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. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Live fully in the community God has designed for us Part 2

You can read Part 1 here

As Christians, most of us realize that we are not to live this life in complete isolation. Even as a confirmed introvert, who thoroughly enjoys (and desperately needs) alone time, I can wholeheartedly declare, I cherish community. Real community. That profound and sometimes messy place where we share experiences and strengthen bonds through laughter and tears.

In the ancient world, sharing meals together provided a way for communities to give each other a sense of belonging. Indeed, how often in the Gospels do we read of Jesus sharing meals with all kinds of people? His critics didn't refer to him as a friend of sinners for nothing. Jesus welcomed outcasts when they crashed a gathering; he even at times invited himself to join them at their meals.

The Meal with Sinners, Sieger Koder

Likewise, we know Jesus ate many meals with his disciples. Even the Pharisees wanted him as a guest at their table. Yet, the religious leaders and the disciples have more in common than just sharing meals with Jesus. Sadly, they both often and openly despised the kinds of people Jesus eagerly desired to share a table with.

Social norms, cultural regulations, and even religious interpretations of God's word, consistently allowed the disciples and the religious leaders to keep certain people on the margins. Yet, much to their chagrin, these were the very same people Jesus kept welcoming into his circle by inviting them to share community.

Let's consider a couple of passages from Luke's Gospel to see how Jesus engaged certain people – and how the religious leaders and his disciples reacted to his community building efforts.

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not? But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. Luke 14:1-4

Healing of Dropsical Man, Decani Moneatary fresco, Serbia

Why all the attention? Maybe because in the previous chapter (13:10-17), Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath. In the temple. In view of a lot of inquisitive people.

Taking advantage of their unwavering attentiveness, Jesus questions the noble and learned religious leaders: Is it permitted in the law to heal on the Sabbath day, or not? Consequences abound, however they choose to answer.

If it is unlawful to heal on the Sabbath, then the prominent Pharisee invited a law breaker into his home. But, if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, then their admission will forever disrupt their understanding of God and how they minister. Is it no wonder they remained silent?

With all eyes opened and everyone looking at him, Jesus proceeds to show them the correct answer to the question: He heals the man.

Following this timely disruption to the meal, Jesus turns to his host and tells him, the next time you invite people over to your house, don't be stingy with the invitations. Forget inviting your friends, family, and other distinguished guests – those with the ability to reciprocate in kind. Instead, invite the people Jesus would invite – those on the fringes of society. Those you prefer to ignore.

The Sabbath is not, nor has it ever been, a proper excuse to ignore peoples' needs. Rather, God created the Sabbath to remind his people that he gives rest for all his creation. When Jesus acknowledged this man's dilemma and then provided for his need, he gave him rest. As the body of Christ, when we, like Jesus, acknowledge and meet the needs of those who suffer, we honor God's intent for the Sabbath.

When we provide rest for God's creation, we can begin to live fully in the community God has designed for us.

Let's look to the other passage in Luke.
As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?
Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God. Luke 18:35-43

Bartimaeus the Blind Man

Aware of the lively commotion passing by and the realization that Jesus walks near, a blind man raises his voice and cries out for mercy. But those closest to Jesus, those who led the way, rebuke the blind man and tell him to be quiet.

Bravely, the blind man ignores their attempts to silence him. He cries out even louder, Son of David, have mercy on me! Aware now of the man in his distress, Jesus calls him closer. He asks, What do you want me to do for you?

To be a part of the crowd that walks with Jesus is a privilege. As we walk with Jesus in this world, many voices cry out from the margins, have mercy on me. Louder and louder they seem to cry each day, have mercy on me! How will we respond?

When we pass by a woman crying out for mercy because she has suffered domestic violence or sexual assault, how will we respond? When we pass by a person of color crying out for mercy because he has suffered harassment or social injustice, how will we respond? When we pass by refugees crying out for mercy for they have suffered the loss of their homes, their family and friends, their livelihood ... how will we respond?

Have we, like the crowd, shamed them in their efforts to call attention to their plight or have we, like Jesus, called them closer and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?

When the followers of Jesus tried to silence the blind man, they attempted to deny him the dignity of using his God given voice. When the followers of Jesus rebuked the blind man in his distress, they denied him the respect any person created in the image of God deserves. On that day, if those closest to Jesus had their way, the beggar would have remained blind and on the road  denied healing and community by those passing by.

As followers of Jesus and co-laborers in building God's community, Christians don't get to decide who's in and who's out or who gets to speak and who doesn't. Rather, like Jesus, we get to tune our ear to the cry of the desperate and respectfully invite them to express their needs.

When we lovingly welcome, attentively listen, and sincerely inquire how we can best help, then we can begin to live fully in the community God has designed for us.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Live fully in the community God has designed for us

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to preach at the Indiana District Regional Encounter in Greencastle, recently. In this series, I'll share with you what I shared with the women who gathered at TheStorehouse that day on what it means to live fully in the diverse community God has designed for us. Enjoy and I welcome your comments for further discussion.

Dr. Mark A. Powell, professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, explains the concept of social location and biblical interpretation in a short video produced by Seedbed. “Social location,” he says, “refers to those various factors that identify one person as distinct from others in society.” These factors include, but are not limited to, gender, marital status, nationality, age, and economic status.

Scholars have long recognized the connection between understanding social location and proper biblical interpretation. Suffice it to say, any first year theology student or indeed, anyone with a rudimentary grasp of the basic steps of biblical interpretation recognizes the need to scope out the who, what, why, and where of a biblical author and their intended audience.

Yet now, Dr. Powell states, scholars are paying closer attention to the social location of the modern reader and how their personal experiences, collective memory, and cultural backgrounds affect their interpretation of biblical stories.

In other words, if we as a group of adults and adolescents, or women and men, or blue collar and white collar workers all read the same Bible story, it's possible we will all derive a different meaning because our social location influences which details we notice in the story and which details we fail to consider.

Dr. Powell tested the veracity of this idea with three separate classrooms in three different cultural settings. Beginning with a familiar Bible story, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Dr. Powell asked the same question to each of his students to see how their social location would influence their answers.

The Prodigal Son Among Swine, by Max Beckmann

First, Dr. Powell asked his students in the United States to write down on an index card their answers to the question, “In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, why does the young man end up starving in the pigpen?” Almost every one of his American students wrote the same response, “Because he squandered his wealth.” In wild living, no less!

Is that what you thought? Me, too. I don't think I've ever heard a sermon about the prodigal son without a preacher condemning the son for demanding his inheritance from his father and then foolishly spending it all. If he's starving in a pig pen, we Americans like to opine, he's got no one to blame but himself. Right?

A seminary class in St. Petersburg, Russia gave Dr. Powell another opportunity, as well as a very different cultural context, to ask a different group of students the very same question concerning the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

In the same way, the Russian students wrote their answers on index cards, but unlike their American counterparts, the vast majority of the Russian students expressed a completely different answer to the question, "Why does the young man end up starving in the pigpen?"  Instead of saying, "He wasted all his money," they replied, “Because there was a famine in the land." And indeed, if you look up the text, Jesus explicitly states, “About the same time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve.”

Interesting, right? So, what influenced the majority of the Russian students to notice this particular detail while the American students ignored it? History

During World War II, Dr. Powell explains, the German army laid siege to the city of Leningrad, blockading roads and refusing to allow food to enter for almost three years. Between September 1941 and January 1943, historians estimate at least 600,000 people – 25% of the population – died because a great famine swept over the land we now know as St. Petersburg.

Social location and biblical interpretation. Who we are, where we live, what we remember affects our reading of scripture.

Lastly, Dr Powell taught a class in Tanzania, East Africa. Curious to know if the Tanzanian students would respond as the Americans or the Russians he asked them the same question, “In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, why did the young man end up starving in the pigpen?” Their response may surprise you.

The Tanzanian students overwhelmingly replied, "Because no one gave him anything." Surprised? Go ahead, read the parable again. This little tidbit is there as well. In fact, the Tanzanian students expressed shock at the inhospitality of a country (a country without honor) who would refuse aid to a stranger in need.

The Prodigal Son Among the Pigs, by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

Social location and biblical interpretation. It matters. To be true to the interpretation of scripture we need to be aware that our experiences, inherent bias, and cultural conditioning affect our reading of it. 

In Dr. Powell's experiment, every student in each classroom gave a perfectly acceptable answer. However, and this is important to note, none of the students gave a complete answer. Not one. Hear me now. Each student had a correct answer, but not one had a complete answer. Why? Because our cultural perspectives, collective memory, and social interactions affect which details we notice and which we disregard as a group.

If we, as students of the Bible, desire more than just a correct answer but a complete answer, then we must study and interpret scripture in community. God purposefully designed a diverse community for his people to depend on one another and learn together. In other words, we cannot consistently read and interpret scripture alone nor solely with people who always look and sound just like us. Not if we truly hunger for a more thorough and honest rendering of God's word.

Dr. Powell's experiment is just one example of why we need to live fully in the diverse community God has designed for us. We all have some vague notion that the idea of community is important, but in the next few weeks, I will endeavor to convince you that learning to live fully in the diverse community God has designed for us is not just a good idea, but absolutely essential to our health and well-being as the body of Christ.