Refugees and Neighbors

There is much so brokenness in the world. The events of last weekend hammered that home in a heartbreaking way.

One of the results of the terrorist activity in Paris is bringing a spotlight to the Syrian refugee crisis that has been going on since 2011. A small percentage of these fleeing refugees have made it to the United States, but there is a growing fear that ISIS may be sending some of their own with these refugees. There is a fear that by welcoming these refugees, we’re putting ourselves at risk for tragedy similar to Paris.

Many United States governors, mine included, have made statements saying that Syrian refugees are not welcome within their states. Citing the safety of American citizens, they’re calling for President Obama to make a similar move in halting the flow of Syrian refugees to our shores.

I understand the desire for safety and security. And the evil acts of violence against innocent civilians by ISIS terrorists should rightly be decried and stopped. But what then ensues is a shunning of the evacuees of oppression. We are closing our doors on the victims of the terrorism propagated by ISIS, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

engraved on the Statue of Liberty

Christians have risen on both sides of the issue, some with bleeding hearts, some with cold indifference. But how should we react? As people of the cross, people who now view everything in light of the cross, how should we respond?

I think we respond by welcoming the refugees with open arms. By feeding them, clothing them, befriending them, housing them, and helping situate them here.

Why? Because that’s a physical description of what has happened to us spiritually.

Jesus was once asked asked by a lawyer about how to inherit eternal life. The man knew the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” But who, asked the lawyer, was his neighbor? Jesus told a parable, the one we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. He spoke of a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jewish people, who had compassion on a beaten and bloody Jewish man in need. The Samaritan put himself at physical risk and took on the financial burden of caring for the man he found on the road. And at the end of telling this story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these proved to be a neighbor to the man who had fell among robbers?” The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Christian, you and I were on the side of that road. Ever since Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, we have been spiritual wanderers and exiles with no home. The Bible even describes us as enemies of God, alienated and unlovable. And then, at the right time, the Father sent the Son to reconcile us to Himself and show us perfect love and mercy. We who had no hope, no home, were welcomed by God into His household and given a hope imperishable. We who had no family have become part of the family of God because of Jesus.

 Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

Ephesians 2:12-13, 19

This is our story. This is our motivation. This is the gospel. We didn’t deserve mercy, and yet God lavishly showed us mercy. Those fleeing oppressive areas may not deserve mercy, but we show it because we have been undeserving recipients ourselves. We welcome the refugee because we were spiritual refugees that God welcomed in. This reality supersedes our fear of the unknown.

Safety is important, and we should vet and screen the refugees who seek asylum in the United States. But closing our doors on those who would need our help, who need safety, isn’t part of the Christian narrative. The love of Christ compels us to sacrificially love and care for those who are in need. It allows us to give freely to those who would take from us. It gives us the grace to take risks, at the cost of our own safety, to show mercy.

It seems simple enough. But the lawyer had asked Jesus who was his neighbor. Jesus turned the question onto the lawyer and asked him who acted like a neighbor. The lawyer was trying to reduce “neighbor” into a narrow definition, but Jesus says it’s not about who they are, it’s about how you act and respond and show compassion!

I had an opportunity to visit Turkey last year and meet several Syrian refugees who had fled next door, and I was reminded of this truth: our God is described as a father to the orphan and defender of the widow, close to the brokenhearted and embracing the exile. If this is our Father, how much should we seek to be like Him!

Christ came and had compassion, even to the point of it costing His life. As a rescued and redeemed people, we have the opportunity to show compassion and love to those in need. We have the privilege of being neighbors. Let the gospel compel us to live this out.

The Heart of the Matter

It’s so easy to look at people being knuckleheads in the Bible and think, “those ignorant people! How could they not get it? I would never do that!”

My Bible reading plan has me read passages from different sections of the Bible, which is really helpful especially when you hit Numbers. Assuming you make it past the laws in Leviticus. And then you hit the genealogies in the Chronicles, and you’re tempted to just give up. Reading from different sections has been helpful because it reminds me that the Bible is one grand story of redemption, and that God uses different genres, literary styles, and authors to accomplish this.

This morning, among other sections, I read from Jeremiah 9 and Matthew 23. In Jeremiah, the prophet mourns over his people because “they are all adulterers” (v 2), deceitful, oppressive, and evil, and it’s because of this: they have “stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals.” (v 14) They’re in open, outward, outright rebellion against God by worshiping false gods! And the Lord calls them to repentance.

In Matthew 23, Jesus famously has a rebuke-fest with the scribes and Pharisees, the super religious. They do everything right. These guys even tithed of their mint and dill and cumin! When is the last time you tithed out of your spices? And yet Jesus calls them hypocrites and “white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead peoples’ bones and all uncleanness.” (v 27) They appeared holy and pious, but remained wicked, greedy, and self-indulgent inside.

Israel had turned to other gods to try to find pleasure and salvation. The scribes and Pharisees had turned to law-keeping to find pleasure and salvation. So here we have God calling two groups to repentance: those who do evil, and those who do good. Those who break all the rules and those who are pretty good at keeping all the rules. And interestingly, both passages show that the reason they are both far from God is because what’s on the inside hasn’t been dealt with. They have uncircumcised hearts. (Jer 9:26)

David recognized this need when he pleads to God in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, o God!” This “man after God’s own heart” knew of the wicked bent of his own heart; he was repenting of sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband murdered.

The antidote to being bad is not just being good. The Pharisees knew that God was displeased with their ancestors for following other gods, so they thought they could win his favor by being really really good and keeping all of God’s laws. But they, like their ancestors, didn’t really want God. Idolatrous Israel and the hypocritical pharisees were not that different. They both have unchanged hearts.

The gospel confronts the notions that you can find fulfillment by following your own passions and that you can find fulfillment by trying really hard to mold your behavior and outer appearance. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that all the pleasures of the world are to be found in God and his love in Christ, so I don’t have to seek it elsewhere. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that Christ didn’t die for me because I was beautiful, but to make me beautiful, and so all the good works and behavioral modifications I could ever muster up don’t change that fact.

This frees me to be honest about who we really are, and to be honest about who Christ is. This truth changes our heart, when we’re faced with the overwhelming love and grace of God in Christ.

when grace meets mercy

Grace. Mercy.

Those two words have become so common in Christian-speak. We talk and sing and teach about the grace of God and the mercy of God, and we use them rather interchangeably. But what do they even really mean?

Simply put, grace is when you get what you don’t deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you do deserve. *

Confused?

We must start off by understanding humanity and God. At the heart of it, humans screw up on a daily basis and God is perfect. We have this incredible knack of sinning, and God is holy. We’re broken people breaking the world even more. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The justice of God is to exact punishment for crimes and sins. After all, that is what we expect our own law systems to do: to catch and punish criminals. If God did not do so,  He would not be a just and fair God. How just would our justice system be if we let violators of the law go free? The wages of sin is death, and that’s what every person rightly deserves, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

The mercy of God is that He does not always mete out the punishment right then and there. You and I, we deserve punishment and death on a nearly daily basis. How many times have you screwed up this year? This week? Today? Do you ever marvel that God hasn’t struck you down by lightning yet? I do. But it is the mercy of God that He has hasn’t struck us down, not giving us what we duly deserve. Mercy is when you’ve been speeding and the cop pulls you over, but doesn’t give you a ticket. It is the mercy of God that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10)

The grace of God is that He gives us salvation and communion with Him. The grace of God is that He gives us Himself in Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. It is that in spite of who we are and what we do, Christ loves us and died for us to reconcile us to the Father. We don’t deserve to be saved into a relationship with God! We’re getting what we most certainly do not deserve. Grace is when the cop who pulled you over takes you to lunch and offers you an escort to where you’re going so you don’t get pulled over again. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not because of yourself; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

Grace and mercy are similar, yes. But also beautifully different. If not for mercy, we would have perished a long time ago. If not for grace, we would be a hopeless lot. Mercy saves us from condemnation. Grace grants us eternal life.

Lucky for us, God is merciful and gracious.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 145:8

And in Jesus, we see where the grace of God meets the mercy of God.

*These definitions aren’t absolute throughout the Scriptures, and sometimes the writers (and biblical translators) used the words for different purposes. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, “mercy” is used to mean compassionately caring for someone’s needs. The definitions I have provided are more to be understood in Paul’s writing, and what we mean when we talk about the terms in our understanding of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection; they have judicial implications.

the Story of stories

I learned to read at a fairly early age. Between Sesame Street and my mom, I began recognizing letters and words before I entered Kindergarten. We didn’t have any of the normal children’s books around the house; I cut my teeth on the pages of Scripture. While most kids were making their way through Dr. Seuss and The Little Engine That Could, my parents had me read stories in the Bible like Abraham offering Isaac up to God as a sacrifice and David killing Goliath. Between many “thees” and “thous”, and a horifically long time in Leviticus,  they were my first reading lessons, my bedtime stories and the lessons I heard week in and week out in Sunday School.

Although I understood that the Bible was one book composed of 66 books and countless stories, I wasn’t quite told how all the stories seemed to fit together. I viewed it as a collection of stories (true stories!) with morals. They were stories that ultimately showed us how to live rightly and serve God better.

  • God asks Abraham to offer his only son, the son God had promised him in his old age, as a sacrifice to show Abraham’s commitment to God. Abraham is willing and obeys, but God prevents Abraham from slaying Isaac by providing a ram to take Isaac’s place. Moral of the story: be willing to sacrifice anything for God like Abraham.
  • The Philistine giant Goliath taunts the Israelite army, and no one is brave enough to fight him. Shepherd boy David finds out what the fuss is about and goes out to battle Goliath, not with sword and shield, but with his staff, sling and five smooth stones. Young David kills Goliath, the Israelites oust the Philistines and David eventually becomes king. Moral of the story: be courageous like David and you can slay the giants in your life.

I learned all the morals of the stories of the Bible and thus tried to model my life off the specific stories that were in them, and that is how I was taught to view them. What I did was turn the Bible into a sort of Aesop’s Fables. The Bible was primarily a book on how to live life. I became a really good moralist, trying to model my life after the examples in Scripture of what to and not to do, trying to thus ensure my acceptance by God and His love.

And I missed the big picture, the greater Story that God is telling us through His revealed Word.

God created everything, and it was good: the heavens, the earth, the entire cosmos. He created man and woman to rule over creation and to live in relationship with Him, but they rebelled against His one rule, and it fractured everything. Sin, death and a broken relationship with God were the consequences of this rebellion and became our inheritance. Everything was broken and the Bible is the story of how God has been  relentlessly pursuing sinful people and restoring relationship with them (us) and repairing everything that was broken. God did this by sending His Son Jesus to earth, and in His life, death and resurrection, everything broken is being made right; this is the big picture, the greater Story that God is telling us through His revealed Word. And every story points to this Story.

  • The story of Abraham and Isaac isn’t just about one man’s willingness to sacrifice the most precious thing in his life. It points to a Father who was willing to sacrifice His one and only Son and let Him die. There was no ram; Jesus actually died. It is a story that shows how deep the Father’s love for us is.
  • The story of David and Goliath isn’t mainly about a young boy that courageously slays a giant. It points to a desperately weak people who need an overwhelmingly great savior to overcome an overwhelmingly great enemy. It is the story of how God sent a Deliverer at the right time to rescue His people from this enemy of sin and death.

When we see the Bible this way, as one Grand Story, we see the heart of a loving, redeeming God who is after us, after our heart, not begrudging obedience. We see that there is a cohesiveness to Scripture that points to a Grand Storyteller.

And we see that we’re not the center of this Story. Jesus is.