The Forgotten 93 Percent


    Today, Governor John Kasich added Ohio to the list of several other states that are refusing to accept even one refugee from the war torn areas of Syria and other nations.  This announcement is purely political and is entirely lacking in common sense and human compassion. 
    Judging by the Facebook posts I’ve been reading for two days, I’ve just offended many of my friends. 
I don’t care.
    Why? Because if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are completely ignoring nearly every instruction that Jesus ever gave.
Let me explain.
    It is obviously apparent that terrorists have infiltrated the flood of refugees landing in Europe and elsewhere.  But while estimates of how many terrorists might be among them range from a few to as many as 15 percent, most estimates go no higher than 7 percent.  Still, considering that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, 7 percent is a lot.  Allowing 10,000 refugees into the United States could mean admitting 700 terrorists.
That is unacceptable.
So why do I think that Governor Kasich and a whole host of other politicians have it wrong?
    Because closing the doors on legal immigrants, even in the face of this enormous threat, conveniently ignores too much human pain and suffering.  Before I get around to Jesus, let’s first take a look at who these refugees are and why they are fleeing to other countries.
    The civil war in Syria isn’t just about one group of radicals who are fighting against the government.  We think that way because we think of the Confederate States fighting against the Union, but that example is just wrong.  In Syria, there are literally dozens of armed factions that are warring, not only with Syria’s government, but against one another.  And so thinking that this is like the Rebs against the Yankees doesn’t really do it justice.  Instead, imagine that every church that you passed this week represented the headquarters of a different armed group.  Imagine that, in your community, the Baptists are fighting the Lutherans, the Catholics are killing Pentecostals, and the Republicans are at war with Democrats.  Not only is your neighborhood a war zone, every week or two, another group tries to capture it from the group that captured it the last time.  Some towns have been blown up and shot up multiple times, churches have been burned, women raped, and entire towns lined up in the streets and murdered.
This is daily life in much of Syria.
    And so, not surprisingly, a lot of people, both Christian and Muslim, have left their homes, their families, and all that they own, to literally walk across several entire countries in hope of finding something better.
Are there “bad guys” mixed in with the “regular” refugees?  Yes.
But those of us who claim to follow Jesus are called to see the world in a different way.  Not through the lens of Democrat or Republican, but through the lens of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
    If we look at what Jesus taught, we won’t find words like revenge, retaliation, or retribution.  We won’t find instructions to hate our neighbor or to fear the foreigners.  Instead, what we find are instructions to be merciful, compassionate, loving, and helpful.  Our mission is to rescue the lost, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and help others find hope and a future so that they too might hear the message of the Prince of Peace.
    We have every right to be concerned about the possibility of allowing hundreds of jihadi terrorists into our country, but that fear cannot allow us to slam the door on the 93 percent who are only looking for a place to live that won’t get blown up next week.
    It is convenient and easy for politicians to preach from a pulpit of fear and xenophobia.  But as Christians, we are not called to follow the teachings of John Kasich or any other politician.  We are called to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t expect us to be stupid or act foolishly.
We remember that Jesus teaches love, mercy, and compassion, but he also said, 
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”(Matthew 10:16 NIV)
We are called to be merciful, but to be smart about how we do it.
Governor Kasich and other politicians are looking for easy, and popular, solutions but in doing so they sell Ohio, and the people of the United States short. 
We are smarter than they give us credit for.
We are more than capable of sorting through the refugees and discerning which ones can be allowed in safely.
It won’t be easy.
But we can do it.
And it’s the right thing to do.

Graduates: Tomorrow, No One Will Care


    First, I want to congratulate all of the young people who have recently graduated from high school.
    Second, as hard as it is to say, tomorrow, no one will care.
    That doesn’t mean that what you have done for the last twelve years of your life doesn’t matter, but that what you have done is just the beginning.  You have accomplished an important milestone, but it is a milestone that we all expected you to reach.  You have achieved what most people consider to be the minimum standard for education. 
    And so you ask, “What’s next?”  While your recent accomplishments are important, they are just the beginning.  We expect you to do something with them.  Up until now, what you have done has been mandated and required.  Nearly every step along the way has been mapped out.  Your education was paid for by your family, your friends and your neighbors because we believe in its importance.  We paid for the teachers, the buildings, the administration, sports, protective gear, and the buses to get you there and back.
But tomorrow is up to you.
    Tomorrow, a new chapter begins.  This fall (or sooner) many of you will start your freshman year in college or begin trade school.  Some of you will become apprentices to master trades people, some of you will begin working in a job of some sort, and a few of you may spend some time trying to “find yourself.”  All of those things are okay but be warned, you have been given great gifts, life, health, education, and many other things, but the world is watching to see what you will do with them.
    Of course, not every high school education, nor every student, is the same as every other.  Some schools provided phenomenal opportunities and others struggled to exist.  Some of you worked hard and some coasted through school.
    But tomorrow is a new day, and the question everyone is asking is, “What will you do with it?”
    Think of it this way.  Every one of you has been given a home, a building, a place to being a new life.  Granted some of you, by virtue of your parents, your school, or your own hard work, have been given more than others.  Some of you have a small apartment and others a more spacious home, but all of you have a place to start.  Today that home that you have been given is unfinished.  The drywall isn’t finished, there’s no siding on the outside and nothing has been painted.  Your new place, your life, is just a shell. 
What it will become is up to you.
    The building you have been given can become a library, museum, bank, school, hospital, factory… or a crack house.
    By your eighteenth birthday, between your parents and your community, statisticians tell us that we have invested nearly a half million dollars in your life and education. 
We have high hopes for your future.
    Two or three months from now, no one will care where you went to high school or what your grades were like.  What everyone cares about is your destination and how well you are doing.  If you start working your boss will only care about how hard you work and how well you help her to accomplish her goals.  Your past won’t matter.  If you skip class, get drunk and flunk out of college it won’t matter whether or not you were a great student in high school.  Likewise, if you work hard, at whatever you choose to do, no one will notice, or care, if you were a poor student in high school, if you had poor parents, or grew up in a town with two hundred people.
Tomorrow is entirely up to you.
    We have invested in your life because we believe in you.  We believe that you are capable of building something amazing.  We believe that you can change the world.  We believe that you can build factories, hospitals, banks or something entirely new and wonderful that none of us have ever imagined. 
   But today, none of that matters.  Our hopes for you, our investment in you, don’t matter.  All of your hard world yesterday doesn’t matter.
    From here on we can only offer encouragement and the occasional helping hand. 
Whether you build beautiful and wonderful things…
…or crack houses…
…is up to you.

Christians are Wrong; Atheists are Right

    This week, in the span of twenty four hours, I received two invitations; one from an Atheist friend, and a second from a good Christian friend.  The atheist invitation was for International Blasphemy Rights Day (held on September 30th of each year) which “is a day to promote the rights to freedom of belief and expression and stand up in a show of solidarity for the liberty to challenge reigning religious beliefs without fear of murder, litigation, or reprisal.”  The Christian invitation was to sign a petition to force Youtube to stop a video that was blasphemous to the name of Jesus Christ. 

Wow.  

    It isn’t often that this sort of thing drops into my lap.  What’s more rare, is a situation in which I agree so strongly  with the atheists and so clearly disagree with the (well-intentioned) Christians.  To me, the atheists ‘get it’ and these particular Christians just don’t (however well-intentioned) particularly in light of recent events in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.

   
    The United States is an amazing place.  Our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of speech like nowhere else in the world and that gives us, as Christians, an unprecedented opportunity to compete in the arena of ideas.  I believe, as the Apostle Paul did, that Christianity is absolutely able to stand on its own in any such competition if it is given the ability to speak clearly.  Our freedom allows us to do exactly that.  My atheist friends may disagree with me on matters of faith but they understand that this same freedom allows them to disbelieve without fear of punishment or reprisal, whether from Christians, or Muslims, or anyone else.  My Christian friends want someone to protect Jesus from being defamed when, I believe, Jesus doesn’t need protecting.  First of all, Jesus is completely able to defend himself if he chooses to do so and second, Jesus chose not to defend himself when his accusers defamed him face to face.
  
    In recent days the entire Middle East has been in an uproar over a video produced by an American and released on YouTube.  In it, the Muslin prophet, Mohammad, is presented in a negative light.  This, the Islamists claim, is blasphemous.  They demand that YouTube remove the video, that the United States government require that the video be removed from the Internet and pass blasphemy laws preventing such things from happening in the future (sound familiar?).  Free speech on the other hand requires that none of this happen.  Free speech allows any of us to say things, to present a range of ideas, even offensive ones, without fear of punishment or reprisals.  If the government were to prohibit us from blaspheming Jesus, then why not do the same for Mohammad? 

    Already our friends in Canada have passed hate speech laws that make it illegal for Christian pastors to preach what the Bible says about homosexuality (even if preached compassionately and not being deliberately inflammatory)  but that same speech, unpopular or not, is still legal in the United States.  If free speech is constrained to protect Christians today, it may very well be used to harm us tomorrow.  I don’t like it when people burn flags, but I believe that it is a protected form of free speech that I am willing to protect.  I don’t like it when the KKK or other hateful groups march and spout their venom from the public square, but it too is an important example of free speech.  Just because I don’t like it isn’t a good reason to make it stop.  After all, I have things to say that other people don’t like very much and I wouldn’t want someone to decide that my speech was no longer legal.

 In this case, I think the Christians are wrong and the atheists are right.
 
Jesus is not threatened by the people who oppose him.  Christianity doesn’t need the law to protect us from blasphemy.  Jesus is more than able to compete in the arena of ideas.
The atheists are right. 
Free speech is far more valuable…
                                                           …for all of us.

The distance Between "Cannot" and "Will not"

   On Sunday I made reference to an excellent blog by Scott Linscott who argues that the lack of a deep spiritual life in our children has a lot to do with the choices that we made (and are making) as we raised them.  (see the original blog here http://scottlinscott.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/your-kids-an-all-star-wow-someday-hell-be-average-like-the-rest-of-us/  and my sermon here http://www.scribd.com/doc/38170459/Love-Misplaced-2010-09-26)  I left a comment on Linscott’s blog and let him know that I had borrowed from him (and yes, I gave him credit).  Since then I have been following the conversation that he is having with other readers who are leaving their comments.  One focus has been the way in which busy professionals find balance between a demanding and time-consuming career and time spent in their church and with their families.  I completely understand.  I faced that same challenge both in a secular career and now in ministry.  What intrigues me is how often, as human beings, we are able to rationalize the difference between “Cannot” and “Will Not.”  “Cannot” means we have no choice, “Will not” implies that we have chosen. 
   Several busy people argued that their jobs demand 60 hour work weeks and since God has given them these careers then their dedication was a measure of their devotion.  An example given was the medical resident who is working 100 hours a week.  In order to pursue a career as a doctor they have given up time for a social life, dating, family, church and nearly everything else.  Others pointed out friends and church members that were medical professionals.  They noted how these folk made time to spend in church, to volunteer and to go on mission trips.  What I see is a difference between “Cannot” and “Will not.”  Residents and Interns don’t really get a choice.  Their schools, hospitals and others decide what is required in order to, eventually, gain the title of Doctor.  If they don’t do what is required they will not ever attain the goal that they are pursuing but the sacrifice is intended to be temporary.  Regardless of how much a career paid, I doubt that many would choose it if celibacy and 100 hour work weeks were expected for life.  
   At some point, how we spend our time becomes a choice.  It is at that point that we all must choose whether we want to choose long hours at work or to use those hours for recreation or family or church.  This is point at which everyone will eventually arrive.  When we arrive at this moment, whether we are aware of it or not, we must make a choice.  Some choose to spend more time at work and others choose to spend it elsewhere. For each choice there is a cost.  If we work more, we may advance more quickly, get more raises, perks and bonuses.  Working less may mean that we sacrifice these things.  Working less may also mean that we are able to spend more time with friends and family and have more time to volunteer, attend church and other spiritual activities.  Each choice comes at a price.
   As I have watched friends, colleagues and church members make these choices I have often seen the line between “Cannot” and “Will not” get pretty blurry.  I have had farmers tell me that they had to be in the fields on Sunday because of a recent stretch of bad weather.  I have heard other farmers, in the same community, insist that it wasn’t necessary.  There are two differences: priorities and trust.  While some saw a break in the weather as a gift from God, others saw it as a test of faith.  One group went into the fields to work and the others trusted that God was in control and would balance the scales at harvest time if they made God a priority.
However we want to rationalize it, for each of us there is a gap between “Cannot” and “Will not” but, however we choose, God wants us to make him our first priority.  In Matthew 22:37 Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment of the law is to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  We find a very similar verse in Proverbs 3:5 with a very important twist.  
Trust in the LORD with all your heart…  
…and lean not on your own understanding.”  
   I know that doctors and funeral home directors (and many others) need to work when they are called.  My point is that each of us needs to be aware of when our priorities are shifting.  We need to be aware of when we begin to trust money, power or our own ability more than we trust God.  God asks that we put him first and not to ‘lean on our own understanding.’  
   Putting God first can be expensive and it can be painful but God asks that we trust him to span the distance between “Cannot” and “Will not.”