What Side Of The Street Would Jesus Be On?

 

I’m a pastor and I struggle a lot with religion.

I struggle a lot with the damage and hurt that has been done in the name of religion and Christianity. I know people have been hurt by other religions, but I can only speak for my faith and how it has been mismanaged and abused.

In the name of God, horrific things have happened in our world, from wars, to political power plays, to sex abuse scandals. Organized religion has used God as their power tool to gain control and leverage for personal pleasure in a world that would like to hope that there is a God who cares and there are spiritual leaders they can trust.

Republicans have their view of Christianity, the Democrats have their view of Christianity, and both use those views to leverage power in the political systems.

When it comes to love, war, our enemies, forgiveness, judging, sex, money, relationships, material wealth, power and the way we treat the poor, we are no longer asking the most important question: “What did Jesus do and teach about those topics?”

What do you say to someone who was sexually abused by a religious leader, or was shamed and made to feel less than while trying to find their way as an adolescent or was kicked out of their church for having an abortion or was marginalized because they did not have the resources to give to their church?
What do you say to a homosexual who has heard the words, “God hates faggots!” from Christian protesters?

What do you say to a young girl who has been kidnapped and sexually trafficked while the church world keeps building bigger buildings and ignoring the call to rescue?

One of the biggest dangers of organized religion is it quickly becomes “us” verses “them.” The “righteous” verses the “unrighteous”. The “saved” verses the “unsaved.” The “good people” verses the “bad people.”

When I was in my 20’s, in the late 1980’s, abortion was a hot topic issue. As a Christian, you were expected to join groups of protestors and hold up signs on busy roads in your city that said, “Abortion Kills”, and “God Hates Abortion.”

My heart was conflicted. I would be shamed and looked down on by my fellow Christians if I didn’t do this, but my heart said that regardless of my personal belief on abortion, this method did not seem right.

The day came and we went to a busy road by the local mall, and as we held up our anti-abortion signs on one side of the road, there were people on the other side holding up signs about a woman’s right to choose. We were divided by personal beliefs, but we were also divided because we did not even know each other.

There were no conversations about our two beliefs, only a few hand gestures and a few angry shouts from both sides. As the day went on, cars driving by would either honk with approval, using the thumbs up method to say we were being heroic or cars would honk with disapproval, using the middle finger as a very subtle method to let us know what they thought of our signs and beliefs.

I didn’t get into one conversation that day with “the other side.”

I went home feeling like something was wrong. I went home feeling like Jesus wasn’t with me that day. I felt guilty for not wanting to do my Christian duty again, but I also felt like my heart was farther from the heart of God.

I began to read the Gospels and I saw how Jesus would welcome and hang out and accept the very people the religious leaders of that day rejected. He had a way of setting people free from destructive habits, while giving them dignity, value and worth.

It was during that time that I met a woman named Miranda who had just recently become a follower of Jesus, and was dealing with a lot of shame and regrets from her past.

One of the regrets was that she had had several abortions and was struggling becoming pregnant now that she wanted to. Even worse, she felt like she was being judged by her new Christian friends because in their opinion, not being able to have children was possibly God’s punishment.

As I got to know Miranda, my heart broke for her. I learned that she had grown up in a very difficult family and had run away at sixteen. She went looking for love and acceptance in all the wrong places and ended up pregnant several times from one night stands. I had no idea how much pain and shame was involved with women who have had abortions, pain and shame from family, friends and sadly from the religious community.

As I began to understand in a small way her pain, my heart began to soften again. I began to understand my calling as a follower of Jesus is to love people, listen to them and point them to the One who brings hope and healing.

Miranda is involved, these days, helping women who have the scars and guilt of past abortions, and helping young pregnant girls who want an alternative to an abortion. No signs and no judging, just a listening ear and a hopeful hand.

I look back on my feelings that day on the streets, holding up those signs, and I realize God was speaking to me. My feelings that something wasn’t right were whispers from the Holy Spirit saying “I didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it.”

Watching and learning from Miranda, I believe now more than ever that Jesus would have been on the opposite side of the street than me, not protesting, but healing, listening, loving, caring and redeeming.

I find myself more these days, wanting to understand, listen, empathize and love rather than just wanting to be right. Because when all I want is to be right, I no longer care about the person, their hurts, questions and dreams.

I have learned that I can be theologically correct while driving people away from the Good News,
Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” Jack Nicholson said, “You can’t handle the truth.” But I think Jack was wrong. I think we can.

The truth is that Jesus came to heal the broken hearted, he came to forgive, restore, redeem, give eternal life. The journey of Jesus going to the cross and resurrecting from the dead to defeat death once and for all is called “the Good News!” That is the truth.

For those of you who have been hurt, shamed, abused and manipulated in the name of God, I am so sorry!

But don’t run away from the Good News. Don’t run away from the truth that can set you free. Don’t run away from Jesus.

I am asking Jesus these days to give me the courage and compassion to walk to the other side of the street and listen, empathize and offer healing and hope to those who do not know about the truth that can set them free.

What kind of music does God listen to?

Churches have divided and Christians have not been very Christ like when it comes to the topic of worship. Most American Christians think of music and singing songs when they hear the term worship. So when pastors and church goers are asked “What style is your churches worship?” What they are being asked is, “Do you have loud guitars and banging drums and worship leaders with tight pants and tattoos? Or do you have organs and robed choirs and hymn books?”

God cut to the chase to show us what real worship looks like when He spoke through the prophet Isaiah, “Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening…Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless….learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

Real worship is when our lives and churches reflect the work that God has called us to do. This is the music God loves to listen to. This is true worship.

When someone asks me “What style of worship do you have at Green Valley” I tell them, “Our style of worship is to work for justice, stand up for the homeless, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, fight for the defenseless, encourage the oppressed, father the fatherless and care for the widows.” As they look puzzled I will say, “Oh, you mean what style of music do we have at our church?” And I will tell them, “Well, we don’t have robes or hymnals, but we do have loud guitars and banging drums and worship leaders with tight pants, but we also have some pretty cool sounding keyboards and an inspiring choir.” They either look at me like I have some issues(which I do). Or they say, “Let’s talk about that worship style again, I am intrigued.”

I was sitting in a coffee shop a while ago and I was eavesdropping on some women who had gathered around their tables with their mochas, lattes, frapps and scones to discuss what was missing from their church.

They went on to complain about the music, the preaching and how unfulfilling and shallow the bible studies were that they were in. I didn’t say anything but I wanted to slip them this note from the Prophet Amos, “I can’t stand your religious meetings…I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

When the church is participating in “true worship”, people find hope, healing, grace, redemption, dignity, transformation. People find Jesus.

When the church is participating in “true worship” you experiences stories like this:

From the ages of 16 to 25, Lucy was a drug addict, an alcoholic and a prostitute. She spent many of those years sharing a small apartment with several other prostitutes who sold themselves again and again to get money for drugs.

One day an older woman moved in to the same apartment building and took it upon herself to treat the prostitutes with the love of Jesus. At first Lucy and her friends just laughed at the woman and her crazy religion. But as Lucy’s lifestyle pulled her deeper into despair, the older woman’s message began to have more impact.

“When I was 25 years old, the woman told me that Jesus Christ loved me and wanted more for me than a life of prostitution and drug addiction, and you know what? She was right. I gave my soul to Jesus, moved out of my apartment and into hers, and began getting cleaned up. I ain’t ever been the same since.”

Within a year she had a job and had fallen in love with a good man. But when they married, she told him she knew where they were supposed to live—right back on the same street she used to walk looking for drugs and male customers. This time, though, she wanted to help the girls who were in the same place she once was.

And that’s what she and her husband have been doing for the last 40 years. “My door is always open,” Lucy says, “Every one of those girls knows that if they need a safe place, they can come to Lucy’s, and they’ll never be turned away. Same with the homeless. Some winter nights we’ve had 30 people sleeping on our floors.”

After 40 years of redeeming people this is what Lucy says today. “You know what? I ain’t never grown tired of this neither. Some people told me generosity can’t last. Eventually, you run out, they said. But they were wrong. After 40 years, I’m filled up inside. When you help someone in the name of Jesus, His very power comes within you and fills you up the way drugs, alcohol, sex, money, nothin’ can. That’s why Jesus said, “It’s better to give than to receive.”

That, my friends, is “true worship” and the only music God listens to.

When nothing makes sense, you know you are right where you are supposed to be.

According to Webster’s dictionary, displacement means, to move or to shift from the ordinary or proper place.

Jesus was the ultimate example of this, “But he was wounded for the wrong we did; he was crushed for the evil we did. The punishment, which made us well, was given to him, and we are healed because of his wounds.” Isaiah 53:5

As followers of Jesus we are called out of familiar places to unknown territories, out of ordinary and proper places to the places where people hurt and where we can experience with them our common human brokenness and our common need for healing.

When we put ourselves in unfamiliar places where people are poor and hungry and exploited, it changes you. You may be there to heal them, but in exchange God changes you forever.

A few years ago I took a team of 30 people to Mexico City for 8 days to work with children who were living in extreme poverty. It is a trip I will never forget.

In a city of 30 million people, the chaos, the poverty, the hurting, the sick is all around. It was emotionally overwhelming to see the seas of people struggling to survive.

Mexico City has wealthy areas and affluence, but we did not go to those places. The poor places, which are far more numerous, were the areas where we would feed children, play soccer and share with them the message that Jesus loved them.

We saw children who were hungry, sick and literally had nothing, yet their smiles, the brightness of their beautiful brown eyes, and the thankfulness in their fragile little voices was a strange juxtaposition for a middle class American to wrap his brain around.

We would tell them Jesus loved them and they would beam, “I know!” With very, very little these kids were celebrating life and God, so grateful for everything around them. There was a depth to there contentment that made me envious. It magnified the depth of my own emptiness. With all my material possessions and pleasures and opportunities in my life, these children, in many ways, were happier than I was.

My emotional state went hurling over the edge of sanity the day we spent in the vast garbage dumps on the west side of the city. Where the city met the dump we drove for 40 minutes at about 20 miles per hour right into the heart of this garbage, disease infested wasteland. We arrived at this little village that had been built up out of garbage for years. Children were all around. It was as if they were waiting for something. Waiting for someone. Maybe they were waiting for us. It seemed like we were on another planet. All I could think about was the old Mel Gibson movie, “Road Warrior“.

The living were barely alive, their round, little, bloated bellies aching and calling out to us as we tried to feed them rice, beans, tortillas. I remember the starving little faces looking up to us, hardly strong enough to receive the meal. There were live electrical wires lying on the ground all around us just waiting for the next unsuspecting soul. Many of the kids were deformed from the lack of medical care. None of the kids knew there was a world outside of the dump. They were just grateful we were there. Somebody cared.

My body and brain went numb. This was not real. How could it be? I saw a little graveyard across from where we were handing out the food. Little crosses marked the lives of the young who had surrendered to the enemy of hunger and disease much too early. I was experiencing the worst nightmare of my life, but I wasn’t sleeping! I was wide awake. Reality sucker-punched me that day, and it is a blow I will never forget.

That night I lost it in my hotel room. I cried. I yelled. I wept with sadness and yelled at God in anger! My emotions were painful and raw. The scab of my false image of reality had been ripped off that day and it exposed the raw sores of how so much of our world truly lives. Our team gathered and said nothing. Words were useless and shallow. We just cried. And cried. And cried. The words of Sydney J. Harris came to mind, “When I hear somebody sigh, ‘Life is hard,’ I am always tempted to ask, ‘Compared to what?’”

And then the questions started racing through my weary mind. What hope did these children have? Why was I so blessed? Why was I so discontent when I have so much? Why would God put those kids in that situation? Why doesn’t God do something about it? Why doesn’t somebody do something about it? I was a mess!

The next night, we went to a church service on the outskirts of the dump. The building was made out of material from the dump. All kinds of metal, plastic and wood formed this little shack of worship. It was a church that reached out to people who lived in the dump. My emotions were still raw. They had asked me to speak that night. How do you speak about the hope of God when all I could see was hopelessness all around?

During the music time, God introduced me to TRUE JOY. REAL CONTENTMENT. I watched from the back of the little church, people worshipping, thanking, smiling, hugging, and celebrating life and all the goodness of God.

They sang in Spanish the words of the psalmist, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever.” I was in awe! The poorest people I had ever met were challenging my paradigm when it came to happiness and contentment. These people were truly grateful and content.

Obviously it wasn’t because of their material possessions or their career dreams or because their 401k plans were growing. It came from something so much deeper. It was something that I needed. They were living the words of Paul, “I have learned to be content in all circumstances.”

To rattle my reality even more, they took an offering that night, and tried to give it to us. They tried to give us the offering! Now I knew that God was testing us and this was a no-brainer. We were not going to keep the offering! I may not be real bright, but this seemed like a pretty obvious decision. But the person who was our guide for the week said, “We better take it, or they will be insulted.” I was so humbled by the whole situation. My heart began to be filled because of their generosity. I will never forget the joy on their faces as they handed us the little bag of money as we hugged them goodbye.

I was reminded of the words of Paul writing about the poor churches in Macedonia, “They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity.”

When you think of the words “poor” and “troubles”, you usually do not associate it with the words “joy” and “generosity”. But in God’s kingdom those words go together. This little, poor church with no material possessions was contagious with joy that led to a sacrificial generosity that challenged my faith and filled my heart.

I tend to think that my joy comes from good circumstances. That joy is very fragile. In fact that would be more like happiness than joy.

Real joy does not come from good circumstances but from the gratitude that everyday is a gift from God and I have been given the gift of His scandalous Grace. In the words of Henri Nouwen, “Gratitude does not come from feeling joyful. Joy comes from being thankful.”

I came to Mexico City to help physically hungry children, and what I discovered were hungry, poor, joy-filled, generous children who were feeding my hungry, poor, joyless, stingy soul. I hope I helped their hungry bellies. I know they helped my hungry soul!

When we put ourselves in unfamiliar places where people are poor and hungry and exploited, it changes you. You may be there to heal them, but in exchange God changes you forever.

Let us pray and serve the poor remembering the words of Jesus, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” It is not a curse to have a lot of money. But it is, in fact, a huge responsibility that we will be accountable for. Let us not forget the hungry and the sick. May we use our blessings to feed and shelter and educate. May we be generous and joyful in our blessings. Let us remember that when we serve “the least of these”, that is where we actually serve and meet Jesus, the source of REAL joy and contentment.

Easter is about second chances. And then some.

I have a friend who reminds me of God’s Grace. And then some.

She grew up during the sexual revolution and lived life always wanting people to accept her. Life was a party on the outside, but her heart was full of fear on the inside. The fear of what people thought of her, the fear of being alone, the fear of not having enough, the fear that people would only love her for what she did for them.

It led to some very destructive behaviors. And then some.

Excessive partying, many relationships, several abortions and a broken marriage defined her life. Her thirties and forties were a blur of depression and despair. She felt unworthy of anyone’s love and hated herself for all the mistakes of her past: broken relationships, a failed marriage, and an inability to have kids.

She was alone, defeated, full of shame, an empty shell living out the rest of her life.

And then she discovered Grace and it changed everything. And then some.

She discovered a Savior who said, “It is finished!” “Your sins are paid for.” “Your mistakes are remembered no more.” “You are loved.” “You are accepted.” “You are precious.” “You are my child.”  “I’ve got some plans for you.”  “I’m so crazy about you!”

She heard the words of the prophet Joel, “I, the LORD your God, will make up for the losses caused by those swarms and swarms of locusts.”

My friend’s life, a barren one, has been restored. And then some!

She travels the world on behalf of children who live in poverty stricken places. She does this while running her own company. She sponsors 30 children through Compassion International. She went from not having any children to having 30 children! She has literally saved these children from poverty, HIV, malaria and for many of them death.

She has also introduced them to the love and grace of Jesus.

She is one of the most joyous, passionate and purpose driven people I know. God has restored her years, healed her heart and renewed her sense of grand purpose. And then some!

That is what Easter is all about. And then some.

Mother Rose reminds me of the hope of Easter

(Even though I wrote this a few years ago, it is something that I will never forget.)

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with death, pain, injustice and the randomness of it all. Bad people get away with murder while good people die of cancer. In my narrow view of the universe this seems totally unfair. And as long as I live with a “this is all there is” mentality, which I live in often, I will struggle grasping and understanding the madness of this world.

My narrow view of the world was causing me to really struggle with my faith the other day when I was in a convalescent home, visiting one of the most heroic and caring and humble ladies I have ever known. Her name is Rose and at the age of 95, she had had a stroke, broke her hip, and was in failing health. It was hard for me to see her lying there in pain, fighting for life.

She had driven her car until the age of 92. I met her when I was 12, and she is one of the most caring, faithful, God loving, people loving humans that has ever walked this planet. She cared about everyone. She prayed for everyone. She had a permanent smile on her face that glowed brighter every year she grew older. She was the eternal optimist, not because she was in denial, but because she believed that God was always at work, always forgiving, redeeming, patiently loving people towards him. There was not a judgmental bone in her body. She mentored young moms, prayed for warring nations and cared deeply for the poor.

We called her our own Mother Teresa. And in fact the older and wiser she grew, the more she looked like Mother Teresa but it was those blue eyes with that genuine smile that penetrated the hardest hearts, and opened up the possibility of God making a difference in their lives.

Mother Rose is a gift from God that only comes around once in a while. So here is this heroic 95 year old woman, struggling for life in a convalescent bed, and I’m struggling with my faith. “God, this isn’t fair! She has been so faithful. She shouldn’t have to die like this! Where is the dignity in this God? She deserves better!” As I stood around the bed with her family, I struggled silently with these emotions. I was losing perspective of eternity. I was losing sight of life and death and renewal and the spiritual and natural principles of how this universe works. I just didn’t want her to be in any pain. Not Rose. Yes, maybe some selfish, greedy, bastard who used people and cursed at God could die like this, but not Rose!

The next morning, I was driving, thinking about Rose and the unfairness and I was listening to a song by the band U2 called “Yahweh”. In the song there is this simple yet very poignant phrase that says, “Take this soul stranded in some skin and bones, take this soul and make it sing… Yahweh, Yahweh, always pain before a child is born.” Tears began to run down my cheeks, and a smile unvolunteerly appeared on my face. My temporary view of life was just gently refocused to the eternal. I was missing the beauty of the transition.

We are all stranded in skin and bones and because of that, our souls are severely handicapped. Our souls are so much bigger and brighter than our bodies. And here is Rose, the soul filled with love and tenderness and light and forgiveness and hope and God, yet she is trapped in this skin and bones that is failing her now.

Yet, her soul is not fading, it’s becoming brighter and it’s getting closer and closer to being set free to live forever without the pain and the restrictions of these earthy tents that wear and tear and break down over the years. All of a sudden, I began to get excited. Rose’s soul is about ready to be set free. No more pain or frustration. It is about ready to SING! And then the second part of the phrase of the song, “Always pain before a child is born”, came screaming at me. Just like the pain of child birth, which is excruciating and overwhelming, is forgotten when the joy and gift of the child is born, so will Rose’s pain be forgotten when she is birthed into new life for eternity.

The light went on! On this side of eternity we are all involved in child birth. That’s why life can be so painful. Disease, sickness, abuse, injustice, prejudice, disappointment, it fills our life with pain. It’s called birthing pains. But those birthing pains (life) lead us to the other side of eternity where the apostle John says “There will be no more tears, no more pain, no more war, no more injustice, no more sickness, no more disease.”

There is always pain before a child is born.

This is why people who have ever done great things here on earth, always lived with an eternal perspective. They always knew that for something great to be born, that there would be pain.

Martin Luther bore the pain of shame, rejection, and being perjured against so that the understanding of grace could be born.
Abraham Lincoln bore the pain of rejection, anger and ultimately death so that freedom could be born.
Martin Luther King Jr. bore the pain of prejudice, hatred and ultimately death so that the beginning of equality could be born.
Nelson Mandela bore the pain of 30 years of imprisonment so that the end of apartheid could be born.
Jesus bore the pain of an excruciating death on a cross so that redemption could be born.
There is always pain before a child is born.
There is always pain before something great is born.
Our souls are trapped, temporarily, in skin and bones. But one day, they will be set free!

Life is really difficult when I’m living it with the temporary, view. Life begins to make more sense and become a lot more adventurous when I begin to look at it with the eternal view.
God bless you Mother Rose! You kept your eyes on Jesus!
May we follow your example with an eternal smile on our faces!

Paul Azinger was at the height of his professional golf career when the doctor told him he had life-threatening cancer. “We think that we are in the land of the living going to the land of the dying when in reality we are in the land of the dying headed for the land of the living.”