Kindness has Limits

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Here’s something Christians don’t talk about much: there are limits to practicing kindness. There are times you find yourself telling someone “no,” times when you can’t go the extra mile. Times when you need to be a little selfish. Take my own story as an example here:

It was Monday afternoon, the day AFTER our youth fall retreat to Awanita (meaning my body was suddenly super sore from zip lining and I still needed to catch up on some sleep). I had driven out to Ingles to pick up just a few items for dinner. Namely, I needed some bacon, because nothing hits the spot like a breakfast-for-dinner meal with all the works!  So I’ve got my bacon and a few other non-healthy items placed in orderly fashion on the conveyer belt. The person in front of me is taking a long time—probably writing a check or something—but the end is in sight and my wallet and Ingles Advantage card (of course) are in hand.  Then I look to my left and see an elderly woman. She looks up with impatient eyes and says, “Can I get in front of you?”

And I said “no.”

Seriously, I told the elderly woman “no.” I really surprised myself, because I know the right thing to do is to say “Yes, of course you can!” Even if you think it’s a rude thing to ask, you’re supposed to say “Yes” – let your selfless generosity bring you selfish pride later.  My experience and my heart and my head all told me that’s what I was supposed to say. But my exhausted body overruled and I heard myself instinctively saying “no” instead.

Now, I feel I should clarify a few things here: the elderly woman had two items in hand, but I only had eight. And mine were already on the belt! The woman had two small packages of Peeps—and really, who comes to the store and only buys Peeps? It’s not even Easter! Besides, I had bacon that needed cooking! I think I did add the words, “I’ll be quick!” to my “no,” but the damage was done. So I proceeded to watch the woman leave the Peeps on the edge of the belt, take her fistful of dollar bills, stuff them back into her purse, grab her friend and go, saying something like “Come on, we’ll just come back another time.”

I was kind of appalled at this whole unexpected turn of events. I couldn’t believe she even asked me, let alone was willing to leave those fluffy Peeps behind because of my insistent rejection. Of course, by the time I speedily checked out (as promised) and carried my few items to my car, I could see her and her friend pulling out of the parking space, and I was thinking, “See—I told you I’d be quick!” But off they drove, Peep-less, leaving me to ponder the blunt limits of my kindness.

This was no terrible thing I did, and honestly I imagine many would have reacted the same way. But as seemingly insignificant as this was, it revealed the honest contingencies that undergird my orientation towards compassion. One of those contingencies is my own fatigue and burnout, which highlights the importance of self-care. We must all pay attention to those moments when we are reaching the limits of our energies and then work to address them in holistic, restorative ways. Lest we find ourselves saying “no” to a simple act of kindness. This is part of that second greatest commandment, according to Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself!” (Mt 22:39). This is probably at least one of the reasons the gospel narratives mention Jesus finding certain moments to get away by himself and be alone (e.g., Matthew 14:23: “After Jesus had dismissed the crowds, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone.”).  Were he not Jewish, I’d be tempted to say he occasionally enjoyed a bacon-filled breakfast as part of his quiet time and self-care.

While at Awanita, students and adult leaders were invited to “practice Sabbath” on Saturday between lunch and dinner. As I explained, Sabbath does not simply mean going to church or resting; it really means to refrain from work for the purpose of being restored. We all need moments, if not days, to stop working, to stop serving, to stop producing, and instead enter a time of playfulness and relaxation. Naps count, as do fun games of volleyball or cards. Hiking, making music, dancing, reading a book…all of these are great ways to practice Sabbath. Saying “yes” to these moments of Sabbath will not only help care for your own body, mind, and spirit; it’ll also prevent you from blurting out “no” to a future opportunity to practice kindness.

“So you see that a sabbath rest is left open for God’s people. The one who entered God’s rest also rested from his works, just as God rested from his own. Therefore, let’s make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following the same example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:9-11)

Along the Journey…

CC

“I” Stories

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The Science Channel has a new tagline, one that quickly captures the driving purpose behind their content: “Question Everything.” They had me as a viewer a decade ago, not from any tagline, but rather their show Survivorman with Les Stroud.  (He’s not as flashy or cunning as Bear Grylls, but his one-hour shows set were much truer and more educational.)  Today, a few of their top shows are How It’s Made and Into the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. Question Everything. It works for drawing you into those shows, and on a broader scale, it works in characterizing our postmodern culture.

Question everything—including all institutions and institutionalized assumptions. It’s the natural response to the age of Modernity, back when science was heralded as the definitive answer to all questions. But things have changed. And Christianity is certainly not immune to those implications. Students probably know this reality more than adults. Just because something’s in the Bible doesn’t make it universally accepted. Just because your pastor said it doesn’t make it true. Just because it’s a belief that dates back to the age of the Roman Empire doesn’t make it relevant today. The peers of our teens are very accustomed to questioning everything, and that can be quite scary for Christians who start to feel like the underdog in a high-stakes battle for discovering Truth.

The thing is, Christianity is not so fragile it can’t withstand these questions. Postmodernity does not mean post-Christianity, even though parts of our inhabited culture will indeed move that direction. Our faith in Jesus Christ is, was, and shall ever be signified with just that: faith. 

“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” (Hebrews 11:1, NLT)

So what are our teenagers to do when face to face with an onslaught of relentless questioning? The answer is to turn to their “I” stories. “I’ stories are those personal encounters with a living Christ that no one can strip away. They may not believe them, and they may not relate to them, but they cannot question them away. Churches used to call these “testimonies” (actually many still do), and while that term may make not make the average student eager to offer her/his own, it is truly what an “I” story is all about.

There was this one time when I was feeling really down, like cutoff from the whole world, but then…

I never believed anything from the Bible until I felt the presence of God on that mountaintop, and ever since then…

I have no idea what put the world in motion or what the root cause of evil is, but I know in my heart and soul that God is love…

The Bible is filled with “I” stories. Read any of the Psalms. Read one of the New Testament epistles. Consider Jesus’ own words to his disciples, “But who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29).

What “I” story can you share this week? You never know when those words of personal encounter, belief, or transformation may cause another child of God to question everything anew, which may be a necessary step on their own journey of faith.

Along the Journey…
CC

Koinonia on the Road!!!

Dinner and Karaoke Night at Stoneybrook Point

Dinner and Karaoke Night at Stoneybrook Point Cafe

The early Christian concept of “koinonia” is something that’s hard to sum up in one word…it can mean fellowshipcommunity, faithful, participation, or common unity.  It first appears in Acts 2:42 when the early church began experiencing its first real period of numeric growth.  This verse quickly tells us that it was never about the numbers: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  That’s what koinonia was all about: sharing, worshipping, discerning, giving, learning, growing with one another.  It was all about their common fellowship through Christ, nothing about one particular day of the week or identified location.

I’ve tried to track down the origins of FBCA Youth gatherings being called “koinonia,” and it goes all the way back to Eddie’s long tenure as student minister.  Though it is the technical name for Sunday night youth group, it has always sought to describe the living purpose of the group rather than the particular place and time.  Koinonia happens on days other than Sundays!  It happens in places other than 5 Oak Street!

This past Sunday, it happened as our youth loaded the church buses, headed west to Maggie Valley, and enjoyed dinner & karaoke at Stoneybrook Point Cafe.  The pictures below tell just a glimpse of the story of Koinonia on the Road!

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Tell Me a Story

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We need to bring story-time back.
As kids, it was the last thing we did each day, when parents or loved would read us one of our favorite books or tell us one of our favorite bedtime stories.

It was one of the best parts of kindergarten (apart from all-out free time with a room full of toys) — sitting on the carpet at the feet of our teacher, who was so skilled at telling captivating stories of Clifford, Winnie the Pooh, Things 1 & 2, Curious George and the like.

Story-time was an essential part of growing up, of learning about our family, our town, the environment, and our wider world.  And then we got older, and stories suddenly became less frequent.  Though our experiences vary, at some point we all outgrew story-time, and instead began being discouraged from telling stories, for fear that our imagination might overpower the facts of the day.
(“What really happened today?  How did this get broken?  Don’t tell a story!”)

And then we get even older, and hearing those first stories seem childlike.  We want the kid’s books taken out of our rooms.  We are not very interested in hearing other people’s stories, just our own.  This was certainly the case for my adolescent self during our annual family reunions.  All I wanted to do was play with my brothers and cousins, but all the “old folks” kept wanting to tell me stories from when I was just a kid, or ever worse, go into stories from their own [seemingly ancient] childhood stories.  Those didn’t interest me at all at the time, but they sure do now.

We need to bring back story-time.

Telling stories connects us to our childhood imaginations, which turn out to be just as important as we get older.
Telling stories helps us stay creative. Creative in arts, music, writing, planning, envisioning, playing, living.
Telling stories keeps us honest, both about where we’ve been and how we’ve become who we are.
Telling stories allows us to connect more deeply with others and see potential points of intersection with their lives and ours.
But beyond all this, telling stories helps us to work out our faith and even pass it along to others.

After all, that’s what the Bible is all about – the great story of our great God working in, through, and around the lives of ordinary people.

These stories are only on our smartphone apps today because they were told again and again and again to new generations, back before most people could even read or write.  Yet somehow, through the act of re-telling the stories of ancestors from long ago, each new age found new meaning and connection with the ongoing story of God at work in this world.

So let’s keep telling our stories. But let’s listen to the stories of others, too.  It may seem a little childish, but remember what Jesus said about childish things:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt 19:14)

I imagine Jesus gathering those children onto a dirt rug, just like my kindergarten teacher did (minus the dirt), eager to launch into that sacred act of story-telling.  And I bet those kids all ran to their homes, eager to tell those stories again to anyone who would listen.  That’s pretty much how the Gospel is supposed to work, right?

Along the Journey…
CC

Jesus was a Stranger

I’ve become a stranger once again.  New city, new home, new roads, new job, new customs, new expectations—in the past few weeks, pretty much everything that has been “normal” and “ordinary” has become strange once more.  Yes, I’ve still got my essential relationships, sense of calling, personal tendencies, and faith perspective, but it takes time to gather your general bearings when there is so much strange-ness about you, not to mention all of the tensions and barriers to community that can appear insurmountable upon first glance.  But I’ve also come to recognize something beautiful in the midst of being strange…something too quickly forgotten once the new-ness wears off: there is a holy presence surrounding the stranger, and a holy summoning along the journey from stranger to friend.

This truth has been embedded in Scripture all along.  Take Genesis 18, which comes right after God announces a miraculous intervention into the long-faced struggles of Abraham and Sarah, reminding them of God’s unilateral covenant with them.  And then suddenly, as if it’s the first outcome of God’s covenantal love, they find three strangers in their midst.  It happened when Abraham was taking a well-needed break in the cool shade of the oak trees at a place called “Mamre.”  Abraham’s response to these intrusive strangers who’ve ruined an otherwise great time to nap?  1) He RUNS over to them. 2) He BOWS to them (a cultural sign of respect and humility).  3) He WELCOMES them to stay, OFFERING them fresh water and a good foot-washing, GIVING his favorite resting spot under those shady oak trees and some freshly baked bread (thanks to Sarah).  These unexpected and mysterious strangers become welcomed guests and visible representatives of the LORD God, prompting unprecedented conversations about judgment and justice, and all started because Abraham took notice of them.

Or take that great resurrection story that happened on the road to Emmaus (a small village outside of Jerusalem), when Jesus appeared as a complete stranger to a few of the disciples [Luke 24].  Over the course of several miles on foot, the disciples talked with this stranger about all sorts of issues and current events, and then urged him to stay and eat with them (just like Abraham did with his three strangers).  And it was only there around table, as the stranger broke bread in their midst, that they recognized him for who he truly was: Jesus, the risen Christ.

What do we make of this?  Why does it matter?  First, there is something about the presence of strangers that is a fundamental element to Christian circles.  Our faith is not supposed to be lived out alone, or even in our own closely-knit communities.  We are called to pay attention to the strangers in our midst and to practice hospitality in the most extravagant ways!  Secondly, these strangers among us hold the potential to teach us something new about God—even to represent Jesus himself!  We hear this in Matthew 25 too when Jesus says those strange and beautiful new words,

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…when you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:34-36, 40).

And finally, these stories tell us that the journey from stranger to friend happens most effectively around the common table.  We must be intentional about making room, taking time, sharing life with new sisters and brothers in Christ.

Here recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of people’s generous hospitality, and I can say that I’ve also experienced the presence of Christ in the strangers who are becoming friends.  May I not forget what it is like to be a stranger myself.  (That goes for us all!)

Along the Journey…
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Day 3……..If I only had a ______!

Yummy breakfast! Morning celebration. Two honor campers from FBCA. Elliott and Margaret. Bible study. Travel to work sites and picnic lunches. Today I went to The Boys and Girls Clubs with Kate. There are actually 2 groups here. Painting, cleaning closets, and playing with children.

Yummy dinner……even if 7th grade boys only eat pizza, tater tots, and cake and ice cream!

Worship…..Laura Beth read scripture. JD was interviewed.

Emerald City Ball! We had some great costumes and saw some great costumes. Evening devotions always include highlights and lowlights from the day. Biggest low is the heat. We are spoiled mountain people! Great thing is that this is all we can come out with for lows! Lots of highs!

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