Across the Street

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(Photo:  our street)

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Being a missionary is weird.

So, what do you do?” “I’m a missionary.” “Whoa!” The converstion changes. People treat you differently. There’s now this distance between you and them.

People ask where you live and you tell them and even that changes the conversation. You don’t have to admit what you do and you still get the “you’re a different species” response. They say things like, “I could never do that,” and “You must be so…” and then fill it in with something you know you’re not, like brave or faithful or fluent in Spanish. (Okay, Kim is.)

The flip side is that people have strong opinions, stronger perhaps than with other vocations, of how you should be spending your time and money at the job that they “know” they could never do. Going to a movie in Nicaragua costs about $4, and any time I mention going to a movie I feel a need to explain how cheap it is because people do—I’m not speculating here, these are real conversations—say things like “You can afford to go see movies? I don’t even get to go to the movies here!” Of course, that’s in addition to the people who are shocked that we have movies or electricity or indoor plumbing…

Imagine having a whole bunch of people who are all part of giving toward your paycheck and they all have an opinion on how you should do your job. Just imagine that, Pastor Tim.

Here is a truth that might offend you–and as I say this I’m remembering both that New Song may be our most faithful supporting church and that this is the church at which I once was shouted at while I was preaching…and not even by Tim.

So that’s your warning; here’s the offensive truth:

It’s not okay that people are poor. It’s not. It’s not okay with God. The Bible is all about justice for the poor and God’s care for people suffering poverty. “You matter to God so you matter to us,” says the sign as we enter New Song’s building. God’s not okay with people being poor so we’re not okay with people being poor. Same reasoning.

When Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you,” he didn’t mean, “You know, that’s just gonna happen, may as well accept it and move on, no fixing a big problem like that.” Jesus wasn’t a fatalist. He never says anything else in the Gospels that we read as fatalistic. In fact, Jesus said if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”


Concerning people who are poor, Jesus meant the opposite of “No biggie, don’t worry about it.” Jesus meant, literally, “You’ll always be with poor people; of course you will, because you’re my followers. I’m with the poor, in fact I identity myself as the poor, and because you are my disciples, my sent ones, you’re going to be with people in poverty also.” Jesus doesn’t describe loving or helping people who are in need as some project for us to get done. In Mathew 25, Jesus says helping them is helping me; loving them is loving me. It makes no sense to say, “I love Jesus but I won’t love people suffering hunger or thirst, I won’t love strangers or sick people or prisoners.” Jesus says, “I am those people. When you love them, you love me. When you don’t love them, you reject me.” It’d be like saying, “I love Tim, but I do not love Royals fans. I will not love a Royals fan.” But…Tim is a Royals fan. That doesn’t work. They’re inseparable.  “I love Jesus, but those dirty, stinky, irresponsible people who are hungry and thirsty and refugees, I will not love them.” That doesn’t work.  It doesn’t make sense.  

When Jesus sends us, we get going on following Him, doing what he did, loving whom he loved, letting God’s spirit flow through us so that now God is incarnate in the world through us. HE sends us. And we go because we love him; we go out to love him.

It’s not okay with God that people are poor; we are God’s plan to do something about it. You and me. That’s a big job and we’re a small church. But that’s the deal. God never promises we will eradicate poverty in the world. But God just doesn’t tend to give us a lot of the specifics about how any of this will all play out. We know the big picture: God will redeem and restore, and there will be no more death, God will wipe away every tear, no more cycle of poverty, no more children going hungry. For now, we get very clear directions from Jesus—you might even call them “commandments”–about loving other people, caring for people suffering poverty, not letting money become our master, not being anxious about what we have, using what we have to love and bless others and advance God’s Kingdom.

Those are our directions from Jesus about people living in poverty around us, whether “strangers in the land,” people living in other countries, or people living across the street. A lawyer tries to dance around what Jesus means by “Love your neighbor,” and Jesus defines it for him with a story: “Those people whom you hate and fear, the ones you judge and believe God judges, let’s start with them.” But Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t tell a story about how a good Jew is supposed to love a wounded, hated Samaritan. No, Jesus being Jesus tells a story about how a hated Samaritan loved a wounded Jew after the “Good” Jews showed apathy toward him as he’s lying there dying by the side of the road. The Jews crossed the road to avoid their fellow Jew.  The Samaritan crossed the road to get to him, to save his life. Apathy is the opposite of love. And neighbor becomes the opposite of enemy.

So, if you’re tracking with me, what I’m telling you so far is that: God loves all people, including people living in poverty; Jesus commands us to love other people, specifically people suffering poverty, and loving them is loving Jesus. As you can tell by Jesus commands,“love” means a lot more than “feel warm and fuzzy toward.” What exactly does “love” mean? For our purposes today, we’ll say love means, “treat the way God wants them treated.” That’s not bad, right? Does God want them judged or hated or ignored by us? Or does God want us to care for and share with them, empower and encourage them and tell them about his astounding, endless, grace-filled love for him? That’s a rhetorical question.

Now I’m guessing if you’ve been at New Song longer than 2 weeks, you’ve heard most of this before. Pastor Tim, one of my favorite people in the world, visited us last year to see our place and meet some of our neighbors across the street. We were talking about New Song’s work in India and Ensenada and the Wenatchee Valley. I asked some question about “How does it work with New Song’s other missionaries?” and Tim said, “You’re the only ones, you and Samuel and Sarah.” Because all of New Song’s ministry in countries suffering extreme poverty is directly with the leaders in those countries. The orphanages and schools and pastor trainings you folks support are all with the people who live there. You are part of making their calling possible. New Song is loving Jesus in those places.

We’ve been in Nicaragua for six years now. We went there because Jesus said “Go.” Actually, Jesus was there before we were and he said, “Come, join me.”  But why did he say that to us? If I really want it to get tense in here, why didn’t he say that to you? Or has he?

Why did Jesus say “Come love these people in Nicaragua with me?” Why did Jesus say, “Cross this street, love these neighbors?”

Well, obviously, God said that because these people are poor and need our help. There’s a problem so God sent us to work on it.  Right?

No, I don’t think that’s the main reason. As a high school science teacher of mine often said, “That’s the right answer, but that’s not the answer I’m looking for.”

Well, obviously, God called us because we are exceptionally gifted, capable people who can have the biggest impact in Nicaragua. Right?

Wrong.

Okay, last try. Why did Jesus invite me and Kim and our family to love people in Nicaragua, some shockingly poor, some wealthier than we are (whoa, that wealthy!), some Nicaraguan, some Chinese, some Korean, some gringos from Canada and the U.S, a few Germans and a family from Zimbabwe?

I believe the primary reason Jesus called us there is the same reason God has us do anything.  It’s why we come together in this building on Sunday morning or gather in someone’s house during the week.  It’s the same reason you spend time praying.

God invited us to Nicaragua to be with us. We gather in worship on Sunday morning because we believe God is present here when two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. We come because God’s here.  I hike so much when I’m back in the Pacific Northwest because that’s where it’s easiest for me to experience being with God.  

To be clear:  God doesn’t call us to Nicaragua because we’re good at being Christians, or even because we have the specific spiritual gifts the people of Nicaragua need. God calls us to Nicaragua so we will be with him. When God calls us to be with him, he doesn’t just call us to hang out. God calls us to be with Him and being with Him changes us. Specifically, being with God changes us into the image of Jesus.

I want to make certain you’re getting what I’m saying here: God loves people in poverty and God shares with us His love for them by making us part of His Kingdom work to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Loving them isn’t a job we do for God; loving them is loving God. Our calling is not merely the task God give us, it is the way God has designed us to be with Him. God is not one of those bosses that just wants the work done and considers the workers interchangeable parts with no value other than completing the work. NO, God love us and calls us to be with him because he loves us.

There’s a funny moment in the Gospels that I’d always wrestled with. The story is in Mark 5 and Luke 8. Jesus heals a man who has a LOT of demons. Jesus casts all of those demons out, frees the man, restores him, and then sits and talks with him. Listens to him.  Loves him.

The village people freak out a bit because when Jesus cast out the demons , they begged Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs. Jesus did. Then the pigs did a swan dive off a cliff and plunged to their death. You can see how that passage could raise some questions, though if you are offended about the pigs dying, let he or she who has never eaten bacon cast the first stone. Side point. No, the question that’s always bugged me about this passage isn’t about pigs or even about how people can see such an awe-inspiring, life-restoring miracle and ask the miracle doer, “Please go away?”

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

What, Jesus? I thought your ministry was “Come, follow me.” “Drop those nets, follow me, I’ll teach you to catch folk, not fish.” “Leave your tax collecting and follow me.” “Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me.”

So here we have Jesus casting out a Legion of demons, the guy says, “Can I come, too?” and Jesus tells him, “No. Go tell everyone what God has done for you.”

That used to just drive me nuts. What? If anybody was ever in need of a little new believer care, it would be this guy, right? Does Jesus just not like him as well as everybody else? Doesn’t particularly want that follower?

This passage finally made sense to me in Nicaragua.  Jesus loves this guy. Jesus came to that specific beach in Gentile territory (pigs, remember?) to heal and restore this particular man. But Jesus has a different calling for him, a different direction for him to go in order to be with God. “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.This man has a wild testimony. He has been through some awful things, to put it mildly. To know God better, to draw closer to God, this man needs to go and tell the people in the Decapolis what God has done for him. “Deca” means ten, so ten Gentile cities.  He becomes the first evangelist in gentile lands.

“But Mike, look what this guy’s been through! Why would God send someone so unequipped?” Let me answer your question with a question: Why would God send a forty-something year old man who doesn’t speak Spanish and who is not particularly gifted at learning Spanish to a Spanish-speaking country? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked God, “Why didn’t you send someone from here who was already fluent in Spanish?”

God loves us. He does what he knows we need, he treats us how he knows we need to be treated to know him. He draws us to him and through that he makes us more like him.

God’s desire for us is to be with him. I John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” God’s commitment to us is that he will make us like him, that he will be faithful to complete the work he’s started. And God’s means to do this work in us is our calling. Let me say that again: Our calling is what God uses as his means to bring us closer to him.  We are called to be with God and through our calling God transforms us to be more like Jesus.

Here are a few implications. I’m not answering these, but I’m leaving them for you to ponder.  The joy of being a guest preacher is that I get to make the mess and then leave it for Pastor Tim to clean up.  

1)We kinda gotta know our calling.

How has God made you? How does God want you to know him better? What is God saying to you? Are you following your calling now? Are you knowing God through that?

2)Our callings don’t necessarily entirely make rational sense to us.

Funny thing about God is, he’s God. My friend Pastor Bismarck and I have developed this saying: No soy Dios; Dios es Dios, Gracias a Dios.  I’m not God.  I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t know all the reason.  What God does will not always make sense to me, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t calling me.  

Jesus identifies with the poor. There are many kinds of poverty all around us. One out of five kids in Wenatchee lives below the poverty line.  There’s also severe poverty in Nicaragua and North Africa. God can call us anywhere. He can send us to the Decapolis to proclaim what God has done. He can send us to a Spanish-speaking country when we are Spanish-language challenged. He’s God. We know that God calls us to love the poor in some form, all of us, because that’s whom Jesus tells us he is. And our calling is to be with Jesus.

3)Mileydi and Juan Carlos live across the street.  Kim and Mileydi have become sisters.  The family who sells tortillas for six cents a piece have their driveway directly across from ours. What God has called us to may seem crazy and foreign and you might even leave here saying, “Thank God that God isn’t calling us to go there!” When we were training in Honduras to go to Nicaragua, Samuel and I saw pictures and heard stories of a certain country in North Africa and afterward we literally said to each other, “Well, at least we aren’t called there!” Then Samuel and Sarah fell in love and now Samuel is there. Because God’s funny like that. If I’ve learned anything from these six years, it’s that God loves us so much that he does whatever it takes for us to be with him. Go to Nicaragua…and then cross the street.

So where is Jesus?  Where is he waiting for you, calling for you to join him?  Where is he calling you to cross the street?

What Does It Matter (or It’s My Dollar)

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Okay, I’m going to start this broad and angsty, but it’s going to end up making you feel uncomfortable, unless you just dismiss it. Who wouldn’t want to stick around for that?

I assume, unless we are utterly narcissistic, at some points in life we ask if we matter. If our thoughts tend to run dark and deep, we move from there to questioning whether anything we do matters. Over seven billion people live on this planet and my little contribution makes less than the smallest ripple in the pond. My “big splash,” as I once imagined it, can’t move the water’s surface even to be detectable to the naked eye.

I don’t live there, in that thought bubble, but it passes over from time to time, like that moment you’re driving and you hit the fog bank: suddenly you can see nothing beyond your headlights, literally nothing. The fog reflects your beams directly back at you. You slow to two miles an hour because you won’t know if anything is in front of you until you collide with it. If you’ve driven in that, you don’t forget it.  These thoughts are definitely not a faith view, and fog does clear eventually, but in the moment it’s stinking hard to see.  

These thoughts can justify any number of horrible actions or decisions. “If there are that many people and I don’t matter anyway, who cares if I…[insert your most easily rationalized selfish choice].” Once we start down that road, many things previously unimaginable become possible, restrained solely at the discretion of our whims or our unwillingness to face possible consequences.* Imagine for a moment how many marriages have ended and how many children have been abandoned because someone simply decided, “It doesn’t matter whether I stay or go. Not really. Not in the big picture. I might as well do what I want.”

Oddly, paradoxically, the same destructive line of thinking can also feel freeing.** Perfectionists have notoriously narrow vision when driving themselves insane: “I must get this right!”  Why must we?  Those seminary papers I stressed and sweated over, I did get “A’s” on most of them, but were they all, always, worth the price I paid?  Had I hit “save,” closed my books, printed, and gone to bed for six hours instead of staying up all night, even knowing that I would likely get a “B” anyway, would the world—or even my world—have collapsed? Here I’m reflecting on a time I was very driven, based on the belief that I had to do that…or…what?  Well, I think I would not have gotten the perfect ministry positions, lived the ideal life, and had God love me more than anyone else who ever lived except Jesus. You can see why I stressed over these things.

Again, there are other arguments for doing our best, seeking excellence in our calling, as a student or a pastor or mom or dad or President. But if we allow ourselves, remembering the big picture can let us off some pretty gnarly hooks of our own making. Can I say, “This project I’m working on does not merit wrecking my health and neglecting my family because in the big picture, I’m just a guy doing a project” without slipping down the slope of “Come to think of it, nothing I do matters because I’m just a puny guy doing a meaningless project?”


A faith position, simply stated, is “We matter to God.” Amazing. Almighty God, creator of the universe, infinite and unsearchable (we can’t wrap our minds around Them), thinks fondly of you and cares about your day, about your breakfast, about your child’s crisis that you can’t solve. Believe it and your life changes. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so–and the fog lifts. I can see ahead of me, I can see purpose, I can measure my actions and even measure the values behind my actions. I can read Jesus’ words and talk to Jesus and get input from people who embody Jesus’ values and spirit of love. His holy Spirit, in other imperfect people.

This will sound like a leap, but hang with me.  

I live next to poverty. Poor families live across the street and sometimes share their food with us.  That’s humbling (and it’s wrong to say “no.”)  We hire them to do work we could do ourselves because we can afford to and sometimes that money they earn means that they eat and can feed their children.

I come back from a neighborhood where people never have enough to a place where people always do. These are the same world but sometimes we refer to them as separate worlds because they contrast each other to such an extreme and, maybe, because that allows for less responsibility toward that other “world.” Perhaps.

I like it here. I like the conveniences. I like Grocery Outlet where I can buy all the neat-healthy-organic stuff (and some not-so-healthy) at big discounts. I like roads that don’t tear my car apart. I like breathing cleaner air. I like filling a cup from any faucet and not wondering what parasites I’m drinking.

As I just told someone last night, in Nicaragua I always think about what others don’t have; in the States, I always think about what others have.

Here comes the make-you-uncomfortable part.

I could just keep quiet about this. After all, we’re able to do much of what we do because people here share their resources with us. By the end of our U.S. visit I’ll have a large running tally of how many different vehicles I’ve driven here, none of which belong to, nor are rented, by us. Our friends and family and church “cousins” lavish upon us and I gain weight. Every year in my six +/- weeks in the U.S., I gain weight, as does most every missionary who comes back for a visit.

But we matter to God, so I’m talking about this.

We matter to God, and so do my neighbors who can’t afford adequate dental care.

What I do does matter. It matters if I’m faithful to Kim. My choice to love or neglect my kids matters. Whether I work at something that builds God’s Kingdom or hurts other people matters. In fact, this all matters so much, in the eyes of an infinite God who cares about sparrows and pygmy shrews and babies with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, that we have to talk about grace right here, before we go any further.

Grace means so many things and covers so many things, but in this context it means we can make choices with our resources without torturing ourselves because we know God understands and allows for our mistakes. And our selfishness. We know God accepts our efforts to be faithful with what we have and forgives our failures to be faithful and just and merciful with all that we have. Grace here means God loves us even when we care too much for ourselves and not enough for others, too much about our comfort and not enough (or at all) about their suffering.

Like I said, I could have skipped this. It would be more comfortable, and less judgy-sounding, for me to thank everyone for all that they give us and keep my mouth shut about responsibility. It’s nice to think, “We are generous folk who share some of what we have with the the needy and less fortunate.” Does grace mean however much or little we decide to share, that’s good enough for God?  Or that God doesn’t really care how much we share of what we have, as long as in our hearts we’re not “too attached” to it?  I’m going to say, “no” and “no.”

Being here, in the U.S., now makes me uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I like it, and I expect that sooner or later I will live here again. But I feel the discord. Play three notes together on a piano and then add a fourth that hurts when played with the others, that harmonizes badly. Discord. 

So what am I to do? I matter to God and I’m one person among a whole mess of people. Both are true. The former matters more than the latter in terms of how I think eternity will go for me or for any of us. These are real questions I’m asking:  Do we spend too much on our cars, our toys, our selves?  As others have suggested, is spending all our money on our families another form of selfishness? Might being “responsible” by investing everything so there’s nothing “left” to give not equal being responsible in God’s Kingdom?


I don’t feel important when I say these things, like I’m going to make any splash or ripple. I certainly don’t feel like I know exactly how to be faithful with our money. But I do feel responsible to say them, anyway: God cares about other people, not just us, and God gave us all the money we have, all the wealth, all our possessions.  It’s no argument how hard you or I worked for them; that is not the discussion, because they are God’s resources, entrusted to us (when Jesus tells the parable, the master sends the slaves and entrusts them with his money, not the slaves’ money) in a world—all one and the same world—in which some children will go hungry tonight.  And tomorrow night.

I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, but I know we’re supposed to do something. I know Jesus well enough to know that much for sure. I’m doing what I know to do, imperfectly, relying on grace like a tightrope walker over a chasm with a net strung across—grace catches me or I’m dead when I fall—and part of what I’m to do is live among people suffering poverty and talk to others about it. Talk to you about it.

So I’m sorry if you feel uncomfortable now, yet I hope you choose that over dismissing me. You might be pouring out all the resources God sends your way, doing the best drink pitcher imitation there is. I don’t know. I’m not judging or comparing. But I am saying this:  only if we see a brother or sister in need and do something for them can we say that God’s love dwells in us.*** I don’t think the variable here was the seeing people in need, but the response to them in their need.

Holy Spirit of Jesus, guide our steps. Guide our thoughts. Guide our giving, especially of ourselves.

 

 

 

**And if we’re bad at foreseeing or grasping consequences, we’re in serious trouble.

**I’m not going to delve into whether walking away from all commitments and life responsibilities is a form of freedom. One big, angsty question at a time.

*** “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  I John 3:17.  Rhetorical question.  It doesn’t.

Dad

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June 26, 2017 marked nineteen years since my dad died.  Impossible.  How could my father be gone for nineteen years already?

I’ve referred to him often on here but I’ve never written a post solely about him.  That might appear strange, since he had such a huge impact on my life.  He was a contradiction.  It’s hard to capture my feelings about him because they were, and still are, both strong and  contradictory.

Yet in one sense, everyone else’s life is a mystery to us.  We don’t really understand how other people work or think or make choices, so we just guess and project, based on who we are.

Alan Miles Rumley was born on December 5, 1929.  He used to joke that he was born both the year the stock market crashed and just before Pearl Harbor Day.  He was endlessly self-deprecating, yet he really believed he was “smarter than the average bear,” “a better driver than 99% of people on the road,” and “honest to a fault.”  Even just quoting him fails to do justice to how he would inflect each word and how often he would repeat them.  Every description is shorthand that leaves out crucial aspects.

I can tell you stories about Dad that make him seem a monster and others that would convince you he was a great father. Neither capture the whole truth.

For a man born and raised in The Depression, who grew up poor and often neglected, he was remarkably expressive of his love for us.  Many men of his generation never hugged their children, never said, “I love you.”  Dad was affectionate and free with his words, including the endearing ones.  

Dad talked a lot.  He talked more than any other human being I’ve ever met.  He loved to talk.  Why did he talk so much?  Did he just love to hear himself speak?  Was he insecure and tried to fill that emptiness with words?  He was a great storyteller.  His best stories were about himself, his own pitfalls and pratfalls and foibles.  But some of them were amazing, because he was astoundingly brave.  He was more determined than anyone else. 

When he was young, he performed physical therapy on himself to straighten and strengthen his polio-damaged leg.  He described walking back and forth for hours, for months, until he could walk without a limp and then, finally, run again.  He didn’t get any medical help, he just made up his mind.  Dad became a collegiate track star in the half mile (we call it the 800 meters).  I read an article about one of his races from a Chicago newspaper.  

He was a terrible student in high school.  He barely made C’s and some teachers passed him–and told him they’d passed him–just so that they wouldn’t have to see him again the next year.  But because he’d learned to type–barely–he became a company clerk in the army during the Korean War and was stationed in Germany.  Then he not only went to college, he went on to earn his M.S. in earth science, and had the credits hours for the equivalent of a second Master’s.  

Every summer when I was very young, we would travel to a different geologic site in the U.S. because he had received a grant to do research there.  He was “Henry County Conservation Teacher of the Year” in 1972.  Nineteen Seventy-Two.  How many were even paying attention to conservation in 1972? 

He suffered a lot; he never did so quietly. It was hard to feel bad for him because he constantly expected us to feel bad for him.  I don’t know how old I was when he started telling me his problems.  I’m shocked as I raise my own kids.  Was I nine?  Did he really tell me (and not just once) how his health problems discouraged him, how hopeless he felt that he would ever get better, when I was in third and fourth grade?  My son is entering fifth grade, I have my own struggles, and this thought appalls me.  Is this why I feel too responsible to fix everyone?

Yet my friends, for the most part, thought he was hilarious.  He loved to laugh and joke and act ridiculous.  He kept the price tagdangling from his Foster Grant sunglasses because he found it funny…and it may have driven one of my sisters crazy.  We had so many inside jokes, so many routines and “schtick” we would banter back and forth:

“Write if you get work.”

“Work if you get right.”  

Then there were the rages.  Several years ago, some people from my school got into a discussion on Facebook about their former teachers.  Many people said Mr. Rumley was a great teacher, if somewhat eccentric, but the comments I remember were from a woman much older than I am, who stated that my dad was a terror, a psychotic who should not have been allowed near kids.  But he taught for over thirty years–he taught seventh- and eighth-graders for over thirty years–and spoke up for and befriended some of the most ostracized, neglected kids.  He prided himself on advocating for students the administrators and other teachers wanted to expel and successfully helping the graduate.

Remember, those were different days in U.S. education: another teacher lifted me out of my seat by my ear and another time grabbed me by the neck and slammed me against some lockers. I don’t doubt Dad traumatized this woman, though verbally, never physically.  I’m sure I saw rages from him worse than she saw.  But he helped a lot of kids no one else cared about.  He loved to teach.  One of our school’s best students, who went on to get her Ph.D., shared at Dad’s memorial that he had inspired her love of learning.

Dad was bi-polar.  Manic depressive.  A doctor diagnosed him what turned out to be six months before his death.  The term was fairly new to me, but when we heard what the diagnosis meant, the symptoms they described, we all said, “Well, yeah.  That’s Dad.”  After his death, after I understood the diagnosis better, after I learned that he had died with thousands of dollars in anti-depressant pills hidden everywhere because he wasn’t going to let someone “scramble his brain,” I saw his rages differently. What chance did he have, with the biochemistry of his brain so messed up?

Yet reducing Dad to his diagnosis, or the negatives that people remember of him, is just as one-sided as trying to brush these things aside.  Dad was raised by a semi-invalid mother and an alcoholic father and never drank a drop of alcohol (that I knew of) in his adult life.  He suffered horrible asthma and emphysema, yet spent how many countless hours hitting me grounders, pausing to cough and choke and spit, and then hitting some more.  I didn’t become the shortstop for the New York Yankees, but I did know my dad cared about me, measured sheerly by how much time he spent letting me dream that I could be.  

The older generation loves to joke, ha ha, that when the younger generation grows up, their parents will become so much wiser, ha ha.  Meaning “we were right all along and someday you’ll have the sense to admit it.”  Dad was wrong about a lot of things and he was difficult to love while he was alive. I did love him, and in his later years I could see more clearly that he loved me.  The wisdom I’ve gained is that I understand better how he tried to communicate that love, and that his destructive behaviors did not negate that love.  For all his words and his constant dissecting of everything in his mind, he was not self-reflective and certainly not self-aware.  He needed people to accept and appreciate him and struggled mightily when they refused.  But we don’t control others’ responses to us.  That wasn’t wise or healthy; I’m still trying to unlearn that need myself.  

When people say they had the kindest, wisest, gentlest, most patient father in the world, I can’t relate.  I used to feel jealous and resent all the work I have to do just to maintain staying level because of how Dad was.  But my dad loved me.  He wanted to be a good father.  He couldn’t always overcome the voices in his own head, the demons he faced.  He struggled his whole life to find peace with God.  I believe, at the end of his Job life, he found it.  

He was my dad.  

Of Wonder Woman, Departing Friends, and Choices

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[Spoiler Alert:  If you haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet, be warned.]

Wonder Woman is a really good movie.

I’m having my last times with people I love until I-don’t-know-when.

I’m thinking about the deep stuff today.


Our lives are a series of days taped together.  We can measure and categorize them in so many different ways–days left of school, years until you retire, how long they’ve been sober–but we get a certain number of days in a row.  Period.  Within certain constraints, we choose what to do with them.  We don’t choose how many we get, other than that we can shorten them.   


Wonder Woman surprised me.  It not only entertained, it spoke a couple of profound truths.

  “It’s not about what they deserve; it’s about what you believe!”

 Diana “Prince” and Steve Trevor debate whether or not people deserve saving after Diana gets a glimpse of how evil and hateful people can be.   But Steve changes the debate:  we don’t risk our lives and try to save people because they are worthy; we do these things because trying to make a difference is right.  

God doesn’t save us because we’re worthy, but because He loves us.  We don’t debate whether people deserve our love; we love them because God first loves us.  It’s not what they deserve, it’s what you believe.


So these last few days I’m having my last few days with some of my favorite people.  Then they’ll move and I don’t know when I’ll see them again–but if and when I do, it will never again be life like we’ve had it.  You can never step in the same river twice, because it’s not the same river and you aren’t the same…you.*

Time means that we can’t cling to life as it passes.  We can try, but that doesn’t work.  Time is the river.  It flows by.  


 

Still tracking?  

Back to Wonder Woman.  “I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat.”

Truth.  We aren’t prone to evil because we have an evil leader–Aries, the God of War, influencing us to go against our nature–but because we have darkness even in our light.  Even when God redeems us and changes our hearts, even when we taste grace and see that God is not the monster who can’t wait to catch us screwing up (that’s someone else’s voice), we’re still at war within ourselves, as Romans 7:14-25 describes.  Following Jesus means not only do we believe this, we take this on as a daily discipline.  We commit to a “whatever it takes”** approach to “the choice we make for ourselves,” becoming God’s light in the world instead of spreading darkness.  


 

Okay, here I’m either going to tie all this together or crash and burn.  Let me know.  

We love people, we seek to live grace and love in this corrupt, brutal, almost casually destructive yet beautiful, God-drenched world.  We are here to love, not to judge.  I think I’ll repeat that.

We are here to love, not to judge.  

Jesus said he came not to judge the world, but to save it. If he didn’t come to judge the world, you can be dang sure he didn’t send me to judge it.  That means “deserve” never enters the conversation.

Good thing, too, because we’re just as undeserving as the folks we’re tempted to judge.  I know we feel like we’re not, and (secretly) we (sometimes) put ourselves on a different level than “those” people.  But again, we have light within us but constantly feel the darkness beckoning.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.  I believe that; every time I forget, I get in trouble.  

God brings people into our lives and leads them out.  The river flows.  We choose to love certain people and let them in.  In my life, anyway, I’ve had some amazing folks, much better than I’ve “deserved,” and that’s grace, too.  I wish the people who are leaving would stay, and this is yet another way that, if I had more power, I’m certain I would screw things up.  Providentially, that choice is not given to me.  

No soy Dios,

Dios es Dios,

gracias a Dios.  

Instead, I’m letting people go.  

Wonder Woman reminds me, though, that all I can do is choose.  Choose to love, because God’s love does save the world and somehow God makes me and you part of that.  Choose to let God bring light into my darkness and refuse to give up on the people who seem (to my eyes) lost in a darkness of their own making.  And choose to believe that an open heart to love the next people the river sends my way is, itself, a choice for light, against darkness.  

 And, maybe just maybe, choosing others, making people “our people,” is what makes these relationships matter so much in the first place.  Could it be not that we choose people we love, but that we love people we choose?  

 

 

*Heraclitus.  Paraphrased slightly.  “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

** “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  Romans 6:12-14

A Reminder

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Recently I spent time with a person whom I have gotten to know well over the last several years.  We’ve been meeting together regularly for at least two years and have done activities, school stuff, and church together.  I’d say we’ve been very involved in each others’ lives and have a lot of mutual trust.  

Then, last time we met, I discovered that, up until then, I’d seen only the tip of the iceberg.  

Boom.  

This will be short and sweet, but I wanted to say this to you and to myself, because it’s a big deal:  

Building trust is walking together.  

If you blow it, or if they pull back, you may not be walking together anymore.  I have people whom I once trusted but will no longer open up to, and I’m the guy always talking about opening up!  Not everyone is safe.  

But if we do keep trust, walking together means that this journey doesn’t really have a destination.  We’re just hanging out, moseying or strolling or marching along, because being together is good and life-giving, not because we needed to get from Point “A” to Point “B.”

Here’s the epiphany that splashed me in the face, the reason I’m writing today:  trust is an ongoing, cumulative process,  a LONG walk, and you may think–I certainly thought–that most everything that could come out already had.  

Not.  Even.  Close.  

I thought we were cruising along, checking in about things, doing good maintenance.  Turns out what I didn’t know was crucial, as in, the interpretive key through which everything else makes sense.

Oh.  

I wasn’t pressing to go deeper because I thought we were there.  But we were still walking.  I forgot that there is no destination in relationships.  Yet this happened, this moment of deeper trust, because we were still on the journey together, even though it turned out I thought we were somewhere else on the map.*

Remember: we know people because they trust us.  I mean know people, not greet each other on Sunday morning or make small talk.  Trust may be the most precious, fragile gift anyone gives. 

But we never fully know people.  We just walk together.  

 

Remember that, Mike.  

 

 

*Not the first time in my life to experience this, either literally or figuratively.  

Present or Vicarious?

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“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”  

–Terence McKenna

I read this quote recently and it won’t stop playing in my head.  I’ve learned to pay attention when this happens, when words keep echoing and reverberating around and around (and they aren’t telling me that I suck).  Obviously this quote is dated and now we’re worrying about Beyoncé and Donald Trump and Lebron James and Stephen Curry and Ariana and Taylor and Selena and Drake and…

If I didn’t get yours, fill in the name.  Here is my takeaway, and I’m not the first to say it–we live vicariously through people who have nothing to do with us, who care nothing for us, and who will never meet us nor think of us.  I remember listening to a radio call-in show in which Paul McCartney was answering callers’ questions.  A woman got to speak to Sir Paul and gushed that this was the greatest moment of her life.  “Uh-huh,” he said, “and what was your question?”  Paul McCartney, from what I can tell, seems like a perfectly decent person, but that wasn’t the greatest moment of his life.  That wasn’t a memorable or meaningful moment in his life.  That was barely a moment in his life.  

I’m far from the first to suggest this, but our condition appears to be getting worse, so maybe it bears repeating:  Our real lives are the lives we live with the people we know and touch and talk to and love or slight.  The opposite of love is indifference and celebrities don’t love us.  Living vicariously is, to a large extent, the opposite of living in the present moment.  

Quickly, someone is defensive.  “You’re saying I should never watch movies or basketball or youtube or…”  Nope, I’m not making vast generalizations about how we should never make contact with entertainment or the internet–though Terence McKenna was saying that–and I’m not claiming that I’ve ignored the Warriors-Cavaliers series.  

I’m saying our danger is that we get consumed by lives we’re not living and we neglect to live our own.  “The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe,”  which means your part in the Kingdom of God is exactly the space in front of your nose, everything within arm’s reach.  

I’ve been saying goodbye a lot lately.  As Billy Joel said, “So many people in and out of my life/some will last, some will just be now and then/Life is a series of ‘Hellos’ and “Goodbyes,’ I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”  And it is.  I’m saying goodbye to some folks whom I’ll see again in August and some whom I don’t know if I’ll ever see again.  And I hate that, and I embrace it, because this is life.  

Advertising, in my view, seeks to cause discontent, to tell you what’s wrong with you or what you lack so that you will spend your money to compensate for that gaping inadequacy that you didn’t know you had sixty seconds ago.*  Celebrity culture takes that a big step further:  you will never be this–this beautiful, this rich, this famous, this important–but you can live vicariously through them and, by identifying yourself with them, somehow be part of that life, that wondrous life so far beyond your mere mortal reach.  If you just worship them, you get to share in their glory.

Skubala, skubala, skubala.  

I know, “worship” is a loaded word.  That might be hyperbole.  The word that should frighten us, however, is “vicariously.”  Whether you love or hate certain celebrities, whether you cheer for or oppose a particular professional athlete or sports team, the question I think we must raise, and keep raising, is “am I living their life or mine?”  

McKenna’s point, if I understand him, is that all of this “diversion” tempts us to engage their lives and not ours, to become immersed in what is not us, for the profit of others.  But even if we never spend a cent (or centavo) on these diversions, the danger is just as real if we focus on their being instead of our own.  

I want to make two more points and then ask a question.  

First, as I understand life, loving God and loving others are the deal, that’s what matters, and they only come as a package deal.   The whole, “I really love God, I just can’t stand any of these people God made” doesn’t hold water biblically:  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”  Heck, we can’t even claim to love God if we refuse to help the people around us: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”**

We spend our lives–I mean this literally, we pay with the coin of our time, which is the only currency we’re given–on what matters to us.  We can’t really say, “I spend only .002% of my time on this, but it’s the most important thing in the world to me.”  It isn’t.  Of course, we can say whatever we want and delude ourselves in whatever manner we choose; I mean, the evidence that tells the tale is how we invest ourselves, and our time reveals our hearts.  

McKenna writes, “You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”  As a Jesus follower, I agree.  If God and people you know and love–or are called to love–matter, then getting sucked into this empty, meaningless, celebrity-worshiping or -crucifying Matrix diverts us from the Kingdom of God, from what and who make our lives meaningful.***

Second–and we always have to say this, for every one of these conversations–legalism kills.  Making rigid rules for these things does not lead us to a fuller, more joyful, more present life, but it does make us smaller and more judgmental–and as a special bonus, we often end up cheating on our own rules, anyway.  

Many of us are probably far more consumed by “cultural diversion” than we want to admit.  But we can also enjoy some of our entertainments as one aspect of our relationships with the real people in our lives.  My friend Jeff and I talked about the Yankees last night while sharing dinner.  We enjoy that as a mutual interest.  Sharing music, watching and discussing movies together–Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, for example, is brilliant, hilarious, and painful and raises so many cultural and racial issues–shouting together at other people playing basketball or baseball better than we will ever play them, these can be tremendous, life-giving ways to build our relationships.  They can even lead us to a deeper understanding of God and ourselves.  

Or they can turn us into “half-baked morons, consuming all this trash.”  

How do we know if we are enriching our real lives together or living vicariously and missing our lives, the only lives we get?  For most of us, it’s probably not one or the other all the time.  Some of us may be pretty far down the rabbit hole and don’t want to hear it (if you’re pissed off at me about this post, good to ask why), while others may just get lured once in a while.  I don’t have answers or even guidelines.  I’m vigilant with myself about this because I know I can get sidetracked and obsessed–obsessed is one of my specialties–and I want to live being present to the people I love.  

My question, then, is simple:  Are you living your life or someone else’s?  

 

*If you want to reflect more on this, this book will give you plenty to chew on:  https://www.amazon.com/No-Logo-Anniversary-Introduction-Author/dp/0312429274

**Rhetorical question.  It doesn’t. 

***This is a side note, and needs to be its own post, but arguing with people on social media whom you will never meet or know is similarly a means of distraction and unhealthy misdirection of time, energy, and emotion from our real–present, physical, relational–lives.  Even if you argue “only” in your head, not on the screen, I still think this is true.  

Goodbyes

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It’s that time of year for us here.  School ends tomorrow.  I’m relieved, because my daughters will have survived finals, which was a little touch-and-go this year.  I’m having my last mentoring times with the young adults I’ve invested in for the past year or two or three.  I’m trying to be a little Jesus-like and leave them with the most important things I can think of.  No, even more important than ultimate.  Good guess, though.  

Being a missionary in Nicaragua also means this is the time of year when we say goodbye to a bunch of missionaries who are moving back to the States or Canada or from wherever they came.  While people might leave any time, the end of the school year always sees the highest concentration of departures because 1)many of them have kids in school, 2)many of them are teachers, and 3)somehow the beginning of the summer just seems like a natural time for people to transition.  

One of the things you don’t realize before you start working internationally is the revolving door.  

Nicaraguans, from my personal experience, are probably less likely to move than folks in the U.S.  Poor Nicaraguans who are able to buy, or build, or even squat to obtain homes, tend to fix and improve them over time, as they can afford to.  In the U.S. middle class, we think in terms of “starter homes.”  Here, Nicaraguans take their starter homes, often much rougher than you would imagine living in, and slowly turn them into a decent place to live.  Further, Nicaraguans are, in general, very connected to their extended families, so they will often choose to stay in close proximity to one another.  I don’t have a large study to back me on this, but in the six years I’ve lived here, only one of my close Nicaraguan friends has moved (not counting students going to college), and they moved to Leon to be closer to his wife’s family.   Counting the eleven years since I first started coming to Nicaragua, one other family built a new home, which took several years, and moved into it shortly before we came to Managua.  

IN sharp contrast, my best gringo friends, in a few weeks, will have moved away three different times.  I mean, I made best friends, they moved, and made new best friends, and they moved, so I made new best friends and guess what?  Moving.  

Now I realize that some people have it harder in this.  Certainly people who work as seasonal laborers in agriculture live this way, constantly moving, constantly saying “goodbye.”  So I’m not feeling sorry for myself–okay, no, that’s a lie, I am feeling sorry for myself, but I’m trying to keep this in perspective and limit my self-pity.*

The combination of doing student ministry, which inherently involves sending kids off into the world to take their next steps and pursue their calling, and being part of a community of expat folks who seem to come and go with the wind, leaves us in a continual state of letting go.  Since I get so much opportunity to practice this discipline, I’ll offer a few reflections on what God is teaching me through this.

  1. Choosing to keep an open heart to new arrivals becomes harder–and more important–with every departure.  We discuss this a lot, how seeing folks come and go for years can tempt us to close down.  “Oh, you’re new here?  How long do you plan to stay?”One of our early close friends, who arrived at the same time we did and left a couple years later, really suffered from not feeling included in the missionary community.  At the time, that looked shocking.  It’s still painful, but I understand much better now why it happened.  Am I willing to invest in people who won’t be here–who may not be part of my life–for very long?  

2. It’s tempting to make people lame ducks the moment you hear they are leaving.  You may have been close before, but they’ll only be here for another six or nine months, and this is the fifteenth close friend you’ve said goodbye to in the last 3 years, and they’re already focused on living elsewhere, and…  Very tempting.  It sucks for the people leaving, who are already going through a tough transition…and it’s still very tempting.  

3. Probably the biggest danger is simply limiting how close we get to people in the first place.  I mean anyone.  Yes, as a Jesus follower, I believe that people are eternal and we will spend that together; yes, I know all about God giving and taking away–more than I wish I did, I know that–and nevertheless we start to employ defenses to cut down how much pain we endure.  That’s how defenses work.  

 

Those are the temptations.  They each get stronger as we live here longer.  As I mentioned, for me they also increase because I’m already investing deeply in the lives of the young adults who are almost certainly leaving, or at the very least transitioning to other communities here.  I can easily feel like I’m already maxing out by sending off kids I’ve taught and coached and walked with through their joys and miseries.  I’m not going to stop giving my heart to them, so maybe I’ll just pull back from everyone else.  

 

Living in the present means little if we aren’t valuing the people around us.  Being mindful, paying attention, remembering that life is lived only one moment at a time, here and now, none of these have the same impact if we’ve drawn back from those sharing our present moment with us.  Pulling back from everyone is another version of refusing to live in the present, refusing to be present for others.  

I believe that God calls us to suffer for one another.  That’s how I’ve learned to understand goodbyes.  When people leave here, especially when I’m not convinced that God is calling them elsewhere (and obviously God tells me these things), letting them go is a version of laying down my life for them.  I’m giving up what I want and prefer for their good, and choosing to continue to love them and not lame duck them up until the minute they leave is a form of “being devoted to one another in love.”  

If I believe people matter more than anything else in life other than loving God–while understanding that the two are inextricably connected**–then I see these temptations I described for what they are.  They aren’t just a minor temptation to pull into my shell a little more, to be a touch less open, a tad less vulnerable.  Changing how I relate to people because I’m protecting myself from the pain of their (potential) leaving is going back on my calling.  It’s not doing to others as I would have them do to me.  It’s a big deal.  

So I’m recommitting myself to loving others the way Jesus loves me.  Specifically, I’m choosing to take on the suffering of letting go of friends, of the students I mentor, of the amazing people called to other work in the Kingdom and even the wonderful people who may be bailing early on their calling here.  As C.S. Lewis described, the only way to be protected and safe from emotional pain in this world is to close yourself off to everyone, and that turns out not to be safety but entombment and death.

 From one perspective, life is simply a long series of goodbyes: to the fathers and sons who die and leave us here, to the children who grow up and need to become their own and not ours in the same way anymore, to the friends whom we help get married and will never be as close again as when they were single, to the disciples we do our best to love and prepare and send out because we’re all “sent ones” and we’re not supposed to keep disciples for ourselves, even the ones whom we enjoy the most, even the ones who make us laugh the hardest.  We’re supposed to send them, in Jesus’ name.  

People aren’t ours.  That’s where I’ll end.  The people we love the most may feel like they’re ours, but in the end even our husbands and wives aren’t ours in the sense that we get to choose not to say goodbye.  If while I’m with you I can be present, see you for who you are and not who I would make you, and give you a little bit of grace to take with you, then I’m living my calling.  Letting you go is also my calling.  

Goodbye, Friends.  I’ll miss you.  Go with God.  

 

 

 

*If one is really committed to self-pity, I would not recommend moving into a poorer community.  It can really screw that up, seeing others go through much worse.  

**And I’m less convinced than ever that we all believe this.  

Children of Light

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[Manuscript of Sermon I preached on Ephesians 5:1-20 on 6-4-17]

1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. 5 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.7 Therefore do not be associated with them. 8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

 15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.


How many of you here have had the experience of being without electricity, having the power go off? What is that like? What about when that happens in the evening, after 6pm? Okay, so picture you’re now sitting there, but you also have to get something done. Now you’ve got no internet. Maybe you have an assignment that’s due that night, or a crucial email you have to send for your ministry, or something for work that will not wait until morning, and the lights are out, the connection is dead. You feeling that?

And now the lights come back on. How do you feel?

When I became a Christian, it was that feeling but to infinity. I was in the darkness all the time, nothing I did helped, the harder I tried the worse I made it, and then God turned the lights on and it was like, “Oh. Now I can see!”

There are different ways you can read this passage. One is to read it as a list of warnings: These things are bad and you must avoid them. Another way to read it is as a means of identifying who is going to hell. “No fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” So fornicators, impure people, and greedy people—who are idolaters. If you can read that and sit there confidently thinking, “Yep, them. Those people have no part in God’s Kingdom,” then it’s possible you and I have a different understanding of grace and of impurity.

I’ve heard this passage used for each of these two purposes. It’s not a bad thing to warn people against various sins. If sin is what damages and kills us, then we should know what we need to avoid. The problem is, we move quickly from, “these are the things I need to avoid” to “following Jesus is only about avoiding these things.”

But when you read through this passage, when you read through Ephesians, you see Paul has in mind something much bigger than lists of warnings and “do’s and don’t’s.” Paul addresses a question that only gets more important as our lives go on: Who are we?

I’ve had some wonderful mentors in my life. Several of them have emphasized a lesson that shapes how I read Scripture and how I understand following God: Doing flows from Being.

The things we do come from who we are, from how we understand our identity. How many of you have ever told a child or teenager to do something and gotten the answer, in one form or another, “Why should I?” Which probably means, “That doesn’t matter to me and I don’t want to.” Often the answer to “why should I” is because I have some power over you that I will exert if you don’t. But last night, when I looked at the sink full of dirty dishes and though, “Why should I?” the real answer was, “Well, who am I?” I’m a Jesus follower. Jesus leads us by serving us and teaches us to serve. And honestly, late last night, that’s why I did the dishes, because I want to be like Jesus, and that means I want to be a servant like Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong. These are important warnings in Ephesians 5, and we should pay attention: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” Listen—if you have people telling you that bad things are really good, don’t be deceived. Or if anyone is trying to convince you that you can be good on your own and don’t need God’s help, or the opposite, that God is never pleased with you, that you are never good enough and God saves you out of obligation but does not delight in you, those are empty words, empty without the depth or substance of Scripture, empty of truth and empty of life. Do not listen to them or to anyone teaching them.

But Paul didn’t write this passage in his prison cell merely as a warning. We always try to get the full context of Scripture because context makes all the difference. The first 6 verses serve as a warning and verse 7 instructs sternly, “Therefore do not be associated with them.” But the center of the passage comes in verse 8.

 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Following Jesus means more than trying to stay clean from sin, or even than trying to obey Jesus to stay clean.

Paul echoes Jesus here. IN the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus says: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Okay, track with me for a second. I believe this is the center of the passage: Once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light. The center is who we are, our identity, and what we do comes from who we are. Doing flows from being. What does it mean that we’re light? How did we get to be light?

Passages like these sound bad to people who do not follow Jesus because it sounds like we’re saying something extremely egotistical and superior. Yes, that does matter, because 1)that’s a complete misunderstanding of our relationship with God, and 2)it can push people away from the Gospel. So let’s be really clear:

Paul suggests not only are people who reject God doing bad stuff, but they are darkness. Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are Light. In the Lord. None of us fixed ourselves. We didn’t become the higher class of spirituality, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps of our souls and achieve the Christian-American dream of becoming better than everyone else. That is NOT what happened.

The change happens not because we fix things in ourselves or we find “The Secret” or figure out how to self-actualize or make ourselves holy. We certainly do not change from darkness to light because we were told the rules and learned to follow them better.

God rescued us. God threw himself in our path while we were charging toward hell, he threw his body in our way. He knocked us out of the way of the oncoming Prado and in Jesus Christ got run over and crushed in our place. That analogy isn’t bad, except that we weren’t innocent pedestrians who just happened to make a foolish choice to get in the road.

We had committed to poisoning ourselves and the people around us. Not satisfied with our own death, we were also pouring poison into the glasses of those within our reach. The Gospel’s not easy to take, when we let ourselves get what it really says. We were God’s enemies. We were heading to hell and inviting others to join us for the trip. Jesus took the poison from our hands, but we’d already drunk it, so Jesus took the poison from our bodies, too. He took the death we’d ingested and let it kill him instead of us. He took our death in him and gave us his life, instead. That’s grace—when you deserve something bad and instead are given something good. We deserved the worst and got the best.

 In the Lord, you are light. Now that we’ve been extremely clear on how that happened, the center of Paul’s argument is this: God has transformed us. In God, In Jesus Christ, we are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. God is light and in him there is no darkness. We are God’s children; in God, we become children of light.

Here’s the thing about light and darkness: it’s not an even match. Darkness can never, ever win when light is present. Never. Did I say that enough times? Never. If light is present, at all, then darkness is vanquished. You might’ve seen horror movies where the last match is burning out and the darkness and the bogeyman are about to take over. But that’s not darkness triumphing over light, that’s running out of matches. You are light in Jesus. You don’t worry about running out of matches because In Jesus, God has made you light.

I said that reading this as a passage of warning or even instruction is too limited because it is a passage of identity. We will never succeed at stopping ourselves from doing bad things by just being warned. Please get the difference between: stop, don’t be greedy or impure or sexually immoral or say nasty, vulgar things

and In Jesus Christ God has made you light, and God is transforming you. God’s Spirit dwells in us. Our hearts are filled with God, and God is not letting us go. Doing flows from being.

Paul knows that the battle within our hearts continues. He instructs the Ephesians Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Paul doesn’t assume that the Ephesians are automatically doing all the right things, but he is reminding them of their identity—who they were, who they are now. The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Darkness cannot exist in the presence of light. So in God as we begin to walk with Jesus, as we begin to extend grace to ourselves and others, as we start to love our neighbor as ourselves, we see the fruit of the light—all that is good and right and true, all that is of God, shines and makes more visible.

I think Paul’s next line is really interesting: try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Try to find out. Of course, we could make a list right now, all together, of things we believe are pleasing to God. But when Paul phrases it this way, I think it means in your individual life, try to find that out. Try to find out how your life can be pleasing to God. Remember, this is attached to “live as children of light.” What does God have for you to do that brings light into darkness?

Then, continuing his metaphor, Paul considers how to oppose the darkness.

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light.

This all requires wisdom. We must recognize the difference between darkness and light in order to avoid taking part in “unfruitful works of darkness.” The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true, and the fruitfulness of light is that it spreads, bringing light, bringing God’s Presence, into more places–in our hearts, into the world around us. Then it follows that works of darkness are unfruitful because they don’t spread any light, they don’t bring God’s Presence; they may pretend to bring light, but you can see from their results: if they have not brought any light forth, if they have made big promises for the light they would spread but when you look, you can’t see anything of God being revealed or brought to life, then these works are unfruitful. These are works of darkness.

Okay, I love weaving in metaphors, and I could play with this all day—heck, I might even write a book. “All that is good and right and true” is wonderfully broad and I don’t want to give any limits that narrow God’s infinite creativity. Just because you’re not doing good in the same way I am does not mean you’re doing it wrong. But it’s also helpful to be concrete with these things: The works of light are when people are experiencing Shalom, true reconciliation with God and one another, when we know God’s love more deeply, when we are reconciled to God and forgive and ask forgiveness, when we are healed from our shame and self-hatred and repent of our pride and violence and racism and arrogance. When people become Jesus followers. When we feed hungry people and and give thirsty people drink, when we visit prisoners and care for sick people and welcome strangers and refugees and orphans and embraced them, those are the signs of God’s Kingdom, those are the works of the light. There are more, of course. But they have to be these, as well. If you’re told these are not works of light, you are hearing empty words; don’t be deceived.

 

So as children of light, we’re exposing works of darkness. That can be scary. Darkness often does not like to have light shined on it. I’m sure we can all verify this in our own lives. Even though we know that light brings life and darkness brings death, even so, it’s tempting to remain in the darkness because we think having darkness revealed is shameful. That’s just a trick to keep us in the dark. Staying in darkness is deadly; having darkness revealed brings life. If we say we are without sin, we make God a liar and the truth is not in us; if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive all our sins.” We are light, in Jesus. Therefore, we don’t participate in the works of darkness, we don’t keep their secrets (as the quote goes “you’re as sick as your secrets”). Instead, we bring bad things into God’s light, knowing that this is the only way to life.

but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light.”

I don’t know if I could make an argument for this according to the properties of physics, but then we’re already in metaphysics when we agreed that we are light. God redeems. When things are exposed by the light, they become visible and now have the possibility of redemption. Evil, which grows in dark and hidden places, is called out for what it is. Everything that becomes visible is light. Again, I take this to mean the absence of light is the only place darkness can thrive, and everything, including us, once brought into the light can itself become light.

 

Continuing in verse 14: Therefore–because this is true–it says,

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

(Is. 60:1-2)

This is resurrection. The “sleeper” isn’t having a nice snooze, but is dead, as when Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” He died. But the light God brings resurrects dead spirits, it brings dead souls back to life. Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you. You will become a daughter or son of the light.

The last 5 verses are instructions again. You can see now the structure of Paul’s message here. Last week’s passage that Matt House preached ended, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love…” Identity and instructions for that identity, right? Be this and then you will do this. You are beloved children, so be imitators of God and live in love as Jesus loved us.

Our passage today reveals our identity as children of light and gives ideas of how to live as who we are. Now we end with some specific exhortations.
15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How we live as people of light becomes very important. Paul wrote this mid-way through the first century to people living under the Roman empire and in a city that worshiped the “Goddess” Artemis, and followers of Jesus suffered much persecution. The days were evil. It’s not difficult to argue that our days are evil, too, so much so that I’m not going to bother to prove that to you. We all know the evil and darkness around us. So I want to focus on the exhortation for a moment: live not as unwise people bus as wise, making the most of the time. To our ears, that might sound like, “Oh, Man, work hard, get the job done!” But listen to what follows: 1)don’t be foolish, but understand the will of the Lord, 2)Don’t get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery—you’re not going to be wise or making the most of the time if you’re going around drunk, right 3)but be filled with the Spirit as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Remember, Paul’s in a prison, and probably not a nice one, not clean and safe and 3 meals a day. He’s in this place and he insists that his disciples in Ephesus spend their time as wisely as possible, they make the best use of their time–by singing praises to God! Come on, that’s cool. Glorify god. Let God’s spirit fill you and, in the way that you connect with God, worship him. Now I would say Paul is saying “don’t waste your time and get sidetracked on things that have nothing to do with the Kingdom.” You are children of light; live as children of light. God’s will for each of us is the same, yet individual. And we’re going to be at the heart of that by making melody to the Lord in our hearts. That’s how we are light in the world.

Questions without Answers, Part 2

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These are hard stories. We can describe our life in Nicaragua in different ways:  we eat fresh mangoes, we’ve met some of the most gracious, beautiful-hearted people of our lives, I never wear long sleeves.  All of these are true.  So are the following descriptions.  

Yesterday afternoon, I walked home in the rain, which isn’t that unusual.  Seeing that I was getting rained on, the father of one of my students stopped to pick me up and gave me a ride partway home.  The rain let up by the time he let me off and I was damp but not soaked when I reached our street.

On our street, a man who lives nearby caught me.  He was drunk, as he often is.  He has a small business, which we often see one of his young children attending; when that happens, I assume it is because he is “indisposed.”  Yesterday, he wanted to talk to/at me.  He wanted me to give him money.  He introduced me to his father, who was with him and also drunk and who left immediately. We don’t hand out money to anyone on our street because we’ve learned (the hard way) that this is the quickest and most efficient way to ruin relationships.  I offered to buy him some food, which he waved off dismissively.  But he was more interested in a “refrescante,” a soft drink.

I directed him to the pulperia (small convenience store in someone’s home) up the street, but yesterday happened to be Mother’s Day in Nicaragua and they were closed.  So we took a walk down the back road behind our close friend/neighbors’ house to check a different pulperia.  I say “walk,” but it was more of a stagger/stumble/wrap his arms around me or grab my hand or arm and refuse to let go.  If you’ve spent time with someone drunk who is trying hard to convey something to you, you probably have the picture.

The second pulperia had no soft drinks, no drinks of any kind except what the woman working/living there called a “jugo natural,” but was a rice-drink with some juice.  They sell it in a tied-off baggie for five cordobas each (30 cords to the dollar currently, so say a touch over three cents) and it is a shocking pink.  I’d had it before and while it’s not my favorite, it’s certainly fine and much healthier than either the cola I was expecting to buy or what he’d spent his day drinking.

He wasn’t thrilled, to put it mildly, but he ended up accepting it when he understood there was no other choice.  So we walked back to my house, carrying our pink baggies of liquid, which neither of us started drinking.  I’m sure he was trying to ask me for something else, but I couldn’t understand him well enough to know exactly what, and I knew the answer would most likely be “no” (to either money or alcohol).  So I asked him different questions.  I tried to ask him about his children, of which he has quite a few.  He kept wrapping me up–picture a boxer in a clinch–and three different times after I said “goodbye,” he reacquired me.  I finally had to beg off that it was Dia de las Madres and therefore I needed to talk with my wife.

If you’ve ever spent time trying to help someone in this condition, you probably know the mixed feelings I had:  I’m doing my best to pay attention to him and show kindness, but there’s a strong possibility he won’t remember the interaction at all, and there’s a vague feeling of…not threat, exactly, but certainly awkwardness and discomfort.  I’m never quite sure what he’ll do.  Those are a small price to pay if I’m doing any good, but it’s hard to see that I am.  Maybe God is planting seeds that I can’t see.  Certainly that’s worth praying for.

Not long after that, Kim gave me an update on a dear friend of ours who also lives in our barrio.  She has an exceedingly difficult situation, with a husband who not only drinks but goes on benders in which he is gone for days or weeks at a time.  She struggles to feed her children and keep her home together.  If I’m honest, hers is the situation which reminds me that virtually all of my problems are first-world problems.

She finally, finally got a job, Kim told me.  But.  But her job is working at a fast-food restaurant a long way from her home and her work schedule is–no, I’m not exaggerating this–10 AM to 10 PM, six days a week.  With transportation, meaning city buses, she will be away from her home a bare minimum of 13 hours each day, six of the seven days.  She won’t be traveling at a safe time of the evening.  And though we don’t know exactly what she’ll be earning, as Kim described it, we do know it will be almost certainly be peanuts.  I mean, it will be.  That’s how such jobs pay here.  She’ll bring home two hundred dollars a month for these hours.

As I describe this, I’m not suggesting we do no good or accomplish nothing here.  We do.  God is working through us.  Kim is having a major impact on the kids coming to preschool and their moms.  I’m very encouraged at how the young people I’m mentoring are growing and maturing.

But these are the questions without answers.  This is what poverty looks like at our eye level.  It has many faces in many different cities and nations.  But I had never seen this face of it until we moved here.  

The man I described must make different choices before we can help him in any meaningful way.  Perhaps my conversation with him–and our ongoing presence here–helps him to know that we are available if he is ever willing to try.  Our teammate, Phillip, has attempted to approach the men who spend a lot of their time drinking on our street.  Unless and until an addict is willing to recognize the addiction and seek real help, a refrescante, or a cup of cold water (which we frequently share with them), is an act of mercy but only that.

In his case, the answer is clear and straightforward, though very hard.  I’m contrasting his situation with hers.  The rule, for very good reason, is that we don’t give people here money directly.  We make exceptions to that, but sparingly, carefully and cautiously.   We’ve successfully made two loans to friends in our barrio, both of which have been repaid in full, one quickly, the other over time.

But this friend of ours, this mother, doesn’t need a loan; she needs a job, one with which she can feed her children and keep them in school without it costing her being present to be their mother.

What should she do?  This is the rock and the hard place where poverty traps people.

Why are we here?  For her, specifically, why are we here?  We don’t have a job to offer her.  I wish with all my might that we did.

The principle of not giving handouts is good and wise and we have learned the hard way how badly it goes when we disregard it.

And yet…

And yet, this is a different situation, we have a different, closer relationship with her, and watching her try to keep these hours, to run herself ragged because she is stuck between these two miserable choices, also seems wrong.

So what is the answer?

What do you do when you have the means to help, but you know that just pushing in and trying to fix the problem will not fix it, and in fact could potentially make it worse?  Yet neither can you just stand by wringing your hands.

I don’t know.  We’re praying.  We’re praying for her and we’re praying God will show us what to do.  I know that God loves this woman and the fact that we’re here and friends with her, seeing this up close, means that He has  some purpose of which we are a part–though as yet I have no idea what part.

There are also many others here in similar or worse situations.  Over fifty percent unemployment and a per capita income of less than $300.*  What happens to them and their children?

Those are the real questions without answers.

I would not trade the time we’ve spent here.  I sometimes love it, though it’s almost killed me (literally), and I know we have good purpose here in God’s Kingdom.  I wish I could do more.  I often feel lame and helpless.  

Yet “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  I’m leaving you without answers for this one, because I don’t have any at this moment, and cheap answers are worse than no answers because they try to minimize that which needs to be faced not brushed aside.  But I do have faith.  We have faith enough still to be here and to believe God will intervene for our friends.  

I’m asking you, please, to pray for them. 

 

 

 

*Meaning after weighing in the income of the 10% of the population who are very wealthy, it’s still this low,