When Serving The Homeless: Help, But Help Well

I have long felt a draw toward serving the homeless. It started back in my early youth ministry days when I took a group of teenagers to spend a night on the streets in Richmond, VA. It was hosted by a wonderful organization called CARITAS, and the event was an effective way to open our eyes to the plight of people who are homeless, and consider them from Jesus’ perspective.

Since then, I have helped as much as I can on a purely voluntary basis. I emphasize “voluntary basis” because there’s an important distinction between what “lay people” can do for the homeless versus what professional social workers can do. I’ll say more on that later. For now I’ll just share that over the past ten years I’ve sought out a handful of opportunities to help people who are homeless, and I’ve learned one very critical truth:


I’ll explain what I mean with a story:

Three years ago I met a man and woman who were homeless and traveled around together. They camped in some woods near our church and started coming to worship on Sunday’s and dropping by the office during the week for coffee or to get out of the elements. I often gave them rides, I purchased and ordered birth certificates that they’d lost, I spent time in their camp, paid for motel rooms when the weather was bad, got people in our church to donate money for drug and alcohol rehab, drove them to court when they got arrested and even visited them in jail a few times. I considered them my friends and, for a while, was happy to help them.

What many people noticed that I could not, was that their entire world rested on my shoulders and a very unhealthy attachment was growing. After several months, it became clear to me that I was not the bridge between them and a new life off the streets, I was simply their current form of survival. The word many people use is dependence, and I’m reluctant to use that word because it has such baggage and negative connotation, as though we should dehumanize people for finding ways to survive. The fault was not theirs, but mine. I believed I possessed the ability to help two chronically homeless people get off the streets for good. And the simple truth is, I don’t. In fact, no one does by themselves.

Those two friends are now long gone. One moved out west to Arizona and the other found a new friend and went north to Missouri. I still get their mail from time to time because our church served as their mailing address – just another way I sincerely thought I was helping.

So I’ve learned to take Jesus’ words to heart when helping anyone – homeless or otherwise.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? …Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?

Empiricists and analytical types rejoice at this passage! For once Jesus is talking like a sane person! Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t spend money you don’t have. Be realistic!

Let’s be clear, though: this is not a call to do nothing. It’s certainly a call to do something. But we must recognize what we can do, and then do that very, very well.

With my two friends, it’s like I was trying to build a skyscraper when I only had supplies and manpower for a tool shed. When we take on something that’s out of our league, we can do great harm.

So I’ve learned to narrow down what I’m capable of doing, and doing consistently. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1 – Look for the humanity

Sometimes “the homeless” become a prop, an object that we talk about in sermons or political rallies. We assume people experiencing homelessness are all carbon copies of each other with the same background, same path into homelessness, and require the same path out. We treat them like they’re stock items at Costco, all crammed in a box and wrapped with shrink wrap just waiting to be moved out. We often forget that these are people with stories, with moms and dads, with kids, with beating hearts and thoughtful minds.

And because they are people, they have needs just like anybody else. Sure, they need food, clothing, and shelter, but they also need friendship, love, gratitude, entertainment, to experience goodness and beauty, to be clean, to be safe, etc. etc. We ought not criticize our neighbors who are homeless for having a cell phone, for wearing a nice jacket, or for spending money on a safe hotel room once in a while. They’re people just like us, and their needs go beyond calories and a dry floor.

2 – Know my available resources

Our church has operated a food pantry since before I came on staff. We don’t require ID, we don’t require you to live in the same zip code as the church, we don’t require you to attend our church or pray a prayer or dance a jig to get food. Our requirement is that you’re hungry. We give it away for free to anybody who asks. Yes, we get taken advantage of.

But I love having our food pantry because I know I have something to offer people needing help. When one of our neighbors who is homeless comes and asks me for money, I can say, “I don’t have any money, but would you like some Pop Tarts?” We get random calls from time to time from people asking for assistance with their electric bills. We’re a small church with very limited funds, so while I have to tell them I cannot pay their light bill, I can offer them a couple grocery bags of food.

We also have a small clothing pantry of mostly mens clothes. It started as an outreach to men leaving prison and re-entering society. We mostly have suits and polos for interviews, but we also have a handful of t-shirts and blue jeans. Occasionally representatives from the prison will still drop by to grab a few things for someone being released, but mostly it’s our neighbors who are homeless that utilize the clothing pantry.

Food and clothing are not always what people need, but it’s what we have to offer. I am learning the holy sacrament of doing what I can, and being satisfied with that.

Caring for our neighbors who are homeless is a team effort. It should not be something that any one person or groups tries to do alone. By trying to solve every problem, we run a mile wide and an inch deep, robbing our neighbors of the opportunity to get better care from those who can provide it. So our church tries to get word out as often as possible that we provide food and clothing, and we will provide it to the best of our capability.

3 – Believe the truth

One thing I’ve learned from having relationships with people who are chronically homeless is that a common survival mechanism is to convince a well-meaning person that they are the homeless person’s only hope. The common formula looks like this:

I’ve done everything right

Forces outside my control have caused things to go very wrong

You are the only person who can help

A very common way this plays out in church life is by receiving phone calls from people saying it’s their last night in a motel and they need money for a couple more nights until their check comes in. I honestly cannot count the number of times I’ve heard that call over my 14 years of ministry in three different churches in three different states. And, while it’s sometimes true that the person is about to be out on the street (I usually verify with hotel management), I have to keep one thing in mind: It is not contingent upon me to solve every person’s problem. And, as I mentioned above, paying for hotel rooms is not something we can do well.

Today, a couple living in the woods near our church told me the man was fired from his job because the woman had a seizure, so he chose to stay with her rather than going to work. And now they have no money for her medicine and asked if I could loan them the $20 they need.

It’s a good story, and one that ropes in a lot of people. But I know that:

  • A) Her medicine doesn’t cost $20, it’s free
  • B) “Seizure” is often a reason given because it’s serious, but also completely unverifiable if the person doesn’t seek medical treatment
  • C) If I give them $20 today for medicine, another request for money is right around the corner. It’s not because they’re bad people, but because they have found a new form of survival in me. I become the guy who thinks he can solve all their problems and they are more than happy to let me try.

I simply said that I did not have $20 to give them – which is true – and did not feel the least bit guilty because giving money to the homeless is not something I can do effectively.

The truth is I am not the best person to help people experiencing homelessness. Social workers, counselors, mental health professionals, job training agencies, Social Security managers…these people are far more equipped to help with their real problems than a guy with a messiah complex. So the very best thing I can do to help the homeless is play my part and avoid getting sucked into the belief that I can save the whole world.

If you’re interested in helping the homeless – or any marginalized population – here’s my advice: Find a role you can fill well and consistently, then get to work playing your part.


3 Things I’m Learning About Cultivating Peace

How do you find peace?

peaceful-sunset-1920x1080-1207058This is a question everyone asks at one time or another. I’ve been on a personal journey to answer it since last year’s Lenten season. The 40 days of fasting and repentance opened my eyes to the fact that in almost any given moment I was unsatisfied. Not unhappy, just unsatisfied. Restless, like I wast perpetually missing something. And I unknowingly tried so many ways to settle my restlessness, but always to no avail. When my mind wandered I would check out on social media, or grab some junk food, or go buy something, or reorganize the books on my bookshelf. Anything to avoid being fully present in the moment as it existed.

When I came home from the office I would often bring my restlessness with me, mostly because I felt like I had accomplished so little at work and needed to get something done. So at work my mind was restless, then at home my mind was restless because I spent the day in restlessness at work!

During Lent last year I gave up meat, which forced me to be very intentional about what I ate. I couldn’t just “grab something” whenever an urge hit. I began to notice that by forcing myself to think about what I was eating, my mind was much more focused on what needed to get done. Since food was no longer an escape, somehow that helped my mind be satisfied with the moment. And when I was able to be satisfied, the other vices began losing their appeal, and eventually I was rarely looking for an escape.

Robert Pirsig refers to three levels of understanding in our search for peace: Physical, Mental, and Value. THIS IS THE FIRST THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing our physical behavior (like giving up meat for 40 days) influences our Mental state, which then creates a “Value Quietness” in which “one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, and that seems the hardest of all.”*

Once I realized this, I was forced to ask: “But what was I escaping from?” And that’s where the real journey begins. We fall into the trap of thinking we have no peace because our environment is not peaceful. And, to be sure, we ought to intentionally work toward a peaceful environment. We are a loud, busy, multi-tasking people who rarely stop for the sake of being present. Environment does play a part, but it’s only a small part. But simply removing the thing causing distress doesn’t get at the heart of the problem itself; namely the question Why does that stress me out?

med1I have a friend who is a foster/adoptive dad with a large family. He once told me that shoes on the stairs causes him great distress. As he kept talking he began to acknowledge that the location of the shoes wasn’t the problem, but rather the disrespect he felt as a father by his kids not putting things where they belong.

And that’s where his journey toward peace must begin.

THIS IS THE SECOND THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing our environment is not necessarily bad, and can sometimes solve the problem. But more often than not, what is really needed is not a change of environment, but a change of Self, because there’s only so much control we have over our environment. Unfortunately, changing the environment is always easier than changing our Self. As Martin Luther once wrote: “The Self dies hard.


THIS IS THE THIRD THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing your Self is never complete; it requires time and maintenance. It also requires intentionality and a recognition of restlessness when it occurs. For example, I was at my 12-year-old son’s basketball game recently. It was a close game and came down to the final shot. My son’s team got the ball off a missed free throw and immediately called time out. They had 7 seconds to move down the court and get a shot off. I try not to be that obnoxious parent at my kids’ sporting events, but sometimes I get outside of myself and a little too wrapped up in the game. That was the case on this particular night. I just wanted them to win so bad!

So, during the time out, while all the players were off the court, I actually paused and asked myself three questions:

Will I be at peace if they win?

Will I be at peace if they lose?

What must I do to have the same peace either way?

This, for me, has become the central focus. I want the same peace if my son’s team loses as I would have if they won, and I want to intentionally work to maintain it. The work of maintaining peace starts with recognizing how little control we have at any given moment.

As a spectator – not a coach, nor a ref, nor a player – I had no control over any aspect of that game. If my peace were contingent upon my environment, then I would have been fighting a losing battle because it was completely out of my hands. And that’s the case for most of life; life is imposed on us more than we impose ourselves upon it. Loosening our grip in moments like a 12-year-old boy’s basketball game reminds us of this fact, and leads us toward a cultivated sense of peace.

Whether it’s a basketball game, a work situation, family life, marriage, church, school, community, neighbors, weekend getaways…we are always given the opportunity to ask:

Will I be at peace if A happens?

Will I be at peace if happens?

What must I do to have the same peace either way?

Peace is cultivated, not grasped. Nurtured, not achieved. Peace is maintained. And maintenance is more of an art form than a science. It involves routine and structure, but great perspective is also required. For me personally, I’ve found a few things to be helpful in my effort to maintain peace:

  1. Wake Up Early – Obviously this isn’t going to work for everybody, but waking up before our kids** is the first step toward starting the day in peace for me. I typically wake up around 5:00, then go to our living room and practice a series of yoga stretches and poses, followed by some silent meditation in the dark. I spend about 5-10 minutes being as aware of my surroundings as possible. Some call this mindfulness. The discovery of mindfulness has been an extraordinary gift to me in my search for peace. Usually, though, at that time of morning the only thing to be mindful of is our snoring dog on the couch beside me. But these few moments of waking up peacefully set the tone for my whole day.
  2. Guided Prayer – I’ve been meeting with a spiritual director for the better part of a year now. He’s a retired Catholic priest named Father Bob. We meet most Wednesday’s at the Little Rock diocese where he and a few other retired priests now live. Each week he asks about my prayer time from the week before, then gives me some thoughts and scriptures to guide my prayer for the coming week. I’ve also begun using a prayer book. I’ve settled on The Book of Common Prayer. It provides a daily prayer structure that begins with ancient scriptures and liturgical readings. That way by the time I get around to praying for myself, my prayer is shaped by scripture and by spiritual mothers and fathers so that my personal prayer finds context in the great tradition of our faith.
  3. Deep Prayer Getaways – Here in Little Rock we are blessed with the Arkansas House of Prayer, a beautiful sanctuary on a hillside west of town. It’s on the grounds of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, which is also a beautiful sight. I try to spend a couple of hours on Tuesday’s at AHOP in what I’ve begun calling “Deep Prayer.” That is, a time of deep and focused interaction with Jesus, guided by scripture and liturgies and my own imagination (imagination in prayer is something I hope to write on soon). I also recently attended my first 3-day silent guided prayer retreat at St. Scholastica monastery in Fort Smith, AR. The sisters at St. Scholastica provided wonderful direction, and I was silent for three days, spending at least four hours per day in focused prayer, and the rest in companionship with Jesus. If you ever have a chance to participate in a guided silent retreat, I highly encourage you to take it.

Yesterday I started working on a space in the woods behind our house for an outdoor contemplative prayer space where I plan to spend my mornings once spring arrives. The hill on which our house sits backs up to the Arkansas river and provides incredible views of the sunrise each morning. So when everything thaws and life starts to bloom, I plan to cultivate peace in the nature of our own backyard.

We plan to move out of our current house in the next 18-24 months, and the thought occurred to me as I was lugging rocks through the trees that in only a few months I won’t have access to that space. But that’s the beauty of cultivating peace; you begin to realize that it’s not about a particular place or a particular space or even a particular time – peace is cultivated where you are, when you are, with what you have. In my case, I currently have access to a beautiful plot of woods behind our house. Perhaps our next house will be in a more urban area with only a small patch of grass out back. But peace is not contingent upon my environment, so an entirely new journey toward peace will open up as I will learn to experience it in a new place.

May that be your experience; may you see life as a perpetual journey toward the peace that Jesus offers, that you might be in a constant state of satisfaction regardless of your circumstances or environment. And may you find joy not only in the peace itself, but also in the cultivating work that you pour into it. May your yoga practices and quiet meditations and guided prayers be filled with a divine sense of work, and from that work may a beautiful harvest of peace rise up within you.


*Robert Pirsig; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values; William Morrow Modern Classics, p. 302

**Did I mention that my wife and I have eight kids? At the time of this writing they are ages 12, 9, 7, 7, 5, 4, 3, and 2. So yeah, don’t tell me you can’t do these things.


Camels and Needles


There’s a story about Jesus that gets a lot of attention. It made an appearance in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18). And for centuries it has been one with which we’ve struggled and will probably continue to do so.

I’d like to give my take on the story. It’s about a young man who came to Jesus with a question:

(Matthew) Teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?

(Mark and Luke) Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

In all three tellings of the story, Jesus zeroed in on that word good. In Matthew he said, “Why do you ask me about what is good?”

In Mark and Luke he asked, “Why do you call me good?”

In other words, what’s your fascination with being good, and why do you think being good will somehow get you eternal life?

I bet Jesus could have gone on deconstructing the question:

“Why do you think I have the answer you’re looking for?”

“What do you mean by eternal life?”

“Why do you assume there’s one good thing you can do to magically live forever?”

Jesus reminded him about the Law and keeping the commandments, which the young man assured Jesus he has most certainly done. Being good was his fortè. The guy was a Boy Scout, a choir boy, a kid that helped old ladies cross the street and always saved 10% of his allowance for a rainy day. He was a straight-A student, had perfect attendance, and a clean driving record. His hair was perfectly parted and his shirt neatly tucked. There was probably a perfect crease down his cloak.

He learned what it meant to be good and then mastered it.

So why was he worried about making it to heaven?


The Jewish people knew exactly where they stood with God based on how many laws they followed. It was a merit-based system in which the “good people” were rewarded and the “sinners” were punished. The fact that the young man who approached Jesus was, in one telling of the story, “rich” meant everyone would have believed him to be righteous. How else would he have become rich unless it was a reward from God?

Despite mastering the art of being good, despite his wealth that was believed to have come from God, the young man was still afraid that he wasn’t good enough. And Jesus heard the fear behind his question.

That fear is the driving force behind so many good, honest, church-going people. Millions of us “have kept the commands since childhood” but are terrified that our actions won’t be enough to pass through the pearly gates. Or even if we think we’re going to heaven, it’s only because we plan on continuing to do all the good things between now and then.

So we try harder.

And we do more good things.

And we fight against every kind of evil that we fear will jeopardize eternity.

And we huddle ourselves with like-minded do-gooders who are also terrified that they might not make it to heaven and/or trying to keep their status by doing good.

And we cling to any sign that gives us hope that we’re good enough. We have signs like: church attendance, our children’s behavior, success of businesses or creative endeavors, respect of other religious people, number of Jesus Fish on our cars, amount of Christian knick-knacks in our homes, number of Christian t-shirts hanging in our closet or Christian songs on our iPhone, companies we support, companies we boycott, etc.

We like being able to measure our righteousness. The young man who went to Jesus clung to his wealth for assurance of God’s approval.

When our oldest son was little and we’d leave him at preschool or with a babysitter, he would always ask for my watch. He wore it as a sign that I’d be back and that he wasn’t alone. It was the assurance he needed that he was loved and remembered. He doesn’t need it anymore because he’s no longer afraid of his standing with his father. He knows I love him. He knows I’ll do everything in my power to take care of him, and he knows I’ll always come back for him.

For the young man in the story, his wealth was like that watch. It helped him sleep at night, believing he’d done enough to earn both the money and God’s favor. His wealth was evidence that he’d mastered life in a way that would please God.


So Jesus thought for a moment, then said, “If you want to be completely free, get rid of your wealth.”

This is not a condemnation of the rich from Jesus (though he doesn’t exactly have great news for the rich). This is not a universal command that all people should give up their wealth (though it would actually do a lot of good, especially for the wealthy). No, this is Jesus being Jesus, getting to the core of a person’s soul and telling them what they need instead of what they want.

The man needed to give up his wealth – his sense of personal validation before God – if he were ever to be totally free. The problem with clinging to external validation is that it can easily go away, but you’ll still be around. At some point, you have to find peace just by being you, not by proving that you’re good enough. At some point you have to let go of your wealth and just follow Jesus.

The young man couldn’t do it.

All three writers tell us the man went away sad because he had great wealth. It was never about the money; it was always about the fear.

Then Jesus dropped the bombshell:

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

This was a bombshell because wealth was the socially accepted sign of God’s favor. Jesus, in two sentences, blew up a 3,000-year-old social construct upon which the entire nation of Israel was built. And the people responded accordingly:

Who, then, can be saved?

It was a terrifying notion to think the rich would not enter the Kingdom, because everyone assumed the rich were the elite, God’s favorite children. It would be like Jesus saying, “That Mother Teresa has quite an uphill battle come Judgment Day.”

You’d be like, “What?! What are you talking about, of course Mother Teresa is in! Because if she’s not…what does that mean for the rest of us?”

But this whole encounter wasn’t about going to heaven or not going to heaven, it was about something deeper than that. It was about being good vs. being free. We’re not free if we’re constantly trying to prove that we’re good. And whatever mechanism you use to prove your goodness or to earn your standing with God will eventually break down. It will never give you complete peace about God’s love for you.

The only way to discover that level of peace is to lose whatever you’ve been using to get it.

And then come, follow Jesus.

Faithful vs. Fearful

Have you seen this article about fear being far and away the best political tool in our country? In case you haven’t seen it (and are too lazy to click the link), it basically says that if a politician wants to win an election, she doesn’t need to focus on convincing constituents of the strength of her policies. Instead, she just needs to convince constituents that her opponent’s policies will result in nuclear holocaust. Making people afraid of the other side is a far more powerful tool than getting them excited about your own. Politicians, pundits, cable news, and talk radio all know this to be true, and have been driving it at warp speed for a couple decades. Sadly, it’s only going to get worse.
If you need to go cry, I understand.
And because politics inevitably spills over into the Church, our religious culture has followed the Fear. The Church – especially mainstream evangelical churches – has found Herself stuck in a lose-lose situation culturally for one reason: we’ve lost the ability to distinguish between being fearful and being faithful.
We have, for too long, responded to cultural shifts and debates with fear while calling it faith. Ironically, fear and faith are opposites, so when we claim to be defending our faith, we’re actually fueling our fear. Faith is hospitable; fear is defensive.
Fear is never focused on policies or ideologies or even theologies; fear is always about a person or group of people.
The liberals.
The conservatives.
The homosexuals.
The pro-lifers.
The transgendered.
The homophobic.
The pro-gun.
The pro-gun-control.
The Muslims.
The Fundamentalists.
The Fox News Watchers.
The Huff Post Readers.
The Foodies.
The Hipsters.
The CEO’s.
The 1%.
The Black Lives Matter.
The All Lives Matter.
The Cat Lovers (this fear is legit)
The Dog Lovers.
The Bros.
The Left Handed.
They are to be feared.
They are ruining our country.
They are the reason for all that’s wrong.
One would think that people who believe in the Bible, in which the most oft-used command is “Do not fear,” would see right through this and reject such a juvenile approach to life. Sadly, though, the Church is among the worst offenders. We have become decidedly fearful of the Other, and quite adept at rallying church-goers to defend our “religious freedoms” in spite of practicing a faith that was conceived, born, and raised under persecution of the worst kind.
One exercise I use when reading the gospels is to pay close attention to the way people respond to Jesus’ presence, or an announcement of his presence. For instance, Mary was “disturbed” when Gabriel told her the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:29). The man possessed by a legion of demons begged Jesus to go away before Jesus ever said a word (Mark 5:6). A woman suffering from severe blood loss quietly touched his cloak and vanished into the crowd (Mark 5:27). Some of the disciples immediately dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus down the road.
More often than not, people were bothered by Jesus. Because nothing was ever the same after he came and went. He was especially bothersome for the religious leaders. His radical love, warmth, and grace for the Other was troublesome for a people sustained by the belief that they were God’s chosen. You would think “The Chosen” would understand the gift they’ve been given, the love they’ve been shown, and the grace they’ve been afforded and want to share that with as many as possible. You would think “The Chosen” would celebrate that more people want to belong in such a beautiful community. Sadly, though, fear drives The Chosen toward violent exclusivity and self-preservation.
But Christ is most visibly present in the company of The Outsider. He was most often found at the table with sinners and hookers and drunks and druggies, with the diseased and crippled and poor. The rich had to schedule appointments or meet him at odd hours, while the poor had full access to God in the flesh.
When Jesus shows up, he shows up with the Other in tow. We cannot accept Jesus without loving the Other. And so long as we are led by fear, we are not led by faith. For the good of the Church, and for the good of the world, perhaps it’s time we got serious about distinguishing between the two.
This week I read two stories of people’s response to the presence of Christ – Simeon and Herod – and found them convicting in light of our tendencies toward fear.
First there’s Herod. In Matthew 2 we’re told that some Magi (kings) from the east came to Jerusalem, following a star that they somehow knew would lead them to the savior of the world. In a great twist of irony, these kings from the east (Gentiles, pagans, not God’s people) are the ones who told Herod, Israel’s king, that Israel’s messiah had come. Outsiders were the first to know God had arrived on earth.
How’s that for God’s sense of humor?
When the kings arrived and told Herod the news of the star and the newly born Messiah, Matthew wrote,
“[Herod] was disturbed,
and all Jerusalem with him.”
And all of Jerusalem with him?
Shouldn’t they have been celebrating that the person for whom they’d waited thousands of years was finally born?!” 
Herod had spent his entire life building up a political empire for himself, being named king of Israel by Rome so that he might be their puppet and infuse Roman ideology into the Jewish faith. So a liberating Messiah was definitely disturbing to Herod, because he was part of the oppressors, not the oppressed.
When the Magi came and announced the arrival of the Messiah in the form of a child, Herod had great motivation to find out where that child was and kill it on the spot. He asked the Magi to return once they found Jesus so that Herod himself could worship him. The Magi, though, were alerted to his plans, and never returned.
When Herod realized he’d been duped, he gave in to fear and turned destructive. Herod “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Matthew 2:16)
That’s it, isn’t it? When we are consumed with fear, when we think our way of life – our way of seeing the world, our way of thinking about God – is under attack, we turn destructive. We declare “war” on the Outsider and every group by whom we feel threatened. We draw sides and pinpoint the enemy (despite’s Paul’s declaration that our struggle is not against flesh and blood in Ephesians 6). We won’t rest until everybody is subject to our way.

The problem with this way is that we assume God is only present in one form, one people, or one way. But that’s not only unBiblical, it’s actually antiBiblical. Because the Bible is filled with stories of God using The Other, The Outsider, The Gentile, The Pagan to do something good in the world, to the shock and dismay of “his people:”

Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter
The widow of Zeraphath
The Assyrians
Cyrus the Persian
The Babylonians
The Magi (kings) from the east
An unwed virgin
A carpenter’s son
A prostitute with a jar of perfume in a religious man’s house
A Good Samaritan
A Younger Brother
A murderer named Saul
A “third-gender” eunuch from Ethiopia
A Gentile named Cornelius.
What if the person you fear is actually loved, welcomed, and gifted by God to carry out good things in the world, and you’re missing it because you think God only works one way?
I once saw a tweet from a guy named Brian Zahnd that said:
“If it turns out that Jesus saves far more people than your theology anticipated, will you be mad or glad about it?”
Ahhhhhhh what a fantastic question!
If you were to somehow discover that God actually loves, uses, and gives grace to people you always thought he hated, would that fill you with anger or joy? Would you celebrate the fact that God’s love is bigger than you imagined, or would you join a rally about God’s lack of moral compass?
Here’s another good question: “To whom do you hope God shows no grace?”
And another: “Why are you afraid of certain people?”
And one more: “What does that tell you about yourself?”
What would it be like if you were unafraid of the Other? I think we would all look a little more like Simeon, a guy who wanted nothing but to see God do beautiful things in the world, and had no concern for the people through whom he did them.
Simeon was an old man with a deep connection to the Holy Spirit. He knew somehow that he would not die before he saw the One sent by God to redeem Israel. When Jesus was 8 days old his parents brought him to the temple to be dedicated and circumcised, per the Law of Moses. Simeon followed an inclination to go to the Temple himself. And when he arrived he saw Joesph and Mary carrying Jesus. Luke, the writer of this particular story, said Simeon “praised God.”
Where others were disturbed, terrified, afraid, or overwhelmed, Simeon praised God because he was looking for God and not hiding in fear.
Then he sang this song:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
You may now dismiss you servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
Which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
A light for revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of your people, Israel.
I see two things in this song:
1) Simeon’s peace came from knowing God was up to something, not from having his own views validated by all people. He intentionally looked for what God was doing and lived with a peaceful posture rather than a defensive one, because all he wanted was to see the world redeemed. And when that moment came he was content to die, because he literally needed nothing else.
2) Simeon saw the arrival of Jesus as good news for the outsider (“light for revelation to the Gentiles), and he was glad! He was happy that the people the Jews always counted as enemies were enemies no longer, and he praised God for it.
Imagine the state of the world if followers of Jesus were more like Simeon and less like Herod. Imagine millions of hearts and eyes searching for glimpses of God in the Other rather than millions of fingers pointing and accusing.
When you encounter The Other, will you, like Herod, be disturbed and try to destroy, or will you, like Simeon, look for and celebrate the Image of God that rests gently upon all people?
How will you respond when Jesus shows up?

What We’re Not

Did you see it today on Twitter? It was one of the greatest moments in our nation in decades; a moment I, for one, didn’t think I’d ever see again in my lifetime. Somewhere, pigs are flying over a frozen hell-scape.

First, Mitt Romney tweeted this:

Take down the at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor victims.

And then, Barack Obama – yes, Mitt Romney’s 2012 nemesis – tweeted this:

Good point, Mitt.

Isn’t it exhilarating! Go back and read it again if you want.

Two politicians, two former enemies who said pretty snarky things about each other and spent nine months polarizing our country, agreed on Twitter! This is seriously big news, folks. Our politicians were publicly supportive of one another!

I’m getting all misty-eyed over here.

Can you imagine what this one interaction could do for our insanely divided, fearful, angry, prejudiced, media-saturated country? Without cable, I’m not sure if 24-hour-soul-crushing-news-media is covering it or not, so I’ll just run with the dream of the Sean Hannity’s and Keith Olbermann’s sitting across from each other for a segment called, “WE AGREE ON THAT”

I can see Red Sox and Yankees laughing in the streets.

Crips and Bloods hugging it out.

Christians and Muslims picnicking in the park.

Cats apologizing to dogs.

Oh man…I dream.


It makes sense, though, because it’s way, way easier for a group of people to agree on what they’re not than on what they actually are. I’m a pastor, so I’ll use church as an example. It’s easy for people to all agree that they’re not a certain religion or denomination or sub-group of a denomination. Everyone can sit in the same room and say, “We are definitely not Hindu.” Nothing against Hindu’s, but it’s pretty clear when a person practices or does not practice Hinduism. And people feel a sense of belonging by being with other people who are not what they’re not. (Grammar nazi’s, fire away on that one).

The friction comes from deciding what the church – or people group – actually is. While everyone in the church agrees that they’re not Hindu, there might not be such agreement on, say, how to treat the poor, or what to believe about the Bible, or how to teach people about the multi-layered intricacies of nursery duty.


I’ve heard it said that any society of human beings – a nation, a church, a tribe, a PTA board, whatever – needs a villain. In fact, most groups of people won’t survive without one. Nothing will rally humans together more than someone with whom they all disagree, or an ideal they all disdain, or an agreed-upon source of all the problems in the world. Where would MSNBC or Fox News be without the opposing party? They’d have nothing to say. Neither network gets ratings by saying things like, “Yeah, I know they’re in the other party, but I agree with them.” Their jobs depend on being divisive, and the survival of many people groups depends on identifying a villain. As a people, humans need a collective enemy if we’re to stay united.

So, sometimes, it’s helpful to remind ourselves what we’re not. And today, politician after politician opted to make an enemy not out of a person on the other side of the aisle, but on the ideals upon which the Confederate flag flies. Both Republican and Democrat called for the removal of the Confederate Flag from the government grounds in South Carolina. They stood as one nation and proclaimed, “We are not tolerant of racism.” Before you fire off your rebuttals about how racism just takes a different form now, or what to do about gun control, or why Benghazi is tied to all this, let’s just pause and enjoy it. Everyone seems to agree that the Confederate flag has no place in our government. That’s great news. That’s a big step forward in history.

As is always the case after horrific events like the shooting in Charleston, something good rises. Life resurrects from Death, and Light shines in the Darkness. It always does. So let’s spend a moment soaking in the Light as we watch the Confederate flag come down in South Carolina, and maybe – just maybe – see a divided nation find its way back to each other by remembering what we are not.

Why I Can’t Read Matt Walsh


I try not to attack people, especially through social media. Jesus is clear: if you have a problem with somebody, go to them directly.

It could be argued that I’ve done so, by which I mean I sent an email once. I acknowledge the unbiblical spirit of my words even as I type.

Yet I cannot remain silent. A large number of my Facebook friends read and share Matt Walsh’s blog daily. I’d like to point out something that troubles me about this, and share thoughts about the blog that I hope you’ll keep in mind if you’re a Matt Walsh reader.

If you’re unfamiliar with Matt Walsh and his blog, spend some time reading it and make your own decisions about what he has to say. He’s a gifted writer, easy to read, and is certainly engaging. He writes about current topics, and takes a firm, traditional stance on most issues.

What his posts sorely lack, though, are love, mercy, and gentleness. The first time I saw Mr. Walsh’s blog shared, it was his response to a high school student who wrote him asking for advice. His health teacher was teaching safe sex rather than abstinence, and the young reader wondered what his response should be. Here’s an excerpt:

“Speaking of adults without character, please ignore everything your “health teacher” says on this subject. I have to put quotes around her title because it doesn’t sound like she’s doing much in the way of teaching, and whatever she’s blabbering about has very little to do with “health.” She seems to think there’s a “safe” way for emotionally immature juveniles to have casual sex. Maybe she’ll follow up this performance by advocating “safe drunk driving.”

Most of the response continues with this juvenile tone, demonizing the young man’s teacher.

Healthy disagreement is good, even necessary for us to grow. But Mr. Walsh shames and belittles anyone he believes to be wrong. Regardless of the truth he claims to speak, truth without love is irrelevant (GREAT BLOG ABOUT THAT TOPIC HERE). Truth requires generosity if it’s to be received by others. When it’s spoken with immaturity and an antagonistic spirit, Truth lacks authority and does great harm to any opportunity for civil dialogue. Not one person is swayed to a new way of thinking by being insulted.

Mr. Walsh’s blog is toxic and serves no productive purpose in our society. It is only meant to rile up the anger of people who think like him without offering anything original, thus deepening the division that already poisons our world.

Mr. Walsh’s influence seems to be growing, and that scares me. Is this the way we want to speak to people with whom we disagree? Is this the way Jesus spoke to anyone: with adolescent, narcissistic sarcasm and petty name calling? When those who reject Jesus and the Church read the posts we share on Facebook and Twitter, are they more likely to follow Jesus or will their view of Christians only be confirmed?

If you are a person who enjoy’s Mr. Walsh’s blog, I encourage you to read cautiously and resist adopting his attitude toward the people he vilifies. And if you choose to share his thoughts via social media, consider what others might see in him, in you, and in Jesus when you do so.

Religious Freedom

I am a big fan of religious freedom. And, in Jesus, we are never without it, no matter how emperors may oppress or what laws might pass.

As a follower of Jesus, I have freedom in droves.

I am free to model my entire life after His, as a disciple follows a rabbi (Matthew 7:24).

I am free to model Jesus’ practice of sitting and eating with those society has marginalized or deemed less than human (Matthew 9:11).

I am free to model Jesus’ practice of throwing no stones because I myself am no better or worse (John 8:11).

I am free to live as one who sees the humanity in people and makes compassion and empathy common practice (Matthew 25:35).

I am free to give my time, resources, and care to anyone in need (Luke 10:37).

I am free to model Jesus’ teaching that hate and lust are far worse than murder and adultery (Matthew 5:22).

I am free to live out Jesus’ teaching that the plank in my own eye stands out more than the speck in my brother’s or sister’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

I am free to practice Jesus’ teaching that some things are to be valued more than rigid adherence to the Law: justice, mercy, faith (Matthew 23:23).

I am free to live fully into the two greatest commands: to love him, and to love my neighbor in the way I myself want to be loved (Matthew 22:39).

I am free to model Jesus’ practice of loving people before lecturing them, and welcoming all to the Table (Matthew 22:1-14).

I am free to practice wholeness, and to participate in restoring all people and all creation back to its Oneness with God (Luke 19:8).

Against such things there is no law.


I believe HB 1228 is not a representation of the “religion” Jesus taught his disciples to practice. I believe it draws a line between imaginary Good Guys and Bad Guys, a line Jesus died trying to erase. He clearly taught that separating the “Sheep” from the “Goats” is a task left up to the angels. Not to mention that “Sheep” are those who see the humanity in all people and treat them accordingly.

While I am no legal scholar, I find the bill redundant. Businesses already possess the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason, and Arkansas does not currently have any laws that explicitly protect people from discrimination based on sexual preference or gender identity. What, then, is the need for this bill in Arkansas?

I am also no economist, but I cannot imagine that bills like HB 1228 make much fiscal sense. Look at what’s happening already in Indiana – Angie’s List withdrew a $40M expansion of its company in Indianapolis. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has denounced the bill and would surely follow the way of Angie’s List. Corporations will think twice before furthering business in states that pass such laws. What, then, is the good of this bill in Arkansas?

For these reasons, I oppose HB 1228. It’s a contentious issue, but it need not be. Surely in the year 2015 we can have reasonable dialogue with all sides agreeing to see the Other with compassion and empathy. Surely as Straight, L, G, B, or T Americans, we are capable of living together in ways that bring out the best in each other. As followers of Jesus it is within us to see the Image of God in all people, whether or not we agree with their lifestyle. We ought to be on the front line of showing the world the power of love and generosity. We’re capable of living in a way that points us more toward what God intended Earth to be, a world filled with his glory, love and shalom.

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest is love.