For the Love of Neighbor

Martha Jane loves this cd of Bible verses put to songs that is actually, for the most part, in a musical style I can handle hearing over and over and over.  One of the songs simply repeats, “Love your neighbor as yourself” with the occasional interruption of “’cause God loves everyone!”  The whole Law and Prophets are apparently summed up in that, though Jesus began the summary with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength” and followed it with neighbor love.  As familiar as this is, to Christians and non-Christians alike, it seems like the furthest thing from our minds most of the time.

The things I get in a wad about usually aren’t following my own personal love fest with God Himself.  They’re usually personal grievances, differences, etc.  And suddenly, in my wad, I am not loving my neighbor as myself because I am mad about his or her personality or interests or opinions.

There is no qualifier to “neighbor”, as in “neighbor who you identity with on most issues” or “neighbor who is passionate about the same things you are” or “neighbor who believes the same exact things you do”.  For me, it means not just my poor neighbors but my affluent ones further down the road.  Zing.  It means loving the hateful old black lady who owns the house across the street and the hateful, privileged white lady at my daughter’s school.  It means loving the neighbors who invite my love and loving the neighbors who reject it.  It means loving as I have been loved, not for anything intrinsically appealing, but solely based on the character of The Lover.

I have failed to do this in dramatic fashion.  I have instead grown bitter, judgmental, shrinking down the qualified “neighbor” recipients of my love to include only those inside my own doors, if even them.

I want to love in response to the object of my love, which is why my love isn’t generous or even very much alive.  I withhold love to the degree I feel loved, quite savoring the delicious flavor of bitterness, even as the acid corrodes my smile.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.  This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  1 John 4:10-16

When I did not love God, He loved me.  I only love because He loved first.  I can only love by His Spirit and total dependence on His love.  Justice always flows out of love as an act of love and righteousness.  Sacrificial service, surrender of power so others may have some, dying so that others may live…all flow from Love.  Until I love God first, I just won’t love my neighbor well.  And I won’t understand God’s love for me, until I am asked to love my neighbor.  It is impossible for me to have one without the other.

The Gospel for the Grumpy

If you can picture that fat, spoiled and scowling birthday kid often depicted in a movie, who sits alone sulking in a sandbox, you have a pretty good image of how I feel right now.  Grumpy.  Just turning cups of sand over and over with my lips pursed and eyes squinting.  I won’t even be appeased by a piece of cake.

There were some other grumblers in what must have felt like a giant sand box, once.  They had just been rescued from certain death but were thirsty and tired and wishing they could go back to captivity.

Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!”  I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew and developed and entered puberty. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, yet you were stark naked.  Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.  Ezek. 16:6-8

The story first told in Genesis, retold with new details throughout the remainder of the Scriptures, is of God finding His people in blood and nakedness,covered in shame and disgust, and cleaning them, covering them and declaring them forever His no matter what.  The filthy, grumpy, pouty child in the sandbox is of the same line with those who wandered the desert sands for 40 years, as full of grumbling and complaining then as now.  In all of these cases, they were as much responsible for their shame as their at times unavoidable circumstances.  In no case did God expect them to cover themselves, rescue themselves,  breathe life into themselves, because obviously, they couldn’t.

You will know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake and not according to your evil ways and your corrupt practices, you people of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord.  Ezek. 20:44

He shows mercy not because Adam, Eve, Israel or grumpy ol’ me ask Him to do so.  He pursues because it is Who He is and it is my only hope for change.  Were He to wait until I asked, or until I did anything deserving of such mercy, I would never find it.  Why am I so grumpy and agitated?  A whole lot of reasons and none worth specifying.  But I know that even in my bad attitude, there must be grace, because what is grace if not undeserved?

 

Everyone is Certain but Where are the Lost?

When I recently had the opportunity to hear Anne Lamott being interviewed in person, she made the wonderful statement that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but certainty.  That observation might best describe the process of faith in which I am currently finding myself.  The removal of so many certainties and the eradication of ever so many very clear delineations is defining the moment I am in more than certainties or instructive wisdom to pass along.  I read the individuals and organizations that used to feel like “my people” and feel disconnected, distant and even at odds.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”  John 18:36

It seems, when you listen to “conservatives”, that Jesus’ Kingdom is absolutely about this world as they fight against any individual who doesn’t promote Biblical Law, as if it is in and through and by the Law that men are to be saved.  It seems, when you listen to “liberals”, that God is never coming and justice is entirely up to us to enforce.   Interestingly, the person and work of Jesus is absent from all the blabbering of conservative evangelicals just as it from the threatened and urgently working atheists and agnostics.  Both are fighting for their rights, their team to win, and ultimately, despising all those who come in their way.  Neither really need God because they both have all the answers themselves.  Certainty, its a nice thing.

And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him,“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.  And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”  And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I havedefrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”  Luke 19:5-10

I feel terribly lost…but I suppose it isn’t altogether terrible, is it?

Kingdom Devotion

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”  Matt. 19:23-25

There are many things noted in the book of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John that are not included in the others.  This is one of those declarations that made three of the four.  They all heard it, took note of it and recorded it, almost verbatim.  It always seemed a little arbitrary to me in the past because the majority of my life I lived among the affluent, so the only Christians I knew were “rich people” and they certainly seemed headed for God’s Kingdom.  I knew quite well that you could be a believer and live in a million dollar home, drive a $50,000 automobile per family member and enjoy the delights of vacation homes of the same real estate value.  So how could Jesus make such a stereotyping judgment?

 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light,  but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.  Matt. 6:19-24

It always come back to the heart.  If I am preoccupied with remodeling my house (which I spend too much time planning, particularly for someone who has zero budget to actually make the renovations I dream about), I am not preoccupied with God’s Kingdom and the extremely temporary nature of my present real estate.  The problem with “stuff” and “money” is that we believe its promises to satisfy, protect, provide, comfort, nourish and solidify a good future for us.   When I see the ability of the homeless woman living in the entrance of an abandoned bank on Northside Drive, I am amazed by her fortitude and ingenuity.  I know nothing of her active ministry to others, but I do know that as long as she has life and breath, an apartment and dresser drawers are not pre-requisites of her participation in God’s Kingdom work.  The more positions and possessions we have, the more time we must spend protecting and preserving those “riches”.

The first question we are asked most frequently about our choice to live where we do is “Is it safe?”  This is often followed by, “Do you have a lot of break-ins?”  I don’t think a single Christian has ever asked, as a starting question, “Are you seeing God’s Kingdom grow there?” or “How did you know that area of God’s Kingdom was where He wanted you to labor?”  Instead, the concerns are always about our kingdom diminishing or being threatened.

When neighbors come in to play, my first concern is preventing things from getting broken or too messy.  More than the people, I love my stuff and its preservation.  If my kids want to one day, hypothetically, play with that one particular toy that is now lost or broken, it might just be devastating, right?  I want to keep our food in the pantry and fridge so we are not without, not see it dispersed generously among the hungry children.  If I hand out our budgeted groceries, what will we eat?  The most important person to my heart is always revealed by my possessions.  In those two examples, for starters, it isn’t Jesus Who I value or trust the most.  I am the most important person in my world, just like Adam and Eve who gave it all up for the same delusion, and trust more in what I can manage and see.  I will be devoted to the one and despise the other…despise the other for inconveniencing me, disrespecting my domain, taking from me, depleting me, using me…

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.  Mark 10:42-45

I cannot both pour my life out and preserve it.  I cannot devote myself to accumulating and “selling all that I have”.  I do not belong fully to God AND fully to myself.  I can’t seek to be served by those who come in my front door and those outside of it AND to be their servant.  (Yes, we can mutually serve one another, but that has to do with their hearts over which I have no domain.)

And so the question lingers, “Who then can be saved?” since we all as offspring of the Woman are more inclined to love self and money more than God and His Kingdom?  Who will save me from this body of death?  What is my hope?

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  Romans 8:3-4

Transient

but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions,hardships, calamities,  beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love;  by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;  through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;  as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.  2 Cor. 6:4-9

Yesterday I learned that once again, beloved children neighbors will be moving because they are being evicted.  They are being evicted because their mom hasn’t been able to pay the rent in a couple of months.  She hasn’t been able to pay the rent because since getting pregnant in high school, she has never really had “a career” to speak of, other than survival, which isn’t easy with a house full of children to clothe and feed and manage and is particularly difficult in poverty.  Has she done everything she can to be employed and see that her children succeed?  No.  But neither have I and the consequences are vastly different for the two of us and immeasurably different for our children.  So, they will move again in the coming days, to their fourth housing situation in three years.  They will remain disconnected from consistent community.  Its likely nobody in their class will know they have moved, particularly since many of their classmates live the same kind of transient and inconsistent lifestyle.

What does Jesus want for these little ones?  Middle class Americans want for them to end up with a middle class American life which includes college, a well paying job, a comfortable house and healthy family.  Intellectuals want for them to become thoughtful, articulate contributors to the community discourse on all things from health care and medicine to education and political policy.  Many of the children themselves see the music community or professional athletics as the ultimate destination of their dreams.  But here is the truth, the majority will not attain any of these things, starting with high school graduation.  So what does Jesus want for them?

And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  Matt. 11:4-6

And Jesus,looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Mark 10:21

For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.  Matt. 26:11

Jesus is not nearly as concerned about stable living conditions, plentiful clothing or educational degrees as I am.  Evidence that He has come is that Good News is preached to the poor – their poverty is not alleviated but HE is with them IN it.  He was with Daniel in the Lion’s Den, with Paul in prison, with the Israelites in Egypt and the desert, with Job in his suffering, with Joseph in slavery, with Jonah in the whale and Emanuel, God with us, in a broken and fallen world.  What of each of these people and what I need most isn’t a change of circumstance but a change of grip or a change of anchor.  The ultimate goal for the image of God to be imaged to the world around isn’t the setting in which that image is placed but the One Who is being imaged.  Jesus is not limited to lovely settings of comfort and beauty, but more often is to be found breathing life into the places that need it most.

I don’t know the specifics of what Jesus intends for “D” or “S” or “R”, who are so frequently transplanted, nor for the many others who may stay a little longer.  But it seems what they need most is Jesus – not a wristband about Him, not a lot of rules that will further their sense of inadequacy and shame, not some ethereal Snuffeluffagus that nobody else can enjoy but the One who left everything so they could inherit it all, the One whose heart stopped so theirs could be revived, the One Who moved into leper colonies to make those beloved children of His whole, the One who sets prisoners free from physical chains and enslavement to addictions and pimps.

Their greatest hope and mine isn’t more stuff but more of Him.  We cannot live for our kingdom to come AND for His.  And disappointing as it is, mine isn’t coming no matter how close I think I can get to attaining it.  Perhaps these children have an advantage that I do not in all their moving, coming and going.  Their grip cannot be on their own kingdom because it is always dissolving.  Their hands are freer to grab hold of that which will never dissolve, fade or perish the One who will never leave or forsake us.

This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.  Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.  Hebrews 12:27-29