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How to be a better Good Samaritan

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Photo by Ruths138

Photo by Ruths138

What happens when we pass by someone who needs our help?

Several years ago, when my Dad was in the early stages of dementia, he lost most of his Christian friends. The reason was simple: They were too uncomfortable with his symptoms to be a friend to him during his life’s biggest, darkest, and final struggle.

So I contacted everyone I could think of at his church, and couldn’t believe the excuses they gave for keeping their distance–leaders included. As one of them so eloquently stated, “I’m not going to babysit.” A handful of people tried to help, but most of those same people also defended the excuses we were hearing.

We eventually found a long-term friend for Dad and regular, ongoing emotional/spiritual support for my parents from two other churches in town. Finally, we had found Christians who wanted to treat Dad with dignity, and be the hands and feet of Jesus in our lives! Then, amazingly, near the end of Dad’s time at home before moving to a nursing home, three people from his original church kindly came alongside him.

I share this so the other side of the story can be heard. And here’s the thing all Good Samaritans seem to know: When we fail to obey God’s command to love our neighbor, our sin isn’t just between us and God.

Our faith, like western society, is terribly individualistic. So please humor me as I repeat: When we fail to love our neighbor, our sin isn’t just between us and God.

What happens when we pass by someone who needs our help? What’s it like for those people? We shield ourselves from those thoughts. It’s too uncomfortable, too convicting to realize that our sin has tangible, painful, and sometimes disastrous consequences for the people we overlook.

I wish Dad hadn’t spent the last years of his life aching for the sense of community that should’ve embraced him all along, and believe me, this is a lesson my family will never forget.

Sometimes we have only one chance to be a light in someone’s life, and sometimes we might be the only one to notice that person’s suffering. If we pass them by, the consequences are permanent.

So let us rethink the story of the good Samaritan and our own role in that story. When we cross paths with someone lonely or in need, let’s resolve to treat our opportunity with the gravity and careful thought it deserves.

Let’s start recognizing the difference between our excuses and legitimate reasons for not being able to help. When we’re being honest with ourselves, if we realize that we really can help, then let’s roll up our sleeves and enjoy the surprises and blessings God has in store for us along the way.

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Who’s outside your pastor’s comfort zone?

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A big challenge in my spiritual journey lately has been responding to fellow believers, leaders especially, who seem to have sold out to a gospel of comfort.

When a relative, formerly a pastor and missionary, came down with a degenerative disease, he noticed himself losing friends. Fellow church members, leaders, choir members, and others, stepped out of his life one by one.

When his family asked the church for help, a pastor told them that people quite simply weren’t comfortable around this man anymore.

Apparently the pastor didn’t consider this a contradiction of the gospel he preached from the pulpit.

The sick man’s family then asked if they could present the situation to the congregation, as they’d seen someone do at another church. This way, they hoped, one or two church members might step forward as ‘volunteer friends.’ But the leadership told them this was impossible.

“You’ve got to understand our culture,” one staffer told them. “You just can’t do that here.”

In short, the retired pastor/missionary had outlived his usefulness and his welcome in the church. Even the pastors didn’t want to see him, ignoring the family’s request for the occasional drop-in visit.

His family was expected to accept his loneliness, that their church family wouldn’t be involved in his life any longer. Except at the funeral, perhaps.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who 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 drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me… (Matthew 25:34-36)

When it comes to reaching outside our comfort zone to love a neighbour, we’ve cultivated a subtle disconnect between theology and everyday life.

Many Christians would agree in principle with Jesus’ parables like the good Samaritan, or the passage about the goats and the sheep. We know these stories from Sunday school, and pastors also preach them from time to time.

Knowing them is good. But living them is another thing entirely.

Too many of us are like that pastor defending ‘personal comfort’ as a reasonable excuse not to visit someone in need of a friend. Except, we wouldn’t be quite as blunt about it. Not out loud, anyway.

I know what some of you reading this might say, that people aren’t perfect and that we can depend on God’s comfort when others let us down. And you’d be right.

But this doesn’t mean we need to let sin, especially a ‘respectable sin‘ like the idol of personal comfort, go unchallenged in our lives or our churches–especially in church leadership.

We need to examine our hearts, and we need to invite our pastors to do the same. We need to see how far we’ve let our culture’s gods–happiness, leisure, comfort–become our own gods. We need to release our white-knuckled grip on those idols and, instead, find our comfort in Jesus Christ.

And then, if the Spirit is alive in us at all, we need to see growth.

We also need pastors who don’t make excuses for sin. Ones who don’t limit their teaching to “platitudes, subtle hints, or over-principlized ‘sermonettes,'” as Byron Forrest Yawn writes in his book, What Every Man Wishes His Father Had Told Him:

[Pastors] must put their proverbial finger in men’s faces and tell them exactly … how they’ve wasted years of spiritual opportunity. Not with belittling harshness, but with frustrated optimism. (p. 164)

In other words, we need real leaders, ones who’ll teach us how to put our faith into action when it’s UNcomfortable. We need our leaders to model this in their own lives, and we need them to expect us to follow suit.

And in doing so, we’ll discover a secret: Serving others brings surprisingly more fulfillment than anything we’ll find inside our comfort zone.

What’s your take on this? And how have your leaders handled the ‘gospel of comfort’ in your church?

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Keeping the ‘Family’ in Church Family

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Keeping the 'Family' in Church Family at Maranatha NewsHi there!

Today I’m grateful to Maranatha News for letting me tell a bit of my story over at their website. I talk about conversation, risk, and keeping the ‘family’ in church family.

Below is just a short clip, so be sure to head over to Maranatha News for the rest of the story.

Our congregation was small, so they were bound to notice Dad’s symptoms before long. His diagnosis was early-onset dementia, specifically Lewy Body.

I knew Dad’s fellow church members would feel awkward around my parents while they figured out how their relationship with Dad would change. We were in for a bumpy ride.

Yet while uncomfortable adjustments seemed to be a given, I also expected our church family to warm up to Dad and walk alongside my parents through this difficult time once they got used to the ‘new’ him.

Our church was full of mature, life-long Christians. We believed the Bible, including the parts that said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matt. 22:39) “weep with those who weep,” (Romans 12:15) and “I was sick and you visited me” (Matt. 25:36). So it didn’t occur to me that these things might not happen.

Do you have a story about a church that felt like family? Please share it with us in the comments.

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