share a link in the comment section (here or on Facebook) to a non-profit, a ministry, or even a missionary dedicated to ending hunger, poverty, and injustice.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Ríos de agua viva flow in Coyoacán

It only took about 20 minutes and a dozen twists and turns of the road to meet up with new friends as well as missionary colleagues at Centro Familiar Cristiano in Coyoacán.

Even through life's greatest challenges, Pastors Cristobal and Lourdes serve with grace and dignity as they extend the Lord's blessings to all.

Proud mom in the middle dedicated her daughter to the Lord at the beginning of service. Lead her well, hermana! Young Luna looks ready to take on the world.

The hermanas of the congregation served communion after the preaching. No meager thimble-sized containers allowed to represent the cup of the new covenant here :)

At lunch, Stuart made a new friend who wanted to learn some English and have a little fun.

Another new friend shares his pastor-parents joy and dedication to the Lord.

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them." John 7:37-38

En el último día, el más solemne de la fiesta, Jesús se puso de pie y exclamó: ¡Si alguno tiene sed, que venga a mí y beba! De aquel que cree en mí, como dice la Escritura, brotarán ríos de agua viva. Juan 7:37-38

Monday, July 17, 2017

Mexico City Missive ~ summer 2017

A snippet of our life and ministry in Mexico City for the first half of the year, 2017.

Our new year began well with a Teen Challenge graduation in January. Testimonies and prayer highlight every ceremony, but a “thank you” dinner provided by the family always tops off the evening.

Weekly, Stuart meets with the guys to show off his mad soccer skills while Wendy leads a more low key gathering during her English class. However, the guys may have gotten a little rowdy during our Superbowl themed lesson in February.

On occasion, Stuart and I also collaborate with other missionaries like we did in Oaxaca this past March. Likewise, Wendy had the opportunity to speak at a breakfast for missionaries and other expat women living there.

One weekend in April, Stuart and I found ourselves ministering in two different countries. Stuart preached in our big metropolis at Luz a las Naciones, while Wendy preached in Greencastle, IN at the Live Fully women's encounter and the following day at The StoreHouse church. (Thanks, Pastors Troy & Teresa Trout for inviting and hosting me!)

Monthly, Wendy attends a leader's breakfast for Assemblies of God credentialed women. Our May gathering included Noemi Rodriguez (center, behind Wendy), the District Secretary of the Assemblies of God, Orfa de Perez (far left), the District Women's Leader, and Alejandra de Cerda (far right), co-director of Teen Challenge Mexico.

In June, we enjoyed our District Ministers meeting at a national park. Breakfast in the open air and group calisthenics followed by a leisurely hike in the mountains encouraged conversation and fellowship between ministers and missionaries.

Stuart & Wendy

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Leading others toward freedom

Stuart had the gracious opportunity to preach to our front row guys and an attentive crowd at Reto a la Juventud (Teen Challenge Mexico) on Sunday. Before ministering, however, we found out a little something we didn't previously realize about our Reto family.

Each Sunday at Reto a la Juventud, current residents, their families, and all who love and support them join together for worship. Stuart and I always knew graduates of Reto faithfully supported the ministry as paid staff or volunteers. We just didn't realize how many of our hermanos were graduates until this weekend.

During service, Gamaliel (co-director of Reto) called for all graduates of Teen Challenge to come forward for prayer. Knowing a few of them personally, Stuart and I anticipated about a half a dozen people to walk to the front. What a surprise when at least 4 times as many came forward! 

Those breaking free from the cycle of addiction need the support of those who understand the process and will walk with them in their journey. Thankfully, many who have benefited from the ministry of Reto a la Juventud give back in immeasurable ways week after week, contributing to the success of the program. 

Leading others toward freedom. Journeying with them in the process. Isn't that what it's all about? Stuart and I give thanks to everyone who allows us to be a part of this special ministry in Mexico City through prayer and financial support. We really couldn't do this without you.

If you or someone you love in Mexico has a problem with drug or alcohol abuse, click on the link below. ¿Problemas con el uso y abuso de las drogas y alcohol? Hay solución.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Live fully in the community God has designed for us Conclusion

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here and Part 4 here.

These last few weeks we have learned the community God has designed for us includes the outcast and the disciple, the weak and the vulnerable, the marginalized and the privileged, the stranger and the foreigner. I have posited, if we are not living in a community that looks like this, then we are not living fully in the community God has designed for us. I further stipulate, if we continue to allow such divisions, the body of Christ will (continue to) suffer.

After Pentecost, it didn't take long for the church to relapse into well worn habits. For some, maintaining the dividing line between Jew and Gentile seemed paramount. More than once, ministry that included mixed race company raised eyebrows and invited debate. For others, divisions crept into the fold even as they gathered in worship with tongues and prophecies abounding or as they gathered around the Lord's table to share a meal. Paul addresses this particular issue in 1 Corinthians.

The Last Supper by Jacopo Bassano

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you?Certainly not in this matter! 1 Corinthians 11:17-22

Paul goes on to teach the Corinthians about the history and purpose of the Lord's Supper.

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

As we read Paul's final directives in this chapter, be mindful not to divorce these verses from the previous, especially verses 17-22.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. 1 Corinthians 11:27-34

The Last Supper by Sieger Koder

How were the Corinthians believers eating and drinking in an unworthy manner? How were they guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord? The context of 1 Corinthians 11 enlightens us.

In a time when the church primarily met in private homes, Paul addresses a gathering of Christians in Corinth. It seems the wealthier members of the congregation, those with flexible, less-demanding schedules, arrived early. While servants and slaves, those with schedules dependent upon others, arrived late. The hosts escorted the early-arriving wealthier members to the main dining area to eat while the food and the wine remained abundant. But when the servants and the slaves finally arrived, the already-gathered church escorted them away from the full dining room to the courtyard outside and gave them leftovers.

As Paul certainly knew, and the Corinthians would soon realize, divisions will always be easier to maintain then creating space for inclusion. Divisiveness is easy. It relies on our basest self. It's second nature. But diversity demands more. It defers to Christ's nature. It's hard-work. The Corinthian believers, by defaulting to the easy peasy, status quo of I-belong-here-and-you-belong-there, eventually succumbed to negative effects on their health and well-being as the body of Christ.

In these passages, Paul argues, the Corinthians dishonor the body of Christ by enabling divisions in the church (11:18,27). He warns the believers, they eat and drink judgment upon themselves by allowing some to go hungry while others get drunk (11:2, 29). He concludes, many are now weak and sick and some have even died because they have disgraced God's church by shaming the poor (11:22, 30).

Our tendency toward division may be second nature, but it's also detrimental to our health. Diversity is essential to our well-being, therefore, inclusion must be intentional.

Paul is right. Before eating and drinking, we must take care to examine ourselves. We must consider whether our words and actions honor or humiliate those who are different than us. One way to determine if we treat others with respect is to recognize whether we are all gathered as equals around the same table or if we are consistently separated.

Consider the various tables we fellowship around. Who's included? Who sits around our tables of conversation and friendship? Who feels welcomed at our tables of ministry? Who do we accommodate at our tables of decision making? Do these gatherings only ever include people who look and sound like us? Have we, as the body of Christ, made ourselves susceptible to weakness, sickness, or even death by those we've excluded?

Remember, enabling division is easy. All we have to do is succumb to the status quo. But diversity is God's design. As image bearers of God we bear a serious responsibility. Diversity is God's design, but inclusivity is our choice. It's our choice to ask hard questions, invite deep conversations, search our souls thoroughly, gain self awareness, repent sincerely, and open seats at his table daily. To neglect our responsibility may be detrimental to our health. But to embrace this responsibility enables us to live fully.

When we accept our responsibility as image bearers of God to purposefully include all kinds of people around his tables of fellowship, ministry, and decision making, then we can begin to live fully in the community God has designed for us.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Live fully in the community God has designed for us Part 4

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Today, an expert in the law tests Jesus, but it's the disciples and the expert who get schooled.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:25-29

Wanting to justify himself, the expert in the law presses his luck with one more question. With an upraised brow and a smug little smile he asks Jesus to clarify – Who is my neighbor? A short story, an unexpected hero, and a rhetorical question later, Jesus awaits the expert's answer. “The one who had mercy on him,” he answers correctly, if not begrudgingly. For the word Samaritan never crosses his lips.

The Good Samaritan by Vincent van Gogh

Most regular Bible readers acknowledge a strong animosity between Jews and Samaritans because of a vague notion that something happened in their shared history. Here's a brief accounting: 

In 722 BC, the Assyrians destroyed the land of Samaria, then occupied by the kingdom of Israel. The king of Assyria resettled the land with people from Babylon and other nations who worshipped other gods to replace the Israelites (2 Kings 17). Eventually becoming a racially and religiously mixed nation, Ezra rejected their help to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 4). Insulted by the snub, the people of Samaria build their own temple on Mount Gerizim. (Remember the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4?) Resentment deepened between Jews and Samaritans in 128 BC, when leader and High Priest, John Hyrcanus invaded Samaria and destroyed their temple. Not to be outdone, a century later, the Samaritans defiled the Jerusalem temple with dead bodies. 

Suffice it to say, by this time, the Jews and Samaritans despise each other. And in the opinion of the expert in the law, Jesus' good Samaritan would have sounded like an oxymoron.

Yet, it's not only the expert in the law who needs to hear this story  to rethink and reconsider the question, Who is my neighbor? Not hardly. Luke strategically places the telling of this parable after an unfortunate interaction with his disciples in the previous chapter.

The Good Samaritan by Paula Modersohn-Becker

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village. Luke 9:51-56

Soon, Jesus will give his disciples a mandate to go into all the world and preach the good news everywhere. Everywhere? Jesus can't even trust these guys to go to a neighboring village. Want to flunk Missionary Training 101? Threaten to kill foreigners who reject Jesus.

For now, Jesus directs his disciples to another village. Not to protect himself from the Samaritans, mind you, but to protect the Samaritans from his disciples. No wonder Jesus recounts the parable of the good Samaritan in the next chapter – his own disciples needed its lesson, too.

Sometimes I wonder, How was it possible for the disciples to sacrifice everything for Jesus, learn from him daily, love him wholeheartedly, and yet harbor racist attitudes? I don't know. It seems impossible to hold such contradictory beliefs and behaviors in tension.

Then again, I also wonder, How is it possible for Christians today to pray fervently, give generously, worship extravagantly, and yet despise the stranger, fear the foreigner, hate the immigrant, and be inhospitable to the refugee? I still don't get it.

As Christians, we long for that day when every tongue, and tribe, and nation will sing his praise, yet we reject the humility, the courage, and the kindness necessary to create an environment to live that reality presently. In the process, we forfeit God's design and God's community to our own detriment. It's not as if God left us powerless to complete the task he set before us. Or is the day of Pentecost just a fond memory for the Church?

I made a promise a few weeks ago to prove to you that living in the diverse community God has designed for us is essential to our health as the body of Christ. I haven't forgotten. Return next week for the final installment. Until then, let's remember ...

When we care for the stranger, love the foreigner, embrace the immigrant, and welcome the refugee, then we can begin to live fully in the community God has designed for us. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Live fully in the community God has designed for us Part 3

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

As our series continues, let's peek inside the home of another Pharisee who extended a dinner invitation to Jesus and see what happens when an unexpected and uninvited woman by-passes the guest list.

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
Tell me, teacher,” he said. Luke 7:36-40

Washing his Feet by Wayne Forte

According to the Pharisee, a real prophet of God would reject the sinner outright, refusing their presence and especially their touch. A true holy man would meticulously maintain the deep, thick lines drawn between sinner and saint. Scoffing, if just to himself, the Pharisee wonders, Why does Jesus just sit there? Why does he allow her to touch him?
Seriously, I don't think Jesus needed to be a mind-reader to know the Pharisee's thoughts. I imagine the look on his face said it all.
Jesus proceeds to tell the Pharisee a parable about two men with two debts: one who owes quite a bit more than the other. However, the moneylender forgives both. Neither man owes even a denarius any longer. When challenged the Pharisee concedes, the one forgiven of the greater debt would love the moneylender more. Jesus then openly declares the woman forgiven, affirms her faith, and bids her to go in peace (7:48-50).
If the attitude of this one Pharisee is any indication, I dare say, this woman hadn't known much peace in her life. Where would a woman like this find peace? At the temple? In her neighborhood? I don't know, but she found it that day in the presence of Jesus when she crashed a dinner party.
Jesus befriended all kinds of people. Those who thought themselves above the slight, called him a friend of sinners. We chuckle at their seemingly benign insult. Was that supposed to sting? To better understand the bite of those words, let's consider this: Who would Jesus hang out with today that would really annoy you? I mean really, really, annoy you?
I'll give you a moment to think …


How would we feel about a Jesus who partied it up with the liberal-leaning or the Democrat-voting or the gay-affirming? Or what if Jesus enjoyed the company of the tree-hugging or the yoga-stretching or the feminist-marching? Would it make us squirm to consider a Jesus who didn't just hang out with those types, but delighted in their company, welcomed their conversation, and loved them to death? Would we think him a prophet, a man of God, the holy One? Or would we call him a friend of sinners?
Can we feel the burn now?
Yet a bigger question looms. If Jesus would hang out with those kinds of people, why don't we? Let's face it, a major reason we don't hang out together is because we don't feel comfortable around them and they don't feel safe around us. Which, suffice it to say, is very unlike Jesus, but very much like the Pharisee and the woman in the story.

When we welcome the diverse company of people Jesus welcomed, then we can begin to live fully in the community God has designed for us.

Let's look at a parallel passage in Matthew's Gospel; similar story, different characters.
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Matthew 26:6-13

Mary Washing Jesus' Feet by Soichi Wantanabe

Like the Pharisee in the previous story, the disciples make a few assumptions of their own about a woman. They assume they know how to use her gift better than she does. (Apparently, Jesus likes hanging out with micro-managing, control freaks, too.)

Let's be clear: It's the woman's gift. It's her property. It's her prayerful choice how she gives it to Jesus. The disciples, however, seem clueless about these truths. Completely unaware of the significant act going on right in front of them, they criticize the woman's gift and how she gives it. And since they missed the point, Jesus explains:

When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.

In the very presence of Jesus, a prophetic moment takes place, but distracted by their own ingrained and destructive attitudes toward women, the disciples completely miss it. No doubt, the disciples loved Jesus; they sacrificed everything for him! Yet because of implicit bias, cultural conditioning, societal practice, and even religious understanding they could not discern the importance of this woman's gift.

Let's be bold for a sec and call out this sin for what it is: sexism. Sexism is not just a nuisance nor an innocuous point of view. It's a destructive barrier to true discernment and healthy communion. It prevents even those closest to Jesus from appreciating the gifts of God through chosen vessels of God and from discerning prophetic acts done right in front of them.

The woman in question here may not have fully understood what she was doing, but that doesn't make what she did any less spirit-inspired. (The prophets of old were never completely aware of the full significance of their words and actions either.) In each scenario, the problem lies not with the woman nor the expression of her gift. The problem lies with the attitudes of the men toward the women. Therefore, Jesus corrects the wrong attitudes and affirms each of the givers.

Women of God, a word of encouragement: In the face of adversity, unfair criticism, and unproductive attitudes share your gifts mindfully, courageously, and generously. The body of Christ needs you more than we sometimes realize.

This woman acted boldly. Familiar with the demeaning and disrespectful attitudes prevalent in her culture and within her religious circles, this woman took her gift, took a chance, and lavishly offered it upon the body of Christ. Thank God.

Women of God, another word of encouragement: Let's acknowledge and appreciate the gifts of women outside our circles. Sometimes we can be just like those disciples. We love Jesus, we stand in close proximity to him, we follow him daily, but all the while we criticize the gifts or dismiss the voices of certain women because they don't look or sound like us. God chooses all kinds of people. He chooses all kinds of women in his kingdom, even those that don't fit our mold. Therefore, let's not stand to the side like the disciples and criticize what we may not yet understand or we may miss something prophetic and profound in our midst.

When we prayerfully acknowledge our implicit biases, thoughtfully lay aside our assumptions, and respectfully learn from women we have a tendency to dismiss, then we can begin to live fully in the community God has designed for us.