Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Seeing the Face of God on Valentine's Day

As Valentine's Day approached, I was pondering love and the following quote from Victor Hugo's Les Misrables came into mind:
To love another person is to see the face of God.

And this calls to light something fascinating that I think churchgoers seem, unfortunately, to have missed all too often these days.  Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats?  What does the character of the King say to the sheep?  He welcomes them into the kingdom because they fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him into their homes when he was a stranger, clothed him when he needed clothing, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him in prison.  The sheep ask “when did we do that?”  As Keith Green humorously puts it in his musical rendition of the tale, the sheep say “Lord, when were you a stranger and we invited you in?  I mean, we invited lots of people in, but Lord, I could never forget that face!”  And what is the king’s reply?  “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”  And what’s interesting about this parable to me is that nowhere does Jesus say that the king said “for you made sure I had my doctrine straight and told me where I had my thinking wrong, and got me to change my wicked ways before you fed, and clothed, and visited me.”  Jesus makes no distinction about what kind of people the sheep did these acts of kindness for, except that they are the least.  And if you examine all of Jesus’ life and teachings you’ll notice this theme all throughout – Jesus never allows any distinctions when he commands his followers to love.  When he was asked, in reference to the command to love our neighbors, who IS our neighbor, Jesus used a story about a group of people who had some major doctrinal differences with the Jews – the Samaritans.  And in his story the Jews didn’t act neighborly while the Samaritan character did.  And in another teaching Jesus commanded them to love even their enemies!  And one of his disciples, Peter, caught on to the implication that this must mean that we are to forgive our enemies as well, so he asked Jesus (figuring there must be a reasonable limit somewhere to our forgiveness) “how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”  Peter thought this was quite generous.  But Jesus told him: “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!”  Jesus was implying that our forgiveness should have no limits (because who is going to count that high?). 

So when I think of all this, I think about an outreach activity I was involved in recently with some of my friends.  We went to the local mall and handed out bags of candy to anyone and everyone we met, as a little Valentine’s Day treat and a simple way to tell them that Jesus loves them.  And I had a bit of an advantage in this activity, because I had brought my 5 year old son with me.  He is a far better evangelist than I will ever be, because he has no boundaries or prejudices or fears.  So he would eagerly grab handfuls of bags and run up to everyone who was near.  And one of the most beautiful moments of that day, for me, was when I saw him run up to a big, burly dude with a certain darker shade of melanin who was probably a full head taller than me, with his hair in corn rows and big baggy jeans.  My son ran up to him and held a bag of candy up to him and shouted at the top of his lungs “JESUS LOVES YOU!”  And the man’s face lit up like a spotlight.  A big, gold-toothed smile stretched from ear to ear and he looked up at me with that smile and an inexpressible joy filled my heart.  I had just seen the face of God, as Victor Hugo puts it.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Praying in earnest

I was thinking today about praying, and how all too often when we pray, we try to be proper.  We clean up our prayers and present them to God with our best English, using as many vocabulary words as we can think of, and trying very hard not to express the wrong sentiments in our prayers.  But maybe that's not what God wants.  Maybe, in his infinite love, he wants all of our prayers.  Maybe he wants our most sincere expressions, no matter what they are.  And when I was thinking about this, I started thinking about all the places in the Psalms where anguish, anger, pain, and despair are expressed.  And then I thought specifically of Psalm 22, which starts out:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

And then I realized - when Jesus was hanging up on the cross, gasping for his last, painful breath: what did he say?  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  And I thought - what if... as Jesus hung there in excruciating pain... what if the infinite God of the universe who was made flesh and dwelt among us... what if every anguished cry of pain and despair that His children on earth had uttered to Him ran through his mind as He hung there?  And I think back on when I left the church as a depressed, angry, cynical young man and I wonder if Jesus thought about the anguished, accusing prayers I prayed in my time of loneliness.  And when I think of this, I think that this was His way of saying: "Me too.  I know what that feels like."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Is this verse about judgment, or love?

In John 14:6, Jesus says:
"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me."

This verse is often taken as a license to beat people over the head if you disagree with them on doctrinal issues.  But if you read the verse in context with the whole story it takes place within, you might notice some interesting things:
  • Jesus, the Lord of all creation, who is all powerful, and can command the starry host to come down and serve his every need or desire, had just wrapped a towel around his waist like a slave and knelt down to wash his disciples' stinky, dirty feet.  This was a job that was considered to be so degrading by the Jews that their law declared that a Jew was not allowed to require that a Jewish servant perform this task - it had to be a non-Jew according to their law.
  • The conversation that followed started with Jesus announcing that he is leaving them, and then he acts like a parent imparting final words of wisdom before he leaves.  He then takes on the role of Moses, and gives them a "new commandment" (his words, not mine) in John 13:34-35: "Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.  Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples."
  • If you read the whole conversation, Jesus uses the word "love" (or some form of it) 14 times.
  • Jesus just told his disciples that he is leaving them, and after saying "you know the way to where I'm going" (hmm...perhaps because he just told them the way?), Thomas said "we have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?"  And John 14:6 was Jesus' response.
  • Following this whole conversation, Jesus goes willingly to his death, never once taking an opportunity to defend himself with his power, or even speaking up in his own defense during his trial.  He does this because of his radical love.

Still think it's a license to smacketh people you have doctrinal differences with?  Or perhaps it could be something like:
"The life you have seen me lead - the life during which you've seen me healing, serving, restoring, and making peace; accepting and loving the untouchables, and even crossing over the sea to the land of your centuries-old sworn enemies and showing love to them as well; the life during which I've praised the faith of one of the high ranking soldiers who serves as part of the oppressive regime you are living under; the life during which I've called 12 disreputable men to be my closest friends (some of whom - without me - might have been sworn enemies because of their differing backgrounds); the life where I have made it abundantly clear that I want you to love EVERYONE no matter their genealogy or what they've done - living that way... my way... that is the only way to truth and life.  And your own strength is not going to be enough to live like that - you're not going to be capable of drawing near to the Father... except through me.  I'm going to go do something that's going to fix this problem, and you're not going to understand it right away - but just remember how I've shown you how to love.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, you'll start to figure it out, and I'll be there to help you along the way."

Just my thought, but maybe we should stop using this one verse as a judge's gavel to bonk people over the head with as we pronounce our own judgment.  Maybe that's not what it was meant for.