Beyond the Talking Points: The Current Refugee Crisis

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Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to be the judge of a high school debate competition.  Not surprisingly one of the debate topics centered around “the current refugee crisis.”  Unfortunately I only got to listen to one such debate.  Those arguing in favor of accepting refugees did an okay job at listing out several economists, historians and anthropologists who all argue that accepting refugees will most likely improve a country’s living standards over a long term period of time (up to 1oo years!).

Those arguing against it did a fascinating job of listing out everything that is happening today.  They had current and relevant data on the spread of disease, the increase of poverty among nationals and the outbreak of violence.  It was all quite disconcerting and overwhelming, especially when that team pointed out, “All our opponent’s data is about what might possibly happen.  Ours is about what is happening.”

They won the debate.  The reality is that when people cross borders, particularly because of persecution or poverty, they bring a lot of bad stuff with them, not intentionally but it happens.  This team’s crude listing of current statistics did a lot to undo the pie in the sky optimism of those who claim, “yeah but none of that will happen because, you know, love.”  Sadly that seems to be the argument many are making even today.  However, the threats are very real and we would be foolish to deny that.

Yet I remain in absolute favor of open borders worldwide, starting with our own.  I do so not because of a pie in the sky optimism but because I am a biblical Christian.  I am not a fundamentalist one but I still believe the narrative of Scripture should be given absolute primacy in all affairs.

The narrative of Scripture leaves little room for gray when it comes to feeding, clothing and accepting foreigners, even dangerous ones.  God does it and God wants us to do it.

You can look at the prologue to the 10 Commandments where God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  This statement, upon which the 10 commandments rest, calls to mind the recent past where the Israelites were strangers in a foreign land.  God not only rescued them but accepted them into God’s presence.  We serve a hospitable God.

You can also look at the entire book of Deuteronomy, most notably passage like chapter 10:18-19 where, “God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Then there is chapter 16 where Moses takes great pains to clarify that the benefits of the national festivals extend to the foreigners who reside in their towns.  Then the book ends with Moses pronouncing a curse upon anyone who refuses to grant foreigners justice (see 27:19).

You can also study the minor prophets who pronounce God’s wrath upon Israel over and over again because they did not accept strangers and foreigners (most notably Zephaniah 7:10).

The Psalms too proclaim that our God loves the foreigners and defends their cause.  (See Psalm 94:6 and 146:9)

I wish I had the time to cite another 100 examples but clearly the Old Testament God loves immigrants, rescues immigrants, feeds and clothes them and insists we do the same.

But this isn’t just about Israel and God.  Jesus is the ultimate example of a God who deserted the heavens to welcome wayward sinners into the hospitable presence of God.  Jesus is the ultimate example of a God reaching out to make room in his house for us.  At the same time, Jesus is the ultimate example of one who was crucified for being so hospitable.  And Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him.

Therefore, although I am very much inclined to accept the prognostication of the anthropologists, historians and economists who argue in the long term it will be to our benefit, I still know that in the short term we might get crucified and not just with violence but also with disease.  The danger of hospitality to refugees is very real.  What happened in Paris on Friday was very real.  The threats of disease and violence and increased poverty (at least in the short term) are big problems.  But if we trust and follow the God of Scripture, these are problems to solve, not problems which should cause us to reject God’s commands.

In close, I remember the early church.  You probably didn’t know that the number one cause of death among early Christians was not martyrdom but disease.  The Roman government had a way of isolating the sick and letting them die in extreme poverty.  This was all so that the healthy didn’t get sick and it worked!  It turns out that the healthy do stay healthy when they don’t go around sick people.  The early Christians didn’t care.

They were so overwhelmed by the picture of a healthy God embracing a sick creation (and getting crucified for it) that they went to the sick, fed them, clothed them, took care of their needs and then all died of the same diseases.  They did this not only willingly but joyously because they believed in The Great Physician who would one day heal them, even from death.

If we aren’t willing to become a bit poorer, a bit sicker, a bit less safe for the benefit of others, even our enemies, I just don’t think we really understand the grace and compassion of a healthy and loving God who was crucified to welcome the very dangerous, very sick and very poor sinners into a holy nation.

At least that’s my two cents.

A Hermeneutic of Humor: Laughter’s The Best Word

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Yesterday I wrote about the absurdity hiding beneath the fragile fabric of our lives  I argued that the best way to keep it from overcoming us is to laugh.  Today I want to turn in a different direction and talk about how we read the Scriptures.

Scripture is filled with a different kind of absurdity, a quite Holy type that encourages us to laugh at ourselves as we try to get along with the God who created us.

So over the last year or so I have begun to realize that my own hermeneutical lens lands in the middle of irony, sarcasm and humor.  This does not mean I ignore every passage that does not make me laugh.  It just means I keep my eye open to the unexpected, looking for the hidden humor to show itself.

If I have learned anything from good comedians, it is that the unexpected makes us laugh.  And as Jerry Seinfield taught us, we laugh even harder when the unexpected is hiding behind the everyday events of our lives.  But we miss that humor because we are so accustomed to our lives that we don’t stop to reflect.

In the same way we are so familiar with some narratives and passages of Scripture that we don’t stop to look for what might be hiding in plain sight for us to see.  A Hermeneutic of Humor fights that tendency by keeping one’s eye out for what you do not expect.

For example, I read the Sermon on the Mount for years without realizing that in chapter 7 verse 11 Jesus calls his entire audience “evil.”  I grew up reading that passage but had enver stopped to think about how funny and interesting it is that Jesus just insults his whole audience right there in the middle of the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.

The story of Samson is filled with all kinds of humor and irony that one would not expect.  Nowhere is this more evident than after Samson kills 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone.  After the slaughter, Samson tells a joke.  The Hebrew is just a bunch of forms of the word donkey.  A literal English translation might be, “With a donkey, I made donkeys out of a donkey full of donkeys.”  However, the real punchline comes right after when suddenly Samson gets all emotional and collapses, begging God to kill him.  From anger to sarcasm to depression.  .  .that is a full day.

In 1st Corinthians 6 Paul is practically screaming at the Corinthians but in chapter 7 verse 1 he suddenly stops and says, “Now for the matters you asked about.”  The transition is so awkward it makes you laugh awkwardly.

The Prophet Daniel compares Babylon to a prostitute.  Most people are so accustomed to this that they miss the force of the metaphor.  The Babylonians were doing all kinds of nice things for the Jewish captives but their military was out torturing people and sacking cities and raping women.  So the force of the prostitute metaphor is that Babylon looks pretty and inviting on the street corner but I wouldn’t go taking her home or throwing good money and hormones after her.

In case you still are not sold read the Psalms and consider they sang these songs together in worship.  Some Psalms have lines like, “Appoint an evil man to replace him!” and “It is like precious oil running down Aaron’s Beard.”  Now that is quite mental image!

All of this is missed when we read Scripture in the comfort of our low expectations.  In contrast, a Hermeneutic of Humor keeps us on our toes.  It forces us to roll our eyes at Samson, laugh at Babylon and gasp in shock at Jesus.   It makes us rather uncomfortable around Paul and questions the Psalms we sing.   Most importantly, it keeps us from getting comfortable in our own jagged relationships with the Almighty.

But, like yesterday, I must offer a word of warning.  Not all of Scripture is ironic, sarcastic or humorous.  Some of it is quite sobering and when we read with an eye to the unexpected sometimes we are surprised not by humor, but by sorrow and anger and frustration.  When we open ourselves up to laughter, we might also open ourselves up to being offended or angered.

Still, there is much humor lying behind our relationships with the Almighty and sometimes I wonder if Scripture isn’t a testimony to the fact that God spends most of the time laughing at us and with us.

Get It Over With Sunday

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I regularly remind my congregation that when you do 52 worship services a year, some are just going to stink.  There is no avoiding it nor is there any picking or planning which ones they are going to be.  Some mornings things are just not going to come together.

By all accounts this morning at around 8am, things looked to be going that way.  First of all I was still home at 8am despite my attempts to be at church by that time.  Between 8:00 and 8:10, I walked the mile between my home and the church building, trying to pray.  Instead I found my mind was a jumbled mess of stray thoughts all trying and failing to find a well-organized logic structure to call home.  On top of that, my body was a chaos of sore muscles and achy joints because the last two weeks I have been doing the workouts with my Cross Country team despite being in the worst shape of my life.  Add to that the fatigue and exhaustion of my spirit after a long and stressful week and the result was a Kevin who was not in any frame of mind to be “Pastor Kevin.”  Then it occurred to me that half my worship team was gone, which probably meant half the church was too because we no longer celebrate the “holy” on holy-day weekends but instead we go camping, unless we are unlucky enough to be the Pastor.

At 9:30 I watched the parking lot with eager anticipation, expecting three families to show up with their toddlers to a new preschool class we are launching.  These families all guaranteed me they would be there.  My wife had gotten out of bed early so that my daughter could join them.  The 3 families did not show.  I had woken my wife up an hour earlier than usual so she could play with my temper prone daughter in our nursery for an extra hour.  She did that spouse thing where she knows it isn’t my fault but wants to blame me anyway.  I was apologetic.

That all suddenly became irrelevant because I remembered that my youth leader was not going to be there either.  As if on cue, three teenagers showed up late.  I intercepted them and had a conversation about the “Problem of Evil” in my Sunday School office where I half connected with them and half bored them to death.  That was okay, though, because I fully bored myself to death.

Then people started trickling into church.  I got stuck in the sound booth because we had our usual audio and video problems with which to contend.  Of course, our regular AV person wasn’t there so we had to equip another saint to step in (one of the teens from Sunday School).  As I ironed out those problems, my treasurer had business that needed my input (the writing of my paycheck, which I was all too ready to give back if the Sunday didn’t start looking up) and several well meaning souls reminded me one by one by one by one that the “most important announcement ever” (also known as the community hymn sing) did not make the bulletin.

After fixing the AV and expressing my condolences one by one by one about the announcement not getting its due in our Sacred Bulletin, I met with my tiny worship team.  We prayed and entered the sanctuary and I found myself wondering, “is it noon yet?”

We sang a song, did the greeting time and I got up to give the announcements (giving the hymn sing its due) and to my surprise the sound was not broadcasting very loudly despite being turned up quite loud.

But suddenly I could hear the congregation sing, which was surprising considering we had 30 people.  When we have 60, I regularly do not hear the congregation.  But because of our sound issues I could hear almost everybody’s voice and, man, that was beautiful.

Then I got up to preach.  My sermon looked good on paper but I hated preaching it to half the congregation, particularly on a day when my own well was running dry.  To top it off the PowerPoint automatically advanced the slides every 10 seconds whether I wanted it to or not.

But somewhere between the songs and my sermon, the Sunday stopped being “Get It Over With Sunday” and started being something sacred.  I don’t know if it was hearing the congregation sing or if it was that once I started preaching, I found an untapped vein of Holy Water in my otherwise empty cistern.  Or it could have been that one wonderful congregant who hung on every word of my sermon.  She came down to pray at the altar during the closing songs and I invited the congregation to gather around her to pray for her.  

Needless to say we had a moment as the people of God that won’t soon be forgotten or undone.

Isn’t it amazing that when I am not fully present, God still is.

Why It’s Okay to Curse Others in Church

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I am spending the week preparing a sermon about why we sing songs when we gather to worship God.  This meant I spent the week falling back in love with the great Hymn book of our faith, the Psalms.

The reason I love the Psalms is because they easily shatter any box we try to put the Scriptures into.  if Scripture is God’s love letter to us, than what do we do with the 6th Psalm, which appears to be a love letter from us to God?

If the Bible is “Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth” than what do we do with the 72nd Psalm that seems to consist more in Basic Instructions for God while we live on Earth?

If the Bible is the grand narrative of God’s workings in the world (which admittedly I fall back on) then what do we do with the very 1st Psalm that doesn’t narrate anything but makes a simple and poetic comparison?

If Scripture is just meant to comfort us by God’s presence, why am I not comforted when I read the 120th Psalm which begins happy enough but ends in despair?

And if Scripture reveals to us a God of forgiveness and grace as opposed to a God of rules and laws, why is the 119th Psalm (the longest chapter in Scripture by the way) sing nothing but unashamed praises for God’s commandments?

Yet perhaps the Psalm that stands out the most is the 109th one.  It is what we call a Psalm of Cursing where the writer/singer just doles out curses against his enemies while praying to God.  Here are some of my favorite lines from this piece of art:

8 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser stand at his right hand.  (We will taken evil guy over this guy!)

9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
    may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
    or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
    their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
    may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.

Now I must confess I have been angry at people a time or two in my life and maybe wished they would be fired from their jobs because they were lousy at them.  However, I have never gone so far as to curse their grandparents, parents, spouse, children and grandchildren.  They are singing, “God just do away with the whole lot!”

I used to work at a Rescue Mission and after reading this Psalm in chapel, a homeless man said, “Whoa, that guy is pissed!”  And he is right.  The writer of this song was pissed.

It is made more entertaining by the fact that although one person initially wrote it about one group of people, the ancient Israelites were so spiritually moved by it they decided to get together and sing it in their worship services.  Could you imagine showing up at church one morning to hear your worship leader say, “We are returning to one of the ancient greats today but it will be new to some of you.  It is hymn number 1-0-9.  Once again that is 1-0-9.  We are going to sing out the wonderful words, “Appoint someone evil oh God, appoint an evil man to accuse!”  It kind of sound like a rap song actually!

But here is the thing, this man or men, or maybe even women, were hounding to death the poor and the needy.  A God of compassion does not tolerate injustice towards the poor and needy.  And maybe there is room in our worship services to name and reject and even curse the intolerant, unjust, wicked leaders of our day.

I don’t necessarily think God answers the prayer requests, especially the one ” to make his children wandering beggars.”  In fact, I am very uncomfortable with a God that would answer that request.  But I have no problem with a God who hears us when we pray our curses, who is on the side of the poor and needy and is working to remove from power those who “hound to death the brokenhearted.”

So I think there is room in our worship to be honest about our righteous anger towards those who refuse to be compassionate.  Although I might not go so far as to write songs that curse them, I would leave room for those prayers and even scripted poems in the liturgy of our services.  It seems a Psalm like this one has a role to play in aligning our hearts to beat with God’s compassion.  And compassion has a dark side, which I call “wrath.”  And that wrath is expressed towards those who refuse to show love and care for the least and lonely.

Until His Return.