From Failure to Wisdom in the Safety of Forgiveness

When he was two years old, Robert tried to take a bottle of milk out of the refrigerator. He lost his grip, and it spilled all over the kitchen floor. When his mother came into the kitchen, instead of yelling at him, giving him a lecture, or punishing him, she said, “Robert, I have rarely seen such a huge puddle of milk. Well, the damage has already been done. Would you like to get down and play in the milk for a few minutes before we clean it up?” Indeed, he did.

After a few minutes, his mother said, “You know, Robert, whenever you make a mess like this, eventually you have to clean it up and restore everything to its proper order. So, how would you like to do that? We could use a sponge, a towel, or a mop. Which do you prefer?” He chose the sponge and together they cleaned up the spilled milk.

His mother then said, “You know, what we have here is a failed experiment in how to effectively carry a big milk bottle with two tiny hands. Let’s go out in the back yard and fill the bottle with water and see if you can discover a way to carry it without dropping it.” The little boy learned that if he grasped the bottle at the top near the lip with both hands, he could carry it without dropping it.

What a wonderful lesson: In a safe environment, mistakes can be turned into learning opportunities.

What Robert didn’t realize until becoming an adult is that the way his mother treated him when he failed as a two-year-old had a big impact on his willingness to try new things and learn from his mistakes. This attitude, combined with a love of science, led him to become a famous research scientist who made several important medical breakthroughs. Trying something new, failing, learning, and trying again—it’s what scientific experiments are all about.[i]

 

Failing Jesus

The same is true of the moral life and the life of discipleship. All of us make bad decisions and do things we shouldn’t do. In the language of scripture, we have all sinned, we have all missed the mark.

Even Jesus’ firsts disciples missed the mark. Listen to what happens during the last hours of Jesus’ life as recorded in Mark 14 beginning with verse 17. Pay attention to Jesus’ comments regarding their failure.

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.  (Mark 14:17-31, NRSV)

Despite their denials and promises to be faithful to the end, Jesus predicted that all the disciples would fail him. And they did. One would betray, one would deny, and all would become deserters.

 

Learning from Failure in the Safety of Forgiveness

What is most encouraging to me is that Jesus still invited all of them to join as friends in his final meal and to stay with him until his arrest. It’s like Jesus was saying, “I know that all of you are going to face some terribly difficult situations because of me, the intensity of which will outstrip your burgeoning faith. In your suffering, I know that you will cave to the pressure of sin, but I still love and forgive you. I still consider you friends.” So, he invited them to the table, talked about his own sacrifice for their sins (and the sins of the world), and promised that through their ongoing table fellowship he would continue to be present with them and offer forgiveness. Note what he didn’t say; he didn’t say, “You lousy group of men are going to betray, deny, and desert me, so I’m going to cut you off and find a new, more faithful group of friends.” Rather, knowing they would fail him, he said, “I love you, forgive you, and am going to stick with you.”

And if we keep reading, this is exactly what Jesus does. Most of you know the story. He is executed by the Romans, all the disciples fail him (as he predicted), and when he is raised from the dead and encounters them again for the first time, he is gracious. Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt in that first encounter? They knew what they had done a couple days earlier, and now they must look him in the eyes knowing what they did, and knowing that he knew what they did. But Jesus didn’t scold them, shame them, give them a lecture, or kick them to the curb for a new group of followers. Rather, he says, “I know you were in a difficult spot and failed me, but I have compassion for you and forgive you. If you will learn from your mistakes, then you can still play an essential role in my Father’s great rescue mission of this world.”

Did you get that? Jesus didn’t just forgive them, he called them to recommit and said, “You are still useful. Indeed, because of what you have been through, you may be more useful insofar as you can uniquely connect with others who share similar struggles.”

And this is exactly what Jesus does for us. He knows that we will fail him, especially when we are new in our faith, when we suffer, or when the challenges are fierce. But like Robert’s mother mentioned above, he gives us the safety of forgiveness, so we can learn from our mistakes, get better, and use what we have learned to help advance his mission in unique ways.

And forgiveness is crucial, because we cannot reflect on our mistakes and learn important lessons if we are stuck in guilt and shame. Guilt, shame, and self-recrimination rob us of our power to move forward in useful ways. Whereas forgiveness sets us free to ask important questions that help turn our mistakes into learning opportunities.

Questions like: What led up to my failure? What was going on in my life that made me vulnerable? What was the trigger that sent me over the edge? What could I have done to better prepare, to head it off at the pass, to diminish the intensity of the temptation instead of increasing it? How did my failure to properly deal with one temptation lead to others that were worse? What were the natural consequences for me and the people around me? What will this sin cost me? What can I learn so as not to fall into the same sin again? Now that I’ve messed-up, how can I make amends and move forward in ways that will make reconciliation more likely? How can I turn this mistake into an opportunity to get wiser, stronger, and more faithful? These are the kinds of questions that turn failures into learning opportunities that help us become better followers of Jesus.

 

How Failure Uniquely Equips Us to Help Others

When we truly take responsibility for own our failures, confess and sincerely seek forgiveness, let go of guilt and shame, critically reflect on our sin, and learn important lessons, then it not only benefits us but also others. Because now God can use us for very special purposes in his rescue mission of the world. Think about all the special ministries of the church that help bring healing to people that are hurting: divorce recovery groups led by people who have gone through divorce, addiction recovery groups led by recovering addicts, prison ministry led by ex-cons. It’s not that you must be divorced to help divorced people, or a recovering addict to help other addicts, or ex-cons to help those in prison, because we can all bear testimony to God’s forgiveness and encourage others in their healing. But we all know that it’s easier to connect with someone who has been through what we are going through. They seem to have more credibility and wisdom that uniquely applies to your situation. So, if you fail, receive forgiveness, learn important lessons, and rebuild your life, then you become particularly useful to God in helping others going through the same thing. It just might turn out that your mistake is what not only what was necessary for your transformation but also the transformation of someone else.

 

Implicating the Church

What is true of individuals is also true of the church since the church is full of people who struggle with sin. As is clearly illustrated by the Book of Revelation, entire churches, like individuals, can be unfaithful. We lose sight of our mission and turn inward and become self-serving. Instead of following Jesus into the future and partnering with him in new ministries, we get stuck reminiscing about the past and are blinded by a yearning for the good old days. Instead of asking how we can serve the mission of Jesus through the ministries of the church, we ask how the church can serve our personal preferences and agendas. Instead of producing fruitful ministries in God’s great rescue mission of the world, we become consumers of religious goods asking, “What have you done for me lately?” Instead of being gracious, loving, and hopefully, we become critical, negative, and pessimistic. In this way, we fail not only Jesus but also each other.  When we fail each other, we also fail all those in our community that desperately need us to practice what we preach, so they too can come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. So, just as individuals need to confess their sin, let go of guilt and shame, deeply reflect on their failure, learn important lessons, and recommit to serving Gods great rescue of the world, the church needs to do the same—repeatedly.

 

Challenge

In conclusion, we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, individually and as a church. But Jesus offers forgiveness and the opportunity to convert our sin into wisdom, wisdom that will uniquely equip us to help others in God’s rescue mission of the world. So, confess your sins, receive forgiveness, leave shame and guilt behind, and take some time to deeply reflect on your failures without self-recrimination to learn how to be more faithful to God and helpful to others.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, forgive me of my sin and help me to forgive myself. Deliver me from guilt and shame, and teach me whatever lessons I need to learn to be a more faithful follower of Jesus and a healing voice for others.

 

(This post is the thirteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[i] This story was taken from Jack Canfield, et. al., Chicken Soup for the Soul in the Classroom (Middle School Edition).

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Finding Peace in Chaos

Preparing for Storms

Emma and I moved to Cocoa Beach in July 2016, and in October of that same year Hurricane Matthew hit Florida. Having spent so much time inland, we didn’t know much about mandatory evacuations and were told that once the winds reached a certain speed the bridges would be closed and anyone who stayed would be on their own. Although we were fortunate to have my parents’ house in Lakeland as a refuge, we were not prepared for the evacuation. We didn’t have a hurricane kit and most of the stores were sold-out of staple items. I had no idea how to board-up the windows, and as the evacuation deadline quickly approached all we could do is clear the lawn of potential projectiles, throw our kids and five pets in the cars, and drive into stand still traffic. As weather reports predicted a 6-8’ storm surge, I was scared that we would return to a house underwater, especially since we didn’t have flood insurance. Emma wrote on Facebook:

“I am awake in bed two hours away from our new home in Cocoa Beach, glued to the storm coverage, and I keep wondering what we will find when we go home. I can’t help but think about things I left behind, like the kids’ baby books and that growth chart I’ve been keeping since Isaac was a baby… I should have grabbed those. We should have boarded up the windows. Why didn’t we fill sandbags? Exactly how far above sea level IS our house?”

Since Hurricane Matthew wobbled off its projected path, Cocoa Beach avoided a direct hit. Our home was not flooded and there was minimal damage to the property. Lakeland was not affected much either, so we didn’t need the supplies that we failed to prepare.

This was a big lesson for us. Immediately upon getting home, I purchased flood insurance. The church also installed hurricane windows in the parsonage. As the next hurricane season approached, we got a hurricane survival guide and prepared a kit, which proved helpful when we were evacuated again in 2017 for Hurricane Irma. We returned to Lakeland fearing a direct hit to Cocoa Beach, only to discover that the storm changed directions and we had evacuated into its direct path. The eye of the storm tore through my parent’s neighborhood, causing significant damage. Fortunately, we learned how to better prepare after navigating Matthew and, with the help of family and friends, had all that we needed to weather the storm. Had we not learned how to better prepare after Matthew, we would have been in real trouble with Irma.

How many times have you had to navigate storms? And I’m not just talking about the weather, but about emotional and spiritual storms too. Were you prepared? How did you handle it? Did you learn important lessons from one storm to another?

 

To Be Like Jesus: Finding Peace in Chaos

While the disciples never weathered a hurricane, they did have to navigate some fierce storms, and according to the Bible, Jesus expected them to learn important lessons in the process so they could be better prepared for whatever life threw at them. What is interesting to me is that the disciples often failed to meet this expectation, and this irritated Jesus.

Take for example the storm that we read about in Mark 4:35-40:

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Jesus’ questions at the end are striking, especially when we consider that the disciples encountered other storms throughout the Gospel of Mark that provoked a similar response in both the disciples and Jesus. Take for example the story of Jesus walking on water in Mark 6. The disciples were once again on a boat when another storm breaks out. As they were fighting the storm, they saw something across the water that looked like a ghost and were terrified. Walking on the water, Jesus identified himself, told them not to be afraid, and calmed the wind. Then Mark says that the disciples lacked understanding because their “hearts were hardened” (vv. 48-52).

After following Jesus day in and day out, listening to his teachings and observing his way of life, after witnessing him calm storms and perform other miracles, the disciples failed to learn important lessons about faithfully navigating difficulty. Repeatedly, Jesus questions their fearful reaction, which culminates in Mark 8 when an exasperated Jesus says, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (vv.17-18). Jesus is disappointed because they frequently miss the whole point of following him—to be like him, especially in the face of challenge when it really counts. Jesus shows them repeatedly how to prepare for and navigate storms, how to stay close to God and cultivate a calm spirit, a wise mind, a peaceful heart, and a strong faith, all of which are necessary to handle suffering in mature and faithful ways. But instead of growing in spiritual maturity and developing the resources needed to act like Jesus in the face of challenge, they remained immature, demanding that Jesus do everything for them.

Notice their response in the story recorded in Mark 4. First, they are unprepared, caught off guard and consumed with fear. In desperation, when they finally call on Jesus, they essentially accuse him of being absent and uncaring when they needed him the most: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” They seem to mad at Jesus for not preemptively rescuing them.

We often do the same. We go through life without paying much attention to Jesus. We might pray before meals, go to church on Sunday, and occasionally share a Christian meme on Facebook, but we don’t spend much quality time with Jesus in serious, daily discipleship. Neglecting things like prayer and meditation on scripture, which help us regularly connect with God, we’re left unprepared when storms come. Like the disciples, we are caught off guard, overwhelmed with fear, and demand that Jesus miraculously change realty to match our desire. We even get angry with Jesus or blame God when things don’t go our way and we experience suffering. Without the ongoing spiritual growth that happens through the consistent practice of spiritual discipline, we fail to see how these compulsive reactions to fear are misguided, entitled, and immature.

In contrast, Jesus wants us to grow-up in the faith. Instead of remaining the same from day to day and expecting him to do everything for us, Jesus wants to cultivate in us the same spiritual resources that empower him to faithfully and wisely navigate storms. Through a close relationship with him, Jesus wants to increase our awareness God’s perpetual presence, which serves as a conduit for the virtues we need to deal with difficulty: wisdom, faith, courage, patience, and peace. The good news of the gospel is not that God will miraculously prevent you from facing fear and pain, or that Jesus will do everything for you so that you don’t have to do anything for yourself, but that Jesus can empower you to faithfully navigate storms like him.

So how do we prepare for storms? By imitating the life of Christ day in and day out. Jesus could calm storms because he was deeply connected to the powerful presence of God through a life of perpetual prayer. As one who was constantly connected to the peace of God, he could remain calm in the face of chaos. As one who was constantly connected to the wisdom of God, he could make wise choices when all hell broke loose. The closeness of his relationship with God served as a conduit for everything Jesus needed to handle whatever life threw at him. But he didn’t wait until to storm broke-out to prepare.

As a faithful Jew, Jesus was intentional about growing his faith through the practice of spiritual discipline. Day in and day out he prays, meditates on scripture, teaches, and serves. He was intentional about staying aware of and connected to the presence of God, which shaped his heart and mind in ways that prepared him for stormy seas. Then when the storms came, the chaos didn’t rob him of his peace, but his peace brought calmness to the chaos. In this way, Jesus models a way of life that transforms us into his image. As we daily imitate the pattern that he sets forth, we gradually receive the wisdom, faith, courage, and peace required to handle difficulty like him. Our preparation for the storms of tomorrow happen today. We don’t wait until the bridges are being closed. And when the storms to come, we draw on the hard-won spiritual resources to help us stay true, knowing that even in failure there is grace and there are lessons to be learned that will better prepare us for the next storm.

 

Time Away for Rest and Meditation

In addition to daily spiritual discipline, Jesus gives us another important practice when we find ourselves in the middle of a storm, straining against the oars: physically separating ourselves from the chaos by going to a peaceful place. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gets worn down by his service to the crowd. He deals with this challenge by frequently going to a quiet and deserted place to rest and pray. In addition to doing this himself, he encourages his disciples to do the same (Mark 6:31b).

We all need time away from the busyness and chaos that swirls around us. This is why God commands us to keep the Sabbath, to set aside at least one day per week for rest and re-creation. We ignore this command at our own peril, especially when navigating storms that result in seasons of suffering. In addition to weekly rest, sometimes we need to literally walk away from the noise and chaos, to physically withdraw to a quiet place for rest, prayer, and meditation.

Most of us easily go to conversational prayer when facing trouble, but when navigating storms mediation is just as important. Since mediation is a lost disciple for many Protestant Christians, I offer several teachings on this topic that can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes. When chaos is swirling around us in and in us, meditation is the best tools for quieting the mind, body, and spirit so we can get meet God at the deepest level of soul, where God gives us access to divine wisdom, courage, strength, and peace. It is no coincidence that Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4 by saying, “Quiet! Be still!” And Jesus says the same thing to us today to calm the storms of our hearts.

Meditation (or contemplation) clears space in our hearts and minds so we can find clarity about our next best steps, but to calm the storm on the inside we sometimes need to, first, calm the storm on the outside. We need to get away from the noise, busyness, conflict, and competing demands of others, finding a quiet and peaceful place for rest and prayer. Do you ever give yourself this gift?

It’s important to note that if we don’t prepare for storms through daily spiritual practice, or if we fail to handle the storms with wisdom and faith, Jesus doesn’t abandon or reject us. The Bible is clear that Jesus abides with us always, and when we fail he offers grace and forgiveness. However, our lack of discipline and preparation will make it more likely for us to make unwise, and even sinful, choices that result in even more difficulty, pain, and confusion.

 

Challenge

So, let us commit now to a life of daily spiritual discipline. Being a Christian is not just about a one-time decision in which we ask Jesus to be our personal lord and savior. It’s a way of life based on the imitating Jesus. It’s about a radical transformation that makes us more loving, compassionate, faithful, and wise. In addition to daily conversational prayer, let us also commit to daily meditation, the practice of stilling our hearts and minds in silence, so we can become increasingly aware of the presence of God in every single moment of life. If you need help with meditation, you might consider attending our Christ centered yoga class or acquiring some other good resources. Like Jesus and disciples, let us commit to taking time away from the noise and chaos for rest and prayer, whenever the need arises. And when we return from our deserted place, let us commit to getting help from other Christians, especially those who are farther down the disciple’s path. Christianity is not a spectator sport or an individual sport, it is a community affair. We need each other. We need good traveling companions and guides. This is the main reason we offer the Quadratos Companioning Group and other groups, studies and classes to support you.

Don’t wait until the storm arrives to start preparing—start now through the practice of daily spiritual discipline. If it’s too late and the storm is already raging in your life, then get help from other more mature Christians and do your best to commit to prayer, meditation, and the study of scripture, which will help you to be faithful and to pay attention to the lessons that God wants to teach you in the process.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, teach me how to stay close to you day by day through the imitation of Christ so that I can be prepared for storms.

 

(This post is the eleventh in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Preparing for Stormy Seas: The Necessity and Gift of Suffering

Context for the Gospel of Mark: The Burning of Rome

On July 19 in the year 64 C.E., a fire broke out in Rome. It lasted several days, killing many and reducing most of the great city to embers. The emperor at the time, Nero, had previously proposed to demolish and rebuild most of the city in a classical manner, so rumors spread that he started the fire to make it easier to proceed with his plans. As a result, Nero came under attack by his senators. He needed someone to blame, so he scapegoated the Jews. His ploy was believable because most Jews lived on the outskirts of town across a river, and because of their location were untouched by the fire.

Word spread quickly among the Jews and fear spiraled out of control as they anticipated mass suffering at the hand of brutal tyrant. Desperate to avoid Nero’s wrath, some Jews went to the emperor and accused a fringe group of setting the fire, the Messianic Jews who followed Jesus. Nero’s response was horrific. He demanded that the larger Jewish community collaborate with Roman soldiers to identity Christians, and to save their own families they agreed. “A mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on each door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Christ believer. The answer determined the fate of the householder and everyone else in that house.”[i] If a believer was identified, either by admission or someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. Most were led into the Circus Maximus, chained to the floor, splattered with blood, and eaten alive by starved dogs. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified as a Christian, then those living there were forced to name someone else, who was then seized and executed without trial. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day. In the end, the Christian community in Rome was destroyed.

It is hard to imagine this horror. The Messianic Jews were betrayed by their own people to mass murder. The Christians who escaped and those who lived in neighboring areas were isolated in a sea of terror, fear, persecution, and death. It must have been hard to believe in the promises of Jesus, especially since their slaughter was the result of their belief.

Most scholars date the Gospel of Mark to around 70 C.E., and while its audience is debated, it certainly fits the situation of the early Christians who were recovering from the aftermath of unimaginable cruelty. As such, it gives guidance to Jesus followers regarding how to faithfully navigate fear, resentment, hatred, persecution, and suffering.

 

The Gospel of Mark and the Second Path of the Quadratos.

As the Gospel of Mark addresses the question of how we move through suffering, thereby disclosing the second path of the Quadratos.[ii]  Those who walk the road to transformation sometimes feel like they are in a small boat on a stormy sea. “The winds and water lash at us as we are tossed about in a gray, horizon less [sic.], directionless world.”[iii] We’ve gone too far to return to the beginning, but we’re not sure how to discern the best way forward either. As we stand facing the horizon, Mark reminds us of a hard truth: sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Suffering is to be expected and is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. But, Mark also reminds us that suffering is only for a season and that there are reliable spiritual practices that can help us along the way. We endure by praying, listening, and acting accordingly.

 

Good News in Suffering

Given all that we know about the context, audience, and theme of the Gospel of Mark, one might think that it would begin with a sobering word of caution, something like, “Buckle-up buttercup because it is about to get really bad!” But it doesn’t. In stark contrast, it reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis added). I can imagine a Christian living in Rome around 70 C.E. saying, “Good news? What good news?” The Messianic Jews didn’t appear to have much to celebrate. Even though they decided to follow Jesus, their obedience to the call threatened their lives and resulted in the senseless murder of family and friends.

Nevertheless, Mark begins with the proclamation of good news. While all the evidence may seem to suggest that the teachings of Jesus are an exercise in empty wishing, we hear the voice of a cloud of witnesses: God’s promises are true. It may not look like it or feel like it, but God is faithful, and your suffering will not have the last word—that is reserved for redemption. Mark reminds us that we follow one who not only shows us the way forward but also understands our pain, because he has experienced it too. He walks with us and suffers with us, so that we will have everything we need to move through it.

An important truth revealed in Mark is that we cannot bypass suffering.  We must go through it. Suffering is a necessary part of our spiritual transformation because there are lessons that can only be learned as we wrestle with pain. But the good news is that God will see us through, and our faithfulness will be a contribution to God’s great rescue mission of this world. By beginning with the proclamation of good news, Mark is telling us to gather our strength and hope by remembering the promises of God, which help us understand our suffering as part of a larger divine process.

Although we will learn many important lessons and develop many helpful tools in our study of Mark, it is important to remember something from the very beginning. There is not only good news despite our suffering, or in the face of our suffering, or at the end of our suffering. There is also a gift in the suffering insofar as it helps us get in touch with what is most essential about our faith.

Since so many Christians in America experience a life of ease, which can function to distort the gospel message, it is often helpful to ask, for what are we willing to suffer? For what are we willing to be persecuted? For what are we willing to die?

Many of us are born, then born again, and die in comfort. As those living in a country founded on religious freedom, most of us will never face the terror of the early Christians. Indeed, the very idea of martyrdom has become unintelligible for most American Christians.[iv] This is not only the case for individual Christians, but the church has the luxury of dodging these questions too. Even though some influential Christian groups cry persecution as a political strategy, these claims smack with absurdity when considering what our brothers and sisters have endured through the ages, and even now in places like Syria.

It seems to me that we are most lax in our faith and divided in our beliefs when life is good. Individuals and churches that enjoy wealth and influence are tempted to misuse these gifts for selfish gain, squabbling over trivial matters and confusing the essentials of faith with political agendas. This can be clearly seen in our current context in which many people who profess to follow Jesus have all but completely abandoned his teachings and the value system of the Kingdom of God.

But persecution—real persecution—has a way of parsing, sifting, and separating that which is essential and non-essential in the Christian faith. When facing torture and death, you don’t have time to quibble over extraneous or peripheral issues. And while many of us will never face torture and death because of our faith, all of us will eventually suffer as a result of our decision to follow Jesus. Mark helps us to see that this suffering, understood in the right context, can be a gift insofar as it cuts to the core of what we really believe and shows us what we are made of.

Listening to the words of Jesus while enduring a season of suffering reminds us that Christianity is not a social club, a non-profit relief group, or a political action committee. It is not one collection of ancient teachings among others from which we can pick and choose to build our own philosophy of life. Rather, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he bids us to come and die.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[b] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mark 8:34-37)

Jesus is saying, I want you to base your entire life on the truths I am proclaiming and to believe it so deeply that you practice it even when it requires you to lose everything. Given the hostile environment in which these words were recorded, we can say that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. It is no coincidence that the word for witness in the early church was the same word for martyr, because being a Christian meant staking your life on the gospel of Jesus.

When we face the prospect of acute suffering because of our decision to follow Jesus, these teachings once again dawn on our consciousness, and if we do not quickly dismiss them they create an opportunity to wrestle with the question, “Do I really believe this stuff?” Human beings have an incredible capacity for self-deception. In terms of our faith, we often say that we believe something only for the truth of that claim to be questioned by the prospect of sacrifice. Suffering has a way of cutting through self-deception and getting us in touch with what we really believe in our heart of hearts, what we are willing to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for. Suffering can function as a kind of refining fire, separating the essentials from the non-essentials and giving us a gut check regarding our commitment to the essentials.

This is the way our ego is crucified so that our true self can be resurrected. This is the path to honesty, which is the path to humility, which makes true faithfulness possible. But this path is not easy. It is the most difficult part of our journey toward transformation, and we need the wisdom of the Gospel of Mark to illuminate our way and give us the tools we need to make it through. This will be the focus of our reflection in the weeks to come.

 

Challenge

But for now, it is important to gather our strength by remembering that we live in the power of good news even when experiencing deep suffering, and that the suffering itself can help us get in touch with what is most important, true, and helpful about our faith. In this way, we gain sound footing on the difficult road that lies ahead.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as dark, rumbling clouds approach the horizon and waves begin to beat against the boat, remind us of your faithfulness and give us the courage to trust your ability to get us to the other side.

 

(This post is the ninth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[i] This account of the burning of Rome and the scapegoating of Christians is taken from Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind (Journey of Quadratos: Santa Fe, 2017) 130-132.

[ii] Ibid., “Crossing Mark’s Stormy Sea.”

[iii] Ibid. 128.

[iv] See Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

The Obligations of Courageous Love: A Pastor’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Introduction: Understanding the Crisis

What would compel you abandon your home and all your possessions? What would make you leave your career, friends, and family to walk 800 miles through dangerous terrain with little money and food? This would be like walking from Orlando, Florida to Washington, D.C, and if you covered twenty-five miles a day it would take you more than a month. Imagine having to sleep under a tree with your children on the side of the road.

Child Sleep on Ground

What would compel you to pay a smuggler $1000 a person to cram your family on a small raft to float across 200 miles of shark infested, choppy water, knowing that approximately 500 people have already drowned making the journey, including several children.

Why would any sane person leave everything behind for this kind of deadly journey, knowing that if they are caught leaving they could be executed as traitors? Well, what if your own government started dropping barrel bombs on your neighborhood, blowing-up houses and burning your neighbors alive. What if your own government poisoned your city with chemical weapons in an act of mass murder? What if members of your family were abducted and tortured for having divergent political or religious views? What if you saw a heavily armed group of men wearing black masks saw off the head of a child with a dull machete, or women being kidnapped to serve as sex slaves for these same men? What if members of your Bible study were burned alive in cages simply because they were Christians? What if brutalizing torture, mass executions, and perpetual civil war became the norm in your neighborhood? My guess is that you would flee for safety too.

These are the kinds of things that are happening to the innocent people we call refugees, many of whom are women, children, disabled, and elderly. These people are not terrorists, they are victims of terrorism.

Massive numbers of traumatized people have poured into Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. The United Nations and World Food program were not prepared for a refugee crisis on this scale, and in certain areas this has led to over-crowded refugee camps where people are suffering from hunger, exposure, and disease. These conditions have led many to seek refuge in Europe, but Europe was not prepared for this kind of crisis either.

Estimates as high as 7.6 million people are refuges in Syria (they are displaced in their own country) and 3,800,000 are children! To put this in perspective, we could take all these kids and fill Tropicana Field to its maximum occupancy almost 100 times! In addition to those displaced within Syria, over three million have fled to neighboring countries and Europe. This is roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Chicago, Illinois. The picture below might give us an inkling of the kind of numbers we are talking about.

3 million people

Western Europe is being overwhelmed by this crisis. Turkey has received more than two million refugees, and Greece was flooded with 5,500 people on a single day. (At this rate, Greece receives more refugees in two days than America has pledged to receive over the course of a year). Many of these people are being resettled in Germany, and even France—a country that just endured a massive terrorist attack—has pledge to receive an additional 30,000 Syrian refugees in the next two to three years. However, even as the European countries pull together, they simply do not have the resources to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale.

This is why the United Nations is asking America to help, and our initial pledge is to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees. This less than 1/3 of 1% of the people who need help!

Fear and the Screening Process

In light of the recent terrorist attack in Paris, many Americans have recoiled in fear. They are worried that if we allow these refugees into our country, terrorists might slip through the cracks undetected and plan attacks the homeland from within. But there is strong evidence to suggest that the potential threats driving our darkest fears are being drastically exaggerated by misinformation. The worst offenders are those seeking political gain in an approaching election year.

Many who are trying to slow or halt the entrance of displaced Syrian (and Iraqi) people are claiming that the majority of those applying for refugee status are young men without families, those considered “combat age.” This is patently false. According to the United Nations, most of the applicants are women and children. While approximately 20% are men between the ages of 18 and 59 (many of whom are fathers protecting their families), 51% are under 16 years old or younger, and 38.5 percent are 11 years old or younger. (FactCheck.org). Indeed, of the 2,165 Syrian refugees already admitted to the U.S., only 2% have been military-aged males unattached to families.

Other people are claiming that the U.S. has an inadequate screening process for receiving refugees and are trying to pass a new bill in Congress to make it more stringent. But this is also not true. It might surprise many people to know that the U.S. government handpicks the refugees invited to resettle in America. To date, the U.N. has referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the U.S. After extensive screening outside of our country, 7,014 were granted into our screening process, and only 2,165 were received (Refugee Processing Center/U.S. Department of State).

This careful selection of refugees is done by applying the most rigorous, multilayered screening process in the world that includes the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and numerous intelligence agencies. The screening not only includes extensive background checks, but also biometric and forensic testing, medical screenings, and multiple in-person interviews. This process takes 18-24 months to complete and is the most painstaking difficult way to enter the U.S. For more information see the infographic on whitehouse.gov and outline of the process on nytimes.com.

It is much easier to enter our country through the visa program or on a European passport. Most experts say that this is the real threat. The screening process to get a visa is less rigorous than that required to be granted refugee status. In fact, the U.S. has a visa waiver program with 38 countries. People from these countries can enter the U.S. on a passport as long as they leave the country within 90 days. This means that if ISIS wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, they would not instruct a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at the University of Florida or to enter the country on a European passport under the guise of a tourist. Keep in mind that all of the terrorists in the attack on Paris were French and Belgium nationals.

It is also important to note that our current vetting process has an excellent track record. Since 9/11 approximately 785,000 refugees have settle in the U.S. and many were from the Middle East:

  • 127,657 Iraq
  • 10,983 Afghanistan
  • 2,165    Syria

Only twelve (.001%) have been arrested or sent back because of terrorism related charges (and none were Syrian). Our existing screening process is extremely effective, and it enables us to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable refugees: women, children, survivors of torture, and those with severe medical conditions.

Given these facts, I am deeply disappointed some of our politicians—both Democrat and Republican—who are exploiting our worst fears by spreading misinformation or telling outright lies for political gain. 56% of the U.S. population thinks we should refuse the refugees because of fear generated by lack of information. I am also deeply sadden by how many Christians believe the first thing they hear on the television and quickly sacrifice their faith on the altar of politics.

But even if you are not convinced by the facts outlined above, even if you are genuinely fearful that receiving additional refugees would increase our risk of admitting a handful of terrorists, this is still not a good enough reason to turn these desperate people away . . . at least if you are Christian.

Courageous Love and Risky Faith

God commands us not to make moral decisions based on fear, but on the law of love. Recall the greatest commandment according to Jesus:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Those who follow Jesus make moral decisions based on love of God and neighbor, and according to 1 John 4:18-20 this kind of love casts out fear:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . We love because He first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

This is why one of the most repeated phrases in scripture is “Do not fear,” and to make moral decisions based on fear is to be disobedient to God. Fear should never take precedence over faithful obedience.

Consider the difference between cowardice and courage. Cowards experience fear and then compromise their values secure their own interests. To the contrary, courageous people experience fear and do the right thing anyway, even if that requires self-sacrifice and risk! The call of discipleship is to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even when he leads us into dangerous territory to help desperate people.

Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows that God often gives people dangerous and scary missions. The mission God gave Paul led to multiple incarcerations, immense suffering, and repeated exposures to death (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Others paid the ultimate price. The mission God gave Jesus got him crucified, and the continuation of this mission got ten of the twelve apostles executed, along with many in the early church. As historians remind us, the soil of Christianity was watered by the blood of the martyrs. Indeed, Christians of every generation have suffered horribly for their faith, including many people in the Middle East today. So why do we deserve an exemption from the dangers and risks of discipleship? Remember the words of Jesus in in John 15:20: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Following Jesus has always been the way of the cross. Crosses are scary. They are neither comfortable nor secure.

The main point is that Christians should not make moral decisions based on fear. Rather, we make decisions based on what God says to us through a faithful interpretation of scripture that is grounded in the law of love, and we are obedient to what we hear even when it puts us at risk—even when we are scared.

In there anything in your faith that is worth sacrificing your security? Jesus seems to think there is: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Passages like this make us uncomfortable because they remind us of a final judgement in which we will be held accountable by Jesus Christ—not our governors, not our congressmen, not fear-mongering political pundits, but Jesus Christ.

Care for Widows, Orphans, and Strangers

So what does the Lord require of us in response to the refugee crisis? I believe that God is calling us to help. From Genesis to Revelation, there are numerous commands given by God to love and care for strangers, foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Consider the following examples:

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (The Hebrew word translated “stranger” is nokri and refers to the alien or foreigner.)
  • Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say Amen.
  • Leviticus 19:34:The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
  • Malachi 3:5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

These Old Testament passages (and many more not mentioned) are grounded in Israel’s experience as a displaced and refugee people. The primary example, of course, is the Exodus. God hears the desperate cries of the Hebrew people, sends Moses to rescue them from slavery and oppression, and leads them through the wilderness for forty years as a refugee people. Israel was displaced again when they were taken into exile by the Babylonians, and again after Rome conquered the Holy Land. For most of its history, Israel has been a pilgrim, exiled, oppressed, or refugee people, and this is why they repeatedly insist in their scriptures that God commands us to offer compassionate care and hospitality to widows, orphans, foreigners, and refugees.

In addition to the overwhelming evidence in the Old Testament, we see the same spirit of compassionate hospitality commanded in the New Testament. In Romans 12:13, Paul instructs the church to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to “extend hospitality to strangers.” James 1:27 states that true religion is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . .” Hebrews 13:1-2 says, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Jesus of Nazareth began his life as a Middle Eastern refugee. In Matthew 2:13-15 we read about Mary and Joseph fleeing with the new born child as refugees trying to escape the infanticide of King Herod. They continued to live as refugees in Egypt until Herod died. Once Jesus started his earthy ministry, he wandered around as an itinerant preacher dependent on the hospitality of strangers. Jesus says in Luke 9:58, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” His entire ministry was about loving, including, elevating, and showing compassion to the most vulnerable and outcast in society: women, children, lepers, cripples, the blind and deaf, prostitutes, tax collectors, and even Samaritans.

Indeed, one of the clearest teachings on this subject comes from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. You remember the story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” Both a priest and a Levite (religious people) saw the man in desperate need but “passed by on the other side.” They didn’t do anything to actively harm this man, they just refused to help. But a despised Samaritan stopped and helped the person that the others left to die. Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Answer: “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” The moral of the story is simple: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, understanding that your neighbor is any human being in serious need. (For more on this parable see my message, “The Splendid Samaritan: Overcoming Tribalism”)

An equally powerful teaching comes from Matthew 25:31-46. Speaking of the final judgement, Jesus tells a parable about God separating people into two groups, the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. To the goats he says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . .” The teaching is clear: if we fail to care for those in desperate need we fail Jesus.

Conclusion

We have to find a way to help these people, and not only because we will be held accountable to Jesus for the way we treat “the least of these,” but also because we have a wonderful opportunity to be who we say we are—to show the love of Christ to the friends of Jesus who are in desperate need. While we do not want to glorify senseless suffering, the Christian martyrs teach us that sometimes Christ calls his disciples to suffer, and that suffering in name of Jesus is not something to be shunned as obscene but embraced as honorable. We should never forget that the world is watching, and today we have an opportunity to bear witness to the truth of the gospel by compassionate words and actions.

I can guarantee that the evil powers and principalities in this world want you to bow down to fear, worship security, and do nothing. ISIS wants America to cower before them in fear, to compromise the values we so loudly preach to others, and do nothing. But Jesus is calling you to act with courageous love and risky faith.

This is what it means to be a Christian: to live a courageous faith in radical obedience to God in accordance with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, which includes the enemy and exhibits a special concern for the most vulnerable around the world. Being a Christian means seeing God in the face of the needy and responding with compassion.   

GET INVOLVED! 

There are several things you can do to help:

  • Get Educated: Don’t believe the first thing you hear on the television. Take a break from the partisan news cycle and try to get the facts from reputable, non-partisan sources.
  • Pray every day for these people and ask God, “What do you want me to do?”
  • Donate money to reputable relief agencies:
            The United Nations Refugee Agency
            Church World Service
           UNICEF
  • Volunteer: In central Florida, call The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (813-679-4982) or Coptic Orthodox Charities (727-785-3551) and ask how you can help.
  • Speak Out on social media by educating others about the facts and calling for compassion.
  • Sign Petitions
  • Call your governor and your representatives in congress (1-866-961-4293) and tell them: “I’m a constituent from (City/State) and I support the resettlement of Syrian refugees. I urge the Governor / Senator / Representative to represent me and other constituents who seek to welcome Syrian refugees.”

I leave you with these last words from the one we call Lord and Savior: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Whatever you do, for Christ’s sake, do something!

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