Tag Archives: #HoCoBlogs

The Gift of Non-Judgmental Grace

Working as an Uber Driver is a temporary gig and even though it’s not something I want to do for much longer, it’s really a pretty good job for what it is. One of the reasons I say that is because of the opportunity to meet a variety of people, as brief as our interactions are, and learn mostly through listening and observing.

I drive through the city of Baltimore, picking up one rider after another. One person is heading home after a day at work or college, another is headed to a bar or restaurant to meet some friends. It’s amazing to hear some of the things that riders will talk about with the person they are riding with or talking on their phone with when they forget that they are sitting in a car with someone they don’t even know. One couple chats happily with me about their new baby child, which they are enjoying a needed break from, while another couple argues with each other with one vulgar insult after another. Another rider is inquisitive about my religious beliefs while another rider is too drunk to care about anything but falling asleep (which he tried doing in the back seat of my car).

One couple I picked up was mocking a homeless panhandler we saw standing  at an intersection. They assumed the panhandler to be a drug-addict, which might be true. But this homeless person could just as easily be suffering from mental illness, could be a military veteran suffering PTSD stemming from his tours of duty in war, or he could be… Well, does it really matter?

As a minister I have spent time with people going through difficult times. Divorce, mental illness, addictions, jail-time, and so on. Though not always the case, often times the struggle stems from some bad choices the person has made… Sin! But something I’ve learned, which a few of my psychology friends have helped me understand, is the difference between excuse and explanation. Nothing excuses the wrong a person does but in many cases, there is an explanation for it. That is, there is an explanation for why that homeless panhandler just might be addicted to heroin or why that couple thinks they are better than that panhandler as I drop them off at the Capital Grill to eat a $300 dinner.

“But for the grace of God, there go I.” It’s something I try remembering as I encounter other people struggling though difficulties… especially since I know that I am a sinner too! And if it we’re not for the grace of God, we all…

We find it is easy to sit in judgment upon other people, especially when their sin is not our sin. It seems that our social-media experiences, where we quickly pass along memes and editorials that criticizes everything we disagree with in society, only encourages such judgmentalism. Regardless of the cause, we should resist the temptation to judge because if it were not for the grace of God…

Instead, perhaps we could give others the gift of non-judgmental grace. That is, instead of passing judgment on others, we empathize instead. Rather than assuming, we listen and/or observe in hopes that we might understand better. I’m not suggesting that we can never say something or someone is wrong but that instead of looking down on others for whatever circumstances they find themselves in, we regard others with mercy rather than scorn. Maybe giving others the gift of non-judgmental grace leads to other acts of kindness and blessing but whether it does or doesn’t, it makes us as people who are safe… people whom others can trust and approach when they are facing trouble. And that is where we join Jesus in the redemptive work of restoring and reconciling people to God, each other, and the life they have been created to live.

When Our Reasoning Fails Us

“God gave us a brain, so use it.”

It’s a well known phrase you’ve probably heard over a thousand times. I certainly have. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve heard this phrase repeated a lot by Christians when discussing something to do with church business and ministry. Sometimes it has seemed like an effort in reasoning one’s way around the good news of the kingdom of God, dismissing Jesus by saying “Yeah, but.”

I was a seminary student living in Memphis and was working part-time with an older church that was in decline. They provided housing for my wife and I, and I would preach once a month and engage in other ministry opportunities in the neighborhood. But that is where the challenge was.

The church, a community of about 80 to 100 middle-class white people, gathered for worship in a poor neighborhood of minorities that challenged by drugs, poverty, and crime. As far as the neighborhood the church gathered in, it had its share of homeless people, many of whom suffered with mental health issues and/or drug and alcohol addictions. And that was the problem.

A friend of mine and I tried serving those who were homeless as best as we knew how. Besides hanging out with them in places like a Waffle House, we offered food from the church’s pantry, and invited them to join us for worship on potluck Sundays. But it became clear that the homeless were unwanted and some of the other church leaders went so far as to tell them so, locking the doors behind them. A few of the church members were even blatant racists, which is equally disgusting. But as we pushed against this disdain for the homeless, some of the church members voiced their reasons…

“We can’t help everyone.”

“It’s dangerous, with the drugs they’re on and what not.”

“Let them get cleaned up first so they can show respect to God in his house.”

They even were able to invoke the Bible, proof-texting in order to justify their reasoning.

And here’s the scary thing about this story… It illustrates how Christians, people who profess faith in Jesus and read the Bible, can reason their way around the gospel and faith as they actually rationalize following Jesus right out of the equation.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Rom 12:2, NRSV

So yes, God did give us a brain… a mind, that is, and we should use it. But it also must be renewed in Christ by the Spirit if it is to be of value to us living as Christians. That raises an important question for us: Are we are seeking transformation that leads us to live more like Jesus and to make decisions that reflect the good news of the kingdom of God?

Living and making decisions based on fear, self-preservation, discrimination, and national politics only continues our conformation to the world. We can reason ourselves into living and making decisions based on the fear, self-preservation, discrimination, and national politics, and even proof-texting the Bible in order to justify our rationale, but when this happens our reasoning fails us!

Welcome The Refugees!

One of the justifications people make for war is the protection of innocent lives. That is, when a dictator engages in the systematic murder of innocents or an extremist group commits acts of terrorism that kills innocent people, many people believe that civilized nations should employ their military as a defensive counter measure, striking with deadly force in order to protect the lives of innocent people from further harm. Just war, in this sense, even if considered a necessary evil, is viewed as a humanitarian response.

Now let’s think about this concern for innocent lives in the matter of welcoming refugees from Syria. Today in America, many state Governors said that such refugees are not welcome in their states and according to my Facebook feed, many people support this stance. So let me just bluntly say: Refusing to welcome these refugees is a betrayal of any altruistic concern for innocent lives! Such inhospitality is incoherent with the claim we should be concerned for the protection of innocent lives when making a moral-justification for war. And for Christians, if we’re not careful, our reasoning can actually rationalize around following Jesus and his teaching. What a shame that would be!

If we are truly concerned for the innocent, then we cannot shut our doors on the refugees. So on that note, I want to share a letter written to the Governor of Virginia by my friend, classmate, (and more importantly) fellow follower of Jesus, Jeff Saferite, a pastor with the Hill City Church in Arlington, Virginia:

Governor,

I am praying for you today as the pressure mounts on how to respond to the attacks in Paris, the Daesh, and the Syrian refugees. It is my hope that you will open the doors of Virginia to those seeking refuge.

I remember the first time I walked through the Holocaust museum in DC. The story that stuck with me most is that of the SS St. Louis. I walked away from that experience asking how the good people of America could reject Jewish refugees in the face of Hitler. This question has resurfaced today.

Daesh survives and thrives off propaganda. The quickest way to defeat this great evil is to take the narrative away from them. Let’s show the world that Virginia, and America, is a place of love, freedom, and hospitality. I recognize there is danger in doing this but I believe there is greater danger in not doing so.

This is the path of Jesus, and the path that our congregation is on. The Christian congregation that I pastor is committed to joining in the efforts to serve, house, and feed the Syrian Refugees. We are deeply distressed that the violence of a few has caused a fear that threatens to overcome the compassion of many others toward the countless that needs our assistance

I pray that we rise above the attackers who see themselves as powerful when they prey on the powerless. Let’s show them the true power of a state that stands for love of another at any cost. Virginia is for lovers and sometimes love is a risk.

Lead us in making a statement by opening the doors of Virginia to Syrian Refugees!

Rev. Jeffrey T. Saferite, Jr.
Hill City Church
Arlington, VA

So can we welcome the refugees?

I was living in Memphis when the city, along with plenty of other cities, began receiving numerous refugees from the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. What I saw, experienced, and participated in was churches rising to the occasion by providing food, clothing, and shelter to the refugees. Many people from the community joined in to help provide basic humanitarian care for their fellow human-beings. Let’s welcome the refugees and rise to the occasion again.

As we consider the situation with Syrian refugees, Let me suggest reading the two following passages and spending some time meditating on these teachings of Jesus: 1) Matthew 25:31-46The Sheep and the Goats and 2) Luke 10:25-37The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

A Conversation About Jesus and Religion

Yesterday evening while driving for Uber in Baltimore I picked up a man I”ll call Sammy, who was born in India but was raised in America. I picked him up at a bar in Baltimore and I could tell he had a few drinks but he was a nice man and was telling me about his work, which involved working with clients all around the world. Then he asked me what I do and that’s where things became interesting.

I explained to Sammy that I’m a Christian and have spent the last ten plus years of my life serving as a minister with churches. Sammy then told me that he is not religious but respects anyone who is because religion normally make people better people. The conversation then went something like this…

Sammy: “Do you really believe in one God?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy: “Do you believe Jesus is the only one who can save everyone?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy then proceeded to share with me his difficulty in believing like I believe. He said that at the end of the day all religions teach us how to be nicer people to others and that’s what he thinks is important. Then Sammy said, “But you believe differently.”

I could tell he was waiting for a response but I paused for a moment as we were pulling up to his destination. Then I said, “Sammy, I believe that Jesus was crucified but that God raised him from death and exalted him as Lord… as the one who is King over all. That’s why he is the only one who can save everyone. Of course, if Jesus wasn’t raised from death then none of that really matters. But if he was, and I believe he was, and if you believe he was, then even if we don’t understand how God works all this salvation stuff out, we know that it is through Jesus that God saves because Jesus is the Lord… the King.”

Sammy stayed silent for a moment. Then he said, “Wow, I never thought of it that way before. I know I have to go now but thanks, I need to think about that more now.”

Christians… If God has raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord, as we confess, then may the Spirit empower us to boldly live as witnesses for this good news of Jesus the Messiah!

People Matter… Including The Poor!

The Prophet Amos preached a message of judgment against Israel because, among other things, of their unjust treatment of the poor. In fact, when we read the prophets of the Old Testament it becomes clear that the poor matter to the Lord and that he expects people to act justly towards the poor, showing them mercy.

It’s also seems pretty clear in scripture that people are greater than the principles or policies we often organize and script our lives by. When laws and objectives are carried out at the expense of the people, there is injustice. When dogma and doctrine suppresses people, denying them mercy and justice, it is wrong.

I think this is why Jesus tells the Pharisees, “To and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice'” (Matt 9:13). The Pharisees have placed greater value on maintaining their tradition than extending grace to those they consider sinners but Jesus says they have it wrong. Offer mercy rather than sacrifice! In other words, people matter more than their traditions (and more than our principles, policies, laws, etc…) so they should be more concerned with doing right for the people.

Of course, when it comes to the poor, it is so easy to just trample upon them… either literally or metaphorically. That’s why the prophets speak so powerfully about justice for the poor.

And little has changed. We all know of numerous examples of how the poor are neglected and even afflicted by the lack of mercy and justice. So it is a great joy when hearing examples of service to the poor, especially when they show us that the poor matter more than revenue… or whatever other principle, law, or doctrine we are tempted to value over the poor.

Such an example comes from this story about a restaurant in Baltimore called Tabrizi’s, a Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern dinner place along Baltimore’s waterfront. Rather than taking in the big money to be made during Baltimore’s Restaurant Week, the owner of Tabrizi’s, Michael Tabrizi, is partnering with local homeless shelters to feed the homeless. According to the story, which you can read here, Tabrizi said, “It isn’t about revenue and money right now, we’ve done restaurant week before and we know the numbers, but right now it’s more important to promote the welfare of the city and its residents rather than to promote the business.”

That’s right. People, especially the poor, are more important than the business of making money, just as people are more important than a said principle, law, etc…

Tabrizi goes on to say about the homeless, according to the article, “These people don’t only suffer from hunger, but also from hopelessness, they feel that they don’t have any dignity anymore… We want them to come in and feel like they’re cared for.”

I don’t know what Michael Tabrizi’s religious convictions are but I know this sort of care for the poor reflects the image of God, our Creator. His example of using his business to serve the poor is an example for us all. May we take the opportunities were are given and the gifts we have received to care even for even the poor, blessing them as we have been blessed!

And one more thing… The next time I am down on the waterfront of Baltimore to dine out, I know which restaurant I’ll be trying.

Another Shooting and Our Futile Talk

It happened again. I’m talking about another mass shooting. Except this time it happened in my city, at The Mall in Columbia, a mall that my family and I frequent regularly. Three people, Briana Benlolo, Tyler Johnson, and the gunman himself, Darion Marcus Aguilar, died. Five others were physically injured and many others traumatized. As far as my wife and I can tell from the news reports, the Howard County Police have done a great job with a very difficult and tragic situation. A word of appreciation is also in order to the many other Law Enforcement agencies as well as the Fire and EMS agencies for their response in securing the mall and helping the injured and the many other by standbys to safety.

But I’m angry!

I’m angry not because of this tragic shooting but because violence like this is seemingly becoming a social trend, and epidemic. By epidemic, I am speaking of our perception of reality that is shaped for us through the prevalence of 24/7 news and social-media saturating society with information, creating a cultural epidemic of mass-shootings. Consequently, we live in a culture of violence that is brewing more violence. While we don’t know the particulars of the motive for the shooting the other day, we’ve seen enough of these shootings before to know that there’s a deeper underlying problem that has a grip on our society. In recent years we have all watched with sadness the news of mass shootings in places like Newtown, Connecticut… Aurora, Colorado… Fort Hood… Virginia Tech… And those are just some of the recent mass shootings I recall off the top of my head.

But I’m also angry because every time there is a shooting we are told that we should grieve, which is the right thing to do, but then we try to figure out what went wrong and how we can prevent such a tragedy from happening again. This is where the conversation turns to the tiresome politics of gun-control, better security measures, and the violence in the entertainment industry. If only we had less guns, says the one side, while the other side argues that we need more guns. If only we have more metal detectors or more armed security, says someone else, while someone else says that problem is too many violent video games.

If only… We think we know what the problem is and what we need to do in order to fix it. But the hubris of our enlightened minds has fooled us, leaving us to believe that politics will save us from this quagmire we find ourselves sinking further and further into. Yet what we have to show for it is nothing but an abyss of spiritual blindness that is increasingly expressed through fear, hostility, madness and violence. All the while, people continue to suffer, families mourn, and communities are gripped with horror that gives way to numbness… until it happens again and again and again.

Yet we don’t want to consider that maybe the problem is a spiritual problem. Can we even do that? I believe we must, so hang with me for a little more.

The prophet Hosea spoke to a people who found themselves in similar times. Yet the prophet urged Israel to see the problem for what it is, saying:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites,
because the Lord has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Because of this the land dries up,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea are swept away.

Hosea saw all the bloodshed that was so rampant that affected even the land and animals. Yet the problem was not the violence and other atrocious behaviors. The real problem was the fact that Israel had become unfaithful to God, no longer loving God nor acknowledging him. That’s a very different problem. It’s a spiritual problem and the only way Israel could hope to overcome her troubles was through faithfulness to God, loving God and acknowledging him (this is as much a moral/ethical position as it is confessional).

Here in America, our issues with violence and every other malady in our society are not the problems; they’re just symptoms of the problem. We have told God to go sit in the corner because we can run life better through our political and social schemes. And the words of the prophet are like silent raindrops falling, echoing in the sound of silence!*

It’s not that there is never a time to have political and social conversations about pragmatic steps that can reduce violence. But until we’re ready to let God be a part of the conversation, we are fooling ourselves and jeopardizing everyone else with our spiritual blindness. For only God can teach us how to love and live in community with each other. Until we are ready to do that, all of our political and social talk remains futile.

——————–

* I’m paraphrasing the words of Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence,” here but alluding to the words of the prophet Hosea cited above.