What Our Giving Reveals About Our Hearts

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To me one of the most “savage” verses in the bible is from the Apostle John (one of the closest of the 12 most closest followers of Jesus) who pierces our hearts with a question:  

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” – 1 John 3:17

What does he mean by this?   

In this verse and passage it comes from (the book of 1 John, Chapter 3, was initially written as a letter in the late 1st century to circulate amongst the churches in the Roman provinces of Asia, in modern day Turkey) John is making the case that our actions reveal the reality of our hearts.  

So if there really is love in our hearts it is demonstrated by action.  In the verse that comes right before v.17 John states that Jesus gave us the ultimate example of what love looks like: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”  For those who claim to know the love of God, expressed in Jesus’ sacrifice for them, to not have mercy for those in need is a deep hypocrisy that John cannot abide.  

 

Why is this particular example a proof of love?

We, who are recipients of God’s love, are to love when it costs us.  Literally. We might put in some time to love. But the church today is much less likely to put in MONEY to love.  According to recent statistics, Christians are only giving 2.5 percent of their income per capita, while during the Great Depression they gave at a 3.3 percent rate!   

God’s people in Jesus’ time, who were as a whole more poor than us in America, were to give 10% tithe of their income to the temple, 10% tithe for religious celebrations, and an additional 3% offering for the poor). So Israelites, in addition to the taxes they paid to Rome, were to give 23% of their income as a demonstration that they knew EVERYTHING belonged to Him.  Any more giving to the poor, that John was likely referencing here, was IN ADDITION to these tithes, to celebrate how much God had given, abundantly.

But you might say “Those are OT laws, they don’t apply to us since Jesus has come.”  However, Jesus declared in Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”  

Notice Jesus is saying we need to CONTINUE tithing (whereas religious temple laws such as dietary restrictions and temple sacrifices are explicitly ended, nowhere in the NT do any of the writers state that tithing no longer applies), but we should add on justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The tithe is just the minimum and many of us don’t even do that.  If anything doesn’t Jesus challenge us to give more, not less? In the words of Micah the Prophet, we have robbed God and we have strayed so far from His heart.

To go even further in the example we are to love from our heart.  “Pity” in v. 17 is not a great translation as it has a connotation to look down on someone, but in the original greek this passage literally says that we might “close [our] heart against” the one in need.  So John is not talking about simply giving money, but rather to open up our hearts to actually love the poor. Jesus said where our treasure is THERE our hearts will be also. So if we give money to the poor our hearts will be more likely to follow in love.  

Many of us also do not have cross-class relationships.  Most of us in America are likely more wealthy than Jesus ever was.  His parents were too poor to afford a lamb for the temple sacrifice so they gave pigeons.  Jesus more than likely did not have citizenship status, as he was condemned to die without a formal trial.  Jesus was homeless for a lot of his ministry. Would he have been a friend of ours?

 

Why is loving like this so important?  

Because it’s evidence of our salvation.  Not that we are saved by works. V16 (above) reminds us of Jesus’ initiative and V.17 reminds us of his love in which we live. However, a salvation that works, has good works.  V.14 in this chapter, reminds us that our love for each other is the evidence that we have passed from “death to life” and v17 tells us that when we open our hearts to those in need it demonstrates a reality of the love of God living in us.  God is the origin, initiator, and source of love.

 

So how can we change?  

There is hope.  V.20 states: “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

God is greater than our hearts!  Praise God, that He is not limited by our hearts!  We must simply GIVE our hearts to Him. V. 20 also reminds us that God loves us and laid down his life for us in SPITE of knowing everything about us, and how our love has fallen short.

So where ever are hearts are at, we can give ourselves to God.  Maybe that means we need to stop ourselves at some point in the day and ask “Jesus, what do you want me to do today?”  Maybe we listen to His still small voice when we are interacting with people throughout the day, of how to love them better…Maybe it’s really listening to them, maybe it’s lending a helping hand or a prayer, maybe it’s offering them a gift.  We trust Jesus and keep putting ourselves out there to love others. We don’t wait for the feelings.  We take the actions of love and THEN the feelings will come.

As we put ourselves out there to love, we get to know Him more and we experience even more intimacy with Him.  As we take step of faith and risk to love we are transformed in the process. As we love we enter right into His resources, His joy, His heart.  

 

An example of change

A story that demonstrates the transformation that happens when we give ourselves to Jesus’ love, is the story of Apostle John himself, the very person who wrote these verses we’re reading!  John was one of the 12 closest disciples of Jesus himself. Jesus called John and his brother James “the sons of thunder”. Probably, because they were really fiery guys. These are the brothers that argued with the other disciples of how great they were gonna be.  These are the brothers that wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village that turned Jesus away. Jews hated and were deeply racist of Samaritans, who they thought were mixed breeds that were beneath them. John had that kind of hate in him and Jesus had to call him out on it.  Jesus, was GREATER than the limitations of John’s heart. Jesus saw something in John and didn’t give up on him.

So this John, after walking intimately with Jesus for years, even after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, was transformed so deeply.  A church father records one particular story of John when he was already an old man. John went to different churches now amongst FOREIGNERS in Asia Minor, encouraging people in the faith and at one church, left a young man in their care.  This young man was baptized but after awhile got caught up with some bad influences and fell away so far that he became the leader of a merciless gang of robbers.

When John came back to visit and heard about what happened to this youth he tore his clothes in grief.  This OLD MAN got on a horse and raced right over to the place the gang was staying. Weeping, John told them to take him to their leader.  When the young man recognized John, the man took off, ashamed. John chased after him crying “Why, my son, do you run from me, your father, unarmed, old? Son, pity me. Fear not; you have still hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I will willingly endure your death, as the Lord did death for us. For YOU I will surrender MY life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.” On hearing this the youth surrendered his weapons and started bawling and John embraced him and took him back to the church and didn’t leave till this man was fully restored to Jesus and the church in strength.  John, who once was an arrogant young man became a pillar of the early church, was willing to lay down his reputation and his life to serve a fallen criminal. John’s love did not give up on this young man, as Jesus too did not give up on John.  You see JESUS, had won John’s heart, and that is why John has become known as the apostle of love.

John’s love revealed, Jesus.  May our love reveal Jesus.

 

So how is our love?

Let us love not only when it’s convenient but when it’s uncomfortable.  Let us love when it costs us something. Let us love more with the money God has given us.  We must remember it all belongs to Him, not to us. Let us love not only those who are like us but those who are different from us.  

“...let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth”  – 1 John 3:18.

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God, Grant That I Would Be a Social Justice Warrior

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By social justice warrior I do not mean being self-righteous, rude, and picking unwarranted fights.  That to me is the antithesis of what that title should be about. By social justice warrior I mean how I’ve come to understand those words biblically: being mindful of others, uplifting those in need, and willing to put one’s life on the line for what matters.

The word “social” reminds me that we are not just individuals but communities of people.  We need to do what we can as individuals but we also need to do what we can as a collective.  In the west there is a tendency to overly focus on the individual. In the east there is a tendency to overly focus on the collective.  The middle eastern culture, especially of the bible, understood that we are people that have not only personal responsibility but corporate responsibility.  That is why Achan’s whole family was killed for Achan’s sin.  That is why Nehemiah would weep for a place he was not born and ask for forgiveness for not only his personal sins but also the sins his ancestors had committed.  That is why the righteousness of one man, Jesus, could cover all who would trust in Him.  No one else is righteous, all have fallen short of what we ought to do personally as well as corporately.

The word “justice” reminds me that, nevertheless, there is a standard – there is a sense of equity and what we ought to do that we find deep within ourselves – one that God, the creator of all, has put within us when He made us in His likeness (Genesis 1:27).  For this reason I believe it is only in and through God that we can find a common bond amongst those unlike ourselves and live out true justice.  According to God, justice is not only punishment of evil but it is acting on the interest of those in need.  The reason why the word “social justice” is not found in the bible is because that would be a redundant phrase, biblically speaking.  It is God that links justice together with how we treat others in society, especially the most vulnerable.  That is why I also believe a person who actually has a relationship with God, fleshed out in Jesus, can and should bring a grace and an abundant source of life to the table that other workers for social justice are unable to bring.  

Why the word “warrior”?  

Is the violence necessary?   

The apostle Paul (arguably the most influential missionary, aside from Jesus, that brought the good news of God beyond the Jews in a big way) understood that those who put their faith in Jesus are soldiers in a real spiritual battle against powers and principalities of darkness (of spiritual evil that could affect real humans and human systems).  This does NOT mean then that we wage war in the same way the rest of humanity does (using human weapons and shedding the blood of other humans).  Rather we contend for “the least” in society and lay our lives down for the true King and Kingdom.  That is why non-violent resistance is counter to the ways of this world and does spiritual violence to darkness.    

Why would social justice be something worth dying for?

I’m not saying social justice in it of itself is worth dying for.  Not every hill is worth dying on.  But Jesus did die on a hill – He laid down his life for us, so we would no longer live just for ourselves but Him (2 Corinthians 5:14-21) and His purposes (not just personal salvation but to usher in the Kingdom of God).  Social justice may not be the primary thing Jesus died for, but it certainly did not exclude that.  For as He died to save us and for others to be saved, what then are people being saved into?  How then are we to live?  Yes, Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations but, He also told us that those disciples are made by teaching them to obey EVERYTHING that Jesus has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20).  Justice is critical in His Kingdom and something God looks for in those who claim to be His (Matthew 23:23).   Scripture is full (here’s a taste of it just in the writings of the prophets) of God’s concern for the least in society.  One passage in particular was instrumental in helping me to see how social justice is not just an optional piece but an essential piece of God’s heart.  It’s taken from arguably the most beloved of the prophetic books, Isaiah, where lots of nice cards use quotes from. But have you ever read the 1st chapter that begins the book?  I did. And. It. Is. Savage. It is a scathing rebuke OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD, who play at religion but do not do what is most important to Him. And what is God looking for? Verse 17 summarizes it:

“Learn to do good;

seek justice,

rebuke the oppressor;

defend the fatherless,

plead for the widow.” (NKJV).

God is looking for those who would act on behalf of the most vulnerable in society.  Doing the good work that God saved us to do (Ephesians 2:10), must move beyond words and ideas (“learn” and “seek”).  It means we must “rebuke”, “defend”, and “plead”…this involves action.  It means we must face the powerful (“oppressor”) and act for and with the powerless (“fatherless” and “widow”)…this involves great risk.  A “warrior” seems an apt description of one who must take action with great risk to themselves.  When I think of Jesus as a “warrior” (in his first coming) in that sense, so much of His life and ministry was about that.  The one clear instance that comes to mind where we see Jesus’ righteous anger to the point of physical action is when Jesus confronted the establishment of the temple (read church) authorities, over their corruption with money at the expense of making a way for the marginalized to worship (Mark 11:5-13).  That should tell us something about what moves God’s heart.       

So God, please grant, by your grace, that I would be a social justice warrior in You.  I need Your wisdom to consider not only myself but others to be social. I need Your power to uplift those who are most vulnerable to be one who practices justice.  And I need Your courage to take the right action to be a warrior for You. In Jesus name, amen.

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?

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, and one that assumes some privilege to even be able to choose and be unaffected.  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 of whole groups of people, 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 that is one of the reasons 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.” 

learning to love holistically amongst the urban poor