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.

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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.

words of life

Today marks 5 years since cancer took my friend Esther. Last week, I learned of another college friend who walked from earth into eternity. The list of people I know who have passed away grows at a rate that I’ll never be comfortable with. And I hate it.

We always want to say things, anything, that might offer comfort in times of loss, but the reality is that it’s often little solace. Pithy statements like, “he’s in a better place!” and “she’s with Jesus” do not take away the sting of death. They are well-meaning and true words, but they do little to change the situation. I am reminded of the limitations of my words every time I try to console a grieving friend. Every time a friend tries to offer me words of encouragement. Our best words cannot undo sin and its end product: death.

There is one place that I’ve found comfort and hope, especially when dealing with death, and that’s in the words of Jesus. You can chalk it up to religious sentimentality or fanciful feelings, but there is a very real peace in the red letters. Almost as if they have power.

After all, when Jesus spoke, people were healed and demons went scrambling. When Jesus spoke, the winds and the sea obeyed him. When Jesus spoke, a dead man walked out of his grave. John 1 tells us that Jesus was the very Word by which all things were created out of nothing back in Genesis. Jesus has power. And the power was displayed when he was resurrected from the dead, the firstfruit, proving our spiritual resurrection and future bodily resurrection.

We also know that the Bible is God’s revelation to us, so that that when it speaks, God speaks. Thus, it makes sense that reading Scripture would bring peace, because it is the power of God working in you, not just your brain processing the words on paper.

The words that I have been resting on today are some of the last words in the Bible. They describe a vision of what is to come, a reality that draws nearer with every passing day.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new.  – Revelation 21:1-5

This is what we look forward to. Not for a future of floating around playing harps, but a future where heaven is on earth, where death and crying and pain will be a thing of the past. It is a place where the dead in Christ will live with God in newly restored, resurrected bodies. Esther. Patrick. Ronnie. Ommar. Christ the Redeemer will return to finish what he began and redeem everything fully. The earth. Our bodies. Our lives. He is working all things toward this redemption.

Jesus said it, and they are true because the One who spoke it is Truth. He is God.

Behold! Jesus is making all things new!

hurt and hope

I was never the reckless, perpetually bloody-nosed kid. I didn’t climb trees or jump off rooftops or get into fights. Well, fist-fights with people other than my little brother at least. Most of the time I had my nose stuck far into the pages of just about any book I could get my hands on. Well, if someone slammed the book shut, I suppose I would probably have a bloody nose.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I was a bit of a nerd. But I’ve also had my fair share of scraped  knees (with the scars to prove it!), torn ligaments (including my ACL), and a few trips to the ER.

Pain is one of those things that we just intrinsically push away from. We avoid it at all costs and go out of our ways to ensure that our suffering is at a minimum. But this is not some deep truth I’m unraveling; it’s common sense. No one likes to get hurt. No one likes bruises, sickness, a broken heart, or death. I would argue that even the self-inflicting sadists out there cringe at every painful blow. There is just something so disturbing and yucky about pain. It makes sense that we avoid it.

But maybe… Maybe pain and suffering is one of the gifts of the grace of God.

“What? Did he really just say that?”

Pain and suffering and sorrow remind us that something isn’t right. Surely this isn’t what we were made for! Is there joy and satisfaction in sickness or loss, heartbreak or death?

So then, what were we made for?

If you believe in the God of the Christian worldview, hopefully you understand that He made everything, and made it perfect. Sunshine and love, community and purpose, lollipops and unicorns. I’m still looking for the last two in Genesis, but I’m sure I’ll find it in the Hebrew. He made it all, and he made it good.

So what happened?

If you haven’t noticed from the last several millennia, we humans are a rebellious lot. Someone tells us not to do something and we want to do it. We’re not always the smartest. In Genesis, Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit and changed the course of how things should be. Now there’s pain in childbirth and work has become hateful. Creation which was meant to be subjugated under man strives constantly with man, man strives with man, and man ultimately dies.

And this is where pain steps in and does his work. Through it all, we’re inadvertently pointed to the fact that we were not created for pain and brokenness but for peace and wholeness. Something isn’t right and we know it. Pain and suffering and heartbreak cause us to long for the good news that it doesn’t have to be so. Living in hurt doesn’t have to be a reality!

There is a place of healing and shalom, of rightness and justice. Jesus came into a tumultuous world and brought the solution to the longing, anguish, and trouble the world groaned under. He was unjustly afflicted, scorned, and murdered. And in all this, He brought an everlasting Kingdom of peace, love, and life. Our pain cries out for this Kingdom. Through it, God reminds us that such a Kingdom exists, and we were meant for it.

Bring on the pain!