Why Representation Matters, Biblically Speaking (a.k.a. Blindspots in the Church)

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adapted from a message given at WCCC on 18.07.29

 

Even since the beginning of the Christian Church representation was an issue.  After the resurrection of Christ, the key event that launched the Christian church, was the revival at the feast of Pentecost.  Even within this event God was thinking about representation. You see, in this event the Holy Spirit was poured out in power at Jerusalem where Jewish people from all over, BEYOND the land of Palestine where Jesus ministered, had not only gathered in Jerusalem but received Christ and stayed there.  There were amazing miracles happening in the name of Jesus and the once timid 12 disciples became powerful witnesses. They weren’t even afraid of the authorities that were trying to shut them down. The church of Jesus was growing fast. But there were also some blind spots that affected the church in such a way that the writer of Acts had to let us in on it.     

 

PASSAGE Acts 6:1-7 (ESV)

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

 

So what do we learn, from this passage, are some potential BLIND SPOTS IN THE CHURCH?

1. Seeing the Marginalized

The church of Jesus was growing, meaning there were all sorts of different groups of people coming together.  As so even in this exciting growing new community of Jesus, the brokenness of human prejudice and discrimination crept in.   We find in v.1 that a group called the Hellenists were being neglected in the church.

Who or what are Hellenists?  

  • Hellenists were Jewish immigrants not born or native to Palestine, which was a land that was predominately Jewish.  
  • The word “Hellenist”, literally, is Greek for “somebody who speaks Greek”.   
  • So these Hellenists were Jews that had come from outside of Palestine, immigrants who predominantly spoke Greek and were more used to living in Greek culture, not like the Jews in Palestine who spoke Aramaic and were used to being around Jews.  Hellenists were people who were more bi-cultural: ethnically Jewish but culturally Greek, and so they were looked down on for not being Jewish enough.

It was not just an accusation of discrimination but there was actual neglect happening of a whole group of people, in the church.  

  • V. 1 we see the “complaint” turned out that the Hellenist widows “were” being neglected, not allegedly being neglected.  They weren’t getting food like the Palestinian Jews were getting. And no where do we see in this passage that this accusation was denied.  Discrimination was real in the church and real people were being affected by it.
  • The word for neglect here is the greek word “paratheoreo” (“para” – beside, “theoreo” –  look at) which literally means “looked at as on the side” or like the young folks call it giving someone a “side eye”.   These widows were literally seen. But not not as important, but more like an afterthought, as less than.

Ok Dave but that was back in the day, what does that have to do with us?  This doesn’t happen any more right?

  • Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.  It is said that Sunday is the most divided day of the week in America.  Even though the Kingdom of Heaven will have EVERY tribe and tongue worshipping TOGETHER, churches TODAY are too often split by race and culture.  We still have this blind spot today. We still have difficulty loving our neighbor as ourselves, especially neighbors that we feel are not like us, not part of our culture.
  • Ok, I know this is a uncomfortable passage.  But God put it in our bibles. Our blind spots are an uncomfortable topic.  But i have to tell you the truth. If we can’t talk about it in church then where can we?  We, Christians, of all people should not be afraid of the truth, because if we hold to it, Jesus says the truth can set us free.
  • I grew up as part of the historically Japanese-American Holiness conference of churches.  Churches planted by Japanese immigrants in America, churches with history in two cultures, just like the Hellenists.  For the ethnically Japanese, as Isseis, Nisseis, Sanseis; 1st, 2nd, 3rd generation ethnically Japanese who have lived in the US.  Never fully accepted as American or as Japanese. Even put in prison camps for being ethnically Japanese because of fear in war time. Constantly seen as foreigners.   Then once out, having to suffer the indignity of of not being allowed to have their churches back but told to go to white churches, these same churches that stood by and watched their own siblings IN CHRIST be bussed away to these camps. 
  • This isn’t only a Japanese-American thing.  This happens all throughout America, as a country of immigrants.  Sociologist Ezra Park called this experience of being a part of two cultures as “the marginal man” experience…to not feel accepted because one is not purely of the dominant culture.  To live on the margins, or on the sides, of the dominant culture in society. To not feel like you ever fully fit it.  The Chinese may call it “ABC” – American Born Chinese. The Irish may call it “FBI” – Foreign Born Irish. Mexicans may call it being a  “Pocho”.
  • But, let’s be real. Just because we are in the same room with folks of other cultures doesn’t mean we always treat each other equally.  We MUST be ever watchful not to neglect each other, ESPECIALLY those in the church that are not like us. Especially not to neglect those who are NOT in positions of power or a part of the dominant culture of the church.  It is our pride and human brokenness to put down those that are different from us. It was in the early church, it is in the church now. We must look long and hard at these blind spots…those we don’t easily see, even if it takes more effort, and do right.  Those of us who have ever experienced being overlooked or marginalized can be a voice to those who are being pushed aside now.

 

   

Another blind spot in the church we see is our failure in

2. Serving Spiritual AND Physical Needs

In this passage we see the 12 disciples, the apostles, were becoming overwhelmed by the work of the early church and people were being neglected.

  • They felt it was not right to give up preaching the word but they also knew that they shouldn’t ignore the physical needs of the widows in the community who needed to eat and had no one else to care for them.       
  • The issue was how to make sure to take care of the spiritual AND physical needs of the church.  

From an initial reading of this passage it may seem that the ministry of “serving tables” was inferior to the ministry of the word.  

  • However, the same Greek word for service, “diakonia”, is used in v1 translated as “distribution” for the distribution of food to needy widows and in v. 4 translated as “the ministry” for the ministry of the word.   The exact same word is used for both the ministry of meeting spiritual as well as physical needs.  Both meeting spiritual and physical needs is seen as service, as legitimate ministry. That’s why in the modern day church we see Elders (like the 12) who guide the spiritual direction of the church as well as Deacons (taken from this very word diakonia for service) who are to take care of the physical needs of the church people.  

In today’s church, in America especially, there seems a tendency to dismiss the ministry of meeting physical needs as less spiritual.  

  • We must remember that taking care of those in need is something dear to the heart of God and a key sign of our relationship with Jesus.  The OT is full of words from God about the protected status of the orphan, the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner, and the poor. For example Jeremiah 22:16 states:  “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.”  This idea is carried out in the NT with the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25 where, so closely does God associate with those in need that, he says how we treat “the least of these” is how we treat him and is a sign of our salvation.
  • This is why the early church was about taking care of the needs of the widows “daily” as we see in verse 1.  
  • It was such an important issue to care for the needy in the early church that the 12 felt it was necessary to call the (as we see in v.2) “FULL number of the disciples” together to discuss it.  They called all of the believers together to address this need.
  • We also see that the ministry of meeting physical needs was taken seriously because the qualifications to lead such a ministry were high:
    • Anyone who was to lead in the work of meeting physical needs had to be, as stated in verse 3, “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”.   They needed to show moral, spiritual, and practical quality.  Serving the physical needs of people was seen as Spiritual work.  One commentary states “Like those qualified for prayer and preaching, the table-servers’ ability is the result of spiritual power.  Nothing less than the power of the Spirit makes possible meaningful, community-building, peace-making work among Christians.”

So yes, we must not neglect the Word of God but we also must not neglect caring for those in need.

– 1 John 3:17 says “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

– If we really believe and live in God’s word it should affect the PHYSICAL world around us.  If we SAY we know God’s love we must SHOW God’s love.

– The church should be about the ministry of serving God’s word AND serving those in need.  Meeting spiritual AND physical needs.

  • For those of us who love God’s word and good teaching, PLEASE know that that helps the church remember what is really important.  But we ALSO must keep in mind that without serving those in need it is so easy for us to become hypocrites and lose touch with God’s heart.  
  • For those of us who care for people in need, PLEASE know that God sees that as legitimate spiritual work of His Kingdom.  But we must ALSO keep in mind that without his Word to guide us we can get lost and burn out.

 

The last blind spot we see in this passage that can happen in the church is not

3. Representing ALL of the Body in Leadership (power dynamics)

It is important for us to understand WHO the early church ended up appointing to lead this important work of meeting the needs of the needy.  

  • V. 5 tells us a list of seven people.  

Who were these 7?

  • All seven men had Greek names, which likely indicates that they were all Hellenistic Jews, Bi-cultural Jews that were immigrants or children of immigrants.  
  • It makes sense that if the seven were going to be chosen from ALL the believers present, for at least the specific task of addressing Greek-speaking Jewish widows, that Greek-speaking Jewish leaders be chosen. (*I would be remiss to note that it was still men who were chosen for these roles.  This is a whole other issue that would take at least another post to get into in order to give justice to the issue, given the level of debate over it, and I must admit others could address it far better than I in this space.  Suffice it to say, we must take into account not only cultural norms of the time but also the education and efficacy that women were allowed at the time.  I think scripture has plenty of cases where women stepped up and into important roles and representation amongst God’s people even in such cultures: Deborah, Esther, Priscilla, and Lydia just to name a few.)
  • It also is most likely that these seven were Hellenists because of the fact that they needed to chose SEVEN people for this job of tending to Hellenistic widows indicating that there was a large amount of Hellenistic widows present in the early church.  

Ok these 7 deacons were Hellenists, so what Dave?

This is huge for so many reasons!  BECAUSE OF THIS REPRESENTATION:

1) the church unlocked the power God wanted to release through a group of people that had been totally overlooked and untapped.  It is STEPHEN who becomes the first in the church to die for his faith Jesus, not even one of the full blooded 12 jewish disciples of Jesus!  And Philip is the first disciple to take the gospel to non-Jews! It took people that lived in more than one culture to reach different cultures.      

2) when we make sure our church leaders represent ALL of our community, they bring a perspective that is missing in the church, and the whole body of Christ benefits.  Theologian Justo Gonzalez calls this the mestizaje perspective, the perspective of those who come from a mix of cultures.  People that are of multiple cultures are able to see things that single culture people simply miss.  The Hellenists were able to see a critical gap in the church that the Palestinian Jews couldn’t see.

  • It’s interesting to consider, Luke, the very person who wrote this book of Acts we are reading today.  Luke was more than likely an outsider to the dominant Jewish Culture. From evidence in scripture scholars believe at at most Luke was a Gentile and at least a Hellenistic Jew himself.
  • It is no wonder he was the only one to record Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan, Samaritans being outsiders that Jews had a deep prejudice against.  
  • Without his perspective we may not have gotten Luke’s rich perspective of Jesus as born to poverty and his mission to those in need in the gospel of Luke.  Without Luke’s perspective we may not have known how the church of Jesus came to minister to outsiders and non-Jews in the book of Acts.

3) This representation made a huge difference in the church.  This isn’t just shallow token representation.  It helped meet a real need, it helped bring unity, and it brought growth.  

  • V. 7 says that after these appointments not only did “the word of God continue to increase” but that “the number of disciples multiplied.”  
  • When people saw that the leadership of the church had people that LOOKED like them, they could feel that the church could be a place for people LIKE them.
  • The church could reach more people now because the best people to reach outsiders are outsiders.
  • this is a crucial turning point in the early church.  If this didn’t happen, we may not be here.  For the first time this movement went from a spiritual movement of a specific ethnic group to include more cultures…that includes us too now! It had to take the early church facing some hard truth, but they didn’t ignore it, the early church did something about it’s blind spots!

When we represent ALL of the community in the church, 1) people who have been overlooked are released to their full potential, 2) we gain invaluable perspective we are missing, and 4) the church grows!!!

  • Just treatment and representation lead to the growth of God’s kingdom in this earth. A just community is a powerful witness to the world and something the world longs to be a part of, especially in such divisive times in which we live.  It is what Jesus prayed for us on the night before he was betrayed into the hands of men (John 17:20-23).

 

So are their any blind spots in your faith and in your church?  

  • Do you see the marginalized in your church? Do you seek to understand their experience and listen to them?  Do you speak up for them with the power that you have?
  • Do we value meeting Spiritual AND Physical needs?  Do we give a word and a prayer but hold back from going out of our comfort zone to meet a need?  Do we get caught up in the doing of meeting physical needs there is no time in our lives to allow God to speak into us?  
  • Do our leadership structures reflect ALL the people of the congregation, of the community?  Do we have any voices that are missing from the table in decision making, that affect the very people we are making decisions about?  Do we dismiss too quickly the perspectives of people who may have different experiences than us?
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DR Mission Testimony: Jesus is present in the valleys too

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View of a ravine and some homes from the top of the community center still under construction in the neighborhood of Pontezuela in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

This was my third trip to the DR.  It’s been so encouraging to see the transformation and development of not only the followers of Jesus in the small Iglesia Comunidad Multicultural but to see the good work they are doing in their communities.  The Sunday service was full, there are more disciples of Jesus, they are outreaching to more communities, they have developed more relationships of follow-up with in those communities, the fruit of their consistent presence in these communities is evident in the increased openness found there, the community center they are building in Pontezuela (It is a slum community of many undocumented Haitian immigrants. You can give here toward the completion of the community center on the line “Dominican Republic School & Community Center”!) has a first floor (when last year it was only pillars), Pontezuela has more electricity and paved roads thanks to ICMs influence, and ICM is sending missionaries to more countries (this year beyond Haiti to Cuba)!  

 

It is good, right, and awesome to see and be involved with these tangible expressions of His Kingdom growing.  However, on this trip to the DR I sensed God challenged me with the need to learn how to sit with people in their suffering…in the waiting…in the valleys of life.  One afternoon Miguel, Adriana, and I went with Alex (a young 18 year old disciple from Pontezuela) to follow-up with people he had met with Prince (the disciple of Jesus I met from my first trip to the DR) in the neighborhood of Tamboril.  We walked into the back of an abandoned mechanic shop and saw a middle aged man sitting by himself in a chair. His names was Cristian.

 

Alex told us his business used to be thriving and he had plenty of money to spare.  Then he was diagnosed with diabetes. His health began to deteriorate and he has to to be hospitalized for a while.  He had to close his business for a time. He lost customers; he lost money. Cristian shared that his wife him she had found another man and she left him, taking their two children with her.  

 

We prayed for healing over his body and God showed me a picture of a tree with leaves by a river.  It reminded me of a tree that appears in beginning of the bible and at the end, the tree of life. In Revelation 22:1-5, the final chapter of the bible, the tree of life has leaves for healing planted by the river of God flowing from His throne. We shared this scripture with him.  Cristian shared he now goes to church every Saturday and Sunday and talks to God everyday. He has found new community and has experienced God’s healing presence. God is the source of our lives and healing. In Jesus, we know our suffering is not eternal.

 

But on this side of heaven, there is still loss and deep sadness.  Cristian was experiencing that now for which we could find no words to deliver him.  As an American, I wanted to rush to quick solutions and be out of that uncomfortable space.  But I sensed God wanted us to sit and listen to Cristian as he poured out his heart. He wanted us to simply be with Cristian and be the Body of Christ in that moment, in that space.

 

God is not afraid to be with us in our suffering and so neither should we be unwilling to sit with others in their suffering.  

From the “Barrio” to the World

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Antonio* was “raised by the streets”, the youngest of 11 siblings, 3 who died before he was born, to an immigrant single mother in a poverty-stricken LA neighborhood.  By the time he was 10 he was involved with gangs and drug dealing. Through his adult life he was in and out of prison and drug addiction. He has a number of stories where he should have died, most notably when someone jumped out of car to shoot at him, point blank, but none of the bullets hit him.  Through incidents like this Antonio knew God was real but, it has been a battle for him to follow Jesus. He’s been sober from drug addiction for about 5 years now and got connected to our church last year. This year Jesus has led Antonio into deeper discipleship through our Discipleship School.

 

Elizabeth* also grew up in a tumultuous home in this working class neighborhood.  Her parents were divorced when she was still a youth and she became a single mom soon out of high school.  She’s familiar with struggle as she has had to balance housing, work, school, and raising her 4 year old son who was diagnosed with autism just about a year ago.  She’s been connected to our church for several years now and has been so excited to join our D-School this year to give herself more fully to Jesus.

 

Just last week our D-School went out on a street outreach.  Antonio and Elizabeth were in my group.  Before we went out we asked God if there was anything he wanted to show us.  Elizabeth got a specific image of a hill in our local park. Antonio got an image of a homeless encampment near that same park.  We walked up the hill that Elizabeth saw and we prayed for a man who was deciding between two jobs as well as a couple that were about to embark on a road trip for the funeral of this woman’s father.  All of them were taken aback as it dawned on them that God saw them, the woman of the couple even asking if her boyfriend had sent us! Then we went to the homeless encampment Antonio had visited before and for the first time he prayed for a young man there.  The young man alluded to his depression and began to smile as we prayed for him, saying it felt good.

 

It was a privilege and honor to see Elizabeth and Antonio lovingly interact with complete strangers and being bold in Jesus name, with the life that He offers…new life that they have experienced themselves. I wonder to what extent their deep compassion for those in need comes from the pain of their upbringing that God brought them through?  Through D-School Elizabeth has been learning to overcome her insecurities to not only receive God’s love but to give it away to others. Antonio has been learning that while he is busying himself trying to care for others God wants to care from him. But God is challenging them to put into practice what they have learned.  Elizabeth, Antonio and 3 of his teen children are going with us on our mission trip to the Dominican Republic from June 11th-June 21st!  We look forward to what the Lord has for us there to grow us and His Kingdom!  

 

As of today we’ve raised $26.512.60 and have $7,587.63 remaining for all 21 of us to go!  I’ve fundraised my portion and put in my own funds as well.  Most of our D-School students do not have much financial means to support themselves nor do their networks.  That is why I’m reaching out to YOU…because we need your support to reach that finish line! Would you consider investing in “the least of these” to see them transform communities with the upside down Kingdom of God?    

Click here to send the D-School team of LA’s Eastside to the DR (see “D-School Mission”)!  

 

*names changed to protect privacy

Who Are “The Least of These”?

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There is a terrifying passage for Christians found in the 25th chapter of the book of Matthew where he recalls the words of his teacher, Jesus.  In it Jesus describes a time at the end of the world as we know it where “the King” of all creation judges the people, distinguishing those who go into eternal life and those into eternal death (sheep or goats respectively).  The test of destination and identity is by how each person, throughout the course of their life, treated people that Jesus refers to as “the least of these.”  

Given the eternal ramifications of these interactions, who then are “the least of these”?   

According to the passage the least of these fit into at least 6 categories.  They are those who are:

  1. hungry (v. 35)
  2. thirsty (v.35)
  3. stranger (v. 35, greek word xenos – meaning foreigner)
  4. naked (v.36)
  5. sick (v.36)
  6. in prison (v.36)

All 6 of these categories describe people who are in great need.  

There are interpreters who qualify that “the least of these” as only referring to needy disciples of Jesus, not needy people in general because in verse 40 Jesus calls them “the least of these MY BROTHERS” (emphasis added).  Purporters of this view make this claim because Jesus is talking to his disciples in this passage and earlier in Matthew 12:46-49 Jesus calls his disciples his brothers.    

Here’s a number of reasons why I think “the least of these” can be interpreted more broadly than just disciples:

1. In the context of this passage

Jesus speaks of “all nations” and “people” (v.32) being present at the great judgement where this scene is described.  The condition of each person’s separation, one from the other, is how they treat “the least of these.”   If the least of these were only disciples of Jesus in need there are at least a couple issues. What would happen to those who do not live amongst or come in contact with disciples of Jesus (the modern mission movement exists because there are still populations of people for which this is true), let alone a disciple in need?  Wouldn’t it be likely that those that are not in contact with disciples of Jesus would be those who are in more need?

2. In the context of this gospel

If we are going to use Matthew 12 we must also look at the other uses of the word “brothers” (adelphos) in the book of Matthew.  When speaking to “the crowds and to his disciples” in Matthew 23:1, Jesus broadens the definition here that they should reckon each other all as “brothers” in 23:8 (disciples and non-disciples alike).  In the “sermon on the mount” no less, recorded earlier in the same book, Jesus teaches that an identifying mark of being “sons of [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45) are those that EXPAND the circle of whom we love and that to greet only our “brothers” in the limited sense would make us no different than unbelievers (Matthew 5:46-47).  It seems strange, and a little suspect, to turn around and insist then that our definition of care for our “brothers” in Matthew 25 then ought not expand to include others in need…which Jesus is constantly challenging his disciples to do (Matthew 4:24, 5:3, 8:16, 9:12, 11:5, 14:14, 15:32, 19:21).  So it seems we may not truly be the “brothers” that we think we are if our love is so limited.

3. In the context of the rest of scripture

There are too many passages to name here that affirm God’s identification and concern for the poor, the needy, and the stranger that the weight against a contrary interpretation is revealing (just for starters: Exodus 23:6, Deuteronomy 10:18, Leviticus 23:22, Psalm 140:12, Proverbs 14:31, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:16, Acts 10:2-4, Galatians 2:10).

4. Even if the interpretation is correct that the least of these is limited to the disciples of Jesus, the irony is that the vast majority of the disciples in the world are more likely the poor, the needy, and the stranger anyway. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/may/26/the-world-is-getting-more-religious-because-the-poor-go-for-god

Like the lawyer, seeking to justify himself before Jesus in Luke Ch.10, I wonder if we as interpreters of the bible want to make the circle of “the least of these” smaller because we hope to limit our responsibility…we want a more comfortable religion?  But isn’t what we see in Jesus the opposite? He’s constantly flipping our expectations (responding to the lawyer’s question with the story of the good Samaritan) and breaking through our carefully crafted barriers.

Jesus, help us to love the least of these…to love you.  

A Biblical Case for Political Engagement

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*never you mind that these are the two things we are NOT supposed to talk about.

You may have heard it said “Let’s leave the politics to the politicians and the believers to the gospel”, or something like that.  

To the extent that we as Christians should not be enslaved or beholden to politics, I agree.  To the extent that one thinks the gospel (the good news of Jesus) doesn’t intersect with political realities or that it is somehow more Christian to disengage from the political sphere, I will have to disagree.  

On a practical level, it seems naive to insist there is no overlap.  Even to disengage from politics (activities associated with the governance of a country or other area) is a political choice.   On a spiritual level, God sees love for Him and love for others as interconnected. It is a human thing, not a God thing, to separate the two (doesn’t Jesus surprise us when he is asked of the greatest commandment, that he responds with two?).  

So why should we as Christians engage with politics?  And if so, to what extent?  

Loving ones neighbor does not happen in a vacuum divorced from politics and the governance of peoples.  The American mindset automatically goes to loving my neighbor as meaning solely loving individuals, when that is not the mindset of most of the world (which are of more collectivist cultures), and certainly not of the biblical witness.  The bible recognizes group, not just individual, responsibility.  It even recognizes systems, not only individual players.  Therefore, we are not just to do good to individuals, but as we are able, to do good for the larger community

The Apostle Paul, in Gal 6:10, exhorts us “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

The passage states “as we have opportunity” to “do good to everyone”.  Yes, the priority of care ought to be for the family of believers but this DOES NOT mean the exclusion of all others.  

First, let us look at do good to everyone”:  

Too much evil has been done in the name of “good” / “God” that He is NOT about, and, unfortunately, we even see this playing out in these times by people claiming to be Christian.     

We cannot be clear enough on what it means to do good FROM THE BIBLE.

Yes, we are not saved BY good works.  But we are saved TO DO good works.   So what is the good work we ought to do?  The Apostle John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, believed that God’s love lives in a person through action on behalf of the ones in need (1 John 3:17-18). James, most likely the half brother of Jesus, taught that true religion is caring for those in need (James 1:27).  He even goes so far as to make the outrageous claim that a faith that is not accompanied by works, and the notable example he uses is caring for those in need, is dead and no better than demonic (James 2:14-19)!  Jesus himself dropped on his disciples that to care for the least of these was to care for Jesus himself and was the litmus test of eternal salvation (Matthew 25:31-46).  The common thread of what it means to do good is to care for those in need…to do justice.  Even, and maybe we need to be reminded especially, those we do not consider as “us”.  

Lastly, let us look atas we have opportunity”:

We must remember that during the time of the writing of the epistles most folks were not people in power but were people without the right of Roman citizenship (Jesus himself did not have citizenship status) or at least not in positions to affect direct political change.  Their opportunities to do good for larger society, at the policy level, was limited.  Even from that context of the new testament the case has been made for political engagement. 

But if you want more scriptural models it is helpful to go to the Old Testament when Israel was once a Theocratic nation state.  There we get some frames for what God’s government could / should look like.  I won’t get into all of that here (check out the books of the law for that) but suffice it to say that the laws of the government were about personal purity as well as just relations, with special considerations for the more powerless of society (and gasp! even provisions in the government for taking care of the poor!).  God took seriously not only individual actions but political actions.  When Israel strayed from His way the prophets took them to task.  Isaiah makes a scathing rebuke to the lawmakers of his day declaring “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,  and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil,  and that they may make the fatherless their prey (Isaiah 10:1-2)!”  Amos warned “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate (5:15a).”  The gate was the central place of political exchange.   It was Israel’s job to engage in politics…for good.  They did not take that seriously, and so God took the kingdom away from them.  

But we’re not a theocracy anymore so why engage in godless politics?  

Remember also that Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah were not priests or part of the theocracy of Israel either, but they affected policy of the pagan government for the good of those in need.  

If you are a citizen, and a citizen in a democratic country no less, you have more opportunity than most to do good that affects a great number of people.  And as Uncle Ben famously said, Jesus had said before him “to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” 

2017: A Year of Lament…and Deeper Healing

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excerpt from my end of the year letter…

This was a hard year in many respects: nationally (increasing natural disasters, divisive politics, senseless deaths, policies further marginalizing the poor), locally (sharp rise in homelessness and the housing crisis in LA), and as a church family (more uncertainty for our undocumented siblings, tragic deaths, marriages in crisis, and chronic illness taking out local leadership).  I’ve had to learn how to lament (about 40% of the Psalms are lament): to cry out to God in the midst of pain.  We like celebration.  We don’t like lament.  But God’s been showing me that lament is God’s invitation into a relationship so intimate that He wants us to process our pain with him, not a kind of relationship that only allows us to speak when it is in praise.

Yet, He has opened my eyes to the work He is doing nonetheless.  We’re seeing favor in our community like never before, our attendance numbers are slowly increasing, our discipleship has multiplied, but most of all God has been doing deep healing.  Our life groups have persevered through the storms.  We are working on better structures to care for the church community.  Although circumstances may not have changed drastically, many of our local folks are in a much better place with Jesus than they were a year ago.  A handful of key local leaders even preached during Sunday services for their very first time!  God, in his love, has brought many difficult issues to light.  But it’s only through this process that we can see more clearly and the work of deeper healing can take root.

What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 7: It is a Reversal of Status

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Final Part 7 of 7 in a series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

7. It is a Reversal of Worldly Status

In all the talk about who is great, who we want to make great again, and who is the g.o.a.t. (aka greatest of all time), God’s view of who is great is completely the opposite from the world.  To God, whatever is highly valued by the world is detestable to Him (Luke 16:15) and whoever is considered least in this world are the ones who are great in His eyes (Luke 9:48).  God’s Kingdom is the complete reversal of the world’s kingdoms.    

How do we know that God does indeed have special favor and esteem that He bestows on the “least of these”?  It is through something that this world can never give…intimacy with Him.  Think, in the bible, to whom and when God personally appears and shares special intimacy with people: an old childless nomad in the desert, a shamed bi-cultural stranger in a strange land, a little boy born of a barren mother who was raised in a temple, a runt of the litter shepherd boy, and a virgin teen girl from a poor neighborhood, just to name some.  In my experience too, the people i have come to know who have had the most amazing supernatural revelations and experiences of intimacy with God are people that this world overlooks.  

Gus came from a family of 8 siblings, growing up in poverty in a rough neighborhood.  He is someone that society has overlooked.  He doesn’t have any advanced degrees.  He was notoriously violent and struggled with substance abuse.  That was until the Lord met him about 7 years ago.  Since then God has been transforming him and he has a relationship with God that i’m jealous of.  

About a year ago our church was doing a bible study in the book of Daniel. Daniel himself was not someone “great” before God stepped in; essentially he was a trafficked teenager who was enslaved and likely castrated in service of a foreign king in a foreign land.  One of the first and most miraculous ways God revealed Himself to this boy was to not only interpret this mad king’s dream but to reveal to Daniel what the king dreamed BEFORE the king even told him what the dream was.  This is an impossible task, for anyone could come up with an interpretation for a dream once they hear it, but who could possibly know what another person dreamed before they even heard it from the dreamer, except God alone?  And, come on, that’s a silly story in an ancient text that doesn’t happen today, right?  Wrong.

During the weeks of our bible study in the book of Daniel, God gave Gus a vision of a woman walking down the street and then hands came up out of the ground and started pulling her down.  

Gus asked God, “Who is this word for?”   

God replied “No. This is someone’s dream.”  That following Sunday, Gus saw a young adult that has been a part of our church for years.  She too was raised in this poor neighborhood and was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet for her 4 children.  God told Gus “It was her dream.”

Gus hesitantly approached this young lady and shared the vision that he had seen.     

She immediately asked “Have you been talking to so-and-so?  I just told her that I had that dream.”

Gus answered “No. God told me.”

This young lady’s jaw dropped and she went on to share how she was going through a lot of struggles and that those struggles were holding her down.  For those who may still be skeptical, God revealed yet another dream in detail to Gus and it turned out to be a different dream that this same young lady had!  

You see God lifts up “the least of these” in this world to show us true greatness, giving them insight that no human could possibly know…even to lift up others who also don’t have much in the world’s eyes, in order to demonstrate that HE sees them.  

In God’s Kingdom, HE makes the least of these the great ones among us.  

learning to love holistically amongst the urban poor