Friday, July 19, 2013

Hypocrites vs. Prophets

Dinnertime conversations in our house can be monotonous. At least that’s what my 15-year-old daughter thinks. She claims that there are only three topics of conversation at our table—religion, politics and economics. Each time we start talking about one of these subject she is sure to point it out to us. “See,” she’ll say with a big sigh, “you’re doing it again.”

Since I am a preacher and my husband is a banker the topics are not too surprising. At first glance, it may seem like these are three different topics, but the reality is that they are so intertwined it can be difficult to tease them apart.  The prophet Amos knew this and spoke powerfully about it.

Even though Amos’ message was meant for ancient Israel, he is speaking to us today, calling on people like me to recognize that it’s impossible to live a compartmentalized life. Christianity makes bold statements about our economic and political decisions. Prophets like Amos and Isaiah and even Jesus have been repeating a pretty simple message over time:

Love God
Care for others
Share your stuff

It's a message I share. But, because actions speak louder than our words and I can't proclaim the message of the prophets without feeling like a total hypocrite. I can just imagine Amos purple-faced and threatening if he knew how much money I spend at Starbucks or on clothes to preach in, for goodness sakes. But I suspect, that is part of the prophet's purpose. They are our shouting, gesticulating conscience reminding us of God's call. Amos' message is a call to the core ethical standard of the biblical story--a reminder that the religious is economic and political. When I encounter a message like Amos', I change. It doesn't matter if it comes in a book, a prayer or a person.

Last year, my family hosted Jafali Asidi a pastor from Malawi. The first night, as we sat down to a simple dinner of chicken, broccoli and rice, he prayed. He gave thanks for such a fine meal and then he asked God to provide for those who would not have food that day. 

I was stunned. I had never once included people who are hungry in my prayer before a meal, and, to be honest, I'd never heard anyone else do it either.  He made a point of remembering people without enough food every time he ate. He ministered to such people. 

Jafali was a prophet at the table, forcing me to face the recognition my economic, religious and political position. He made me aware of the privileges I take for granted. He challenged my outlook and changed the way I pray at mealtime.  It’s a little thing to practice, but it’s a big deal.  Jesus talks about it all the time. Changing your ways is called repentance.

As Jafali prayed for those without food, I looked at my plate and took in a quick a gasp of breath. It was an inward moment of fear and embarrassment because I was thinking dinner was pretty ordinary, take-out might have been better. I also breathed a sigh of relief remembering God's grace surrounds me during these revelations. I remember that in Christ I am forgiven and the same Christ call me to change--repent. It’s the ongoing rhythm of the faith journey. 

Recognition. Repentance. Remembering. 

After that time with Jafali, I saw things differently. Chicken and broccoli suddenly seemed like luxury foods. Jafali’s prayer allowed me to recognize ways that I’d been oblivious to other people’s suffering. It shifted the way I see myself in the world. Now, I try to remember how fortunate I am. I try to remember to ask God to care for those who are beyond my reach. I try to remember to care myself for those in my reach. I try to remember the prophetic message:

Love God
Care for others
Share your stuff
In Christ’s name

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The World's Greatest Dad

The man standing across from me surprised me. He wore a purple t-shirt that said, “World’s Greatest Dad.” His dark hair was clean and parted on the side. He looked like someone I’d meet at a party or school function. As I spooned some green beans onto his plate, he told me how he missed the homegrown green beans his mother used to make and thanked my husband Matt and me for choosing to serve green beans for dinner. We chatted for a few moments, he said God bless you and continued on, picking out some cake for dessert.

While we only interacted for a few moments at the men’s shelter in East Liberty, but I’ve often wondered how the World’s Greatest Dad ends up homeless. Was he really a father or did someone give him that t-shirt. Did he even notice what it said? Were there kids and maybe a wife somewhere who were also struggling and homeless but ineligible for help at a men’s shelter? What happened in his life? Was he addicted? Ill? I will always wonder. I will regret not asking.

Reflecting on that moment, I realized that his presence unsettled me because I was seeing myself in him. 

Mission is at it’s most unnerving when the people we are supposed “serving” look and act the same way that we do. It’s frightening because we can look at another person and realize that we are in this together. We, too, could be in that same position—waiting in line for our next meal, asking a friend for a few bucks to get us through to the next month or praying that the next doctor visit won’t take the last of our grocery money. 

In these unsettled economic times, some of us do have to rely on others for our basic needs. However, this is not new. God’s commands have always included a community that cares. A community that provides for those who cannot provide for themselves. 

Following Christ means obeying this command to love one another. Not just happy feelings, but providing resources for each other. It's a command that runs from the beginning to the end of the Bible. Deuteronomy says we should care for others, even foreigners! Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself. The mark of the new church in Acts was that the believers held all things in common--their ideas, their love and their possessions. We should seek to be not just connected, but in communion with other people and with God. It means looking into the eyes of another person and seeing someone to love, not an "other" to help. When we approach Jesus' command in this way, we are caring for the eternal—the kingdom that Jesus tells us is here, at hand.  

It's a command that I struggle with all the time.