Loving The People Who Hate Us

Jesus’s exhortation to “love your enemies” may well be the most difficult of all his commands. Certainly it is one of the easiest to explain away. If we’re honest, many of us are hesitant, if not downright unwilling, to even give it a try.

In the following video, theologian Miroslav Volf suggests one explanation for why many of us balk at the idea of loving our enemies: power.

Volf seems to be on to something as he notes that possessing power makes it difficult to take up Jesus’s invitation. He recognizes with clarity the ways power gets a grip on our hearts and incapacitates our imaginations. On the other hand, he perceptively notices how a feeling of powerlessness and an experience of marginality can combine to create the conditions that lead people to try to love their enemies.

This interview with Amal Nassar, a Palestinian Christian, offers a glimpse into the life of a person who, in response to her own powerlessness and marginality, has dared to try to love her enemies.

Nassar’s testimony is an inspiration to powerless and powerful alike. But what a difference it would make in our world if those of us with power would dare to relinquish our power in order to love our enemies with the same kind of creative love as Nassar.

Questions for Reflection

1. In what ways do you struggle with operating according to an “eye for an eye” approach to life?

2. In what ways do you explain away Jesus’s call to love your enemies?

3. Do you know someone who has loved their enemies? What has that looked like? Take some time in the next week or so to try to ask them about how and why they did that.

4. Who comes to mind first when you hear the phrase “your enemies”? What is one specific way you can show love to that person or those people in the next few days?

The Good Life Playlist

If music speaks to your soul, make this playlist–comprised of songs that explore the various themes in the Sermon on the Mount–a part of the soundtrack of your life as we explore together The Good Life Jesus invites us to live.

Telling The Truth About Yourself

One of the constant temptations facing humanity is the temptation to control our image, to manage our reputation. From a very early age experiences of rejection begin to shape how we act and who we are, leading us to hide certain parts of ourselves or highlight other characteristics so that we can avoid encountering rejection again. As we grow older, we become more comfortable in our own skin, content with who we are, so that we don’t have to worry about what people think about us. Or at least, that’s the idea.

Unfortunately many of us get stuck in unhealthy patterns of continuing to control our image. We find all sorts of ways to rationalize the many moves we make to exert this control. The uncomfortable reality, though, is that no matter how much energy we expend rationalizing our image-management techniques, there’s no getting around the fact that it all boils down to an inability, or perhaps even a refusal, to tell the truth about ourselves. The problem here is that without truth as a given, as a foundation we can count on, it is almost impossible to cultivate the very relationships we are so desperately trying to preserve by our efforts to control our image.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better depiction of how a desire to manage our image leads us to an inability to tell the truth about ourselves than this clip from Seinfeld.

Very few of us would go so far as to try to beat a polygraph. But, if we’re honest, there are all sorts of ways in which we try to avoid telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in order to manage the way others see us and think about us. The invitation of Jesus is to believe, really believe, that the truth will set us free, and to begin to tell the truth about ourselves–with our words and with our lives.

Questions for Reflection

1. How have you witnessed others seeking to manage their image?

2. In what ways do you try to control your reputation by being less than fully truthful?

3. How might you take one step toward telling the truth about yourself this week?

4. What could you do to help others feel safe to tell the truth about themselves?

The Good Life Playlist

If music speaks to your soul, make this playlist–comprised of songs that explore the various themes in the Sermon on the Mount–a part of the soundtrack of your life as we explore together The Good Life Jesus invites us to live.

Honoring The Covenant Of Marriage

As Jesus expounds upon what it means to be salt and light and to let God’s law lead us to becoming mature children of God, he turns his attention to the covenant of marriage. Jesus’s words in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount are focused on what not to do. Often over the years, the church has taken this same negative or restrictive tack in its conversations about the covenant of marriage. While this perspective continues to be as vitally important as it was in Jesus’s day, it is important to remember that there is another aspect of Jesus’s words that is all too easy to overlook.

In between the lines of Jesus’s commentary on the covenant of marriage is an implicit prescription of what his hearers should do: embody fidelity to the covenants they have made. In the video below, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores this theme of fidelity.

Fidelity means trading bare minimum effort for all-in commitment. Fidelity means no longer seeking ways to qualify a covenant but instead striving for unconditional faithfulness. Fidelity means that in a world of innumerable distractions we cultivate a singular focus. Fidelity means we do everything in our power to let nothing stand in the way of fulfilling the covenants we make. Finally, fidelity means that when we fail, we receive God’s grace as an opportunity to get right back to the serious business of honoring the covenant promises we have made.

This song by Andy Gullahorn captures what it’s like to come to the realization that we’ve not actively been pursuing fidelity, and yet recognize there’s still hope for cultivating that kind of commitment to the covenants we’ve made.

Questions for Reflection

1. Have you ever been on the wrong end of someone failing to honor a covenant they made? What was the experience like?

2. What “cheap thrills” have the strongest power to allure you? How do they inhibit your ability to honor the covenants you have made?

3. What are some practical steps you can take not merely to avoid breaking a covenant, but to move beyond the surface of things so that you can actively pursue fidelity to the covenants you have made?

The Good Life Playlist

If music speaks to your soul, make this playlist–comprised of songs that explore the various themes in the Sermon on the Mount–a part of the soundtrack of your life as we explore together The Good Life Jesus invites us to live.

Threatening Someone’s Life

Jarrod succinctly summarizes the heart of Jesus’s words about murder and anger this way: “God wants us to reach a place where we value our relationships over our rights.” It is incredibly difficult, though, to reach this place. One of the reasons this is so difficult is because while relationships take a lot of hard work merely to maintain, much less to nurture consistently to greater depth and meaning, it’s relatively easy to sustain a passion for protecting our rights. If we’re honest, anger in response to a violation of our rights is extremely energizing. I’m convinced this is part of why so many of us hold grudges and keep records of wrongs: the anger gets us out of bed in the mornings and keeps us going during the day.

I suspect more of us struggle with this than we’d like to admit. To be sure, some of us do a pretty good job of hiding our anger, making it easier for us to believe the lie that we don’t really struggle with it. We find ways to carefully conceal our anger so that others can’t see just what a big role it is playing in our lives. Others of us, however, aren’t so skilled at pretending. The anger is constantly finding its way to expression in our words and in our actions, and while we might be successful at temporarily restraining it, its hold on our hearts and minds has become so strong it could come lashing out at the slightest provocation.

Do you remember George Costanza, Jerry’s friend on the show Seinfeld? George is the epitome of someone who is driven by anger. Anger has such a strong hold on his heart and mind that you never quite know when he’s going to lash out. There are many great scenes that capture these outbursts of anger, but this is one of the best. Still angry over a perceived slight from an acquaintance years earlier, George approaches his acquaintance’s AA sponsor to try to find a way to attain an apology from his acquaintance.

Now most of us would consider ourselves to be a bit more in control of ourselves than George, but the reality is many of us are more like George than we can even begin to acknowledge. We value our rights over our relationships and so our lives are characterized by anger that hurts others and hurts ourselves. What if we were to choose the way of grace instead of anger, the way of reconciliation instead of retribution, the way of Jesus instead of the way of the world?

This song by Sara Groves captures well what it would be like to choose the way of Jesus.

Questions for Reflection

1. How did you feel the last time you lashed out in anger? How did you feel an hour or day or week later?

2. What or who makes you angry? How does that anger play out in your life?

3. How might you take one step toward releasing the anger that controls you?

4. What would be a good way to begin moving toward reconciliation?

The Good Life Playlist

If music speaks to your soul, make this playlist–comprised of songs that explore the various themes in the Sermon on the Mount–a part of the soundtrack of your life as we explore together The Good Life Jesus invites us to live.

Letting The Law Lead Us

If we are to “let the law lead us” as Jarrod suggests, we must begin by considering the way we relate to the Bible. The reality is plenty of other folks in Jesus’s day were taking the Bible just as seriously as he was; that wasn’t the issue. No Jesus’s issue with the religious leaders of his day, and his challenge in the Sermon on the Mount, revolved around the manner in which people were taking the scriptures seriously. The most important question for students of the scriptures, for people of the book that were gathering around Jesus was this: were they courageous enough to be honest about the agendas, fear, self-interest, and other concerns that colored the way they read the sacred words and then daring enough to try to set those things aside? That question continues to beg an answer from followers of Jesus to this day.

Richard Rohr briefly describes how these “distorted filters” cause problems for us when we engage the Bible.

So what would it mean to “let the law lead us?” Well, it begins with an admission that all of us bring a lot with us when we sit down to read the scriptures, so much so that it’s no unfair to ask whether we’re really interest in “letting the law lead us” or whether we’re really attempting to lead the law. Then it’s a matter of trying to pursue with everything we’ve got the spirit of the law, the heart of the scriptures, and praying that the Holy Spirit would guide us in that pursuit, that the scriptures and the Spirit in concert would shape us into righteous followers of Jesus.

To that end, this song is a helpful reminder of the spirit of the law and the heart of the scriptures, and a call to pursue it with all we’ve got.

Questions for Reflection

1. How have you understood “the law” at various points in your faith journey? How has your understanding remained the same? How has it changed?

2. Do you tend more toward being a “letter of the law” person or a “spirit of the law” person? What factors do you think have contributed to this tendency?

3. In what area of your life do you feel most faithful to the spirit of the law? Why do you think this is?

4. In what area of your life do you feel you struggle most to be faithful to the spirit of the law? Why do you think this is?

5. Are there any areas of your life you’ve made off limits, so that the law cannot lead you toward righteousness? If so, what are they? What would it take for you to open up these closed off areas?

The Good Life Playlist

If music speaks to your soul, make this playlist–comprised of songs that explore the various themes in the Sermon on the Mount–a part of the soundtrack of your life as we explore together The Good Life Jesus invites us to live.

Offering Tastes and Glimpses of God

Salt of the earth. Light of the world. When I hear these phrases this is what comes to mind:

For a few brief moments several years ago, it was as if time were standing still. It was lunchtime, and I was excited a friend and I were going to be able to share a fantastic meal at Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q (little did I know it would be the last meal I would ever eat there).

But it wasn’t the smell of the mesquite-smoked beef brisket as we walked through the door that seemed to cause time to stand still. Rather, it was the sound of owner Harold Christian’s voice stopping all conversations in their tracks by inviting everyone in the room to join him in a song and then launching into the familiar refrain of the gospel spiritual, “Amen.”

For a few moments, in the unlikeliest of places, it was as if we were standing on holy ground. The line stopped moving. Customers set their sandwiches down. Conversations ceased. Here’s what it looked like that day.

Sure there were some who didn’t sing along. To my knowledge there were no conversion experiences. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that for a moment, in that most ordinary place and time, Harold sacrificed efficiency during the lunch rush, in order to share his faith with all who would listen, in the way most natural for him: by using the beautiful, baritone voice God gave him.

Even when he didn’t sing–I ate there dozens of times during my years at ACU and that was the only time I heard him sing–there was something about the way he carried himself, something about the way he interacted with his customers, that was different than the average restaurateur. And virtually everyone who stepped foot inside that building recognized it, as evidenced by the response when Harold passed away last year. I think what made Harold unique was that he knew deep down that being salt and light was just as important as serving a great brisket sandwich.

Most of us aren’t going to interrupt a crowded restaurant by launching into songs. Indeed, most of us shouldn’t; God hasn’t placed us in a position like Harold’s or gifted us with that kind of voice. But all of us have opportunities to offer tastes and glimpses of God. The only question is whether we’ll seize them.

I invite you to let this video guide you into a time of reflection on how you might live out Jesus’s call to be salt and light, to offer tastes and glimpses of God.

Questions for Reflection

1. Who comes to mind for you when you hear the phrases “salt of the earth” and “light of the world”? Why do you think it is that this person comes to mind?

2. Think about your daily rhythms and weekly routines. In what ways can you be intentional about making sure that as you go about these rhythms and routines you are being salt and light?

The Good Life Playlist

If music speaks to your soul, make this playlist–comprised of songs that explore the various themes in the Sermon on the Mount–a part of the soundtrack of your life as we explore together The Good Life Jesus invites us to live.

Receiving Hard-To-Accept Promises

As a child growing up in church, I encountered the Beatitudes relatively early. I remember well the words of a sweet Sunday school teacher explaining to us that these words of Jesus were “be attitudes”–ways we were supposed to be. Often the Beatitudes were treated like a sort of New Testament complement to or improvement on the Ten Commandments. I even remember reading a series of cheesy children’s novels in which each book was based on a single commandment from the Ten Commandments and when the author ran out of commandments to write about, he or she began writing books based on each of the Beatitudes. All that to say, as a child the Beatitudes were little more than another set of instructions to be followed, rules to be obeyed. The Beatitudes-as-rules never made much sense to me. What virtue is there, after all, in seeking to be poor in spirit (whatever that means) or setting out to be persecuted? I thought.

The Beatitudes continued to seem strange to me until sometime during my freshman year of college when I heard someone describe the Beatitudes not as rules to be obeyed, but as promises to be received. Aha! That was it! Finally, these somewhat bizarre, sort of cryptic sayings of Jesus not only made sense, they were among the most meaningful words I’d ever heard. No longer were these words an oppressive burden, a reminder of my inability to live up to Jesus’s calling. Instead these words were a precious relief, a gushing stream of water for my thirsty soul. For from that moment on, I found grace dripping from every word of the Beatitudes, grace that completely changed my sense of myself, my view of others, my understanding of the world, and my relationship with God, grace like Rowan Williams describes in this video.

At different times in my life, I’ve found different Beatitudes to speak more meaningfully to my situation than others, filling my heart with a profound awareness of God’s unbelievable grace. That grace doesn’t always mean life is happy or pleasant or anything else. It doesn’t always explain the difficulties or the challenges. But that grace always renews my hope that in the end God’s loving kindness redeems even the worst life has to offer.

Brooke Fraser, in her song “Flags,” captures so beautifully what it’s like to trust in the vision of the Beatitudes in a world where they are far from fully realized. And yet it’s precisely in the messiness of life that these words take on their greatest meaning.

In his sermon Jarrod paraphrased the Beatitudes like this:

1. Blessed are the losers (or at least those who feel like losers).
2. Blessed are those who can’t seem to stop crying because their hearts are breaking.
3. Blessed are those who just can’t find the strength to fight back.
4. Blessed are those who are desperately hungry and thirsty, starving for something in life they don’t yet have.
5. Blessed are those who forgive quickly and easily even though others think they are weak push-overs.
6. Blessed are those who can’t believe in their hearts just how shattered the pure goodness of this world is.
7. Blessed are those who throw themselves into other people’s conflicts to make things better, and get attacked themselves for being in the middle.
8. Blessed are those who are gossiped about behind their backs and are threatened directly to their faces because of what they believe.
9. Blessed are those who get hurt because of how hard they try to do the right thing no matter what it costs them…

Look, I don’t know which beatitude belongs to you. I don’t know exactly what kind of blessing God wants to pour into your life. But I know this much: There is a blessing here at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount with your name on it.

•Total Belonging
•Deep Comfort
•Providential Care
•Complete Fulfillment
•Lasting Mercy
•A Vision of God
•Being Called God’s Child
•The Kingdom of Heaven

I wonder, as you mull over that list, which of these are you most holding onto for hope these days?

Which of these are the people around you most holding onto for hope?

I hope and pray that whichever one you’re holding onto, you’ll experience the blessing that you most need, and that through that blessing your hope will be renewed and your strength will be restored and you’ll know clearer than you’ve ever known before that you’re loved by a God whose love for you will never change and who will always be faithful.

The Good Life Playlist

If music speaks to your soul, make this playlist–comprised of songs that explore the various themes in the Sermon on the Mount–a part of the soundtrack of your life as we explore together The Good Life Jesus invites us to live.

Starting at the End: Why It All Matters

As a parent, one of the most frustrating things to hear from my children is the protest “I can’t do it!” It’s frustrating because they actually can clean their room or eat the vegetable on their plate or be quiet for a moment. The issue is not ability. I wouldn’t ask them to do something I knew they couldn’t do; that would just be cruel. No, the problem is my instruction to them in any given moment carries with it an expectation that they can and should do something that doesn’t come easily, that isn’t necessarily fun, but that is worthwhile even if they can’t quite understand how. Thus the impasse: “I can’t do it!”

Many people have responded to the Sermon on the Mount the way my kids sometimes respond to my instructions: “I can’t do it!” Some folks respond this way because they believe Jesus is asking them to do something he knows they can’t do, as if the point is to prove we’re all failures. If that’s true, though, Jesus is simply cruel. I’m not buying it. For others, whether or not we can do it is irrelevant; it’s just that Jesus repeatedly instructs us to do things that don’t come easily, that aren’t fun, and that, frankly, don’t seem to be worthwhile.

But like a parent who’s able to see a bigger picture–who knows that the room needs to be clean so the children can enjoy playing with the friends who will be coming over later or who knows that eating the vegetable on the plate will help the child grow healthily or who knows that a little quiet would help the child to calm down and rest–there’s a rhyme and a reason to everything Jesus says. The words of the Sermon on the Mount are words of life. More than that, they offer a framework for living The Good Life. If ever we’re able to summon up the courage to actually put these words into practice, I think we’d be amazed at the ways our lives would be transformed. Indeed, we might finally find what we’re looking for.

If the idea of putting these words into practice is daunting, don’t be discouraged. Jesus wouldn’t have spoken these words to the crowd that gathered around if he didn’t believe they were actionable. Not only that, but as you’ll hear in the following two videos, recent research by scientists and social scientists offers a compelling case that our ability to live out these words of Jesus isn’t a matter of whether we can or can’t do it, but a matter of whether we’re willing to put in the time and effort necessary to fulfill this calling, not because we have to, but because we get to.

Questions for Reflection

1. In what ways have you said “I can’t do it!” in response to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount?

2. How does it change your mindset when you begin to think of these words not as an impossible ideal meant to remind you of your failures but as an invitation to become fully human as God always intended you to be?

3. How might you begin to lean into Jesus’s vision, putting his words into practice them instead of brushing them off? What’s one specific action you can take this week?

The Good Life Playlist

If music speaks to your soul, make this playlist–comprised of songs that explore the various themes in the Sermon on the Mount–a part of the soundtrack of your life as we explore together The Good Life Jesus invites us to live.

Giving Is…

Giving Is...

The narrative of scarcity is so deeply ingrained in our culture, so deeply ingrained in us, that it’s incredibly difficult to escape it. It may take the form of hoarding, as seen on reality TV. Or it may take the form of obsessively checking the stock ticker. Or it may take the form of hiding savings under the bed. But whatever form it takes, this narrative is for us like water is for fish: we don’t even realize we’re immersed in it. This is precisely why when somebody gives, really gives, people don’t get it. It’s why a couple years ago a handful of commentators criticized Kent Brantly’s decision to give his time, his energy, his money, and even his life to serve the people of Liberia suffering from Ebola. Just like so many of us they were captive to the narrative of scarcity and didn’t even realize it.

We, too, have no idea how captive we are to this narrative. Which is why if we’re going to become generous givers, just like God, we’re going to have to recognize God’s abundance. Yet even more than that, we’re going to have to learn to trust in God’s abundance. And the thing is trust in God’s abundance means more than just saying “Yeah I trust in God’s abundance.” Whether we trust or not only becomes clear when we act out of that trust. This means that to trust in God’s abundance is to intentionally commit ourselves to becoming generous givers, people who give our time, our energy, our attention, our possessions, and our money as a demonstration of our trust in God’s abundance.

In a world in which nearly everybody is trying to take as much as possible, this may be the most peculiar feature of what it means to be part of the body of Christ. And yet, make no mistake, this is what we’ve been called to do: to be generous givers, just like God—giving to each other, giving to our neighbors, giving to our co-workers, giving to strangers, giving to organizations that do good work, giving to our church family, giving what we’ve been given.

giving is:

trusting God to take care of us more than trying to take care of ourselves, so we can share more than we stockpile.

Walter Brueggemann helpfully draws our attention to the narrative challenges that make it difficult for us to fully commit ourselves to the practice of giving.

More Precious Than Silver

Here are a few simple ways to open your life to God this week through the practice of giving:

1: Whether or not you regularly carry cash, keep some extra cash with you this week (maybe a $20 bill). Wherever you go and whatever you do, keep your eyes open for an opportunity to give that money away to someone who is obviously in need. Don’t talk yourself out of it by worrying about how they might spend it. This is about us giving, not controlling the behavior of others through our giving.
2: For some of us shopping is a form of escaping (buying something new to feel better), for others it’s practically a mindless habit (almost like an instinct). Still others of us shop out of a sense of needing to keep up with the latest technology or fashions. In order to cultivate greater awareness of your spending habits and create more financial space in your life to be generous, try to make it the entire next week (or longer, like a month) without purchasing anything new that is not a necessity. See how this change in spending impacts the rest of your life.
3: Take some time this week to reflect on your current commitment to sacrificial giving (to church, charities, and individuals). Find a way to make additional sacrifices in other areas of your life so that you can increase your sacrificial giving. How does this increase in giving help you help others?

Giving Playlist

This week’s playlist features songs that dwell upon the themes of God’s provision, gratitude, and giving.

Confessing Is…

Confessing Is...

In our world of pretending and hiding, of careful image construction and managing appearances, the practice of confessing is all too easy to neglect or dismiss. We’d rather not have to confront our own hard hearts or acknowledge our own unfaithfulness. The truth all too often seems too difficult for us to bear. But when we steer clear of the practice of confessing, what we find, over time, is that we are more and more compromised, less and less truthful. As a result it can become increasingly difficult to recognize any resemblance between the lives we claim to be living and the lives we’re actually living. The reality is that however scary the thought of confessing may be, the thought of what becomes of a life devoid of the practice of confessing is far more unsettling. Freedom, true freedom, only comes when we’re willing to dare to deal with the truth.

confessing is:

telling the whole truth about ourselves, trusting that the greater truth of God’s love for us can save us and set us free.

The following video visualizes confession and forgiveness in a powerful way, inspiring us to give the practice of confessing a chance.

This song by Andy Gullahorn uses words and music to paint an image of the kind of community that can emerge between people whose lives are characterized by the practice of confessing, of telling the truth about themselves.

Listen To Our Hearts

Here are a few simple ways to open your life to God this week through the practice of confessing:

1: When you pray this week, rather than asking God for forgiveness in general, take the step of naming the specific sins you’re struggling with. Try your best to trust that God is working to set you free from these specific struggles.
2: There is a deep healing that can be found by sharing all of your sin struggles with one other person, who after learning the whole truth about you, can pronounce God’s grace over you. Prayerfully identify who that person is for you and fully share with them your struggles with sin. If someone chooses to share their confession with you, listen with gentleness and patience, not correcting them or minimizing their confession, but responding to them with the love and grace of God.
3: Choose someone you’ve sinned against. Initiate setting up a time this week to speak with them, confess your sin, and ask them to forgive you, hoping that they will respond to your vulnerability with grace.

Confessing Playlist

This week’s playlist features songs that reflect on themes of sinfulness, confession, and grace.