July 26, 2012
People Who Mourn, People Who Hope
A reflection on calling by Lisa Rieck
I know I'm prone to be too serious, too analytical, too introspective. Case in point: some of the best dating advice I've received from friends, in the midst of processing a Date #3 and the relationship as a whole and our individual histories, passions and perspectives as I had perceived them thus far, was to go roller-skating on the next date. Roller-skating? I thought. Vague images of colored disco balls and Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" emerged from the recesses of my brain, which had been right in the middle of an insightful analysis of the Boy's previous relationships and his (mis)understanding of hospitality . . .
Well, yes. Perhaps, three dates in, I was overthinking things a bit.
With that said, though, I think even the most fun-loving among you would agree that there are times when introspection and soberness are the most appropriate response to an event. And I'm pretty sure I'm safe in saying that death is such an event.
There's been plenty of physical death for me to ponder lately--two dear friends of my good friends, both moms in their forties, lost to cancer; a twenty-two-year-old in my church who collapsed in front of his fiancee and couldn't be resuscitated; moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado; my uncle, a Marine whose seventy-eight-year-old body couldn't take another battle. Watching people grieve, feeling overwhelmed by people's pain, attending my uncle's funeral, hearing about the funerals of others--these have all brought me face to face with a specific calling we have as followers of Jesus: "do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope" (see 1 Thess 4:13-18).
The instructions are very clear, but not overwhelmingly helpful. What does that look like? Tears are tears. There's no sign that appears over the heads of grieving Christians that says, "Mourning with hope, just FYI." Even Jesus' weeping, I imagine, outwardly looked the same as everyone else's. Bystanders at the scene of Lazarus's death, for example, noticed that Jesus was crying but saw no sign of hope in his tears, no rosy glow emanating from him that prompted them to hope for a miracle. If anything his tears seemed to bring about a new wave of grief for Lazarus's friends: they lamented that Jesus hadn't gotten there before Lazarus died, when he could have done some good. Now, they assumed, there was no hope for their friend who'd been dead for four days already.
What I've come to think is that our call to mourn with hope is fleshed out in what Jesus does after he weeps, in the midst of the weeping around him: He speaks the truth. Specifically, he calls people to believe. He acknowledges that his Father has heard him. And he speaks directly to dead, embalmed Lazarus, because he knows the life in the Son of Man is stronger even than the death that had temporarily claimed his friend. We mourn with hope when, in the midst of our tears and in defiance of the despair that tries to overtake us, we speak the truth about what should not be (cancer, heart failure, senseless shootings) and what is: Jesus is alive. His Spirit is continuing to restore his creation and bring his kingdom to earth. He has defeated death. And what should not be one day will not be, as Christ will be crowned the full and final victor over death and sin.
My cousin experienced this powerfully at the recent memorial service of a close friend of hers, Tammy, who had battled brain cancer for twelve years. At one point in the service, a man leaned across the aisle and asked a woman seated at the end of the row how she knew Tammy. When she replied that she didn't know Tammy, he then asked how she was connected to Mark, Tammy's husband. "I don't know anyone in their family," she replied. Thinking she was arriving for a regular church service, she had seated herself in the sanctuary only to find that she was at a funeral. "If this family can go through what they have and still have hope, there must be something more than what I've got in my life," she acknowledged. Tammy's husband and two girls, her extended family and church family and friends, mourned with hope at that service, declaring the goodness and faithfulness of God, the truth about Tammy being in his presence, and their hope in getting to see her again.
In a world full of physical and spiritual and emotional death--broken relationships, murder, disease, deception, jealousy and abuse--we are called to be people who declare the truth even as we mourn the darkness, day after day, until the day comes when our faith becomes sight: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death" or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away'" (Rev 21).
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 12:40 PM
February 15, 2012
Love Gets Smaller
As I type these words, I can’t help feeling like some Christian Carrie Bradshaw, inviting readers into the details of my day-to-day existence as it relates to love. With Valentine’s Day just on our heels, please don’t assume I’m talking about romantic love. No, this episode of “Justice In the City” (or the Suburbs or Wherever You Find Yourself) concerns itself with something much broader, and in many ways more difficult, than eros.
In the almost two years we’ve been in our condo, my husband and I have gotten to know our three neighbors pretty well. There’s Judy, an elderly woman who lives with her miniature poodle and sometimes shares her small space with her divorced son and his two children. And there’s Jon, who’s in his fifties and has cerebral palsy. Despite his disability he lives a very independent life, working for the county convalescence home and creating elaborate landscapes for his extensive model train collection. And then there’s Christa. She’s also living alone (her faithful dog, Joey, died last fall) and in her seventies. She still loves to paint and sculpt, and she’s full of fascinating stories of her youth in Germany, where she played in the Black Forest, took boat cruises down the Rhine river and lost her brother in World War II (he fought on the German side).
Lately I’ve been reading two books that have been shaping the way I view my relationship to these neighbors: The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Small Things with Great Love by Margot Starbuck. The first asks us to consider the power of staying in one place. The second challenges us to consider the power of doing small, manageable things to show God’s love. Here’s a video of Margot talking about the concept.
So what does that look like in my life? I work full time, and currently my husband is working out of town and coming home on the weekends, so I have my hands full taking care of my nine-month-old son (you single parents out there deserve a medal for what you do each day!), doing laundry, paying bills, making food, shopping for groceries and generally keeping the home fires burning. In this busy season of life, it’s easy to get bogged down by all my responsibilities and feel as though doing anything to show God’s love to a world in need is simply beyond my abilities, much less my inclinations. How can I possibly show love to anyone, and does anything I can do really matter?
As I’ve prayed over these questions, Margot’s encouragement has been so refreshing. Instead of making me feel guilty because I can’t run off and solve all the world’s problems, she has empowered me to look for ways I can give to those around me in the life he’s given me. God has reminded me that I don’t have to go far to find people who need his love—in fact there are three of them living less than twenty feet from me who I see on an almost daily basis. Together we’ve already gone through a major flooding of our neighborhood, losing power and huddling by an emergency lamp under the staircase during a storm and fighting three feet of snow last winter.
In these times and smaller daily interactions, God has already been bringing along opportunities to do small things to show love like:
• Hugging Christa and praying with her when we met in the hall on the day after her sister died in Germany. She was so sad that she couldn’t afford to return home for the funeral.
Sometimes I wonder what impact these small things have on our neighbors’ lives, really. I mean, I’m not helping Christa with her financial stresses. I can’t pay for her to go back to Germany. I don’t have more room to offer Judy when she’s got her son and his kids crammed into her place with her. I can’t do any heavy lifting for Jon or somehow take away his disability.
Recently we thought we might have to move again, and we let our “community” know about our impending change. That’s when I realized that all these little things do add up to something. Christa’s eyes filled with tears at the news. “Oh, I really wish you didn’t have to move,” she said looking away. “It means so much to me, knowing you’re here …”
I will admit that there are plenty of times I don’t feel like even doing small things for these folks. I have a lot on my plate, and it takes energy to think of others after I’ve already thought of myself, much less to put them first! But when I remember the look on Christa’s face, I know why I do it. Because showing her love is a way of communicating the love I receive from Christ. Because being a friend to an older person who is lonely is one way I can give just a bit of that love back to Jesus. Because maybe one day I’ll have built enough trust and relationship capital to share directly with Jon, Judy or Christa about the God I know and love, and invite them to come further into his agape. It’s my small way of working to bring about God’s kingdom of love on earth.
It looks like we won’t be moving anytime soon after all, thankfully, so there’s still time to cultivate these relationships. I think I’ll take a bowl of chili down to Christa tonight. In one way it’s not much. In another, it’s everything.
What about you? How can you do a small thing with great love for those God has placed in your life?
October 7, 2011
Welcoming the Stranger: Matt Soerens on Hospitality
As is appropriate during "Hospitality Month" at Strangely Dim, we welcome Matthew Soerens as our guest-blogger for this post. Matthew is the coauthor, with Jenny Hwang, of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (IVP, 2009). He serves as the U.S. Church Training Specialist with World Relief. He blogs on a regular basis at UnDocumented.tv. -----------------------------------------------------------------------
In recent years, God has been teaching me that this Martha Stewart-inspired ideal misses the heart of the biblical command to "practice hospitality" (Romans 12:13). Real hospitality, if we look to the etymology of the word, is loving strangers (from the Greek xenophilia). There's nothing wrong with entertaining friends and family, of course, but doing so doesn't necessarily touch the heart of hospitality. "If you do good to those who are good to you," Jesus asks his disciples, "what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that" (Luke 6:33). Christ's call is to go beyond the obvious, to welcome those who are strangers--in fact, even those who are enemies (Luke 6:35). When we host a banquet, Jesus tells us, "do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors" but rather "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Luke 14:12-13).
Jesus' commands sound pretty radical in our American culture. We teach our kids to be afraid of strangers--and while it is prudent to protect children, many of us carry this "stranger danger" mentality into adulthood. If an unknown person showed up at the door of a typical American home late at night, I imagine most people would be more likely to call the police than to offer them a guest room. By welcoming in a stranger, though, Jesus told his disciples that they were welcoming him--and that by turning away the stranger, they had turned him away also (Matthew 25:35). Scripture also juxtaposes the idea that strangers are a threat with the idea that by welcoming strangers, "some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). Maybe the stranger to whom we extend God's compassion might end up blessing us more than we could imagine.
That's been the experience of many churches in the United States. Our society as a whole increasingly seems to favor xenophobia (the fear of strangers) to xenophilia (the love of strangers). In contrast, as immigrants arrive from various countries, some churches have sought to extend welcome. These immigrant strangers have become, in the words of Asbury Theological Seminary President Tim Tennent, "the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America," as immigrant congregations fuel the fastest growth in American evangelicalism. That growth is happening despite that fact that most churches have yet to recognize the opportunity presented by the arrival of immigrants to their communities. In fact, the results of the Faith Communities Today survey suggest that just one in ten evangelical churches has any ministry oriented toward immigrants.
The arrival of immigrants to the United States gives American churches--and the society that we influence--the opportunity to put into practice the biblical value of hospitality. As we do, we can expect to see God bless the church in this country through these potential angels-in-disguise.
Posted by Christa Countryman at 8:42 AM
June 15, 2011
Experiments in the Kingdom of Love: Taking the Sermon on the Mount Seriously
In response to the recent release of Mark Scandrette's remarkable Practicing the Way of Jesus, we at Strangely Dim are trying our hands at "experiments in the kingdom of love" built around five categories of primal need, alluded to in the Lord's Prayer:
Good experiments, according to Mark, are based on the real, lived experience of the disciples in question and stretch them into uncomfortable (yet ultimately transformative) realms of experience. My first experiment has been seven days of daily reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5--7). I chose this experiment for a whole variety of reasons, principally because a verse from the Sermon on the Mount was the first part of the Bible I ever memorized:
I memorized that a looooooong time ago, when I was an angst-ridden college student, and the memory of it has survived all the high-falutin theology and low-brow culture I've crammed into my brain since. A person could do worse than to remind himself those words of Jesus every day or so, but it's been a loooooong time since I went to the trouble of doing just that.
Beyond this nostalgic motivation, the Sermon on the Mount is the subject of another Likewise book I'm really excited about--Jamie Arpin-Ricci's Cost of Community, releasing this winter. Jamie wrestles with the sermon from the vantage point of his urban monastic community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with guiding insights from the life and teachings of Francis of Assisi. Jamie's a deep soul doing good work, and I could do worse than emulate him in my ongoing faith formation.
The sermon is also the high point of Jesus' teachings in the Gospel of Matthew, which is the subject of yet another Likewise book releasing this winter. This second volume in the Resonate series is written by Matt Woodley, whom I came to admire as I edited his Folly of Prayer. He's a great, wise writer, and the sermon is a focal point of his latest work.
As if all that weren't enough, I've been reading Eric Metaxas's massive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which includes a pivotal moment in 1934, during the rise of the Nazis and the apostatization of the German Church, when Bonhoeffer wrote the following to his brother Karl-Friedrich:
All this to say, a week in the Sermon on the Mount seemed appropriate, to say the least.
Over the past seven days I've read the Sermon in various translations, from the archaic to the folksy/contemporary, from the Roman Catholic to the flaming fundamentalist. At the suggestion of my friend Mark I "read" it aurally, using the audio feature provided by the You Version. A few things have jumped out to me as I've simmered in the sermon.
For example, Jesus talks about reward a lot. The poor in spirit and the righteous persecuted "get" the kingdom of heaven; the meek "get" the earth; the pure in heart "get" to see God; those who are persecuted for Jesus' sake "get" the reward of the prophets. And on and on and on.
Reward isn't the only topic, of course; there's also judgment--against the angry and spiteful, the lecherous and lustful, the cold and the calculating. There's a way of reading the Sermon on the Mount that is decidedly "do this, don't do that." In this way I suppose it recalls another sermon on another mount--Moses' reiteration of the Law to the people of Israel from Sinai in Deuteronomy 28--30, where he sets before his people life and death, and encourages them to choose life. Jesus is doing something similar, but ironically, he's encouraging people not to choose life but rather to choose him: we are blessed when we suffer persecution in his name, and we are wise to sacrifice our bodies in an effort to protect our fidelity to him.
If everyone practiced the lifestyle outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, the world would be a better place. But what if everyone practiced it except for one person? How handily could Hitler have trampled over a world of the meek waiting to inherit the earth? Arguably, as I'm learning from Bonhoeffer's story, a collective, steadfast turning of the other cheek in the face of evil merely allows evil to continue unchecked. We may be storing up treasures in heaven, but we're capitulating to evil on earth.
And yet the great justice movements of the past century have been characterized by exactly this turning of the cheek, this refusal to repay evil for evil. I don't know fully what to make of it, but I note that Jesus' sermon is directed not to all the onlookers, who nevertheless heard every word and marveled at it, but rather to the disciples--called out ones whose resoluteness in the face of suffering and persecution by the powers that be would gradually convert the world.
It could be that the world can only learn to distinguish good from evil, to choose life over death, by watching evil and good in action. "Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matthew 7:17). There are any number of people, it seems, willing to play the part of the bad tree; playing the good tree, it turns out, is harder than it looks, and its rewards are generally deferred far beyond our preferred timeline. But as Bonhoeffer put it as he held out against the rise of the Nazis, "here alone lies the force that can blow all of this idiocy sky-high."
Anyway, these are the thoughts that have gone through my brain as I've undertaken this experiment, as I've read and reread the Sermon on the Mount. There's something undeniably appealing about blowing all the idiocy of the world sky-high. So here's to the audacious aspiration to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. No seven-day experiment can accomplish that, but as a lifelong commitment, it's something that on my more self-confident days I'm willing to undertake.
April 22, 2010
Celebrate Earth Day with a FREE BOOK!
In honor of Earth Day and because we like giving away free stuff, we're giving away a free download of Julie Clawson's book, Everyday Justice, today (April 22nd) only! Head on over to the Amazon Kindle store and download your copy asap. Don't have a Kindle? No worries; you can also download a Kindle app for your computer, so there are no excuses!
Why do we think you'll love Everyday Justice as much as we do? Because Julie Clawson takes us on a tour of everyday life and shows how our ordinary lifestyle choices have big implications for justice around the world--and we know you care about that. She unpacks how we get our food and clothing and shows us the surprising costs of consumer waste.
Of course, you understand that how we live can make a difference not only for our own health but
also for the well-being of people across the globe. The more sustainable
our lifestyle, the more just our world will be. So why not grab a book that will help you love God and your neighbor by living justly? After all, it's free!
When you're done reading, we'd love to hear your feedback. And if you like the book, we have to admit we wouldn't be upset if you passed the word along to your friends, too.
Thanks. Happy Earth Day
May 29, 2009
The Church's One Foundation
This year--appropriately on Pentecost--marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, a document drafted by theologian Karl Barth and adopted by the Confessing Churches of Germany in 1934 as a confrontation of accommodationist religion and totalitarian government in fledgling Nazi Germany. The document is short and inextricably linked to the details of the day, but it's nonetheless been embraced worldwide as a historic confessional statement, rightly establishing where the church's source of strength solely lies and the boundaries that God has ordained for human government. Here's an excerpt of this brief statement:
To a government and cultural movement that desired to be as totalizing in its worldview as it was in its claims to power, the confessing churches of Germany appropriately shouted "Nein!" We are not the property of governments even of our own making; we are children of the God who made us, and we're to live and move and have our being as such. It begs the question, Who needs to hear this from me today? Where do I need to testify this today?
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:16 AM
May 14, 2008
Keeping in TouchWhen some of you saw the title "Keeping in Touch," I imagine your sweet hearts leapt with hope that this post is my firm, telling-the-world, turning-over-a-new-leaf resolution to finally be better about staying in contact with all of you. Unfortunately, I've tried the firm resolution route before and failed every time. Which is why you still don't hear from me.
But. You do, after all, have Strangely Dim to let you know I'm still alive and to give you a peek at what I'm thinking about. And here's the latest thing I'm ruminating on: keeping in touch with the world. I know--that sounds a little ambitious for someone who couldn't even keep a penpal growing up because I didn't write back often enough. But a number of events recently--both personal and global--have impressed on me anew the importance of learning about other people's reality. I'm scared by how easy it is--particularly, it seems to me, in the suburbs where I live--for me to go through a day thinking largely about myself--my own needs, my own schedule, the details of my day. Some of this, of course, is necessary; I need to pay my bills and do my job and show up for my commitments. As a follower of Christ, though, I'm seeing more and more how essential it is to be connected in some way to the reality of others--whether it's praying for people and situations all over the world through International Justice Mission's prayer-request lists, or reading a book like Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea that gives me a picture of the hardships and hope of people in Pakistan or Afghanistan, or attending a benefit for an organization like World Relief that helps resettle refugees who've experienced deep trauma in their home countries, or keeping up with the news out of China and Myanmar.
These are small attempts, granted. Even with them I still get quickly and easily consumed by my own worries and concerns. Some days I wonder (like you might be wondering now), what's the point? How does a thought for others--my own little glimpse into their reality--help them out?
Well, maybe it doesn't. Maybe I am fighting a pointless battle or even just playing a game to make myself feel more spiritual. When I hear of the suffering of others, I do often feel the uselessness of my far-away compassion and thoughts. But what's the alternative? To turn a deaf ear? To be "ever hearing but never understanding; . . . ever seeing but never perceiving," as Jesus described the crowds to the disciples in Matthew 13? Jesus could never be accused of that--and as his follower, called to be like him, I don't want it to be true of me either.
The fact is, self-absorption is too natural for my sinful self that, if I'm not intentionally looking for ways to learn about or be reminded of someone else's reality, I'll start to believe (with help from our culture and advertising) that my life and reality are what matters most, and what most people experience--when really nothing could be further from the truth. Ironically, one reason I need to remember others is for me--to keep me from the self-centeredness that is tantalizingly easy to slip into. My small attempts are, in part, my way of keeping perspective on the world--both God's view of it and my place and role in it.
Furthermore, caring about--even when I can't actually care for--others is teaching me more and more about the heart of God that beats so compassionately and lovingly for the refugees, the children forced into slavery and prostitution, the homeless in Myanmar and Chicago. My glimpses of these people's realities give me a deeper glimpse into the heart of God.
Once we start looking, there are hundreds of ways and places to learn about the reality of others who live an extraordinarily different life than we do. It's something we can help each other do as followers of Christ, called to be like him. Post your comments about who you're mindful of and trying to learn more about. Are there books, movies, websites, organizations that help you get outside of yourself and learn about another person's life? Share them with us. (Then we'll feel like we're in touch again!!)
Let me add a caveat: It's certainly not only the thought that counts. Taking action in the ways we can in the places we're called to is essential. But for all the places we can't, thoughts and prayers really do matter in keeping us in touch with who God is, what his kingdom is like and who we're called to be as his people.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 10:53 AM
April 21, 2008
See the Beauty
It's finally warming up here (for those of you south of, say, Virginia, "warming up" means "moving out of the forties," "warm enough to take a walk without snow boots on," "smoothie-worthy weather," etc.). Spring is not my favorite season, but it does inspire me. I think it's a powerful time of year. Green grass that's very ordinary in summer and fall is beautiful and vibrant and bright to me in spring. Pink and yellow and purple flowers seem especially pink and yellow and purple. Having the car windows down makes driving feel less like a headache-inducing, anger-filled chore and more like a treat. In this change from winter to spring I find myself noticing things--the newness and novelty and beauty of them.
Maybe I get so excited about these small flowers because they give me a sense of pride and accomplishment: this plant is still alive and apparently thriving six months after we bought it. But I don't think that's the only reason. The simple bright beauty of the flowers stirs something in me: wonder, joy, gratitude.
Of the beauty, of the beauty
Why it matters . . .
Of this war torn town
And it's protest of the darkness
And the chaos all around
With its beauty, how it matters
How it mattersNoticing the beauty in this Strangely Dim world does matter. It matters so much. So on this spring day, wherever you are, notice what causes your breath to catch, causes something deep inside you to come alive. Notice that beauty. Thank God. And add to it.