From Strangers to Neighbors

From Strangers to Neighbors

By Rev. Chris Rice

Dear Friends,

God has given us this day as a gift, and we dare not waste our time by not asking Him to lead us in doing His will. The Word of God tells us to “contribute to the needs of the saints” and “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13), and the Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia or literally “love for stranger”. The same word is used in Hebrews 13:2 which says, “Do not neglect hospitality, for in doing this some have entertained angels unawares.” I want to take some time to look deeply into who we are at NLEC, our mission, values, and expression, and then look at what it means to show hospitality and move from being strangers, to being neighbors in our community. But first, let’s pray:

“Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 826)

The mission of New Life Evangelistic Center (NLEC) is to provide Christian hospitality and respect for life through the services of food, clothing, shelter, education, and job training programs, as well as physical, mental and spiritual health care, to the poor and homeless in Saint Louis and beyond.

Because of the love of Jesus Christ displayed on the cross, and His Spirit alive in us our values are empathy, advocacy, empowerment, dignity, responsibility, faith, hope, and love.

This is our particular expression: Hospitality flows out of our worship. We gather for morning Bible Studies every weekday. We practice a fast on Wednesdays until dinner and gather for prayer and the communion. We hold worship on Friday afternoons at 3:30pm. Our church is independent and interdenominational. Members are free to attend their home church on Sunday mornings.

Our members live in community together, working and living together on site. The ministry provides full room and board in return for voluntary service. We offer a variety of program time commitments from 30 days up to 2 years and longer. Some former members become paid staff or continue to volunteer full time even while living in their own apartments.

This expression seems really strange to many people. Even though we invest a lot of time and energy in helping the public understand what we do, through our use of the internet, TV, radio, and phone calls, it’s just so different that we get accused of being many things that we just aren’t. People can’t conceive of a church actually sheltering homeless people in its building, or marching to advocate for the homeless, because they’ve never heard of churches in this area doing that. This is not just a local problem, however.

Dr. Cornel West says that American religious life is in a crisis. “American religious life—despite its weekly rituals and everyday practices—is shot through with existential emptiness. This emptiness—or lack of spiritual depth—results from the excessive preoccupation with isolated personal interests and atomistic individual concerns… Like so much of American culture, exorbitant personalistic and individualistic preoccupations in American religion yield momentary stimulation rather than spiritual sustenance, sentimental self-flagellation rather than sacrificial self-denial.” (THE CORNEL WEST READER, The Crisis in Contemporary American Religion, pg. 357-8.)

Our context as a Christian community lies within a very selfish cultural ethos. We must struggle to lay down our egos in a world that does not understand the value of a gift or the true nature of hospitality. This selfishness directly effects our impact on the world.

Dr. West writes: “Moralistic acts are often conflated with moral actions. Yet the former proceed from sheer sentimental concern—for example, pity—whereas the latter flow from an understanding of the larger context in which the action takes place and of the impact of the action on the problem. In short, moralistic acts rest upon a narrow, parochial and intellectualism that sees only pitiful individuals, whereas moral action is based on a broad, robust prophetism that highlights systemic social analysis of the circumstances under which tragic persons struggle. . .” It is completely acceptable to show pity to the poor, unless of course we hold the system that creates poverty morally accountable.

In living by our mission, we must understand why poverty is so bad, and why our faith does not allow us to leave the homeless without shelter, without food, clothing, medical care, and advocacy. Gustavo Gutierrez says that poverty according to the Scriptures is by its very definition a degrading human situation. It means to beg, weak, frail, bent over, humble. Poverty is a climate of indignation. “In the Bible poverty is a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God. This rejection of poverty is seen very clearly in the vocabulary used… The climate in which poverty is described is one of indignation. And it is with the same indignation that the cause of poverty is indicated: the injustice of oppressors.”

Michael Harrington pointed out in his book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, that poverty is more hidden in America, by its landscape, by the freedoms we all enjoy, and by the collective expectation that none of us really has to be poor for very long because the system works (Scribner, NY, 1962, 1969, 1981, See Chapter 1). When we hear that poverty is destitution, that it’s slavery, and that it betrays our humanity, many may speak up and say, “Oh, no, it’s not really as bad as all that.” When you live without for so long you become tempted to live within your norms, no matter how deplorable they may be. Kind of like a man who works hard every day and then comes home and never cleans his house. The dishes pile up, the laundry piles up, the trash piles up, he stops inviting friends over, and he just gives up cleaning. Being poor and hiding it makes it really hard to change the situation, but this denial of reality betrays our humanity.

Gutierrez wrote that poverty “contradicts the meaning of the mosaic religion, which was the elimination of servitude and indebtedness”. It stands “against the mandate of Genesis” that we are made in the image of our creator and that we are given the work of transforming nature to His glory. Finally, we cannot forget that we humans are the sacrament of God. “We meet God in our encounter with other persons; what is done for others is done for the Lord. In a word, the existence of poverty represents a sundering both of solidarity among persons and also of communion with God. Poverty is an expression of a sin, that is, of a negation of love. It is therefore incompatible with the coining of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of love and justice.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Orbis Books, 1973.)

How then, within Christ’s Kingdom of Love, do we respond to poverty? Gutierrez says, “Only by rejecting poverty and by making itself poor in order to protest against it can the Church preach something that is uniquely its own: “spiritual poverty,” that is, the openness of humankind and history to the future promised by God. Only in this way will the Church be able to fulfill authentically— and with any possibility of being listened to—its prophetic function of denouncing every human injustice. And only in this way will it be able to preach the word which liberates, the word of genuine fellowship.”

People who live and journey with us for a time often wonder why we’re always struggling to pay bills. Why don’t we have more money? Why such precarity? Why not keep some of the money and spend more on a nicer place and bigger salaries? The answer is clear in the Scriptures. Wealth, when it is not for God, becomes a trap. It becomes about power, security, and recognition. When you seek those things you become part of the same system that enslaves humans into poverty. (See Luke 12:21)

Our most honest answer to Jesus when he tells us to welcome strangers and to love our neighbors should be, “Lord, help us! We can’t do this on our own. We believe, but help our unbelief!” We are a testament to the grace of God, to the miraculous in the midst of the mundane. God uses sinful people, saved by His Grace, to accomplish his purpose in this world.

The task before us, making strangers into neighbors, seems impossible. How do we make apathetic people care? How do we make rich people look the poor in the face instead of ignoring them and passing them by, or worse calling the cops on them to get them removed out of sight out of mind? How do we keep the poor from harming themselves or others in their despair? Jesus said that the answer is not in retaliation or despair.

“You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. ‘But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

 

“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father

is perfect..” (Matt. 5:38-48, NRSV)

My initial reaction is “If I give to all who ask of me, what’s left of me?” Verse forty-two is often not taken seriously by people outside or inside the church. The fear is that turning the other cheek and giving to all who ask will leave us as emasculated pushovers. We should understand however, that the words assume that with God as our Father, our livelihood, including our safety and possessions, are secured. This allows us to turn the other cheek and give to all who ask of us. It also guards us against giving into the enemy or giving away so much that we bring dishonor to ourselves and him. It does not, however, protect our reputation in this world.

I believe that Downtown Saint Louis needs a movement of awakened Christians to lead us from the hostility and division, the name-calling and misunderstanding between strangers living in proximity, into an understanding that we are indeed neighbors regardless of property ownership and income levels. I believe that this fits the calling of our churches and that together we can accomplish. This requires, however, that we invite one another to more gatherings. That we speak to one another and of one another not in terms of our problems, but as equals. This will take great courage.

Henri JM Nouwen wrote in his book, The Wounded Healer that the necessary precondition in showing hospitality is concentration. We have to discover our center. It’s not possible, for instance, to hang out in the bar on Washington Avenue until 3:00am and then get up at 8:00am and come to a neighborhood meeting to make a better world. He wrote, “Those who want to pay attention without intention have to be at home in their own house-that is, they have to discover the center of their lives in their own hearts. Concentration, which leads to meditation and contemplation, is therefore the necessary precondition for true hospitality. When our souls are restless, when we are driven by thousands of different and often conflicting stimuli, when we are always “over there” between people, ideas, and the worries of this world, how can we possibly create the room and space where others can enter freely without feeling themselves unlawful intruders?”

It is only in the love of Christ that we find the freedom to welcome strangers. Nouwen again, “This experience tells us that we can only love because we are born out of love, that we can only give because our life is a gift, and that we can only make others free because we are set free by the One whose heart is greater than our own. And when we have finally found the anchor place for our lives within our own center we can be free to let others enter into the space created for them, and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song, and speak their own language without fear. Then our presence is no longer threatening and demanding, but inviting and liberating.”

The second thing needed in hospitality is community. Many people don’t understand that giving aid is not actually a virtue unless the recipient is free to accept or decline the gift. Our task is not simply to volunteer and to give, but to receive and create spaces of welcome. Nouwen said, “The paradox indeed is that hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space, where the guests can find their own souls. Why is this a healing ministry? It is healing because it takes away the false illusion that wholeness can be given by one to another. It is healing because it does not take away the loneliness and the pain of others, but invites them to recognize their loneliness on a level where it can be shared. Many people in this life suffer because they are anxiously searching for the man or woman, the event or encounter, which will take their loneliness away. But when they enter a house with real hospitality they soon see that their own wounds must be understood, not as sources of despair and bitterness, but as signs that they have to travel on in obedience to the calling sounds of those wounds.” (The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, pgs. 95-106)

What we’re looking at here is so much more alive than keeping our nonprofits active, our streets safe, and clients located in the right facilities. The power of the gospel is freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, resurrection of the dead into a new heavens and earth! But our problem is that our churches are not places of welcome for the disinherited. We must pray for reformation, for revival, to become true followers of Jesus Christ!

Vincent Harding wrote in his Foreword to Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, “Today, at the close of Thurman’s century, those people who live most obviously with their backs against the wall—for instance, the homeless, the working and jobless poor, the substance abused and abusers, the alienated, misguided, and essentially abandoned young people—are rarely within hearing or seeing range of the company of Jesus’ proclaimed followers. The keepers of the faith of the master often find it very difficult, and very dangerous, to follow him into the hard places inhabited by the disinherited of America. And those wall-bruised people find no space for their presence in the places where the official followers are comfortably at worship, unless they happen to find themselves among such exceptions as the young, downwardly mobile worker…” (pgs. 23-24, Jesus and the Disinherited, Beacon Press, 1976, 1996)

No matter who we are, it can become easy to settle into our daily expectations, and to see others only in terms of how they may help us achieve our goals. There is really no reason for recognition, neighborliness, reconciliation, and justice if we lose sight of God’s will. When we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day every year with parades and speeches and community service days, but we exclude one another from our prayers and from our shared spaces, we have lost sight of our goal.

Harding said, “There’s a lesson for us: If we lock up Martin Luther King, and make him unavailable for where we are now so we can keep ourselves comfortably distant from the realities he was trying to grapple with, we waste King. All of us are being called beyond those comfortable places where it’s easy to be Christian. That’s the key for the 21st century – to answer the voice within us, as it was within Martin, which says ‘do something for somebody.’ We can learn to play on locked pianos and to dream of worlds that do not yet exist.” (“King for the 21st Century Calls Us to walk with Jesus”, http://www.goshen.edu/news/2005/01/21/vincent-harding-king-for-the-21st-century-calls-us-to-walk-with-jesus-2/)

In North Carolina faith communities create spaces of welcome to immigrant communities in a “Stranger to Neighbor” program. Would it be possible to adapt that program for use here in our own neighborhoods? Who would participate? We can’t dream for something different by licking our wounds and begging to be understood. We have to rise up, realize who we are in Christ, and do the unexpected knowing that may not be popular, but it is important. (See http://faithaction.org/programs/strangertoneighbor-congregations/)

Let’s go to the Lord in prayer:

Heavenly Father, you provide us with every good and perfect gift, and you have taught us that we are blessed when we empty ourselves so that you might fill us. We come to you trusting that you have a future in mind for us that exalts the humble and humbles the exalted. We want to love you with our whole hearts, minds, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Teach us to trust you, and to accept all that you would accomplish in us. For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Yours in Christ,

 

Rev. Chris Rice

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Update on Board of Public Service hearing

http://www.newlifeevangelisticcenter.org/board-of-public-service-hearing-update/

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Helpful outline of Karl Barth’s work

I found these .pdfs today of an outline of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It has great quotes, summaries, and commentaries.
http://www.foundationrt.org/outlines/Barth_Dogmatics_Volume_I.pdf

http://www.foundationrt.org/outlines/Barth_Dogmatics_Volume_II.pdf

http://www.foundationrt.org/outlines/Barth_Dogmatics_Volume_III.pdf

http://www.foundationrt.org/outlines/Barth_Dogmatics_Volume_IV.pdf

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Helpless, helpless,helpless

It’s so good to be in the house of the Lord. Jesus, the work you have done in me is beautiful and Im so grateful. I have been blessed to have been raised by dedicated ministers, as a child and as an adult. I say that now, but I didn’t always feel that way. My dream at one time was just to run as far away as I could from ministry.

I’m thinking of a lyric by Neil Young, “Helpless”.

“There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind
I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.”

Jesus People USA in Uptown Chicago is still that place for me to go, all my changes were there.
I can honestly say that from the time I was a child all I really wanted was to belong in Christian community. It seemed like the unattainable dream. I wanted to be in that perfect family where there was no shame, only acceptance; no fear, only protection. I wanted that because it seemed for a short time like we had it in my family. And then life happened and things just seemed to go from bad to worse. And then it was like I just wanted something true, you know? In myself and in the church. But the devil had his hook in me and I didn’t really know what I wanted for years.
I gave up on myself and just kind of existed and everything spiraled out of control. And it was like that for such a long time. Too long. I’m so glad those days are gone. I don’t want them ever back again.
That process of longing and becoming, for a long time I longed and seemed to want the right things, but I wanted my addiction more. And so I grew more and more into two identities. And I stayed there.

As a pastor now I find it so painful when someone I’m trying to help can’t bring themselves to tell the whole truth. It’s not painful because they’re lying to me, but rather because it brings back all my own memories of doing the same thing. It’s painful to be around that sick darkness. I know how easily that could be me again.

One of the easiest things to lie about is money. How much income is coming in, how much is being spent. It’s also easy to lie about time. What was I really doing when I should have been…and why isn’t that done yet? It’s easy to lie about lust and sex. Celibacy, chastity, monogamy; these are hidden virtues. And it’s so much easier with technology to hide the sexual side all together and say it’s no one’s business.

Money, time, and sex all get right to the heart of our deepest longings. They’re all reasons why families split up or just become hopelessly entangled in this sick mess of codependence, hatred and destruction.
At Jesus People USA I was given the freedom to be myself and learn healthy relational boundaries. I was taught about the importance of honesty. From the ages of 21 to 35 I worked alongside godly people and ungodly ones. Some were trying to be honest. Others were just playing church. And I spent most of my time playing church too. But for the last five years I sobered up and stayed sober one day at a time and grew to love worship and being together, loving and being loved.

I learned very painful lessons about repentance and reconciliation. Not everybody knew all my stuff. Just a faithful few who are still there. I didn’t really find God in the Church at first. I came to faith through an agnostic sponsor who led me through the twelves steps. Got dropped by that sponsor then got another agnostic sponsor. Got dropped by that one, then I got the one I still have.

It’s weird to say that because now I’m a Christian minister. But that’s what it took for me. My addiction was so intertangled with what I said I believed that my “christian” concept of “god” meant that god loved me the most when I was beating up on myself, isolating, acting out, hiding it, and then coming back in tears and saying I was sorry. As the band Uncle Tupelo said it in the early nineties: “whiskey bottle over Jesus, not forever, but just for now”.

Though alcohol wasn’t my chosen poison, I definitely related. I really wished again and again that there was some way I could just control and enjoy my way of life and still be accepted, married, loved, esteemed. But I’m here to tell you, there’s no way to “be yourself” and be an addict at the same time.

I know that the concept of what addiction is seems to be under scrutiny in America. Psychologists and other professionals question whether spiritual group recovery really works anymore. When I interview new program members at New Life Evangelistic Center and I talk frankly to them about problems with alcohol, drugs, prescription pain meds, it’s rare that I get someone who wants to even admit addiction. “I used marijuana and crack 9 mos. ago but I’m not addicted.” So I’ll ask, “so these things never led to homelessness?” “No, it was getting kicked out of the house. It was the job loss.” And often times that true. But I think more often my questions are posed just to make them think.

Living is this messy proposition, full of comfort and pain, edging toward self awareness, but most people don’t really want to know all that much about themselves.
I recently used these words in a sermon, “you can’t love unintentionally or unmindfully.” And I’ve been wrestling with whether that is true. Did I mean that I think really hard and deliberately about my every conversation, every action? No. I just meant that knowing and loving God and then living by His love is a mindful action. I deliberately pray, “Lord Jesus, I can’t face this day alone, please use me, please deliver me.”
There’s no “cruise control” in living by the Spirit of God. For me cruise control is the addicted life.
I know I can’t possibly think that everyone understands the powerlessness of addiction. I know that many people do destructive things to themselves and others and then just stop because they were never really addicts.
But I think everyone understands that we all need to belong somewhere and to someone and not just at the periphery. We all need roots. We need people we can rely on, not just for money or a roof over our heads, but because none of us can truly be alone in this world. Even broken interaction is still interaction.
I love my friend Mike from Canada’s story. He came to NLEC after having “made due” hiding out in a Missouri state park for years. I repeat his story to new people coming into the program to get them to think. He was referred to our shelter after being hospitalized due to dehydration and heat exhaustion. He’s a resourceful guy who proved that he could champion all the elements and live alone in the woods without anyone’s help.
And that’s a lot of people’s real desire. They don’t want to depend on charity. They don’t want “help”. They don’t want to feel ‘helpless’. They don’t want to be a burden on anybody. I’m that kind of person. Even though I pastor at NLEC and I’m an advocate for the civil rights of homeless people, I can really relate to not wanting to ask for help.
But as I see it, Mike’s story illustrates that there is no way we as humans can hide from each other without ultimately dying. Sadly I usually see people coming for help like Mike who tried valiantly but teach me that the loner life is not to be emulated.
“Indendence” is that elusive freedom that means we never have to account for our actions to anyone else. But I remember that the only true revolution in the western hemisphere took place in Haiti, not here in the USA. We declared independence and then kept England as our largest source of trade. When Haiti revolted, they’ve been punished ever since. That’s real independence. It doesn’t mean provision, it means fear, shame, being victimized by every other liar and thief I take up with.
I know, I know, that’s a grim picture of independence. I use it deliberately in order to say 1) we can’t revolt from our humanity and 2) that humanity without healthy community means death without meaning.
At the memorial service last night for Ida Dawn Mortimer, we remembered that she said that she knew Jesus was true because she had met him. Looking back at my life, I know I met Jesus at a very young age. I never doubted that he was there. I had very strong beliefs and was proud of them. But I really didn’t trust Jesus. I didn’t trust that this messy proposition we call life really led to loving and being loved. I thought that love meant keeping secrets, isolating, and finding my own way.
Now I know that loving Christ means utter helplessness, not the naughty, icky kind where I skulk around begging my loved ones to forgive me for hurting them again. I mean the kind of helplessness where, like Neil Young’s song, I’m overwhelmed by the memory of a place. For me it’s that place of meeting Jesus. He’s been there through all my changes. The time it took doesn’t matter anymore.
I know I said that JPUSA is that place for me to go to remember all my changes, but truthfully, my local 12 step meeting is where I go. Staying sober by God’s grace is what I got to do. I’ll be sitting there at the next available meeting. Remembering all that God has done and is doing in my life. I’m so grateful.
My meetings have taught me how to connect with God and take the actions of love when I least feel like it. They’ve taught me to reach out with a phone call instead of blowing up in anger and then later skulking back with an apology.
If you think I do that perfectly you don’t know me. The people I love most in life are still people who have to put up with my stormy emotions. I’m still learning to trust Jesus with my anger one day at a time. But it was here at JPUSA that I learned I can live with embarrassment. I don’t have to run away when I do something stupid. My family in Christ will still accept me.
I’m so grateful.

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Love: the highest calling

​​​​​​“Love: The Highest Calling”
Dear Friends,
Love is one of those things that’s easier to preach about than it is to live by. In 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 the Apostle Paul addressed the tendency of Corinthian believers to gather together for worship to God and instead compete with each other for attention and become divisive. His teaching in response is to get to the heart of spiritual gifts themselves and then point them toward the greatest gift: love. His message is certainly one we still need to hear today.
Paul begins by telling them that we are all members of the Body of Christ. As such, we don’t all have the same gifts or callings. “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”(12:18, NRSV) The church’s problem was that they all wanted to be like one part of the Body, the eyes, for instance, instead of appreciating each one’s unique place and role. In their divisiveness they forgot about Christ himself.
4 principles of the Body of Christ
(Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water, pg. 127)
1. Taking Responsibility (1 Cor. 12:14-16) When you feel you have nothing to offer the community.
2. Accepting Limitation (1 Cor. 12:17-20) When you feel you have everything to offer the community. Divinely imposed limitation to defeat our egoism.
3. Esteeming Others (1 Cor. 12:21-24a) When you feel you can live independent of the community.
4. Maintaining Unity Within Diversity (1 Cor. 12:24b-26) For all who bring division into the community, on purpose or inadvertently.

The Qualities of Love (1 Cor. 13)
1. All other spiritual gifts have their worth in Love. You can’t preach without love. Can’t sing without love. Can’t serve without love. Can’t help without love. Can’t BE without love.
2. It is the opposite of all that causes division.
3. Fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Self Control.
4. Never fails, is eternal. No time limits. Perfect Patience. I find that when I feel overwhelmed I put the pedal to the metal in an effort to get done faster and get out of there. That doesn’t work. Love means learning about the problems but realizing that I can’t solve them all myself. It will take time. Love takes time.
5. Love is not a peacock. It builds us up together, it doesn’t single us out and dress us up and then call for votes on our abilities like on the reality show “American Idol”. (1 Cor. 8:1)
6. Love always points us back to the cross of Christ. Jesus is our model of love. We have love and are love in his Body because of His love on the cross.
10 practical ways to show love
1. Listen without interrupting Prov. 18:2 “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing personal opinion.”
2. Speak without accusing James 1:19 “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;”
3. Give without sparing Prov. 21:26 “All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back.”
4. Pray without Ceasing Col. 1:9 “For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”
5. Answer without arguing Prov. 17:1 “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.”
6. Share without pretending Eph. 4:15 “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”
7. Enjoy without complaining. Phil. 2:14 “Do all things without murmuring and arguing”
8. Trust without wavering 1 Cor. 13:7 “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
9. Forgive without punishing Col. 3:13 “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
10. Promise without forgetting Prov. 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
There is no way to love unintentionally or unmindfully. There is no “cruise control” with love. Our default position generally takes us back into egoism and trying to do everything ourselves and control everyone else. This is true even if you’re the quietest, least outgoing, seemingly meekest person in existence. Love does not leave us all alone. It causes us to reach out, involve ourselves, take responsibility, and aspire ever more to be like Jesus. Love leads us to becoming hated by the world that doesn’t know Jesus, and even by fellow Christians who don’t really want to love like Christ.
William J. Seymour said, “The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God’s love. If it does not bring more of God’s love it is simply a counterfeit. Pentecost means to live right in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, which is the standard.”
(The following story comes from the fourth chapter of Richard J. Foster’s book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith, Harper One, 2001.) Seymour was the African American minister whom God used at the Asuza Street Revival in southern California at the beginning of the 20th Century. This revival shook America and the world as white and black Christians received fresh spiritual giftings when they repented of their sins and worshiped Christ together.
Seymour’s mentor, Charles Parham was not ready for what he saw when Seymour invited him to come preach at Asuza Street. Parham had ties with the Klan and instead of repenting of his own white racist supremacy, he split the gather and took 300 white members with him to another location. Seymour lived with the pain and brokenness of this reaction until he died in 1922. But this story serves as an example for us. When you want to be like Jesus and love like Jesus, don’t expect everyone in the Church to love you back or agree. We can’t stay together without love, and as we move more into the love of Christ the change it makes causes hostility. Why? Because it’s far easier to preach love than to be drawn into the sufferings of Christ, but this is what it means to know love.
Let’s pray aloud together:
Our Father,
Forgive me for being critical, for judging when I do not have all the facts, for judging when I am not perfect, for judging when the thing I judge is my problem too. Remove from me the evil that makes me critical: my own desires to be like the person I criticize, the wrong in me which I condemn in others, the feeling of inferiority that keeps me from accepting myself, the blindness that keeps me from seeing myself as you see me, the smallness that permits other people to irritate me.
Give me love enough to love those who are not like me, to love those who are not sure of themselves, to love those who are misunderstood, to love those whom I cannot understand, to love those who cannot control their tongues.
Help me to grow in patience—to wait while you do your work, in grace—to know that a thing does not have to be perfect before it can be used, in forgiveness—to forgive myself so that I can forgive others. May I so love that there will be no need for me to be critical. Make me realize that criticism rarely accomplishes anything except to set up barriers.
For Christ’s sake, who came not to condemn the world, but to save us all. Amen.

Yours in Him,

Rev. Chris Rice

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Grace Must Answer Grace

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Grace Must Answer Grace​
12/27/13
Rev. Chris Rice, New Life Evangelistic Center

Dear Friends,

I think there’s a terrible misunderstanding about what a gift is these days. We’ve all become so accustomed to buying and selling and paying for subscriptions to various services, that the quality of free gifts has become swallowed by the maxim, “the first one is always free.” Gifts are used as incentives anymore. A bait and switch tactic. Draw them in with the gift and then hook them. Keith Green sang about how Jesus was not a “salesmen who will sell you the things you just want to hear.” What sort of quality do we look for in gifts anymore? And what is expected of the giver? More importantly, what sort of gift was it when God gave his only son for this world?

Now if I offer you this antique taxidermied squirrel, would you think that strange? Or this dapper bowler hat, could you use that? Most of you would answer no. We’re accustomed to picking out our own items carefully, irrespective of what people might think we need. We might take a gift so that a giver won’t feel bad, but we don’t have a special attachment to it unless the giver knows something about us and offers us something we really need.

Opening Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father, your Son Jesus tells us that it is your good pleasure to give us your Kingdom. (Lk. 12:32) We are your children. We enter into your presence with joy and we trust that every good gift and perfect gift comes from you (Js. 1:17). Fill us with your presence as we wait for you. Do in us what we cannot do for ourselves. Grant us your grace and love for Jesus’ sake. Amen

Understanding Gifts As Favors

David A. deSilva did a study on the way gifts were given and received during the time period when the Bible was being written. A lot of what I’m going to share today comes from that study. He says that the Bible writers understood favor, gifts, and giving in terms of a particular social system of bestowing grace. The word used again and again in the New Testament is charis, often translated grace or favor. We would think of this system as patronage today, and in European and American culture that has very negative connotations anymore. Access to goods, position, or services is enjoyed by means of personal relationships and the exchanging of favors rather than by impersonal and impartial systems of distribution. Where it does occur it is kept quiet, under the table. In our society we believe in earning wages, drawing a paycheck, and winning our own favor in our ability to buy stuff or buy things to win favors. Even so in the world of the Bible, “personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement.”

Grace referred to three things: the patron’s willingness to grant favor, the patron’s beneficence, and the gratitude of the client. If the client was not grateful, it was not truly a gift. The patron-client relationship was dis-graced. The relationship did not continue. Seneca envisioned three goddesses dancing in a ring: giving, receiving, and returning. A gift was always reflective of the giver and returned with gratitude by the client.

What is truly surprising about God’s Grace in the New Testament is that we find he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Jesus teaches us love for enemies, and the direction of all his grace is reconciliation of all people. That kind of favor was not imagined by the world outside the Christian faith. It was too daring, too trusting, in short impossible. What believers know is that God’s Spirit allows us to take all of life as itself a gift for which we return gratitude. The love we share is God’s love in us. This is a redemption and reimagining of patronism, one that includes all people.

Learning to Receive Gifts in God’s Household

It can be truly difficult to enculturate new believers to the household of faith. People are looking for power structures like those they’ve experienced outside the church so that they can capitalize on them. They don’t know what to do with patient attention to household norms. They go back to “whose house is it, and who are you, and who am I?” all the time. They want to do everything or do nothing. Taking ownership of a task or a space looks really different to different people and it takes a lot of time and patience to learn to get along.

Ask four people for directions to one place and they’ll all stop and come up with “better” ways to get there. So to avoid all that confusion, most of us don’t bother to ask for help at all. We stay quiet and content to figure things out for ourselves. As members of God’s household we often DIS-grace ourselves when we take God’s good gifts and use them selfishly. Community property becomes “my property” when no one is looking. Those bowls and tinware for common use? I’ll just take that to my room. No one needs to know. They’ll buy more. That toilet paper for everyone in the bathroom, I’ll just hide it under my bed so it’s always there. I don’t want to have to ask anyone for anything.

And that’s exactly how all of life becomes disgraced. We don’t recognize God as the giver and don’t treat the gift as a holy thing. Instead we take what we can get and then tell God it is not enough.

I know I’m stepping on some toes here, but I need this message as much as anyone. There is an attitude that is developing in this country about churches who redistribute food, clothes, and offer shelter. It says that churches are actually unholy places when they welcome strangers in need and offer them life affirming necessities. Oh it’s not that food, clothes and shelter are bad in themselves, but when “those” kind of people get together they bring sickness, crime, and ugly to the neighborhood.

So what’s happening is that the churches are being told by the neighborhood that they really haven’t heard from God because God doesn’t want strangers in their backyard. The things that are given by God as grace like housing, food, and clothing are looked at as commodities and are taken for granted. They’re treated as an unholy thing.
We can’t be overcome by that attitude. We should never apologize for loving Jesus or doing the will of God, especially where it calls us to be salt and light where it’s not wanted. But our biggest foe is not people who misunderstand God’s grace and our calling. Our biggest foe is our own propensity to dis-grace God’s gifts by not receiving them with gratitude.

When you work all year round offering help to people in need it can actually make you less grateful, not more grateful. It can make you bitter instead of better because you can focus on the articles and programs themselves, the logistics of free store and shelter management, the logistics of staff training, the maintenance of the property and you can get to where you think you own everything, know everything, and want God to give everything to you on your terms. God save us all from this attitude!

All of life and everything we have is a gift! Our faith is a gift! Our ability to reason, a gift! Our ability to function, a gift! These are gifts given in trust that we will use them to God’s glory!

Gratitude for the grace of God, the charis of the Spirit of God is what holds us together, bearing each other’s burdens. David deSilva said, “The fundamental ethos governing relationships of patrons and the clients, benefactors and beneficiaries, and friends is that grace must answer grace: the receiving of favor must lead to the return of gratitude, or else the beauty and nobility of the relationship is defaced (dis-graced). As we grow in our appreciation of God’s beneficence, we are thereby impelled to energize our commitment to make an appropriate response of gratitude to God. When the magnitude of God’s generosity is considered, gratitude and its fruits must of necessity fill our speech, attitudes, and actions” (“Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament”).

Giving in Return

Paul gives us an example of the attitude we need for God’s work in Phil. 4:10-22. In this passage he expresses gratitude and joy for a gift this church gave for his ministry. He describes the gift as their “opportunity”. He describes his need not with complaint, but with contentment. He says he knows the secret of facing plenty, hunger and want. Then he utters that famous passage “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (vs. 13). This attitude is truly the secret to enjoying life in the favor of God. This is the life worth living, a selfless life of giving in return for God’s favor.

True Gratitude

Paul found true gratitude because (vs. 17) he wasn’t seeking the gift from the church, but the favor of God through whom the gift came. That is true gratitude. Paul awoke in the morning expecting only good things from his Heavenly Father, whom he knew he could trust. That’s how we are to be! Paul, knowing God’s goodness, spoke confidently that “My God will supply all your need according to his riches”, then he gives God all the glory. This is true reciprocity! We are part of the divine dance of God’s favor and grace. He supplies from his riches for our every need to his glory. We return all that glory back to him in thanksgiving and service.

Closing Prayer

Thank you Lord for considering us worthy of your favor because of Christ. Thank you for this beautiful dance that is receiving your grace and glorifying you with our lives. I lift up this community of believers to you now. I pray that where there is brokenness and sin in our church that you heal and deliver us. I pray that you empower us to simply serve one another in love. I pray that our love for one another would be a sign of your grace in this world.

Yours in Christ,

Chris Rice

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Sermon: Content with the Miracle

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CONTENT WITH THE MIRACLE
12/13/13

Psalm 37:7-9 NRSV
7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! 8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the wicked shall be cut off; but those who wait for the LORD shall possess the land.

Dear Friends,
My little girl has a problem. She really wants this particular art set for Christmas. But from looking it up everywhere online she has determined that it is out of stock, so she knows she can’t have it. The more she thinks about this, the more upset she becomes. She moans out loud and writhes around on the couch holding her tablet device. “I really want it”, she says.
It’s that time of year for wanting and not knowing, not realizing her wishes. She asks me about it and of course I can’t answer any questions about Christmas gifts. I usually bow out of knowing what everyone is getting every year, because I don’t want to divulge anything and get myself into trouble. So I have to be hopelessly vague. “Honey, you just have to trust that your family has your wish list (it’s hanging in huge letters on a list that takes up half of the refrigerator) and knows what you want and will do the right thing.”
That answer does not satisfy this 11 year old. Ten minutes later she asks again, “Dad, can you look up this art set on your computer, please?” “No.” She no doubt feels like I don’t care, and that her wish will never be realized. I cannot say one way or the other whether her wish will come true. I have to wait with her for her miracle until Christmas Day. Yes, it is irritating. No, it is not the end of the world. I’m told that delayed gratification is a wonderful thing, and yes, when I think about it, that’s true.
My daughter is not the only one who has a problem with not knowing what’s coming. Life has too many surprises. Too many unknowns for my comfort. And all the speculation and longing and yearning doesn’t necessarily lead to hope, faith, or trust. It often leads to stress, fear, resentment and doubt. What good is there in not knowing outcomes?
We all have a longing for security and stability. We want to know that there will be a good return for our honest effort. Our text from Psalm 37 addresses our tendency to fret about outcomes. The people of God saw the way evil people prospered in their way. They were angry, bitter, fretful, and distracted from loving God. And then they were taught this song, which is part of our Christian canon. “Be still before the Lord. . . Wait patiently for Him. . . Refrain from Anger. . . . Forsake Wrath.”
I was really tested recently, as I am quite frequently. I want to share what the Lord spoke to me when I humbled myself before him and took the day to listen in prayer and really read his Word.
You see, I got hit with an avalanche of hurt all at the same time from different directions. I got so angry and fearful that I couldn’t see straight. I said out loud, “I’m so tired I can’t take it anymore. I feel like I’m going out of my mind.” I said, “If I show up tomorrow it will be a miracle”, so you are looking at a miracle today. Praise God. God spoke six truths to me:
1. I need the Lord’s LOVE for all my FEAR.
2. Read Psalm 37:8-9 and accept it.
3. I confessed my sin of ego, anger and faithlessness. I said, “Lord, as sick as I am, as hard as my heart has become, I repent and turn to you to fear your Name. I will no longer look to the left or the right, but I will look to You! Forgive me. Help me.
4. I told the Lord I was afraid of the immediate future and he led me to this quote from Karl Barth: “That which has happened once for all has the power of divine presence. . . The church’s recollection is its expectation.” I heard the Lord saying, “What I accomplished on the cross has not changed. You can expect life, love, hope, and a future. Rejoice!” “As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever!”
5. I told the Lord, “I will not give up my HOPE. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Have your way in me O Lord.”
6. Finally the Lord assured me that displacement is not failure, but Christian communion. I read this quote from the book Compassion: A reflection on the Christian Life, “It is in following our Displaced Lord that the Christian Community is formed.” In Philippians 2:1-11 we learn that Jesus emptied himself, was displaced himself, made vulnerable. He obeyed even in being mocked, beaten, ridiculed and crucified. Then the Lord gave him a name above every name! His displacement led to glory. When we suffer displacement, the death of reputation, the scorn of our peers, betrayal, misunderstanding for Christ’s sake, we are truly blessed. We are in the right fellowship.
One of my frequent complaints lately has been, “It is not fair that we absorb so much hostility in this place from all sides. I get it from those we serve, from friends, from fellow workers, and from the neighbors.” But nothing compares with the hostility within myself. In my unsurrendered self my ego becomes so large that I imagine life itself is a cosmic trap, an invitation to joy, that ends only in failure. That I am a failure. That to try is simply to become betrayed by the game. Then, with some help, I discover that all is Grace and that choosing not to love is not really an option. I need love. This is not all about me. I accept your Love, Jesus. Thank you.
There is much to loathe about poverty. Much to loathe about homelessness. But loathing the people instead of loving them only hurts myself. Yes, I freely confess that at times I come to resent the very people I’m called to love and serve. And what follows that is that I start loathing myself. When I speak out of the bitterness of my soul I learn that I’m not alone. And the people I want to run from begin praying for me and lifting me up. I have a friend who says that he went to Florida to retire and instead began his largest ministry with the homeless mentally ill ever.
In the Scriptures we have God’s example of patience, anger, and longing. Again and again where God seems angry, ready to destroy his people and start all over, he is actually using his people to intercede and find new mercies in the heart of God. Through all life’s changes the one constant is the new mercies of the Lord. And that is what Love looks like. It’s not syrupy sweet, it absorbs all of life’s brokenness and hostility and replaces it with Life and Faith.
Henri Nouwen, faced with his own mortality, wrote in his book, “Beyond the Mirror”: “In case I die, tell everyone that I feel an immense love for all the people I have come to know, also towards those with whom I live in conflict. Tell them not to feel anxious or guilty, but to let me go into the house of my Father and to trust that there, my communion with them will grow deeper and stronger. Tell them to celebrate with me and be grateful for all that God has given me.”
When I read Nouwen’s words from Jesus in this book, “Come, don’t be afraid. I love you”, I immediately began praying for people I have been resentful towards. I want them to know the love of Jesus. I want them to not be afraid. I want them in heaven too. This is the Grace of God. This is what it means to love my neighbor as myself. I must accept Jesus’ freedom from fear in order to truly be a neighbor. In order to offer hospitality I have to accept that the way I make my meal, my bed, my room is different than my neighbor’s way, but that God’s House has room enough for us all.
This is what the psalmist meant when he said, “those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land.” (Ps. 37:9) I give up my fretting and the Lord does the work of abolishing hatred, strife, bitterness. He has made his Peace in Christ. His word never returns void, does it?
Isaiah 55:6-11
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens *
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, *
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; *
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, *
and prosper in that for which I sent it.”

You and I are only failures if Christ’s work wasn’t done on the cross. Christ won the victory on the cross and proved God’s goodness and faithfulness! If God is faithful then in Christ you and I are always a success.

Andrew Young, the civil rights activist who became the US Ambassador to the UN said, “I have found that when God calls anyone to a task, there is usually a larger plan of which any one person is only a small but significant part. The way is already prepared. There are problems and challenges to be faced, but these are often there to help us grow stronger. It’s as though we’re constantly tested and must prove ourselves worthy or at least able to bear the burdens of that particular responsibility.”
Sometimes the secret lies in letting go. Knowing that I can’t do it all, but that I can do a few things well, loving God and loving my neighbor through God’s Spirit. The task won’t be any less demanding for us, but God is no less able to use us.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelli Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote: “The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that “he has loved us first” (1 John 4:19) and that he alone “gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.”
We have a heavenly Father who only gives good gifts to His children ( Matt. 7:11, James 1:17). He assures us in His word that He has won the victory in Christ (John 16:33) and that we have a future in a New Heavens and Earth (2 Peter 3:13) if we’ll only trust Him. In Christ He has broken into this world of ours and poured out His Spirit guaranteeing what is to come (2 Corinthians 1:22). It is no secret. This is the real meaning of Christmas. Jesus is victory incarnate! We celebrate that fact year round, not just on December 25. And God’s victory in Christ is our real Hope. We need not wrestle in longing, looking here or there for victory in different places. We can be still before the Lord, knowing that Christ has given us everything we need. We can be content with this day’s miracle and the joy of knowing He is our victory!


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