Is Love Blind?

Ask anyone who knows me at all and they will tell you that I work very hard to be prepared in advance and that I hate large crowds. Despite these two facts, this year I found myself two days before Christmas making a last minute emergency run to…WALMART. The horror! I jostled and “excuse me-ed” all the way to the back of the store where they hide their eggs only to be assaulted by a solid wall of pink and red hearts. Did I mention this was two days before Christmas?!?

The tide of Valentine’s day has slowly but steadily risen to engulf not only New Year’s but also Christmas. Valentine’s Day – the one day a year we all live in the fantasy that our relationships consist only of bliss and ecstasy. We turn a blind eye to our partner’s faults in pursuit of a love that makes us feel good, that’s comfortable, that’s self-serving. We idolize romance and in so doing sacrifice reality. It was Shakespeare who first coined the phrase “love is blind” (The Merchant of Venice), so the idea that the nature of love includes ignoring and glossing over each other’s warts and scars and failures is not new. But is this the kind of love that we, as children of God, should strive to give? Is this the kind of love that God shows us?

The love of God is far from blind.

I, for one, am thankful that the love of God is far from blind. God sees us as we truly are, He knows us more intimately than we even know ourselves and yet He chooses…love. I never have to fear that God is going to find something out about me and quit loving me…He already knows it all! And at the same time He is unwilling to allow me to continue in my sin. He is patient and kind, slow to anger and free from selfishness. He does not treat us as our sins deserve but embraces us as His beloved children in Christ.

When we refuse to be blind, when we take the time and effort to truly know someone, and we still choose to love them we are imaging God. It is through this I know you’re really messed up and you’ve hurt me and probably will again but I’m going to choose to love you anyway kind of love that people are drawn to and experience the grace and love of God. This is the way, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that I am seeking to love both those closest to me, my spouse, my family, my friends, and those I simply come into contact with each day. I want them to experience God’s all-seeing love through me.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we must also love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us.” -1 John 4:7-11

This Valentine’s Day, let’s take off the blindfolds, look into each others lives and choose to love like God loves us.

How Long, Oh LORD?

We are in the middle of our Advent Series at LOFT City Church.  This past weekend we happened to be in the book of Habakkuk and listened to the cry of a man who was angry at God and wondering when God would show up and take care of His business.  Listen to how he begins the letter:

[pl_blockquote]O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.[/pl_blockquote]

The cry of Habakkuk almost 2600 years ago is one that has been ringing in the streets of our nations these past several weeks.  How long, Oh Lord?  In the past two weeks there were two similar verdicts in two different cities grand juries decided not to indict police officers involved in the deaths if unarmed African American men.  As a result of these decisions we have seen protests and riots happen throughout our nation.  While most of the protests (contrary to media reports) have been peaceful.  Many of those protesting have cried the lament of Habakkuk, “O LORD, how long… how long shall we cry… how long will injustice prevail?”

Before Michael Brown in Ferguson, there was Eric Garner in Staten Island, NYC.  Footage filmed by a bystander shows Eric Garner being wrestled to the ground in a chokehold by an NYPD officer before turning limp. The father, 43, can be heard gasping ‘I can’t breathe’. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital. Protests have erupted in New York after a grand jury failed to indict the officer responsible even though his death was ruled a homicide.

Before Garner, there was Jordan Davis.  Before Davis, there was Renisha McBride, before her, it was Rekia Boyd.  Before Rekia, there was Trayvon Martin.  Before all of them there was Tarika Wilson and her infant.  Before them, there was Emmett Till.

After Eric Garner and Michael Brown, there was 12 year old Tamir Rice who was gunned down by the Cleveland Police Department, after they had mistaken his pellet gun for a real gun.  Just last week there was the shooting of Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix.  Police officers thought that his bottle of pills in his pocket was a gun.  From Ferguson to Staten Island to Phoenix we can hear the lament of Habakkuk, “O LORD, how long … how long shall we cry…how long will injustice prevail?”

Meanwhile, many in non-African American communities wonder how long must we endure such protests, with people shutting down interstates, and with riots and looting every time people disagree with a verdict determined by the justice system? “How long do we have to listen to this?” some wonder, perhaps even wondering why a preacher, and a non-white and a non-black preacher at that, is even talking about this. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of white people in America trust our justice system to arrive at just verdicts. They don’t understand why people can’t accept that the evidence presented did not justify an indictment. The majority of white Americans trust police to do their jobs, acknowledging the incredible challenges facing police officers these days. “How long will people keep playing the race card?” some wonder.

Here lies the divide and the problem.  According to that same Pew Survey, while the majority of white people expressed confidence in the integrity of the Ferguson investigation, 76% of African Americans expressed little or no confidence in the process. That survey happened in August, long before the grand jury’s decision was announced. When it comes to expectations about police, Pew reports 46% of African Americans have very little confidence in police, compared to just 12% of Anglo’s. This is nothing new; it has been true for generations in this country. This disparity shocks many people. In fact, the realities defining the lives of African Americans in our country are virtually unknown by the vast majority of not just whites, but all non-African American people.

I have an African American friend who attended seminary with me and has been one of our greatest supporters when we planted our church.  He graduated with me and since then had numerous opportunities to use his gifts and talents to advance God’s kingdom.  Calvin was just recently asked to be president of Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa.  I love Calvin and have always appreciated his friendship and kindness to me.  He’s worked hard and God has opened great doors for him.  The reality is that Calvin beat the odds.  Statistics show that he is three times more likely to live in poverty, ten times more likely to be incarcerated, and twenty-one times more likely to be killed by the police.  I’m sure Calvin’s family probably taught him how to beat the odds – not just by working hard and doing well in school, but also how to live as a young black man in this nation.

In a recent Washington Post article, Lawrence Otis Graham, an African American Ivy League educated attorney in New York City shared the rules he gave to his teenage sons. Rule number 1: “Never run while in the view of a police officer or security person unless it is apparent that you are jogging for exercise, because a cynical observer might think you are fleeing a crime or about to assault someone.” Other rules included carrying a small tape recorder in their car, and if ever stopped by the police, make sure it is recording… Never leave a shop without a receipt, no matter how small the purchase, so that you can’t be accused unfairly of theft… Do not go for pleasure walks in any residential neighborhood after sundown…If you must wear a T-shirt to an outdoor [public event,] it should have the name of a respected and recognizable school emblazoned on its front. I never had to teach those rules to my children.

Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald put it this way in an opinion piece last week: “Too many — not all, but too many — white people still live in air castles of denial, still think abiding injustice and ongoing oppression are just some fairytale, lie or scheme African Americans concocted to defraud others. Or else that these things are far away and have no impact on their lives.” His words convicted me. How long, O Lord? That was Habakkuk’s question. It’s the question on the mouths of many this day.

How does God respond? God responds with a challenge: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” That’s what we’re told in Habakkuk 2. The English translation is weak. The Hebrew is better translated, “Write the vision, make it plain, so that one who reads it will run!” The vision offered by the Hebrew prophets was the vision of Zion, the city of God, the vision that the prophet Isaiah speaks about , where swords are beaten into farming tools and spears into pruning hooks; where nation shall not lift up sword against nation and where we will study war no more; a vision where the wolf lives alongside the lamb, the calf and the lion and the grazing together, where they will not hurt or destroy or gun down or mistake toy guns for real guns.

[pl_blockquote]This vision informs Jesus’ vision for the world, the kingdom of God Jesus brings, the beloved community that draws near in him; a kingdom of justice and mercy and love, a community where the hungry are fed, the sick healed, the homeless housed, the demons exorcised, the sinful forgiven, the sad comforted, the lonely welcomed, the outcast included, the hopeless inspired, the dead raised to new life; a community no longer defined by Jew or Greek or free or slave or male or female, or black or white or brown or some other human construct of race that divides us, but a community united in love where all are one in the one who embodied such love for all. That is God’s vision for the world. In a world so divided along racial lines, lines carved into our nation’s soul by generations of institutional injustice, and systemic racism, this is the vision we the church are called to hang from the ramparts, to make plain, so that one who reads it will be inspired to run the race of faith with perseverance.[/pl_blockquote]

What does it look like to present the world that vision? This past week we got a glimpse of it in Portland, Oregon. Twelve year old Devonte Hart was born into poverty with drugs pumping through his body. According to one account, “by the time he was 4 years old he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect.” When he was seven, he and his two siblings were adopted by Jennifer Hart and her spouse. Reflecting on that experience, Jennifer says, “People always tell us how lucky he is that we adopted him. I tell you, we most certainly are the lucky ones. …He inspires me every single day. He has proven doctors, psychologists and teachers wrong. His future is most definitely not bleak, he is a shining star in this world. His light shines bright on everyone on his path.”

Last Tuesday, Devonte and his parents went to a Ferguson rally in Portland, Oregon. There was a police barricade set up for crowd control. Facing the police in riot gear, Devonte was afraid. He stood trembling and weeping in front of the barricade holding a sign that read, “Free Hugs.” After a while one of those helmeted police officers, Sergeant Bret Barnum approached Devonte with an extended hand. He posed some basic starter questions, “What’s your favorite subject in school? What do you like to do in the summer?” Then he asked, “Why are you crying?” Devonte shared his fears about police brutality toward young black kids, and Sgt. Barnum responded, “Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Then pointing at Devonte’s sign, Sgt. Barnum asked, “Do I get one of those?” And they embraced. Unknowing to them, their embrace was captured by a freelance photographer.

Devonte-Hart_TINIMA20141130_0400_5

In a world where we too often wonder, “How long?” write the vision; better yet, embody it. Make it plain; so that all who witness it will be inspired to run, to work for a different world. In a world too often defined by division and violence and injustice, a world where fig trees seldom blossom, and fruit is hard to find and people are too often cut off from one another, may we join Habakkuk, rejoicing in the Lord; exulting in the God of our salvation, who makes our feet like deer, to run with perseverance the race set before us, keeping our eyes fixed on the vision, God’s vision perfected in Christ Jesus, our coming King. Wait for it. It will not tarry. Such a vision is worth the wait! Such a God is worth our worship.

** Unfortunately we had some technical difficulties with the recording of this video so there are some parts missing, but you can watch the rest of the sermon here.

Seeing the Invisible One

In an earlier blog post, I wrote extensively about how ministers of the Gospel shouldn’t act as though they gave up “something big” to pursue the call of God in their lives.  However, there is a person who probably could or should talk about what they gave up: Moses.  Moses didn’t just sacrifice a nice six figure job and the comforts of a home with a backyard to follow Jesus.  He turned his back on being the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.

What exactly does it mean to reject being the son of Pharaoh’s daughter?  For 40 years, Moses was educated in reading and writing the Egyptian language, he was taught the language of Cain, trained in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, music, medicine, law, diplomacy and geography.  He was also trained in archery, swimming, and horseback riding.  He had the world at his fingertips and wealth beyond measure.  He could have had any woman he ever wanted and anything he ever desired.  Some believed that he was in line to one day be the next Pharaoh due to his adoption into the family.    And he willingly gave up all of that to pursue Jesus.  He had a right to brag about what he gave up to follow the call of God.

Clay Werner begins his book, “On the Brink” by looking at the life and ministry of Moses after he follows God and gives us the right to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  His life was not glamorous nor one that we would envy or want.  Think about the life Moses had after he gave everything up for God.  He tried to deliver the people of Israel on his own, but that backfired and they didn’t even understand him.  He then spends the next forty years of his life in a wilderness taking care of sheep.

After all that, he encounters God and God tells him that Moses will be used to deliver the people from bondage.  But then God says something interesting, “Moses, you are going to go and demand that Pharaoh release my people.  But when you tell him that, I am actually going to harden his heart and he will refuse you.”  That’s what Moses gets for leaving everything to follow God!

God tells Moses that the people will listen to him, but then Scriptures reveal to us that they actually wouldn’t listen and Moses ends up complaining to God about the very thing God said they would do.  What Moses experienced from his own people could be summarized as animosity.  If Moses didn’t provide what they wanted, when they wanted it, they would complain and perhaps even consider stoning him.  He would be called a proud man, one that was interested in seeking his own glory in their deaths.  The people that he was over had spiritual Alzheimer’s – constantly forgetting what God did for them while grumbling and complaining about what they didn’t have.  This was the “reward” for giving up everything to pursue God.

Moses was constantly listening to their grumbling.  The people thought Egypt was like paradise and wanted to return there.  They complained that the food God provided for them wasn’t lavish enough for their tastes.  He was also constantly dealing with betrayal.  His own brother, Aaron, formed a false god for the people to worship.  He then joined forces with Miriam (Moses’ sister) and sought to oust Moses from leadership.  There were the 250 people that joined forces with Korah and opposed Moses.  On top of that, he had to deal with the day-to-day caring of the people and their needs.

This was the life Moses lived for sacrificing everything to pursue God.  Ministry wasn’t as grand as he expected it to be.  The life of Moses is a reminder that we will all face various and uncountable circumstances and individuals that will test and try our patience and endurance on a repeated basis.

How does Moses respond?  When he was provoked, he never sought revenge but remained calm and grieved that the sins of the people were against God and not against him.  His disposition was never one of hatred, but of love.  He was willing to suffer the loss of his own peace and comfort rather than defend himself or respond in the same manner that they treated him.

If you endured anything that is painful because of the actions of other people, you know that it is impossible to respond like Moses did apart from God’s renewing grace in our lives.  We are to be forgiving because Christ forgave us and we should seek to imitate it in our relationships with others.  We are to endure much from others because we love them.  We are to pray for them because we seek their welfare and long for them to be restored to God and others.  We are to imitate Christ in all things.

Moses never gave up or quit.  We never see him walking out on the people.  We never see him exploding on the people after years of pent up frustration and anger.  It’s amazing what we do see.  We see Moses falling on his face and pleading with God to save His people and not destroy them.  We see him standing in the gap when the justice of God is being poured out on the people.  We see him praying for the restoration of his back-stabbing sister after she sought to overtake his authority.  No wonder the Bible says that he was one of the most meek and humblest person on the face of the earth.

How was Moses able to do this?  Was he more holy than the rest of us?  Of course not.  The Bible is brutally honest about Moses’ shortcomings as well. He didn’t want to obey God and actually suggested that God messed up in choosing Moses as a leader.  He even had the audacity to recommend someone else to God as a possible leader.  There were times he was self-centered.  You see situations where his anger comes out.  Ultimately, he doesn’t obey God and loses the opportunity to enter the Promised Land because of his disobedience.

How did Moses endure and how do we endure when life gets hard?  Hebrews 11:27 gives us a small glimpse of what enabled Moses to keep going in the midst of so much disappointment, opposition and persecution.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that Moses “endured as seeing him who is invisible.”  Even though this sounds simple, this verse is deeper and more profound than we realize.

[pl_blockquote]The reason our frustrations run deep, the reason our anger gains control, the reason our endurance fades away is because we take our eyes of God and His Word and we focus on the dirt, junk, hardness, stubbornness, and challenges of the situation and the people around us.  Even though we believe the Word of God and can intellectually say that God is with us, we live our lives as functional atheists with God nowhere to be seen in the way we look at things, feel about things, and talk about things.[/pl_blockquote]

We need the Holy Spirit to constantly remind us that God is working behind the scenes – Someone who is infinitely powerful, wise, loving and sovereign has a plan that will be brought about in His perfect time and in His perfect way.

Knowing this doesn’t take away the difficult situation or magically make people disappear from our lives.  It doesn’t take away the pain and hurts that people cause in our lives.  However, it does place everything in the context of a world and life that God reigns over in mercy.

In Colossians, the Apostle Paul prayed that we “would be strengthened all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience” (1:11).  Why do we need power?  Why does God need to strengthen us?  Not so that we can have great lives and successful ministries, but because Paul understands that as messengers of the gospel we live in a broken world with broken people.  He knows that we will be tempted not to fight the fight, tempted to walk away from the race, tempted to quit.  Therefore, he prays that we get power so that we can endure and have patience.

What Moses endured and what we endure in life, even though it is painful, shouldn’t surprise us.  Our prayer should be “God help me to see, through eyes of faith, him who is invisible.”