Embracing Diversity with Love

For a couple of months now I’ve taken over the responsibility of teaching my kids history (they are homeschooled) and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to spend meaningful time with them. We’ve been working our way through the middle ages including the rise of Islam and just this week reached the crusades. In so doing I’m just now realizing what an important point in history this is because it closely parallels the modern day relationship between westerners and Muslims. As a Christian father it’s important to me that my children learn the importance of being able to love those you fundamentally disagree with on core beliefs and studying the crusades provides opportunity for this.

Coincidentally, we watched the movie Zootopia before we got into our school work this weekend. In fact, my plan had been to get all our work done first then go to the movie but I’m glad it ended up being the reverse because the movie proved to be an excellent illustration of what was happening during the crusades as well as today. In the film, animals live together in a large metropolis where there is relative peace among the species but still an obvious class discrepancy between the “predators” and the “prey.” Sure, they aren’t the hunter and hunted anymore but there’s obvious prejudice going on.

(Spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned!) Central to the plot is the sudden and inexplicable reversion of predators to their natural state of instinctual violence. As the story progresses it’s revealed that an unknown individual is causing the reversion in order to create fear between the two groups of animals and reverse the class structure. Now, the plot does not parallel the relationship between westerners and Muslims perfectly, but it does illustrate the point that fear and misunderstanding can lead to violence between different people groups.

“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 sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 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, what more are you doing than others? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” Matthew 5:43-38.

If Christ has asked that his followers love their enemies and pray for those who mistreat them, how much more ought they to love those who simply hold to a different world view and set of traditions? Despite the past and present history of violence between western and Muslim peoples, the greatest threat to peace among these diverse groups is the fear and misinformation between the two. For anyone interested in a tangible example of this, I would strongly urge you to listen to the second season of Serial which illustrates both the legitimate aggression between both sides as well as the fear and hatred that have undercut attempts at diplomacy.

These larger, world events matter because they color the way we think about people. If the primary story you and I have heard about Muslims involves acts of terror, then we will be afraid. If you are living in a Muslim nation and the only story you have heard about westerners is of their terrifying displays of immorality (some all too real, others only perceived) and their invasion of your homeland or that of a neighboring Islamic nation, then you too will be afraid for your safety and way of life. And in the midst of all of this the church is called to love and pray for both the violent minority and the peaceful majority of Muslims.

The crusades and many reactions within the church today toward Muslim people illustrate a wide scale failure to do exactly that. And while the United States may have a policy of separating church and state, to the average Muslim in the Middle East that concept is lost, and it is both Christianity and western civilization that is threatening their way of life. For most churches and individual Christians in the United States there’s not a lot that can be done to correct the beliefs of an entire nation, but there is opportunity to pray for and love Muslims in the States without fear or mistrust. That’s the worldview I want my children to have, I want them to embrace their Muslim neighbors in love.

However there is more to loving one’s neighbor than simply being kind; more to following the teachings of Jesus than praying for those whose beliefs may be so radically different from the Christian worldview that they would persecute his people. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” John 14: 6, 7. Jesus made it very clear that who he was and who the Father (God) was, was the same person. If you want to know the character of God, observe the character of Jesus in the New Testament. Any conflicting views about God are inherently false, and passively watching another individual or people group believe in a destructive lie is not love.

This is where Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes unpopular, because while Jesus loved and teaches love of all peoples, he also draws a hard line between what is true and what is false. His very existence gives a definitive name to God, his life a concrete illustration of God’s nature, truth, and will. Perhaps it’s putting the cart before the horse to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the only way to be reconciled to God without explaining the difference between his teachings and that of Muhammad, but know that they are different and it does matter. And loving those outside the church means clarifying this point, with gentleness and understanding.

Jesus had some of his own disciples walk away from his ministry over the matter of his life and death being the only means of reconciliation with God. After this may of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?” John 6:66, 67. The response of Simon Peter is similar to my own, and one I hope my children will claim as their own as well, not because they heard it from their dad, but because they have experienced the truthfulness of the claim themselves. “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God’” John 6:68, 69.

My prayer for my kids and for myself is twofold, that we would cultivate within ourselves by the grace of God and through the power of his Spirit a sincere love and kindness towards all people of different worldviews than our own, especially those of the Muslim community, and that we would love people enough to be gentle and firm in our speech about the love of Christ and the power of his resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and peace with God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” Ephesians 2:8, 9.

Sick Rats, Dog Bites, and Straight Paths

Yesterday was rough. I got a call from my wife while I was at lunch telling me that our son had been bit by a dog while they were at the veterinarian’s office. One of our rats, Oliver, had gotten sick unexpectedly the day before and so my wife had taken him in to get diagnosed. As they were finishing with the vet my son went to throw something away in the lobby and that’s when a man’s dog bit him, twice. The bites were on his leg and wrist and from what she could tell they were not deep but my wife was scared, crying, and could hardly explain the situation to me over the phone. I knew which hospital she was taking him to so I got in my car and left work so that I could meet them there.

On the way to the hospital I prayed—for my son, for my wife, and for wisdom on how to address the situation. More than those things though I worshiped the Lord. That’s not easy to do when your normal, everyday pattern is disrupted and your family has been hurt but I trust God, I trust his word, and I know there is nothing better than to press in with worship during days like this. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” Proverbs 3:5.

When I arrived at the hospital I was surprised to learn that the dog’s owner had come as well. He was an older man, and I could tell that he was probably just as shaken up by the whole thing as my wife was. While the nurses and Physician’s Assistants were looking over my son and cleaning the wounds I continued to pray, this time for the dog’s owner and for what I was supposed to do. Law suits, pressing charges, and making the owner pay the bill—these were all things that crossed my mind—but I had no idea how I should actually respond. “Lord give me grace, help me to extend grace; give me wisdom on what to do. I just don’t know.”

We needed some information about the dog’s medical history so I went out into the lobby to speak with the man. We talked for quite a while and I got to know him a bit better—his work, his family, his own emotional turmoil over the situation. He was really worried this would turn into a long term traumatic event for my young son. I hadn’t seen the dog myself but apparently at 125 lbs. he was only 15 months old; a cane corso mastiff. Honestly I was shocked at how little the wounds were given how massive the animal must have been. We talked the entire time I was waiting for the PA to finish with the bandages and all the while in the back of my mind I was praying, “God give me wisdom, give me grace.”

When my wife and the kids finally did come out I could tell my son was feeling much better. He was hugging his stuffed “wolfy” and smiling at his sister. My wife and I both talked a little more with the man when eventually I shared with him something I had been thinking in the car on the way to the hospital. “Our rat got sick at a certain time, my wife took him in at a certain time, you were there at that same moment in time and all these things could have aligned differently. But they didn’t, and God is sovereign over all these things.” Or at least I said something along those lines and that started a brief conversation about God.

Before we left we exchanged numbers but I really felt like I should have invited him to our church and so I did. “My wife and I have been wanting to get back to church for a long time,” he told me, “we just needed someplace to go.” Days like this do not seem to be going according to plan, or at least not what I had planned. I’m not glad that my son was bit, nor am I happy that Oliver was sick. But I am thankful that my day was straightened out by God in order to lead our family to this man. God is mysterious and his ways are most certainly not our ways, but they are most certainly good. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good. For those who are called according to his purpose” Romans 8:28.

Oliver 1

Oliver was such a sweet and loving rat, he will be dearly missed.

 

Oliver died later that night, and I can’t answer my daughter’s question as to why he had to get sick; why he had to die. All I know is that he did get sick, he did die, and we had an opportunity to minister to someone because of it. Days like this aren’t unique to my family, nor will this be the last one we experience; that’s just life. But I trust God. I trust that he hears my prayers, knows my heart, and whether I understand or not I trust that he will exercise every ounce of his immeasurable strength, wisdom, kindness, and love for our good.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Psalm 20:7

Free to Enjoy

This past week our senior pastor of less than a year stepped down from his position of leadership in the church. I have been friends with Pastor David for going on eight years now and I was both proud and happy for him when he told me of his decision. David has been in ministry for as long as I have known him—he was the associate pastor for years before accepting the senior position last March—but before that he was a business owner. I never knew this until a few weeks ago, but secretly he has wanted to continue his business for all these years but felt as though he “had” to be in vocational ministry if he was really going to be fully committed to following Jesus Christ despite the fact he was not enjoying it.

That’s a common problem amongst some Christians, the misconception that following Jesus Christ means denying yourself of joy in order to prove your commitment. Another pastor friend of mine referred to this as being a “Navy Seal” Christian, the idea being that if you weren’t miserable and muddy you were doing it wrong. I have to confess, I’ve felt this way myself before. It’s the main reason I have hid my gaming life from so many of my Christian friends. See, David’s response was to give up the thing he loved thinking it made him a better Christian. My response was to hide it under the assumption it was wrong to enjoy MMOs but lacking the will to give them up completely.

There is nothing inherently wrong about owning a business or enjoying video games. Both can be abused and lead to greed, selfish ambition, and destructive addictions or they can be pursued for the glory of God and to the benefit of others and his kingdom. They are of themselves neutral human practices that are either good or evil depending on the intentions of the man or woman engaged in them. I hid my gaming because part of me knew I was overly obsessed and spending too much time playing MMOs so I kept it to myself so that no one could hold me accountable. My fear was that God would ask me to give up playing and since I didn’t want to, I didn’t ask.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected by love” 1 John 4:18.

I was afraid of God, afraid that he might take away something that was important to me because I did not really understand how much he loved me. That isn’t to say that God’s love would allow me to continue with a behavior that was destructive to me or my family, but that I can trust him with every detail of my life. I’ve learned to be honest in prayer, to say “Lord, I really enjoy this hobby. I want to continue with it, so please either make it a holy endeavor or take away my desire. Whatever the case, not my will but yours be done.”

That’s been a liberating prayer. Sure, it means that eventually I may walk away from gaming, but not because I’m trying to discipline myself into being a Navy Seal Christian, but rather because I am trusting God with something that I hold dear. If I’m treating it as precious to the point of idolatry I know that he can address it in a way that leads to even greater joy. That’s the security I have in the love of God, the kind of love that casts out fear. It’s why my friend David was finally liberated from the belief that he had to be a pastor to be acceptable to God and is now able to pursue his business which will no doubt lead to even more fruitful ministry as it did before he started working for the church.

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” Psalm 37:4.

Following Christ does not require that you give up the possibility of experiencing joy in this life. Rather it frees us to enjoy God more fully by allowing him to lead us into those relationships, hobbies, and vocations that will both glorify him and make our joy full. I will miss hearing my friend preach every Sunday but I am thankful that he is finally free to enjoy the life God has prepared specifically for him. I want to experience that same freedom in Christ myself.