How many of us actually expect to keep them? I think the success rate, at least according to the internet (and everything out here is true), is roughly around 8%. Yet every time a New Year rolls around we find our selves resolving to be better. Whether it is kicking a bad habit, losing weight, becoming more healthy, etc., it is almost a rite of passage into a new year to resolve to augment our behavior in some way that will make us better. Somehow the idea of a fresh start is just the spark we need to radically alter who we were just yesterday…kind of sounds silly in print. And yet I find myself wanting to be a part of the crowd when it comes to self-improvement. But one resolution has always plagued me a bit. It goes like this; “I resolve to draw closer to God.”
Now at face value this is a great resolution. Who wouldn’t want to draw closer to God? I know I do. I think the problem is how we go about it. We think somehow that drawing closer to God is something that is achieved on an individual level. As if he can only be encountered in my resolve to be personally accountable to His presence. And although I realize that we need time alone with God I believe that if we want to draw closer to God it looks a little different. Frank Weston, the one time Bishop of Zanzibar in the Anglican church wrote the following more than a hundred years ago:
You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. … It is folly, it is madness, to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacrament and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating Him in the bodies and souls of His children. . . . You have your Mass, you have your altars, you have begun to get your tabernacles. Now go out into the highways and hedges, and look for Jesus in the ragged and the naked, in the oppressed and the sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and, when you have found Him, gird yourself with His towel of fellowship and wash His feet in the person of His brethren.
Here is what I think I am trying to say. If you really want to resolve to draw closer to God this year then resolve to draw closer to the people He died for. By sharing God’s love and life with others we find a way to encounter God like never before. Jesus himself put it this way in Matthew 25:38-40 “When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’.” So by all means resolve to draw closer to God this year. It could be the greatest resolution you make. But be certain, it can never be done within the walls of your own safety and security. Rather it is only through reaching out in Christ’ love to those who haven’t been encountered yet for the Kingdom. Here you will truly draw closer to God.
This last Wednesday the teens of Central and I visited a familiar passage to many of us. The passage speaks of a parable when the Son of Man returns in His Glory and separates all of the nations into segments, much like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats of a herd. To the “sheep” on the right He extends an invitation into eternal reward based upon their seemingly unconscious service to the least of these. To the “goats” on his left he denies this same invitation due to their seemingly unknowing ignorance of the least of these. (Matthew 25:31-46). The trouble with this parable is that I always had trouble differentiating why the goats were bad and the sheep were good. I mean, aside from their sometimes general ornery nature I always felt that goats were pretty okay. And sheep could be pretty ornery as well to be honest. But then I began to think about their eating natures. Goats are notorious for consuming. Not only do they eat everything*, but they consume at massive rates without regard for each other or whoever else might be around. On the other hand, sheep eat grass. That’s it. They only consume what they need in order to provide for those around them, albeit unknowingly (wool and sometimes mutton).
Now let’s take it back to the parable. The goats are those who consume resources at an astonishing rate without giving thought to those around them. All of a sudden the parable begins to make a bit more sense. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ – Matthew 25:44 When you were consuming resources and looking out for number one you completely missed the least of these. I imagine this would be a more appropriate modern vernacular response. And on the flip side the sheep weren’t even aware of the fact that they were caring for the least of these. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” – Matthew 25:37-39. They were so used to giving of what they had and sharing their resources that it was a surprise that this was a service to God.
But that’s the thing. God has a huge place in his heart for the least, the last place, the outcast, the oppressed. And He expects us to have the same heart. I came across a quote from Dorothy Day this week that kicked me right in the teeth regarding this. “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” Go ahead and read it again. Let it sink in. Maybe we need to realize that our love for God is ultimately reflected in our love for the least. And that we are called to be sheep seeking for a way to provide instead of to consume.
* I was recently told by a friend who owns some goats that this may not be true…although they do eat a lot.
This last weekend I returned from a mission trip with my students to Guatemala. This was a unique trip as it focused, by design, on experiencing as many different dimensions of missional opportunities as possible with what limited time we had in Guatemala. Little did I know how much this would wreck me; and is still wrecking me. In the short time we were there we participated in relief and mission efforts in a rural community, an inner city ghetto and the infamous Zone 3, the location of the Guatemala City Dump. We saw people who were starving, people who couldn’t rub two Quetzales (1/8 of a US dollar) together and those who rummage through others trash to try to scrape by a living. Those who lived in Paradise would work for sometimes 22 hours a day to earn a little more than a US dollar only to see the crops they spent their day picking (that easily could cure their families malnutrition) shipped overseas.* We saw extreme privilege and extreme poverty shaking hands in a beautiful country and it will not leave me alone.
And so now I come back to the US and I realize how lucky I am to have been born here. But I take a look, an honest look at all that surrounds me and I declare it to be “heh’vel”. If this doesn’t sound familiar let me try it this way, ““Meaningless! Meaningless!”says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!Everything is meaningless.” – Ecclesiastes 1:2. The Hebrew word for meaningless/vanity is actually the word for breath, smoke, fog, air…I look around me and I see air. Really! If at the end of the day all of this stuff I am accumulating isn’t making a difference in the world for those who so desperately need a difference to be made then it is “heh’vel”. And what do I do with that? I honestly don’t know…
So right now, I tell the story, I pray, I seek the face of Heaven to show me how to escape this heh’vel. We are a ridiculously blessed people and we are called to be a blessing. The constant nagging in my head now is of course, how? The verse that continues to haunt me in the midst of all of this goes a bit like this, “f anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” – James 4:17. Now sin, I think fairly enough, is anything that separates us from God. And I know God’s heart is with the oppressed, the outcast, the destitute, the poor. And my heart continues to be broken for what I have seen and experienced. So my prayer is that I would reject apathy, that I would reject heh’vel and that I would find a way in the midst of all of this to live out the Heart of Christ. And I pray this same prayer for you.
* Guatemala’s chief occupation is agriculture of which they export 80% of their total product. 90% of all farm land is owned by about 25 families who enjoy the export spoils. Granted this is derived from a few conversations with some local Guatemalans.