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Grace and Hookers

I was a pawnbroker for a while. It was a career choice that I honestly do not regret one bit, even as I moved further away from the ethicalness of that particular industry. The job provided me with amazing benefits, I was compensated fairly for my work, and I got to help people every day (albeit in a limited manner).

The job also gave me a lot of stories about folks. I’ve had times when people came into the pawn shop with tears literally streaming down their faces, trying to pay the light bill – or buy formula for their baby. There was an opportunity to help meet a lot of needs for folks. That’s one of the reasons I stuck with it for as long as I did. However, you also become a bit jaded.

I’m reminded of a particular time when these two young (and not unattractive) ladies came into the shop. They were looking at our selection of James Avery jewelry (faith-inspired silver and gold jewelry which is popular in Texas). One of the ladies picked out a ring, but wanted to sell another piece of jewelry to pay for it.

Now, that is not normally an issue. But to sell something to a pawn shop, you have to provide identification so that if it comes up as stolen, the police know who last had it in their possession. When I informed the young lady that I needed her state identification or driver’s license, she responded: “You see, ummm, I’m a prostitute, and I have warrants out for my arrest, and I don’t want the cops getting my information.”

The poor girl was probably only eighteen or nineteen years old, and she was already selling her body on the streets of San Antonio, Texas. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the police already had her address – it was already on their system via the Texas State Department of Motor Vehicles. Instead, her friend (also a prostitute) gave me her identification to use, and so we completed the process and they walked out with a James Avery silver ring.

At the time, I couldn’t help but think of the irony of a hooker buying a piece of jewelry inspired by Christianity. But looking back, I’m a bit more thoughtful about the encounter. She bought a silver ring with a heart on it, inspired by God’s everlasting love for humanity. There are so many things I wish I had done differently with that encounter. So many things I wish I had thought instead of the self-righteousness that was in my head.

In the Scriptures, Jesus has an encounter with a woman caught up in adultery. The religious teachers and Pharisees wanted to stone her, but Jesus stops them saying, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” The men all begin to leave, until it is only Jesus and the woman. Jesus asked her if anyone had condemned her. She replied to Jesus, “No one, Lord.” And with that, Jesus told her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8)

I think that day, in that pawn shop in San Antonio, that prostitute knew more about the grace of God than I did. At least, in her heart of hearts. I missed a chance to evidence that love with flesh and blood. In my head, I was condemning her, even though I was not without sin myself. Looking back, I can see that even though she was in a bad place in her life, she had hope in something greater.

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The Midrash of Jesus

The Gospel of John opens with a declaration that in the beginning was the Word, and that all things were created through the Word, and nothing was made without the Word. In verse fourteen, John specifies that the Word took on flesh in the form of Jesus. This hearkens us back to the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, where God speaks – and from his Word flows forth all of creation. John not only shows us from where Jesus gets his authority, but he also shows us that the Truth of God has always been made evident through Jesus.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus sets about trying to teach his disciples a new way of looking at the Hebrew Scriptures. As a Jewish rabbi, it was his duty to teach his students his “midrash” or teaching, which the New Testament refers to as his “yoke” (Matthew 11:30). If Jesus were just a rabbi, then his interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures was up for debate – which happened quite often. Anytime Jesus is recorded as speaking with the elders and Pharisees, what is happening is a debate upon the midrash of Jesus. They are questioning his rabbinical credentials. However it becomes clear early on, that the Pharisees cannot match wits with the son of Joseph.

The reason that the midrash of Jesus was so questionable, was because from the very onset, it seemed as if he was contradicting everything that Moses had said. When Jesus spoke about the Law, he challenged the core beliefs of his Jewish brethren. According to the midrash of Jesus, revenge was no longer an option. His interpretation of the Law, was not based upon the text itself, but upon the spirit. And from our perspective today, who would know the spirit of the Law better than the Word that it was spoken through?

Jesus had funny ways about how he observed the Law. He didn’t find it sinful to gather food on the Sabbath, in spite of overwhelming disdain from other teachers who thought it should be a day of total rest. Neither did he allow for the stoning of sinners; for who was perfect according to the letter of the Law? Jesus even ate with tax collectors and sinners, the enemies of all religious Jews. The tax collectors because they had sided with the Roman Empire over their fellow Jews, and sinners because they did not live in accordance with the letter of the Law.

While in many ways the midrash of Jesus was more strict, in all, it was more free. The midrash of Jesus required discipline, but it was tempered with mercy. If someone offended you, you forgave them. According to Jesus, it didn’t matter how grievous the sin, nor how many times you had been sinned against. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

It was a completely radical way of re-interpreting the Law of Moses. But ultimately, it was about re-orienting the people of God back to Shalom. It was about bringing man back into full communion with God. This is the meaning of the Scriptures when Christ tells us that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no man comes unto the Father except through me”. (John 14:6). Paul reiterates this same point later in his Epistle to the Galatians when he says that we are no longer bound under the Law, for we have been set free from the letter of the Law through Christ Jesus. However, if one insists on following the letter of the Law, they must follow it perfectly, for by following the Law they have been severed from Christ. (Galatians 5)

The road we travel isn’t easy. In Matthew chapter seven, Jesus calls the road to reconciliation with God, narrow. It takes a lot of work, and daily prayer. We must re-orientate ourselves back on a consistent basis to the midrash of Jesus. Brushing away cultural normalities, and hearkening back to a voice which cried out long ago, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”(Matthew 3:2)

When Faith is Built on Sand

I remember the first time I was introduced to Christian Pacifism. It made literally, no sense to me whatsoever. As an eighteen year old kid (saying that as a twenty-six year old kid), the thought of Christian Pacifism was anathema. The very idea made me sick to my stomach. Pacifism wasn’t Christian in my eyes, it stood in direct contrast to everything I had been taught to believe by my culture.

My parents didn’t raise someone who was so easily turned away from differing viewpoints, however. The more the idea of pacifism disgusted me, the greater I wanted to delve into it and see why someone would commit to such lunacy. It also required me to confront head-on passages of Scripture that not only went against my worldview, but against the very god I believed in.

Having a crisis of faith is never fun. People don’t do this for kicks and giggles. The very bedrock of your faith is shaken to its core, because it was built on something that you’re not sure will withstand the test of time. Jesus gives a parable about this in the Scriptures. Everyone who builds the foundation of their faith upon the teachings and actions of Jesus will be able to withstand all the winds and rains and storms that may come. But those who do not build their faith upon the example of Jesus, will be like a man who builds his house on sand, and the first storm that comes will knock it down. And great will be its fall. (Matthew 7 & Luke 6)

The more I dug into Scripture, and the more I read the words of Jesus, the more my foundation began to crumble. My faith, my house, was built on sand. And the fall was great indeed. I became confronted with the very same question that plagued C.S. Lewis during his own crisis of faith. Either Jesus was a madman, or he was the Son of God.

Fortunately beneath my sand, was a bit of bedrock. That happens sometimes. My house fell, but I was able to clear away the sand, and begin building anew. It took some time, but I knew the foundation was firm (although I do still find granules here and there). My neighbors and friends and family laughed at me. I probably felt a bit like Noah, my faith being mocked. Yet I knew that somehow everything would be alright, because my new faith was built upon a Gospel that was solid. A Gospel of Love.

There have been some bumps along the way. Faith journeys are never easy. And there have been storms, Lord have there been storms. I’ve had hurricane winds blow against my heart and soul, and there have been times when it was all I could do to not give in. But our God is a mighty fortress, and happy are those who put their trust in Him.

The journey isn’t over yet. I still have a long road ahead of me. I’m still learning this path of love and peace, trying to show mercy and grace. (It’s been eight years since I started on this road, and you’d be surprised how little you actually learn in that time). A little something that helps me along in this regard is a quote by Stanley Hauerwas: “I say I’m a pacifist because I am a violent son of a bitch. I’m a Texan. I can feel it in every bone I’ve got. And I hate the language of pacifism because it’s too passive. But by avowing it, I create expectations in others that hopefully will help me live faithfully to what is true. But that I have no confidence in my own ability to live it at all.”

It is remarkable to me that there are so many who view the Catholic Church with such disdain, even now. Do not misunderstand me, I’m no Papist. My great-grandfather’s dying words were, “Damn the Pope!”. But surely we have come to a point in the Christian religion where we can disagree on secondary issues, even so far as to call each other out on where we disagree, without questioning the salvific status of the other person.

No man has knowledge of who will enter the gates of Paradise. But I do not see how one can damn another professing Christian, especially when it is a man like Pope Francis who seems so remarkably intent on spreading the Good News of Christ to the poor and the least of these. It seems to me, that Pope Francis is the most Christ-like pope there has been in ages.

Do I have issues with the Church of Rome? Absolutely. For starters, they can begin to renounce papal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra, begin to consecrate women to Holy Orders, and allow Latin Rite priests to marry. But these are not salvific issues. None of them contradict the message of the Gospels, which is salvation through faith in Jesus Christ evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit.

However, I have noticed a remarkable lack of the fruit of the Spirit when it comes to folks who lambaste the Catholic Church and Pope Francis, and refuse to acknowledge his stature and prominence in spreading the Christian religion. They would sooner gnaw off their own foot, than to admit that the Pope may indeed be a Christian, and may indeed be advancing the cause of Christ.

What is Faith?

What does it mean to have faith in God?

The Shema Yisrael (usually shortened to Shema) states, “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The Shema is found in Deuteronomy, and forms the basis of most Jewish prayer services. It is a continual reminder to the Jewish people of the Divine kingship of YHWH. It is both a statement, and a prayer. The statement, continually professes their belief in the Lordship of God. When said as a prayer however, it is a cry for belief in times when one is not quite up to the task of believing.

Throughout Jewish tradition, it isn’t quite so important to get all the answers right, as it is to wrestle with the tradition itself. This is an important part of Jewish education. Learning the Torah and being able to recite it verbatim, is quite useful to the education of Jewish children, because once they know the Torah, they can then begin to dissect and examine it as a whole. Once they understand the Torah, they can question it. And to question, means they have begun the journey of faith.

This ties back all the way to the Patriarch of the Jewish people, Jacob. On his way back to Canaan, Jacob encounters an angel, an emissary of the Almighty. There, they wrestle, and Jacob refuses to let go unless he receives a blessing from the angel. The angel blesses Jacob, and changes his name to Israel, meaning “He who struggles with God”. Jacob and his progeny forevermore have been characterized by this struggle, and God has blessed them for it. The core of the Jewish faith, the core of Israel, is wrestling with God.

Ironically, even though Christianity began as a sub-culture of Judaism in first century Palestine, Christianity has taken an altogether different approach to faith. Most Christians do not find value in the struggle, rather Christians are instead encouraged to put aside doubts, and place their faith in God. This strikes me as being rather simplistic. I am not sure that I understand how one is supposed to place their faith in God, if they haven’t wrestled with God enough to be sure that He indeed is God. Why should I follow His precepts if I do not believe them to be intrinsically valuable? I cannot find them to be intrinsically valuable if I do not first wrestle with them. Thus placing faith in God without confronting Him with my doubts.

Truth be told, if God truly was uncomfortable with my doubts, I’m not sure He would be worthy of much praise as a deity. But a god who can handle any doubts I throw his way, and a god who is totally cool with wrestling with me throughout all of my trials and tribulations – that is a God. That is God, who is totally and completely so powerful and beyond compare, that He encourages us to confront Him head-on. He challenges us to engage with Him, “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man that takes refuge in Him!” (Psalm 34:8)

Belief is passive. I can claim my belief night and day, and shout it to the rooftops. I can do my good deeds, night and day, and proclaim them for all the world to see. But faith is done in secret. It requires strenuous activity that is best done when others are not around. Faith requires that we be completely vulnerable to the thought that our lives are not our own, that we may indeed need to be changed or molded by the Truth. Sometimes, faith in God necessitates a renunciation of previously held beliefs – no matter how strongly we believed them. Sometimes, faith in God requires wrestling with anything and everything we thought we knew, just to get a taste of what is real.

Belief is passive. Faith is knocking down the door and saying, “Oh no you bastard, I want what you’ve got, and I’m not taking no for an answer.” Faith is wrestling with God – and winning.

God Sucks

I finished my lunch, and paid for it. After the tip for the waitress, I paid ten dollars total. They swiped my debit card, gave me my receipt, and told me to have a good day. A sentiment which I returned.

When I walked out of the restaurant, there was a beggar woman sitting out front. She was missing an eye, and looked quite frail. A hospital band around her wrist denoted that she had probably just been released. She asked me not for money, but to buy her a meal. A taco in fact. I looked her square in the eye and told her I didn’t have any money.

A few steps later, I was in my car, already feeling guilty about the lie which I had spoken so boldly. Sure I didn’t have any cash on me, but that was a technicality. I had sufficient funds in my bank account to pay for this woman to fill her stomach. My keys had already found their way into the ignition, but I didn’t turn them. For a few moments, I had a crisis of conscience. I was busy after all, in a hurry to spend my Sunday doing nothing in particular. What an inconvenience this woman was to me.

Yet all the more, I heard the still voice in the back of my head, “When you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me.”.

She wasn’t asking for money which could be used for all sorts of evils. She was asking for a basic human need to be met. She was asking for her hunger to be satiated. How could I have denied her? Yet the deed was already done, I had already turned her away. How would it look if I waltzed back over to where she was and granted her request? What a jerk I would look like!

Who was I trying to impress? Certainly not her. She was hungry, and she just wanted some food. She didn’t care about my pride, that wasn’t even on her radar. She was worried about starving to death. And if I drove off, forget looking like a jerk, I would be committing an evil deed. To drive away from her would be a sin. I would be denying the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He who identifies with the poorest of the poor, and the afflicted and oppressed. Damn my pride and hypocrisy, Jesus Himself was asking me for a meal.

I got out of my car, and went into the gas station next door. After withdrawing some cash, and breaking a twenty, I went back to where the beggar woman sat. I pulled the ten dollar bill out of my pocket, handed it to her, and told her to get her some food.

“God bless you!”

I walked away, too ashamed for any reply. Knowing how unworthy I was of such words. And after I got in my car, and closed the door, I looked up into the heavens and got level with God: “You suck!”

He does suck sometimes. Because He calls us out of our convenience and comfort. And I’m sure there are a lot of things I could have done differently to make a better impact as one who claims to be a Christian, on this woman’s life. But I didn’t. I drove off, feeling guilt and shame. As I should. Who do I serve, God or Mammon?

In this instance, I’d like to believe that I served God. Although I don’t always make the right decision. None of us do. But the glaring temptation to deny Christ as beggar was almost too powerful to resist. Yet as I write these words down finally at the end of today, I am reminded of a parable.

A father asked his two sons to go tend to the vineyard. The first son vehemently objected, and refused to do his father’s will. The second son told his father that he would indeed go, and tend to the vineyard. However the second son never went, but the first son changed his mind, and did as his father had asked. Which one truly did his father’s will?

A Prayer for Good Friday

A Prayer for Good Friday

Lord Christ, have mercy upon us your servants. Give us grace this day to walk in love and peace to the glory of your Name. Keep us ever mindful of your most holy Passion, that we too may be faithful witnesses, and die to self this day.

Holy Mary, God-bearer, mother of our Lord: as we remember the passion of your most blessed Son, keep us ever mindful in your prayers this day. Intercede for us to your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ; that we may have the strength and fortitude to resist temptation and live this day without sin through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.