Acts 5:1–11

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Earlier this summer CNN reported about a motorcycle accident that ended in death and controversy. A motorcyclist rode without a helmet in a ride to protest mandatory helmet laws. He represented his local chapter of American Bikers Aimed Towards Education (ABATE). He was thrown over his handlebars in an accident and later died at the hospital. Experts analyzed the data from the crash and determined that he would have survived if he had been wearing a helmet.

ABATE members mourned the tragic loss, but praised the man’s determination to stand up for personal freedoms, saying he “rode for freedom and risked his all for freedom.” Members of the Governors Highway Safety Association called the incident tragic and sad, encouraging all motorcyclists to wear helmets. There were strong feelings on both sides.

But no one expressed surprise.

Somehow, no matter how tragic or sudden a death is, if it makes logical sense, we can sleep at night. When my 85-year-old grandparents passed away, we mourned, but we did not blame God for the loss. When a celebrity succumbs to the deadly grip of drugs, we cry, we lay out flowers, but we do not ask, “why?” When a convicted felon receives the death penalty for murder, we may or may not question the sentence, but when the lethal injection begins, we just shake our heads and shrug and say, “Sad world we live in.”

But there are other deaths that cause our heads to spin, our hearts to stop beating, and our faith to begin to swirl down the drain of suffering. When a young person is stricken with a terminal illness. When someone is murdered. When people die in war zones. When children starve to death. Then we reach up to the sky and pound our chests and scream at the all-knowing Parent in the sky and say, WHY? Don’t you love us? Don’t you have a plan?

Ananias and Sapphira is a death story that does not seem logical to me. They lie to God and the church and they are struck down in some sort of anti-miracle of Peter. Sapphira’s death is even premeditated. Your husband died, now you’re gonna die. What? Are you serious? There are many other examples of sin in the Bible where the sinner does not fall down dead. There are plenty of examples in present day where the sinners do not fall down dead. There are a few examples in my life today where I have sinned and not fallen down dead. So, why Ananias and Sapphira? Where was grace for them? Why didn’t they get a second chance? Why couldn’t they just confess, believe, and be saved?

There is a reason why this is one of the most difficult passages in scripture. It seems like Peter got ticked, he called down God’s wrath, and God cooperated with his plan. And if you study this passage, you don’t get much closer to a logical explanation. We don’t have many details. It might be easier to understand if Ananias lied to God AND he was a pedophile. Or maybe Sapphira kicked dogs and cooked cats while Ananias painted racist propaganda. That would make the story more palatable. Then we would just keep on reading Acts with great peace and encouragement. I’m not that bad. Hooray for me.

The part of the story that gets under our skin is the fact that we are exactly like Ananias and Sapphira. We hold back things from God. We lie to God and the church, saying that we have nothing left to give. But we feel a sense of peace about our reluctance because we believe that God’s grace will cover our shortcomings. We will keep on living, attending church, giving what feels right, and then we’ll die a natural death.

Then we read our story in Acts and it doesn’t end that way. The church confronts us and we die. What do we do with that?

It reminds me of the scene in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge is peering over the edge of his own grave. He begs the third spirit for another chance to change his life. We peer over the edge of the graves of Ananias and Sapphira. We get spooked. We say, “Um, not me, Lord.” And we pull out our checkbooks, just to be sure. Is that the appropriate response to this gruesome story? Is it a fairy tale to get us to mind our manners?

Some commentators suggest that Ananias and Sapphira sought glory and recognition without real sacrifice. That’s why they were killed. But I do that too. I am not satisfied with that answer.

Some commentators suggest that Luke contrasts Barnabas and his sacrificial giving with the selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira in order to teach the church that Barnabas’s generous gifts brought consolation to the church, while the selfish gift of Ananias and Sapphira brought fear. That still doesn’t make their deaths any more logical to me.

Some say that this is a parallel story to other Original Sin stories, such as the fall of Adam and Eve, the golden calf at Mount Sinai, and the stoning death of Achan. These stories interrupt parts of the narrative where things are idyllic, God is present, and the community is healthy. The sin comes in, death follows, and Eden vanishes.

That perspective may give the stories more literary heft. They may make more sense in the long perspective, but nothing can make them feel logical or even fair. No amount of biblical scholarship can explain away every tough story of God’s wrath. If it could, then God would be called “Science” because God would always be predictable. God would make sense all the time. We could set our watches by the miracles.

God is faithful, God is loving, God is just; but God is not predictable.

So what do we do with a God that doesn’t always make sense? What do we do with a God who will not heal a friend I prayed for last week, but will strike down a church-attending couple?

When Job asks this question, God says: who are you to question my awesome ways?

This answer is sufficient and it should be sufficient. And for some believers, this is enough to stop asking why. Trust God, whose ways are higher than our ways.

But when it seems like God ways are wrong, illogical, ill-timed, or even unloving, I do not go to Job 40-41. The idea that God can crush me doesn’t minister to me in my time of faith crisis.

Instead, I go to John 11.

There is this beautiful moment where Jesus has lost his dear friend, Lazarus. The death seems senseless. People there ask our question, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Two thousand years ago, Jesus’s friends asked our question. “Couldn’t you have done something about this?” The fact that people in the presence of Jesus could have the same question knocks me off my chair. I am comforted by this simple fact alone, but it gets better.

Jesus is weeping. His friends are weeping. And that is where we find ourselves — outside the tomb, weeping with Jesus, saying, “Why didn’t you do something? If only you had come sooner…”

In that moment, Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha, ask the question. They stand at tomb and shake their heads and ask, “Why?” This death makes no logical sense. It is in that moment that I find comfort. That is where we are, on the precipice of a miracle, on the outer reaches of “all things new,” at the banks of “prosper you and not harm you.” That is where we wait for God to move.

He tells us that things will be okay. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

And we say, “Yes, Lord. We believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

The astounding part of that place is that even though Jesus knows about the victorious resurrection that is coming, he still pauses to weep with the sisters and friends. And he weeps with us.

And he weeps for Ananias and Sapphira.

Acts 3:1–10

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Tough Love

I was a junior in high school when our youth group went on a strategic neighborhood prayer walk. We went door to door, every day for a week, asking people for their prayer requests. Then we would meet at night to pray for each request. It was awkward some times, but we felt we were really connecting with the community.

One of the evenings we were greeted at the door by two little girls. We asked them if we could speak to a parent. Their father came to the door in his wheelchair.

“Hello there, we’re from the church down the road and we’d like to know if you have any prayer requests today. We will write them down and pray for them this evening.” He looked at us with the same skeptical face that you do when religious people bother you at home. Through clenched teeth he said,

“Nope, we’re just fine.”

“Are you sure? Is there anything we can ask God to do for you?”

He scowled and dared us, “You could ask God to make my damn legs work again.”

“Sure, God can do anything. Sure thing. We’ll pray for you. Here’s some literature about our church. Have a blessed day.” I felt sick about the whole experience, but another member of my team felt a different leading.

“I think we should go back and pray for healing. I think God wants us to go knock on his door and pray for him right there. Lay hands on him.” “Lay-hands-on” is a reference to an early church practice of praying and imparting blessings by putting one’s hands on the person for whom one is praying. But I felt unsettled about this.

So we trekked through the neighborhood, back to the man’s house. At the time, I would have described him as that Angry Man. That was how he treated us, but as I look back, I wonder if he was angry or just shaking his head at us and our naive attempt at evangelistic prayer. I wouldn’t blame him.

He answered the door with his girls. His face fell. Here we go again.

“We’d like to pray for you. Here and Now.”

I still can’t believe he brought us into his home. We were a ragtag handful of teenagers with one small-group-leader-mom, hoping to bring down some modern-day, instantaneous healing on this guy. I was mortified on his behalf. We prayed. We said, “Amen.” That was it. We left, dragging our enthusiasm behind us.

It was a risky move. I knew it at age 16. But I was still mad at God that he didn’t just come through for us. Yeah, people are dumb, but God, you could have shown up. That would have been really cool of you.

Healing is tough. Entire faith communities exist around this spiritual phenomenon. It’s supposed to work this way: If you have faith, you pray, and your brothers and sisters lay on hands, you will be healed! Unless…

  • you didn’t have enough faith
  • or God isn’t ready to heal you yet because you haven’t learned the intended lesson
  • or your endurance through suffering is bringing him glory
  • or his divine cosmic plan depends on your infirmity
  • or he is planning to give you “ultimate healing” which means you die and go to heaven and get your new body
  • or you need to go get prayer from a faith healer
  • or God doesn’t do miracles like that anymore
  • or God doesn’t do miracles like that for westerners who have modern medicine
  • or he was just in a bad mood that day.

So, how is it supposed to work again?

When I was a kid, healing stories gave me faith and hope. As a child I heard the same ones over and over again. Every Sunday School curriculum includes these sweet stories of restoration and healing. You don’t run into too many six-year-olds who know the ugly stories of death and annihilation. Ehud and Eglon, anyone? You are supposed to tell a six-year-old about the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Healing of the Blind Man and the Resurrection of Lazarus. Miracles are so great! Anything can happen! God feels so close.

The ugly stuff comes later.

Now that I am an adult and have lived through some trials, the miracle stories are some of the most disturbing parts of the Bible to me. Miracles aren’t the world I know. Supernatural, instantaneous healing seems far more distant than suffering and agony. Even divine retribution (as in the coming story of Ananias and Sapphira) makes more sense. Sinners deserve death. That part is easy. The tough question is, why does God choose some sinners for supernatural healing while leaving others in pain? Why doesn’t God heal my friend with cerebral palsy? Why did the most effective teacher in my school have to die of breast cancer? Why did the lame beggar find healing, but millions of people die of hunger without any miraculous intervention?

I know Luke didn’t put this story in his account for the sake of making other sick people feel miserable, so there must be something more to find.

Every Bit as Miraculous

My friend has cerebral palsy. She has been around enough churches and among enough denominations that she has experienced every version of healing prayer you can think of. She grew weary of hearing that she would be healed if she had enough faith. From faith healing to naturopathy, she has experienced it all. And she still suffers.

I asked her about this passage. I confessed my own skepticism and hopelessness and she seemed genuinely surprised.

“Why does the story make you feel that way?”

“Because no one ever gets healed around me. What’s the point? Is it some cosmic tease?”

“For someone who suffers daily, these stories offer hope. I may never be instantaneously healed, but it could happen. On the other hand, I feel like God is healing me slowly, every day, and that is every bit as miraculous.”

What kind of story is this?

What if this isn’t a story about healing?

If we look at this as a story about healing, we end up with the question, “why not me, God?” But is it a healing story—or is it a common-people story? A story about the good news? A story for me and you? Peter healed a lame beggar, a man outside the temple gate, who felt just as alienated as we feel.

Luke wrote Acts to chronicle the progress and power of the early church. The location of this miracle is critical to Luke’s overall theme that the good news is for everyone. This healing, the first recorded miracle of Peter, takes place at the outer gates of the temple at the gate called Beautiful. God’s presence is at the outer gate, no longer confined to the Holy of Holies or the inner sanctum of the temple. The Holy Spirit is busting out, taking to the streets. This Jesus is for everyone, even for a lame beggar on the outskirts of the center of worship. Luke says that the separation of a Holy God from his unholy people ends now, and here’s proof!

This is not a healing story. This is a “Who-do-you-know?” story, as in, “do you know this guy? Because I think he can get you in. He’s a pretty big deal around here. People just say his name and stuff starts happening. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone like him.”

And that name is Jesus Christ of Nazereth.

That name is powerful. In a culture where elite names open doors or change circumstances, Peter invokes the name of Jesus to heal this man. Luke is establishing that Jesus was no ordinary prophet. His Spirit did not die when he ascended. He is only beginning his work of restoration. This name is going to change things. For everyone. Peter invokes the name of Jesus and a man is miraculously changed forever. His life will never be the same.

This story is about the name of Jesus and his reach which is stretching to the outer limits of humanity to collect us all in his pocket and take us home.

This is not a healing story. This is a beggar’s story.

What about sincerely being awed by the fact that God healed anyone at all? How great for that guy! If God only healed one person on earth and it was “Lame Beggar at the Gate,” I guess I’m really happy for him. His life might have been really hard and awful and God healed him. That is worth celebrating whether God intervenes supernaturally in anyone’s life ever again.

I hope he does intervene in the lives of my friends and family, but if he doesn’t, we’ll always have Lame Beggar at the Gate.

But it still hurts.

When we suffer, we may never see any supernatural healing on this earth. (Are we allowed to say that in church?) Jesus came to suffer with us, not remove suffering from our experience. He cries the tears with us, he draws the excruciating breaths with us, and he limps along with us. A companion in the journey, a redeemer to make it all worth it.

Jesus also came to make all things new. The trouble is, his “new” is so “new” we may not recognize it. When Jesus heals something, what does it look like? Watching my friend with cerebral palsy experience healing day by day is “new” to me. It’s miraculous. It’s healing.

Seeing my friend’s autistic son develop his spoken language and begin expressing thoughts, feelings, creativity, and prayers is “new” to me. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It’s healing.

Watching my children progress through their own grief and suffering as adoptees is “new”. Their healing is miraculous. God is collecting their tears and bandaging their wounds and setting them right.

But is this enough? I don’t know. I have experienced many supernatural things, but I’m still waiting to see a lame person walk. I know there are many among us in our community who have experienced miracles. Perhaps if we continue to rejoice in our stories, we will discover the miraculous is more common than we imagined.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Last One There is a Rotten Egg

My three-year-old son came home from preschool saying my least favorite F word, “No fair.” I felt like launching into a long explanation of privilege, blessings, and humility. “You don’t know how good you have it, kid. People in Rwanda don’t have clean water. That is No Fair.” But at that time he was only three, so I just repeated my mantra, “Our family doesn’t say that.” Clean, decisive. I’m the schoolyard phrase assassin.

Our family may not say that F word, but we live it every day. I learned “No Fair.” My husband learned “No Fair.” Humanity collectively cries, “No Fair.” We hate long lines, we demand compensation, we glare at anyone with an unearned edge. And those who don’t work for it? What’s their problem?

We expect to find equitable housing, receive a fair wage for an interesting job, attain recognition for service, and be treated as well as or better than everyone else. That is fair. Anything else is oppression. Or cronyism.

That attitude serves us well as we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and seek out success for futures. But it is a disadvantage when we approach the words of Jesus. Jesus turns fairness upside down. Jesus takes justice and flips it inside out into mercy. Jesus looks at the underprivileged whose bootstraps broke long ago, who deserve the last place in line and he says,

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Our No Fair mentality has deconstructed this verse so many times that some translations even rework it so that it doesn’t match the original Greek. For example the first edition of the New English Bible translated this verse as “How blest are those who know that they are poor.” This sentiment is easy to adapt to include me. I know I’m really poor, even though I have money. I know I don’t deserve everything I have. This verse must apply to me! The kingdom of heaven is mine.

Or we try to substitute ‘humility’ for ‘poor in spirit’ so that we can claim this promise for ourselves. We explain that the most well-educated, wealthy, successful people can relate to this verse just by being more humble. In this way the verse become a prescription for behavior. Be humble about your amazing life and you will find the kingdom of heaven.

Some choose to entirely throw out the Matthew text in favor of the Luke text, “Blessed are the poor”, to find blessing in their financial position. Jesus favors me because I haven’t been treated fairly. I haven’t received the opportunities that others have received. God bless me. I’ve worked my heart out for little success. Mine is the kingdom of heaven. Anything else is “No Fair.”

The trouble with any of these interpretations is that they all make the assumption that the verse applies to us. But Jesus is making a new path here. His message and his journey on earth proved that Jesus is considering the “other”. The neighbor. The outsiders. Any attempt to include ourselves on the inside of some “poor in spirit” club is missing the point. It’s not about the humble, the poor, or those who know they are poor.

It’s about everybody else.

A Drunk and the Kingdom of Heaven

A long, long time ago I went to Guatemala on a mission trip with my youth group. We used drama and dance and physical labor to show the love of Jesus to the people there. One night we performed our production in a park where families and teenagers and vagrants gathered to watch us in our shenanigans. After a few catchy numbers and heart-wrenching dramas, a friend of mine gave her testimony. Then we gave an invitation for people to come forward for prayer. A man came forward to my group for prayer and we quickly determined that he was drunk as a skunk. And it was my job to translate his mumblings.

I remember us all giving each other knowing glances. He’s not in his right mind. Does he even know what he is doing? Will he remember this in the morning? Boy, he is really drunk.

I was disappointed. I had wanted to share the good news with someone, not prop up a drunk while he lamented his sad life. I tried my best to translate. We surrounded him and prayed for him. He kept mumbling. His breath was so bad. I looked out at the crowd who watched us, but had not come forward and thought, Are we wasting our time? This will all be lost and forgotten by this guy.

I’m embarrassed by my fifteen-year-old self. This poor, suffering man with a devastating addiction had come forward for prayer. For touch. For healing. And I was looking over his stinky shoulder for the next guy. I wasn’t satisfied with an outsider. Jesus was right at home with outsiders. In fact he surrounded himself with outsiders.

Jesus tells us that the last shall be first and the first will be last. Jesus recruits his team from the fishermen, tax-collectors, laborers of the day. He spends his time rubbing shoulders with lepers, dining with prostitutes, feeding the hungry. He washes the feet of those who would eventually betray him, fall asleep instead of praying for him, or deny him.

Jesus sees the seemingly invisible people around him. Jesus tells us that our neighbors are the Samaritans, a people group reviled by the Jews of the day. Considered gentiles and outside the promise of Israel, the Samaritans were seen as quite poor in spirit. They lacked the inheritance of the people of God, and Jews did not associate with them at all.  But Jesus tells a parable that picks the scab of this prejudice. He casts a Samaritan as the Good Guy, coming to the aid of a Jew.

But [an expert in the law] wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

So this Samaritan, so poor in spirit, sets the example. This outsider has a stake in the kingdom of heaven. It may seem silly that this would be so shocking to a first century Jew. With our diverse, 21st century sensitivities, prejudice for the Samaritans seems archaic.  But the feeling is painfully too familiar.

When we pick teams in this world, don’t we still go by the schoolyard pecking order?

We demonize entire groups of people by their political agenda, their immigration status, or their level of fundamentalism. We nod our heads when people “get what they deserve”. We all have our own Samaritans.

We invite people in only if they are ready to make a change, “Man on the Road, you look like you need help. But I need to know what your intentions are. If I help you, are you prepared to change your life?”

But Jesus says “follow me”.

The Least of These

Luke tells us of another encounter between Jesus and one who is poor in spirit:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Jesus claims that the widow’s two mites have great value — that our offering does not even compare. Yet today, do we condemn this woman for mismanaging her money? This lady must watch TV evangelists – those frauds who deceive people into giving all their hard-earned money to corrupt churches. We tell her to be smart. Make a budget like the rest of us. Get a clue.

And again, Luke shares a moment with us, where Jesus extends his community to include another group of outsiders:  children.

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Jesus beckons the children to come to him. Yet we hold them back. Place them in childcare. Tell them to color on the bulletin while we talk over their heads. Plug them in so that we can get some peace and quiet. We diminish their educational content as light or simplified or easy: Love one another. God loves you. Share with your neighbor.

As if that were easy.

Brave New World

The gospel of Luke captures many outsider moments with Jesus. Luke introduces us to Jesus, the One who surrounds himself with the Poor in Spirit. They don’t deserve it. They haven’t earned it. When we try and put them in categories, box them in, create separate worship experiences for them, lecture them, or altogether avoid them, Jesus embraces them. He surrounds himself with the poor in spirit. How can I edge myself into that circle? How do I become part of that in-crowd? Can I squeeze in there somehow?

Jesus demonstrates the ‘how’. We stretch out our arms wide and we say, let them come. We embrace the poor in spirit and we find ourselves in the circle. Because this verse isn’t about me. It’s about everybody else. Welcome to a new realization, Me. The people I categorize, who have less to offer, who don’t belong on my team are blessed. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus gives them dignity. Jesus gives them hope. Jesus draws them in. If I want to get on board with the kingdom of heaven I had better call them blessed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I say, “No Fair.” And Jesus says, “Our family doesn’t say that.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

I give and I give and I give

While traveling by car in Ethiopia my husband and I had the familiar experience of meeting beggars at our windows. At first it was difficult. Many of the people were women nursing babies or children or people with disabilities. We felt compassion and wanted to help. But our translator informed us that it is against the law in Ethiopia to give money to people out of your car window. If we did, it could cost the driver a steep fine.

The decision was removed from us. We could righteously ignore the pleading faces of the underprivileged, knowing that we were obeying the law. Mercy was out of our hands. Why did we feel relief? Why did it feel like a burden of responsibility was gone?  Because in that moment when our eyes locked with the have-nots, our money burned in our pockets.  Our clothing hung like chains. Our busy schedule weighed like a noose.  I don’t want to give these to you. I feel awkward.

We could tell ourselves it was probably best for those people anyway. The kids should be in school. The mothers should have jobs. The government really needs to fix this problem. And how about those big churches we see everywhere? This is their job. We are here to do our one job. We can’t be bothered with everyone’s problems. There’s only so much we can do (and still maintain our lifestyle in the United States, of course). Someone else will have a heart for the street children of Ethiopia. God bless ‘em.

And with that we rolled up our windows, like we had so many times before.

We teach this lesson to our children as we roll past the homeless person on the corner, our hands at ten and two on the wheel, looking straight ahead and ignoring her stare.

“What does that lady want, Mommy?”

“She’s asking for food, honey.”

“We’ve got plenty at home, Mom.  Why don’t we go get her some!”

Then we find some way of racing to our next destination without confronting the question.

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.

But, they won’t. Not really. Let me explain it to you. You see, if you give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile. If you give money to her, she’ll just go buy drugs. If you let him stay at your house, he’ll be there until Christmas. If you forgive them, they’ll only do it again. In fact, is mercy really doing anyone any favors?  Enabling people to keep doing what they’re doing?  Those who are merciful are those poor suckers who give to charity and actually think that their ten dollars will make it to the victims.

I say, Blessed is the realist who keeps her money in the bank and her food in her fridge and her heart in her chest.  She’s safe.

But she’s not.

Jesus walks in, sits down, and changes the game.

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.

Jesus doesn’t stop there.

Compassion is the New Black

The revolutionary message of Jesus centers around themes of mercy, grace, and love. His parables depict people who take things too far, care too deeply, and risk too much. The father embraces his prodigal son. The Good Samaritan helps a man he is predestined to hate. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to pursue the one lost sheep. Then Jesus embodies this mercy as he looks compassionately on those who would torture and kill him. Forgive them for they know not what they do. Jesus did not call down judgment. He called down forgiveness. Christ, have mercy on us, sinners.

There is a kind of mercy that doesn’t stop at the Live Telethon.  It moves beyond supporting a child in a distant land with a small monthly payment.  It crushes the donated Christmas toy.  This mercy isn’t fazed by collecting change or a pop can drive or even a 5K. The merciful may indeed do these things.  But the real suckers we call The Merciful have no limit.  They give and they forgive and they give some more.

The merciful live in a different place.  An alien world, where they smell like mercy, that musty, acrid aroma that you encounter in the subway station. They share pain. They collect burdens. They invite in lost causes. They have nothing to protect, because they’ve been taken advantage of so many times. They don’t budget for giving, they give out of poverty. Nothing truly belongs to them anyway. From the outside they seem like suckers.

Losers. In fact, the merciful sometimes can’t tell the difference between the people they are helping and themselves. It almost seems as if someone is showing them mercy.

Tough Love

I met a merciful person once. Her name is Christine Moers. She welcomes traumatized kids into her home and she shares her struggles in a blog called Welcome to My Brain. She gives too much. She should take some time for herself. But every day she battles the trauma that plagues her children: Violence. Rage. Fear. Abandonment. Loss. Memories. But her steadfast, merciful spirit has wrestled these foes with great strength. The mercy she has shown her children actually begins to transform their little hearts and minds. After years, she sees progress.  Hope.

One of Christine’s strategies is to hang encouraging signs saying things like, “I will love you forever. No matter what” all over her teenager’s room. One day her daughter went into a rage and expressed her pain by ripping each message, destroying the evidence that someone cares about her. After living a life of trauma, where those who were supposed to love her violated her, she was convinced that she could not accept love from anyone.

Christine would not let that be the last word on her love for her daughter. In the face of the destruction of these temporary messages, she aimed for something more permanent…even on the walls of her borrowed parsonage.  She grabbed a can of spray paint.

Stepping over the piles of torn love notes, Christine sprayed across her daughter’s bedroom walls in huge letters, “Mom loves you.” And across another wall, “4-EVER”, and across another, “You can go but I will never leave you.”

I can hear the hiss of the spray paint. I can smell the paint. The permanence.  Christine, you are wrecking your walls.  Christine, you’ve taken it too far.  Christine, your daughter is just going to do it again. Christine, take care of yourself!  You’ve given enough. Why are showing her mercy?

She chooses, “I will love you forever.  No matter what.”  And then mercy comes. Here Christine describes the moment her daughter re-entered her room…

You turn around periodically to watch your child quickly hide their expression of “WTH??” Then you plop down on their mattress and ask them to join you. You start popping candy into their mouth as you talk to them and sing to them. You tell them those positive thoughts you were thinking on the way home. You tell them what God sees in them and why they were created. You tell them a story. You sing to them. You cuddle and stroke their hair (even the puff sticking straight up because they took out one of their braids in anger during the day … and you know they’re now really regretting it).

Then, you kiss them goodnight. They actually ask you to lean back down so they can kiss your cheek. You tuck them in and turn out the light. You shut the door to set the alarm.

You out-shine their darkness. You out-love their fear and anger. You out-crazy their crazy.

This is mercy.

God bless Christine.  Show her mercy.

When Jesus announces to the world that the merciful will be shown mercy, the suckers of the world find hope.  This is good news.  You losers who walk around with no change in your pockets and who never take a moment to “pamper” yourselves?  God sees you.  You dummies who help people who keep hurting you and others?  You are blessed. You who have filled up your extra space with ungrateful moochers?  Jesus is on your side. You who parent kids whose trauma is not your fault, Jesus is with you.  You who are the first call when family or friends need money or time or babysitting or a listening ear, you will be shown mercy.

Jesus is on your side.

Will I show you mercy? Or will I judge you for not planning ahead or budgeting or taking time for yourself? You know, I may just examine these words of Jesus and open my eyes a bit. I may begin looking at the world around me, finding opportunities to extend the mercy that I have been so freely given. My wallet is full of that kind of currency, the currency of grace. Maybe I can find a way to translate that into tangible, merciful deeds. Maybe.  But I know that the first step is to open my eyes. Lock eyes. Feel the weight of the mercy that has been given to me and let it go.  And it won’t be a loss.

Love is a Battlefield Part 1

So the marriage was falling apart. We realized that we were just two lonely people living in the same house on separate couches, watching TV. It would be so easy to part ways and walk off into the horizon as strangers. But we sought counseling, hoping to resuscitate our relationship. In one of my individual counseling sessions with Dr. Jane, she asked me what our early days were like, when we first fell in love. I admitted that we fought regularly in college, before we were ever engaged.

“We would sit for hours in the lobby of my dorm and have epic arguments over our plans, our beliefs, our habits, and who said what when and why. I spent half my college experience crying.” I was building my case that my husband and I never should have married. Were there fireworks? Yeah, our relationship started with fireworks—fireworks are loud and dangerous and painful, right? We were destined for failure.

I wanted Dr. Jane to say, “Oh yes, that is a terrible sign. The first year of love should be all chocolate and roses! You poor thing.” It would set me free from the boulder that my marriage had become. Instead, she proposed a scary idea: Passion and love are explosive. Where there is great chemistry, there is friction. First love isn’t easy love. First love is volatile.

For two people whose love had atrophied to the point of giving up, this news was liberating. We should fight. We had quit fighting. We should fight.

Our first love was complicated and messy and ugly. We didn’t know how to love each other yet, how to say the right things at the right time. We didn’t know how to not go to bed angry or how to use the 5 Love Languages. We hadn’t been to a marriage conference. We didn’t always fight fair. This was our first love.

When the passion faded, we continued to do the right things. We were growing in maturity, so our interactions became more patient, tempered, responsible. That was all well and good. The 5 Love Languages actually do help. But nothing could alter the fact that we were tired of love. Chemistry is exhausting. Saying the easy things and turning on the TV feels better after a long day at work. Don’t talk to me. Pass the pizza. No fights.

When Jesus speaks to the church of Ephesus, they are doing the right things. They do what it takes to remain faithful to the truth. But somehow they receive a devastating message from John’s Revelation: Even though they may be doing the right things, they have forsaken their first love. The fireworks are gone.

What Happens in Ephesus, Stays in Ephesus

First century Ephesus was a banking hub, a medical mecca, a haven for entertainers and artisans, and home for all kinds of idolatry and witchcraft. Citizens of Ephesus demonstrated their wealth and worship outwardly with elaborate shrines, temples, statues, and fountains. Artemis was the preferred deity, and the most respected priests of Artemis castrated themselves in her service. Most of the priestesses engaged in prostitution as a form of worship. Sacred services involved elaborate dances and choirs. There were yearly processions, athletic events, surgery competitions. Ephesus knew how to put on a good show.

In the face of Ephesian culture, the church of Ephesus buckled down and clung to the truth. The original word John used for labor gives us more information about the Ephesians’ hard work: the word kopos. William Barclay describes kopos as labor to the point of sweat, exhaustion, “the kind of toil which takes everything of mind and sinew that a man can put into it.” Barclay goes on.

The Christian way is not for the dilettante and for the man who fears to break sweat. The Christian must spend his life going all out for Christ and for his fellow-men….even if physical toil is forbidden to him and impossible for him, he can still toil in prayer.

Persevering in Ephesus would be exhausting. In a place where pagan expressions of worship are loud, boisterous events, where prostitution-as-religious-dedication is advertised on city blocks, where slavery is rampant, and entertainment abounds, endurance requires fortitude.

Besides the cultural pressures, the Ephesians also faced the more slippery foes of false prophets and liars. The city of Ephesus was located on the Highway to Rome. Every kind of prophet, heretic, and con artist came through the city. There were professional beggars who took advantage of Christian charity, moving from church to church. There were Jewish emissaries who attempted to entangle Christians against the law. There were heretics within the church. The Ephesians faithfully tested the men and women who came into their circles. They labored to the point of exhaustion, keeping the flock safe from wolves in sheep’s clothing, such as the Nicolaitans.

The Nicolaitans professed to ideas which perverted the great truths of Christianity to make life more comfortable for Christians living within Greco-Roman culture. They took the liberty of grace and turned it into license to live a life of indulgence, idolatry, and conformity. Clement of Alexandria describes them saying that they, “abandon themselves to pleasure like goats…leading a life of self-indulgence.”

Into this environment of external and internal pressure and attack, John relays a message from the Living One:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

How precious it must have been to receive this encouraging message through John! Jesus recognizes our efforts. As we struggle to keep this church on the straight and narrow path, Jesus has observed our kopos, our toil. He knows how bad it is here. He knows what we’re going through. What a relief.

Love is a Battlefield Part 2

At this point I imagine the Ephesian church congratulating one another. Whoever is reading the message aloud pauses for a moment and the men and women weep for relief and joy. They pat one another on the back and sing praises. It may have been a sweet moment. Then they turn to hear more and it breaks their hearts.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

When crisis hit my marriage, I wrung my hands to the heavens, “how did this happen? I was doing everything right!” I had remained steadfast to a husband I believed I never should have married. I was the hero in the story. I followed all the rules. Facing great opposition I had held us together. This was my kopos. I was so brave.

Once again during our journey a pivotal moment occurred in counseling. This time my husband and I were together. Our counselor was a wise, old man named Norm. Norm didn’t let me be the hero. He didn’t even let me be the victim. He recognized my hard work, much like Jesus recognized the labor of the Ephesians. But he saw right through my heart.

“So, tell me about your part in this.”

I had forsaken the love I had at first. I sat in his office, confronted with my loveless marriage, and held accountable for my half. It hurt. It hurt my pride.

Love Actually

Despite the anguish this message must have brought the Ephesians, embedded within the words is a way to process the heartbreak and find love again. It’s kind of romantic.

Jesus begins with the word “remember”. Dr. Jane forced me to remember my first love with my husband. Thinking about all the fights reminded me of the chemistry we used to have, how far we had fallen. When the Ephesians looked back at their first love, they probably didn’t remember chocolate and roses either. They remembered persecution and hardship. They remembered navigating their way through a complicated new set of ideas. They remembered a radical faith in an even more radical guy whom they had never seen. The early days were hard. But worth remembering.

Jesus also commands the Ephesians to repent. Repenting for stealing a candy bar is pretty easy. Simple. I admit I made the mistake and I regret it. I won’t do it again. Will you forgive me? Sure. Repenting of a lifestyle of apathy and coldness requires time and effort.

Post-crisis, my husband and I probably spent our first year repenting to each other continuously. This wasn’t for lack of forgiveness. We forgave each other readily at the beginning. We felt compelled to repent for the past because the whole thing was so sad. As we were falling in love with each other again, the crisis we had suffered seemed so much more tragic. We were grieving our story.

We also repented continuously as we were trying to live a new life of love. We had to make the choice to love on a regular basis. Each time we would be tempted to slip back into our individual corners, we would be forced to confront the urge and repent. Our love language was repentance that first year. Things got better.

The third piece of the remedy is “do the things you did at first”. In college when my husband and I weren’t fighting, we were sitting at a coffee shop or in a park, discussing the big ideas. We could sit for hours and have fun without having a tv on. But years later, when we were in the midst of crisis, that world seemed like an old fantasy. We tried it out anyway.

In the evenings after work, we didn’t sit on separate couches watching TV anymore. We engaged each other. We played games. We talked. We fought. We watched the entire X-Files series on DVD, discussing each episode. (We are both total geeks.) We refused to pretend that the other didn’t exist. And we began to find love again.

The Ephesian church was busy. They weren’t sitting around, letting the world go by. What did they do in the beginning that they had forgotten? As they were crusading against heretics and false prophets, what had they let fall by the wayside? Would loving Jesus change their priorities at all? If they embraced their first love again, would they have different goals? Perhaps they would have new priorities. Or maybe they would continue standing their post on the Highway to Rome, but with a different spirit of love and charity. It’s a mystery.

We don’t know what they did “at first”. As men and women of the church of 2011, we must examine our own hearts and agendas. What are we doing that is motivated by an obligation to toil? Are we working ourselves to the point of exhaustion for the right things? Is it motivated by a first love for Jesus? He sees our labor. Is it coming from a place of romance?

Happily Ever After

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Love may be messy, volatile, complicated. It may keep us up at night as we work out our thoughts and beliefs. It may not be easily described or put away in a neat box. But we know it’s love because the earth moves when we hear his name. We hear music in a good sunrise. He lends meaning to every breath we take. He changes the way we want to live.

We don’t have him all figured out. He makes us furious when he says things the way he says them. Sometimes he embarrasses us in public. We ache when we hear his name attached to evil. His other followers irritate us. He doesn’t make sense. He’s so quiet. But we keep fighting.