Heart-set, Not Skill-set

At University Ministries this year we have been talking about how to move beyond belief to actually becoming “followers” of Jesus Christ. Our methodology for this movement has been quite simple, for if you want to actually follow in someone else’s footsteps all you really need to know is the who, what, why when, where and how of their life. And so this year this is what we have done, we have taken a deeper look at Jesus’ life and encouraged the willing to do likewise.

As we now enter into our last month of chapel services for the year I have wanted our community to take one final glance at some of the practical aspects of how Jesus continually walked out his convictions. And so last week, seeking input from our students as to which areas of following they felt they continued to need a nudge, I asked the simple question, “What area(s) of your life still look dissimilar to Jesus and what skills do you lack that we might equip you with during our last few chapel services?”

Without a pause several of the students responded, “We want to learn how to love people.”  To which I said in all candor and in a pastoral voice,  “That’s crap. We have taught you how to love people all year in almost every service. Here’s the short list. Extend a hand to people. Heal people. Offer hope to people. Forgive people. Offer people Living Water. Show up. Risk your reputation to restore someone else’s life. Don’t call people names, and only name them what God wants them to be called. Be humble. Let go of your preferences for particular people. Listen to one another. Use your influence for someone who has none. Wash feet. Love your neighbor as yourself. And let God distract you for His mission.” And in a final bit of pastoral frustration I concluded with, “You don’t even need to go to college to learn these skills.”

As you can imagine my pastoral utterance was followed by a bit of silence. And then one student said quite profoundly, “I guess it isn’t a skill we need to learn, it’s a heart we need to have.” Which led to a much more profound conversation among us, for in truth we all have the skill-set to love people, what we don’t possess is the heart-set.

This I believe is the crux of the issue and the core of our conundrum as a community of God’s people. Let me offer a really simple illustration that makes this quandary clear. The snow has now melted and to anyone with eyes to see it has become abundantly clear exactly what we have thrown away during the winter months. There is evidence on lawns, in gutters and behind every bush of the items we have felt were not valuable enough to pick up or were not ours to deal with. Now, I am certain that we all possess the skills to bend over and pick up what has been thrown upon the ground. And yet today, most of us will walk past what has been left behind.

And what will we tell ourselves when we step over something that obviously shouldn’t remain in the gutter? “I didn’t put it there," “I don’t want to get my hands dirty,” “It’s too big a problem for me to make a difference,” and “It’s someone else’s job.”  And once again it becomes abundantly clear that it is not for lack of skills that our world looks the way it does, it is due to an indifference in our souls. And so I invite you to consider not, “What skills do I need to care for the world?” but rather, “Am I open to God changing my heart for the world today?”

-Pastor Judy

Not Just A Cause

On Sunday night at our Collegelife worship service, we had the opportunity to celebrate the work of Global Partnerships. Our students returned from spring break having traveled to India, Mexico, Israel/Palestine, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Appalachia. Their testimonies of ways their own lives were changed and of opportunities they had to engage with people who taught them about a world beyond their own were priceless. Following their testimonies Pastor Sandra Van Opstal offered a challenge to our students along the lines of, “A cause will keep you going for a while, but a relationship with someone affected by the circumstances you are fighting against, will sustain the vision for a lifetime.”

On Monday morning, one of the young women who heard the message and with whom I had traveled to India, came bearing a gift of $100 to help purchase a video camera for the work that Truthseekers is doing in Delhi, India. She had connected deeply with not only the mission of caste reconciliation but also with the staff of Truthseekers. And this relational connection is now moving her beyond what the experience had to offer to her and into a commitment of what she can now offer in return. I happen to know that the $100 was not fluff money for her, but a true sacrifice and I was moved by her generosity and the words that accompanied the gift, “I know the money will be used far better there than here!”

On Monday afternoon this week, a student worker came to my office to let me know that there was a man in the lobby waiting to see me. I quickly checked my calendar to see if I had missed an appointment, not a common experience, but not out of the realm possibility either. Seeing that I was not in the wrong, I breathed a sigh of relief that I not made a mistake, but truthfully the sigh that also contained a bit of weariness that someone had dropped in on my already overscheduled day.

I had been on my way out the door to attend an already scheduled meeting and so I put on my coat and grabbed my bag, hoping this man would sense my need to expedite our exchange. When I arrived at the front desk of University Ministries it was not difficult to identify the man, he was the only one in lobby over 20. He was sitting off to the side, with his greying head hung down and his hands folded in his lap, he was a man who looked resigned to life.

I thought perhaps he was a parent of one of our students, perhaps coming to seek some counsel about how to help support their child through the last few weeks of school. “Hello sir, how can I help you?” The man looked up, stood up, and extended his hand. “Hola, Pastora. Can I speak with you?” As I mentioned I was on my way to a meeting, one I felt was important. “Of course, I have a few minutes.”

As I sat with Julio I listened to his story of immigration to the United States, the life of a laborer, a wife battling breast cancer and the need for some help to avoid an eviction notice that would be executed the following day.  He was a house painter and had made enough money in the fall to get him through February, but had assumed it would be warm enough to work outside in March. Our winter went too long and his funds fell short. And although he had walked repeatedly from Devon and Clark over to Foster and Pulaski to see if he would be selected as a day laborer, there had not been enough work and he had not been able to come up with the final $200 needed.

I knew that with a quick trip to the ATM at the Shell station I could easily offer the $200 to fill in the gap, and I knew that for me it was truthfully “fluff-money”: money that is not needed for food, shelter, clothing, or bills. Inspired by my recent trip to India, the sacrificial giving of our student, the challenge of Sandra Van Opstal, the upcoming “People are not Illegal Campaign” and a good dose of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I told Julio, “No problem. Let’s pray for you and your wife and let’s go get the money.” Julio sat looking stunned and then began to weep and the resigned look turned to one of joy.

I asked Julio how he found University Ministries. He told me he was walking home from Foster and Pulaski, resigned to the fact that tomorrow he would have no home for himself and his wife who is battling cancer. It was then that he heard the bells. He walked into Old Main and asked if it was a church.  He was directed to University Ministries where I found him looking resigned to life. 

I confess I am ashamed of the sigh that began my encounter with Julio and I am once again reminded that my overscheduled life leaves so little room for Jesus to show up unannounced.  I am grateful for the witness of our students, a witness that continues to remind me to live a life of significance and service. And I am grateful for Julio’s willingness to reach out to me, for I too am convinced that it is only in relationship with real people that we can sustain God’s vision for a lifetime.

So my questions for us today are: When people are drawn by the bells, do they find people who are not resigned to letting people live in desperate situations? When people hear the bells do they find people who have committed themselves to live lives of significance and service through real relationships? When people follow the bells do they find you?

-Pastor Judy

And To Samaria

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

The Jews and the Samaritans had a long history of living in close proximity to one another, although they came from the same father, unfortunately most of their history included being unkind to the other. The Jews thought the Samaritans were ungodly and the Samaritans believed the Jews were ungracious. Truth be told, they were quite happy to stay two different kingdoms. “You stay in your space and I’ll stay in mine.” “You stay on your side of the border and I’ll stay on mine.” This was the uneasy “truce.”

I remember a truce like this in my childhood. I shared a room with my sister from the time she was born. And when we were angry with each other, but still had to live in close proximity to one another we created these kinds of truces. A line made with tape would be placed down the center of our room and there was an unspoken agreement to not even look at the other. This was the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. Which is why our passage is so scandalous.

“What? You want us to go to Samaria? Jesus, we’re all in for talking to our neighbors and those who think like us in Jerusalem and Judea and we’ll even go to the ends of the earth, but please do not make us go to Samaria. Please do not make us go to our nearby neighbor with whom we have a bad history. Please do not send us to those we don’t like. Please do not send us to those who don’t want us around. Please do not send us to people we have rejected and who are sure to reject us in return.

The Jews and the Samaritans had a past and not a pretty one, the water under the bridge was pretty murky and that was going to make sharing living water rather difficult. Because I’ll tell you what I know, it’s pretty difficult for any of us to receive good news, even good news about Jesus, when it comes from someone who has judged us and especially if the “good news” is accompanied by an attitude of superiority. This is what happened in in Luke 9:51-56. The Samaritans rejected the disciples and the disciple’s response was a desire to “call down fire from heaven to destroy them.” Jesus rebuked them and began to teach them that going to Samaria was going to require a humility beyond what many religious people had ever been capable of offering.

I believe our Samaria today, are those people who have been hurt by those who claim to be the most pure followers of religion. Our Samaria are those people that we have judged, those who know they have been judged by us, those whom we have kept on the other side of the tape, those whom we have snubbed or excluded because we are confident we are more right than they are.

Let me give you just two obvious examples of our Samaria today. From the crusades to the present day most Christians have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to our Muslim brothers and sisters. Although we come from the same father Abraham we have slaughtered one another and we so often claim we have nothing in common. And as a result many Muslims pull up the welcome mat when Christians come close not because they are not interested in learning more about Jesus but because they are not interested in learning more about Jesus from a Christian who has already condemned them.

Or we could consider much of the LGBTQ community that feels the same way. Being told you are going to hell before people even know your faith convictions and sometimes being told you are going to hell even after people hear you are a follower of Christ is quite a painful experience. If I had been judged in this way, when I see Christians coming, I might pull up the welcome mat as well. Not because I’m not interested in learning more about Jesus, but because I’m not that interested in learning more about Jesus from someone who has judged me before they know my name. 

This Jews and the Samaritans had a past and not a pretty one and it’s pretty difficult for any of us to receive good news, even good news about Jesus when it comes from someone who has judged us. And so Jesus, in a now well-known parable, gives his followers some advice about the posture they should take if they are going to heal the wounds of past judgments and divisions (Luke 10:25-37) And he sums it all up with the commission to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  And “Who is my neighbor?” The Samaritan, the one whom you have judged and the one who has every right to reject you. Love them like yourself.

-Pastor Judy

The Pattern of Bending Our Knees

We are in the season of Lent, a seven-week journey toward the cross of Good Friday, the tomb of Holy Saturday and the resurrection of Easter Sunday. We entered this journey together two weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, a service that invited us to stop in our well-worn tracks, to take a moment to acknowledge the patterns our lives have left in the dirt and to make a conscious assessment if this was indeed God’s way forward for us. If not, we invited you to repent, to turn in a new direction and to establish a new pathway toward God and his work in the world.

That very afternoon I had the privilege of traveling to India with one of our Global Partnership trips where we worked with an organization called Truthseekers International, a caste reconciliation movement. Here we confronted the brutal realities of the well-worn path of the caste system and the even more brutal reality that the rut in the road has been left untouched because those in power (Brahmins) benefit from the paths of poverty and do so all in the name of the gods.

The caste system is a social-spiritual form of oppression that was introduced to India over 3000 years ago and prescribes a person’s worth and their lot in life by the nature of their birth. If a child is born into a Scavenger caste, those who are responsible for the removal of human waste, this is the work that their parents have done, this is the work they will do and if they have children they too will inherit this trade. This they believe has been ordained by the gods and those in power use every opportunity to reinforce this “truth.”

It is not only their work that is demeaning. Scavengers are also considered ritually unclean and untouchable and are therefore discriminated against in all social contexts. And according to their culture and their gods there is no way out but to die and to hope that the gods will view them as faithful enough to move up one rung of the ladder in the next life. Such a system was described by Indian social revolutionary Ambedkar as “a multistoried tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everybody had to die in the story they were born in.”

On the first day of our trip our team from NPU accompanied the Truthseekers staff to a Scavenger community to speak the truth that there is a God who is for them and not against them, a God who came to set captives free, a God who values each and every one of his children equally, a God who can change anyone’s story during their lifetime.  In an effort to communicate the radical nature of this good news our students followed a pattern that was first instituted by Jesus as they knelt down in front of those who have been considered “untouchable” and washed their feet.

This truth was practiced over and over again during our time in India. Each day we got down on our knees in front of those who have been oppressed and prayed that the simple act would have profound consequences for those who were being washed and for ourselves as well. On one particular occasion I watched one of our students kneel in front of a child whose feet were no longer the color of their rich brown skin, but rather a greasy black. I watched as the little feet were tenderly held and washed and rinsed several times. The smile on the child’s face was priceless and the tears streaming down the cheeks of our student evidence of a heart being turned toward the plight of the poor and the outcast.

And I wonder how we will bring this home. With our eyes opened will we take a good look at our own systems of oppression? Will we be honest that we too have benefited from the well-worn paths of poverty in our own country? Will we repent for the fact that we have turned a blind eye to our migrant laborers and to the undocumented immigrants that do the jobs we deem beneath us, and will be confess our addiction to the cheap labor beyond our borders that allows us to remain in the rut of consumerism? Will we begin to advocate for those who are often marginalized by our own systems of “untouchability,” those who have served time in our criminal justice system, those who find themselves without adequate mental health care, those who live under our Magnificent Mile?

Will we continue in our well-worn paths of privilege or will we as followers of Jesus Christ kneel before the least of these and wash their feet? Will we who follow after a God who values each and every one of his children equally begin to live in such a way that gives everyone a story that holds the possibility of moving up?  Will we who have benefited from the privilege of our birth settle into our own caste system?

The tears on our faces were as profound as the smiles on theirs and my prayer is that we were all profoundly changed by following the pattern of Jesus. And I hope that those whose feet we washed were set free from their oppression and I pray that we too have been set free from our willingness to oppress. Only time will tell if the ruts in our roads have been truly altered into pathways that lead toward God and his work in the world.

Where will you serve the kingdom today?

-Pastor Judy