Who is My Neighbor? And Who is a Neighbor to Me? The Discomfort of Grace.

Grace is exercised among people who are not like you, who challenge you, who are uncomfortable to be around.

I have often touted the Unbelievable Podcast on Christian Premiere Radio in the UK, and I do it again here. I recommended the episode on Philip Yancey live Q&A on faith, doubt and the future of the US church: Saturday 19 March 2022. Much was discussed in the episode that I could write about, but one thing stands out above the rest to me this morning. Philip Yancey said,

“It’s easy to find a church, to gravitate toward a church, where people look like you, and smell like you, and vote like you.”

Most of us go to churches like that. It’s a human tendency to gravitate toward people with whom we have the most connections, to settle in with people with whom we have the most in common, to spend time with people most like us, but Yancey says,

“That’s not the way to exercise grace. Grace is exercised among people who are not like you, who challenge you, who are uncomfortable to be around, people who are immoral. That’s where to exercise grace.”

Such a radical statement challenges most of us, I think. I am guilty of settling into churches where I feel most comfortable, but what if God wants me to engage in a church, or in groups, or with people with whom I feel uncomfortable? Would I be open to that possibility?

Jesus often urged people to love their neighbors. When I think of my neighbors, I think of the people in my neighborhood who I know and spend time with. If you are like me, you probably think immediately of your neighbors you know, but what about your neighbors you don’t know?

Jesus knew that people tend to favor those who are like them when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 25:30-35) In the parable, an unidentified man is attacked by robbers, stripped of his clothes, beaten and left for dead. (Luke 25:30) Three people come along and see him lying there: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.

The priest and the Levite were the people most like the man who asked the question that prompted the parable. He was an expert in the Law of Moses, a Jewish leader.

He actually began with a more esoteric question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turned the question on him, asking “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 25:25-26)

When the man responded, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,'”, Jesus answered anti-climatically, “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.”

That might have been the end of the conversation, but the expert in the law “wanted to justify himself”. Perhaps, he wanted affirmation that he was reading the law correctly. Perhaps, Jesus to acknowledge his deep moral thinking. Perhaps, he wanted to prove his expertise in the Law. Whatever he was thinking, he asked, “[W]ho is my neighbor?” (Luke 25:29)

I feel like the man wanted Jesus to engage him in a deep a theological discussion, but Jesus deflected the attempt with the parable. The expert in the Law wanted to make it difficult and complicated, but Jesus kept it simple.

Maybe the expert in the Law was more interested in affirmation that he was a good person who deserved to inherit eternal life. Maybe his question was motivated by his own recognition that some people are harder to love than others. Perhaps, he knew that his own stake in eternal life depended on the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Maybe he didn’t really want an answer; he just wanted to debate.

He is specifically identified as an “expert in the Law”, and the initial question, and the follow up question, read to me like he was wanting a deeper, philosophical conversation with Jesus. He didn’t really want a simple, straightforward answer. He wanted to debate, but Jesus wouldn’t go there with him.

I am also relatively certain that the answer Jesus gave him was not at all what he expected. It certainly what he was looking for. It likely cut him to the quick. Both he and and the wider audience who was listening in.

Continue reading “Who is My Neighbor? And Who is a Neighbor to Me? The Discomfort of Grace.”

What It Means to Follow Jesus in Babylon

Live your lives, Increase and multiply. Seek the welfare of this world, BUT ALWAYS REMEMBER that this world is passing away

I tried to set the stage for what it means to follow Jesus in Babylon with a prior post: God’s Ways: a Primer for What It Means to Follow Jesus in Babylon. It is a kind of running start – a view from 40,000 feet. The purposes of God establish the context for understanding how we follow Jesus in Babylon.

Jesus, of course, did not live in Babylon during the 30-some years he walked the earth. I am speaking figuratively here. Jesus urged people to follow him, to live as he did and to “walk” as he walked – to be imitators of Jesus as he was an imitator of God the Father. We follow Jesus wherever we are.

Most people reading this blog don’t live in Babylon either, as in the ancient city. Rather, Babylon is symbolic of our lives in this world. Just as the exiles found themselves living as foreign people in a foreign land filled with foreign gods, followers of Jesus today are aliens and strangers in this world living among people who do not bow down to our God.

When Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon right after they were taken captive, right after they lost everything (their homes, their lives as they knew them, the Temple around which their community was organized), his words would have difficult, perhaps, to receive.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon….” (Jer. 29:4)

That God “sent” them into exile would have been a painful reminder of all the warnings of the prophets leading up to the final siege of Jerusalem, captivity, and long march to Babylon. Jeremiah had their attention, though. The unthinkable, that Jeremiah had long been predicting, actually happened.

In that context, this is what he said:

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-10)

I don’t think we can emphasize enough the timing of these words: this was the very beginning of the exile. They just lost everything. They just got there. Their future was uncertain, though they had hope to return to their homes because the prophets who warned them of the exile also predicted their return. 

We are not “of this world” if we belong to God in Christ. We are exiles in this world. This world is our Babylon. In the rest of this blog,

I will relate those words Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Jews to our lives in “Babylon” today, and I will add in the warning, and the encouragement, that Jeremiah gave in the letter that are also instructive to us today. I believe Jeremiah’s words of instruction are how we should follow Jesus in Babylon.

Continue reading “What It Means to Follow Jesus in Babylon”

Breakfast in America: A Litmus Test for the Church?

We can forget that we are ambassadors for Christ everywhere we go, in everything we do, and to each and every person that we meet

I was listening to an interview of Kevin Finch. He is the nephew of the well-known pastor, author and thinker, Eugene Peterson. Kevin comes from a long line of pastors going back generations, and he is the founder of a ministry to people in the food industry called The Big Table.

The food industry may seem like a strange idea to target for a ministry, but Kevin’s eloquent explanation of his call to this ministry, and hearing the clear voice of God in it makes sense. The website provides some further insight.

The restaurant and hospitality sector of the workforce is the largest sector of the American workforce, doubling any other industry. It is also growing faster than any other segment of the workforce. The Big Table website describes it as a “catch basin” for “all of the most vulnerable demographics” – single parents, at-risk teens, immigrants, ex-felons trying to turn their lives around, etc. It is a filed ripe unto harvest.

Perhaps, one reason for the vulnerable demographic is that anyone willing to work can get a job in the restaurant and hospitality world. It is often the first place people look for entry level jobs and the last place people look when all else fails.

“[P]ut so many at-risk individuals together under one roof and it is not surprising that this industry has the highest rates of people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, massive amounts of divorce and broken relationships, redline stress levels, job instability, rapid turnover, and almost no safety net.”

Restaurant and hospitality workers get paid (often not very much) for serving others with smiles on their faces, while a large portion of them suffer in their own lives more than the average person. The website reports the following:

  • Forty three percent (43%) of workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry fall below the “survival” line – DOUBLE the rate of any other working population;
  • Workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry struggle with drug and alcohol addiction more than any other working group; and
  • Benefits, like health insurance, vacations, sick time, etc. are largely not available for workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

In my own experience, I see that workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry are often exploited. They don’t get paid overtime. Bosses often schedule them part-time to avoid overtime pay. They don’t have to be paid even minimum wages, so they most rely on tips. They sometimes get paid “under the table”, and that usually means they get paid even less.

Restaurant workers are very likely to need multiple jobs to make ends meet. Working conditions can be extremely stressful in a hot kitchen or full restaurant, under the pressure of demanding bosses, expectant and often ungrateful patrons, and ever changing conditions. The lowest paid workers are often the first target of angry customers and critical bosses.

I was as a busboy in a popular restaurant in high school. Some of these factors I have experienced firsthand or through friends and family in the hospitality industry. I also worked retail, which includes some of the same pressures to perform with a smile under the hot light of customer interrogation and store bottom lines.

As a young bus boy, I noticed (and can still see in my mind) that every seasoned waitress, Maître d’, cook, and kitchen worker smoked like chimneys. The stress of performing in that pressure cooker environment showed in the worry worn faces of those veterans on which smiles often lost their battle with the struggle of simply getting through the night.

So, what does any of this have to do with the Church in America? In the course of the interview, Kevin Finch said something that made my ears perk up. That is the point is the point of this article, but a little background is necessary to set the stage.

Continue reading “Breakfast in America: A Litmus Test for the Church?”

Loneliness, Singleness and the Church Family

Some values evident in the original church family have been lost over the years in western culture


Rebecca McLaughlin, in her book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, made an observation that inspires my article today. I make references to many people, often the same people over and over again, who inspire my thoughts. I am indebted to the many serious Christian thinkers who have plowed ground that make it easy for me to walk the paths after them.

About a third of the way into the ninth chapter (Isn’t Christianity Homophobic?), she talks about loneliness and singles in the church. She strikes some real gold – some nuggets lost in our modern culture. I’m afraid that we have developed traditions over the years in the west that have plowed under values that once informed the early church.

A tradition of rugged individualism and self determination that is, perhaps, unrivaled anywhere in the world, is inbred into our American culture. Our suburban lifestyle is uniquely American, with our manicured lawns separated from our neighbors by fences and hedges. These are, perhaps, the gentrified vestiges of the farmstead claims staked by American pioneers against world, enemies and neighbors alike.

We circle the wagons today around the family unit, which has increasingly come under “attack” from secular constructs of village-raised children and re-imagined, more inclusive family structures to fit changing societal mores. These things changes have caused conservatives and Christians to double down on the traditional, American family construct.

Traditional, though, is normative, and norms change. Not more than 150 years ago families looked different than they do today. In fact, they looked a little more like the modern family than the average person might realize.

From not long after the first generations of New World immigrants came ashore, families and communities of families began to migrate, drifting south, west and sometimes north, clearing areas for homesteads. The ever changing family compositions can be traced from one decennial census to the next. Not may households remained static from one census to another.

My father, who researches genealogies, shines some historical light on the norms of the frontier movement in writing books about those migrations. From census to census to census, the story is told.

Family units were ever changing in combination of husbands, wives, children (both minors and adults). Family often included a grandparent, niece or nephew, neighbor or border. Children were born; children died; children moved away and moved back. Spouses died. They we replaced by new spouses or neighbors who helped with the children and then became spouses… or not.

One of the main challenges of doing genealogical research through the 19th Century is in determining the relationships of all the people in those from one decennial census to another and tracing the changes from decade to decade.

The Industrial Revolution began to change the composition of family units into more static and defined structures that eventually became the “traditional” American family.

What we assume to be the traditional family unit today is of relatively recent vintage. The Little House on the Prairie is more of a sentimental, re-imagining of the way it was than history. Even then, we get a hint of the interdependence of community that was much more intimate than our anemic sense of community today. This is true even with greater distance separating homesteads than a thin veil of fences and hedges distinguishing suburban lots.

The distance that separates people in modern western life, however, might as well be miles. We live as if we don’t need our neighbors, and we largely don’t even know them. Those fences and hedges might as be walls.

In that sense, the observation that McLaughlin makes reveals the back-filled soil of modern western culture that covers an ancient value that has been plowed under in the process of all those years of western development.

Continue reading “Loneliness, Singleness and the Church Family”

Finding Humility and Civility in Loving the Truth and Loving Others

The shades of grey are difficult to navigate, no doubt, but it isn’t all black and white. Life isn’t that simple.

I am finding some solace today in the increasingly polarized world in which we live. I can always find some balm in humor! Over the last half decade or more, I have stepped outside the political fray psychologically, taking a seat in the audience and observing the circus. I vacillate from horror to sadness, but there is always humor to which I can turn for solace.

Today, someone posted on Facebook an article with the following clickbait headline: No one blamed Obama during the 2009 swine flu pandemic that killed over 12k! Killer headline, right? It didn’t take another poster to find this gem: Trump in 2014 said Obama was ‘a psycho’ not to immediately cancel flights into the US amid Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

I have not checked the facts, by the way. Does it matter anymore? Doubt everything. That’s just easier!

I have been meaning to “collect” a bunch of articles and memes in pairs that are the exact opposites of each other. For instance, one article might say, “Trump beats up little girls!” While, another article might say, “Hillary Clinton approves of beating up little girls!”

When I start looking for these supremely ironic pairings, I begin noticing them often, but I haven’t found the energy to do the collecting. Democrat says, “Scientists have proven the world is black”; Republican says, “Scientists have been debunked: the world is white.” Each posting is made with the certainty of inalienable truth.

Most people respond with hearty signals of knowing acknowledgment, replying according to the identities and protocols of their particular form of group think. Though one or two brave souls might dare to post rebuttal, this modern ritualistic dance on social media is practiced to perpetuate and strengthen what we already think, gaining the knowing approval of the people “who matter” in a series of empty triumphs over the time and energy it takes to be candid and introspective about truth.

The truth is that there is plenty of rebuttal to be found if one is simply looking for it. For every black, there is a white. It’s easy, of course, to get lost in the myriad shades of grey. And, perhaps, that’s the real problem of modern (postmodern) people. We fear getting lost and sucked down in the shades of grey. If we can “rise” above that gravitational force of contrary facts, virtually skimming the surface lest we get sucked under the waves, we can maintain our preferred position.

Might I dare suggest another course? The shades of grey are difficult to navigate, no doubt, but it isn’t all black and white. Life isn’t that simple.

That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t exist in a postmodern world. Truth is still truth. It just isn’t as simplistic as we prefer it to be.

Continue reading “Finding Humility and Civility in Loving the Truth and Loving Others”