By / Feb 18

Neighboring is hard, especially in a pandemic. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). Yet, the challenges of a pandemic have many of us shrinking back from our neighbors. 

Our family lives and ministers in New York City, a city that was once the epicenter of the global pandemic. At the height of our city’s grim struggle against the virus, I remember when my wife and I walked our kids to the park. It was a daily ritual, a small practice to keep us sane as we quarantined in our tiny Brooklyn apartment. We walked our three kids (now four) to the park only a few blocks from where we live. We nervously eyed other pedestrians. Were they carriers of COVID-19? Were we carriers? 

In the early days, before the mask mandate, we did not know who we could safely talk to or who we could stand face to face with. So, nearly every morning, we would go to the park before it filled up with people who, like us, were desperate for a refuge from quarantine life. We hustled our kids down the sidewalks, kept them away from others, and ushered them safely—we hoped—into the nearby park and its soccer field.

This is what we did to survive as a family, both literally and metaphorically. And yet, we came to Brooklyn to do more than survive; we came to plant a church and serve others. We knew that we had to engage our neighbors, even in a global pandemic. But how to begin?

1 Corinthians 13:13 is a cherished verse for many Christians. It is also a verse that shows us a template for engaging our neighbors in a pandemic. Paul ended his poetic chapter on love by reminding us that “these three remain: faith, hope, and love – but the greatest of these is love.” What if faith, hope, and love frame our response to a global pandemic and provide our pattern for engaging our neighbors during this strange moment in history?

1. We must model faith for our neighbors. 

Many of our neighbors are non-Christians, and they desperately need to see our faith in action. As Christians, we do not believe the sky is falling. Not now, not ever. It was not falling on Good Friday, and it is not falling due to COVID-19. We are the people who believe the gospel. We acknowledge that death and tragedy are a part of life, but we also believe in a greater reality. Good Friday is part of our story, but so is Easter.

We must demonstrate to our neighbors that we are not living in the grip of fear. We believe that Jesus is the King of the universe and that he rules over everything—including the deadly germs that we cannot see with the naked eye. It is this calm assurance that ought to characterize our life for as long as the pandemic lasts. Every Sunday during those early days, our neighbors heard through the thin walls of our apartment building. They heard us rehearsing the gospel as we sang, isolated, but never alone. 

2. We must provide hope for our neighbors. 

Early on, we decided that you cannot quarantine hope. I began to write a daily blog for our entire 79-day lockdown. My goal was to provide a daily dose of hope, to inoculate against fear and despair. We taped a sign up in our apartment building’s stairwell inviting our neighbors to read and find daily hope. We set sanitizer bottles outside of every apartment in our building. We told our neighbors we had to stick together.

New Yorkers are famously closed off, so neighboring is different here. Yet, when we left the sanitizer and messages for our neighbors they came and knocked on our door, even in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Why? Because we dared to offer the hope that they craved.

It was not a sentimental “we’re all going to make it” kind of hope. It was a hope centered on an old rugged cross and an empty garden tomb. Our neighbors need hope. It is up to us to provide it.

3. We must show love to our neighbors. 

A couple of weeks after the virus descended on New York City, we decided it was time to launch relief efforts. Many people could not safely shop for groceries due to their age or health condition. We began to collect names from leaders in our community (most of them non-Christians) and safely deliver groceries to these vulnerable neighbors.

We partnered with a non-profit and with other churches. We obtained a membership at Restaurant Depot so that we could buy groceries in bulk. In 2020, our church basically became a restaurant so we could love our neighbors as ourselves. Every week, nearly 40 people received a “Box of Hope” from our church. It was full of fresh vegetables, non-perishables, and meat. There was also a letter from me and evangelistic resources to point our neighbors to Christ.

We called them boxes of hope, but it was ultimately an exercise in love. Because, as Paul reminds us, faith, hope, and love go together. We gave away gallons of sanitizer and thousands of masks because we love our neighbors. Not as well as we should, but hopefully in a way that shows them the even greater love of Jesus.

Now that we have resumed church services, there is a new couple in our midst. People we met through our relief efforts. Neighbors that we engaged in a pandemic. I certainly do not have all the answers. Our church has been on a wild ride these last 12 months in NYC. But we are learning to embrace a lifestyle of faith, hope, and love. our neighbors need to experience all three of these ideals as they interact with us. Maybe, just maybe, God will use us—and use you—to draw our neighbors to himself. Even in a pandemic.

By / Jul 16

On Send Relief Sunday, recognized on July 19, Send Relief encourages Southern Baptists everywhere to join together in meeting needs and changing lives through serving others across the world. 

There are a variety of ways you can be the hands and feet of Christ. We have heard countless stories of Southern Baptists who are making a difference through their acts of service, even as churches continue to navigate the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Send Relief Sunday provides a specific opportunity for you to tangibly express the love of Christ, even if your churches remain closed. You may want to implement these ideas on July 19 or use the day to start promoting the idea(s) you choose.

Ways to serve neighbors during a pandemic

Here are a few quick and easy ideas:

For churches

Create care packages for grocery, delivery and other essential workers: Show kindness by giving employees small bags with healthy snacks, gift cards, etc., and a thank-you note from your church. Your church can also consider packing bags in advance and working with the manager of a nearby store to arrange delivery to all of the store’s employees. 

School supplies: Even though many school districts are still exploring how to execute a return to the classroom this fall, one certainty is that students will need school supplies. Start a collection of school supplies, pack them in bags, and then work with your local school’s principal to determine the best way of delivery. 

Be a prayer warrior: Make lists of needs, people, etc., that are specific to the community your church is in, and spend specific time praying for them, asking God to show you ways to provide ongoing encouragement and ministry to them.

For families

Social distancing may currently keep us from offering hugs and other expressions of personal care, but it doesn’t have to hamper our creativity when it comes to serving. Connect with your church to discover the best contacts for the ideas below. 

Send Relief Sunday provides a specific opportunity for you to tangibly express the love of Christ, even if your churches remain closed.

Create a donation box, and fill it up: Help your children sort through clothes, toys, books, and other items in good condition to find things that could be given to those who are less fortunate. Read Matthew 25:34-41, and talk about other ways you can help “the least of these.”  

Support foster and adoptive families: Send an encouraging card in the mail, and order a meal to be delivered to their home. If they do not have a church family, invite them to visit your church in the future.  

For your children

Children learn best and feel empowered when they engage in projects that allow them as much hands-on activity as possible. Give guidance, but encourage their creativity.

Write thank-you cards: In additions to these notes, your kids can draw happy pictures for the medical staff at a local hospital. Include a simple Bible verse or reminder that God sees them and loves them. Contact the hospital to determine how best to deliver these. 

Get crafty: Let your child create items—pasta necklaces, painted stones, cookies, etc.—that they can share with neighbors, along with a note or drawing to encourage them, and ask them to let you know of any specific prayer requests they have.

Use Send Relief Sunday to start preparing your church for the Southern Baptist National Day of Service on Oct. 4, 2020. This will be another amazing opportunity to meet needs and change lives through tangible service that, we pray, opens up avenues to share the gospel. 

Ultimately, it is the lovingkindness of God that draws men and women to himself (Jer. 31:3). Yet, we are all called to be extensions of his lovingkindness to the world. For more ways you and your church can provide compassionate care to others, visit SendRelief.org

By / Mar 12

Note: This article is intended as a starting point for your church as you are planning to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We will be updating this article as this fast-moving situation progresses.

How should churches handle COVID-19? That’s the question congregations around the country are grappling with as the World Health Organization recently declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Should they continue Sunday services? Should they cancel small groups or Sunday School? Should they change their practices for serving the Lord’s Supper or passing the offering plate?

These are not just abstract questions anymore. With over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 in America currently, this is a pressing issue for churches around the country. The landscape is constantly shifting as different regions take different actions that could impact churches. At the time of publication, some of these government actions include Santa Clara County in California limiting large gatherings beyond 1,000 peopleWashington state forbidding gatherings of over 250 in certain areas around the hard-hit Seattle region; in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced a ban on gatherings of 100 or more in the state; and, Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky recommending cancelling public gatherings, including churches of all sizes  

What should churches do as COVID-19 swells and government guidelines shift? Before addressing what churches should consider or how they can take practical steps, it is important to look at the bigger picture of why this is an issue at all.

Why should churches care about COVID-19?

COVID-19 has provoked mixed reactions in the church. 

Faith communities have found themselves at the center of the spread of COVID-19 in America. The city of New Rochelle, New York, has implemented a containment zone in response to a COVID-19 epicenter emerging around a Jewish synagogue. Hundreds of people who attended Christ Church Georgetown have been asked to self-quarantine after the church’s rector, Timothy Cole, presided over services and served communion just prior to being diagnosed with COVID-19. Furthermore, churches are often made up of senior adults who face some of the greatest risk from COVID-19.

But the church’s concern for COVID-19 should also be rooted in its theological foundations. Every person is worthy of dignity and respect because they are made in the image of God, which means that we should seek to care well for them in trying times such as these. Yet, difficult situations create opportunities for Christians to model the call of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves.

What should churches do about COVID-19?

What does it look like to love our neighbors as ourselves during this COVID-19 pandemic? When disaster strikes, churches are often faithful to rise to the occasion in disaster relief or community support. But churches can’t respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way as  other disaster scenarios. Yet, the church always has a role to play when our communities are hurting, and pastors and church leaders need to be compassionate and creative as we identify ways to serve our communities and meet their needs.

But what can the church do right now about COVID-19? Some in our churches feel a sense of helplessness during this evolving situation. Church leaders often lack sufficient medical expertise. It is difficult to stay on top of shifting guidance from public health officials. But, in the midst of all this uncertainty, there are four key things every church can do to address COVID-19. 

First, churches should identify reliable, local sources of information. Our culture is facing a crisis of trust in its institutions and information sources. So, in a pandemic situation, it is essential that church leaders identify reliable information at the local, state, and national level to stay updated on recent developments. Likewise, churches can mutually learn from one another about best practices and effective strategies. One key to aid in this effort to solidify information could be to establish a COVID-19 response team in your church, including medical professionals if possible, that is tasked with developing and implementing the other aspects of this guide.

Second, churches should assess their practices. Even if churches aren’t sure what they should change, they can at least begin by better understanding what they are currently doing. Churches can evaluate their procedures and seek to enhance them in light of emerging information and guidance. Congregations should focus on key elements like the ones covered in the final section of this guide.

Third, churches should overcommunicate their plans. It’s not enough to simply change what your church is doing. Church leaders must also be intentional about communicating their plans to their people. This includes helping people know what has changed, why these shifts are taking place, and how the plans will help. Intentional communication can both encourage those who are scared and satisfy those who are skeptical. Churches should have specialized messaging encouraging prudence for the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. They should also provide support for parents in their congregation about how to have appropriate conversations about COVID-19 with their children.

Fourth, churches should encourage their people. When it comes to COVID-19, you will inevitably find people in your church who are either dismayed or dismissive. As COVID-19 has affected other countries, the social upheaval and personal isolation has fostered a range of mental health challenges for people in the community. While churches may not be able to confront the medical complexities of a global pandemic, they are uniquely poised to comfort the personal challenges of a panicked people with the hope and promises of God’s Word.

 How should churches respond to COVID-19?

Let’s get practical. What are some specific practices that your church can implement right now to act on COVID-19? The ERLC recently surveyed over 50 church leaders around the country to ask them how they are addressing COVID-19 concerns in their churches and communities. The following is a summary of some of the most common best practices that emerged from their feedback. Our friends at LifeWay have also developed free training on “How to Prepare for the Coronavirus at Your Church.’

Disclaimer: Every context is different in terms of church practices and community guidelines, so this is not intended to be an exhaustive or authoritative resource of ERLC recommendations. Instead, this compilation of practices offered by other sources should provide first steps for your church to think through how these principles and practices might fit best in your unique ministry context. In addition, it’s important to keep up the latest developments from organizations like the CDC and WHO.

Cleaning and sanitation:

  • Providing hand sanitizer stations throughout the building.
  • Cleaning and sanitizing in high-traffic or common areas before and after service. Think about chairs, door handles, stair rails, counters, and elevators.
  • Refraining from passing an offering plate and using sanitized offering containers available throughout the building and between services.
  • Elevating sanitation efforts in preschool and children’s areas.

Worship services and church practices:

  • Revising meet-and-greet in service: Many churches are eliminating the practice of standing and shaking hands during services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Examining Lord’s Supper practices: Churches are taking a range of measures to manage the risk of spread of the virus the Lord’s Supper, from using individual cup and bread packages to postponing or pausing the Lord’s Supper for a time.
  • Limiting physical contact with greeters: Churches should encourage greeters to refrain from shaking hands and instead smile, wave, or bump elbows. In addition, churches should consider asking greeters to hold doors to limit physical contact with door handles.
  • Encouraging offering at central locations: Churches should avoid passing an offering plate, which can spread germs. Instead, churches should maintain offering collection points at entrances and exits and throughout the church. 
  • Encouraging online giving: Churches should be proactive about ensuring church members have an easy way to make online donations. This is especially the case if your area becomes a COVID-19 hotspot and attendance numbers decline or your church decides to pause services.
  • Cancelling church-wide meals: Because potluck and shared meals can lead to transmission of disease, many churches are cancelling church-wide meals and gatherings for a time.
  • Cancelling or postponing additional church gatherings and events: Many churches are cancelling gatherings and events outside of worship services. Churches should consider the risks and benefits of these gatherings.

Kids ministries:

  • Extensive cleaning in kids’ areas each week, including all toys and surfaces.
  • Adding sanitation and cleaning practices in between services in kids areas.
  • Supervising hand washing for all kids and volunteers before entering.
  • Providing Hand sanitizer when entering and leaving for every kids’ class.

Travel and trips:

  • Postponing or cancelling overnight retreats.
  • Requesting notification of members’ travel to high-risk countries and working with individuals on the best plan of action for self-quarantining before attending worship.
  • Postponing short-term missions trips, according to the International Mission Board’s guidance.  
  • Evaluating staff travel—domestic and international.

Alternatives to worship services and giving: The decision of whether to pause services is a significant one, which should be made with counsel from your church leadership, consideration of advice from local health officials, and with prayer and discernment. In past pandemics, churches have paused services for a time in response to government orders. In other situations, churches have continued to meet while undertaking extraordinary precautions. As your church is considering how to respond if your area becomes a COVID-19 hotspot, here are several alternatives to consider in your planning:

  • Live-streaming worship services filmed at the church and distributing online
  • Filming and distributing a recorded sermon along with a discussion guide for families
  • Recording worship songs or providing links to recordings of worship
  • Online prayer meetings through Skype, Google Hangouts, or Zoom

Develop a threat-level plan:

Dr. Daniel Chin, a global health expert wrote an excellent article at Christianity Today, recommending that your church take action based on the threat level in your community:

As cases of COVID-19 increase, we are seeing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about what the church should do. But responses can be based on sound epidemiologic principles. I use traffic light imagery to help churches think through their local risk of transmission and what kind of actions they should take (see figure). After all, all transmission of this virus occurs locally. Your actions should not be based on what is happening 50 miles away; they should be based on what is happening in your particular community.

The article includes a helpful stoplight framework for thinking about the threat in your area and your response, which should increase as the threat increases. There are several helpful graphics at the piece, but the threat levels Dr. Chin defines are:

  • Green: There are no cases in my community.
  • Yellow: There are cases in my community, but cases are all imported from another area or are contacts to an imported case.
  • Red: There are one or more cases, and they do not have contact to a known case. There are multiple generations of transmission.

Read more at Christianity Today.

Prayer:

  • Above all, we should pray. 
  • We should pray for those individuals and families who either are or will be affected by this virus and for their healing.
  • We should pray for the doctors and medical professionals who are on the front lines caring for those who contract coronavirus. 
  • We should pray for medical researchers who are diligently working to create a vaccine for this virus. 
  • We should pray for our leaders in office, including the president, vice president, governors, and local officials as they guide us through this moment. 
  • We should pray for the church to respond with thoughtfulness, wisdom, and love.
  • We should pray for the continued advance of the gospel even as this trying moment continues to unfold.

Overcommunicating with your church: 

  • Reassuring your congregation: Churches should overcommunicate to their churches the steps they are taking, reassuring them that they are staying informed, thinking ahead, and that you will communicate as things change.
  • Reminding the congregation about personal prevention: Although your congregation is receiving these reminders from a number of sources, be sure to overcommunicate about the importance of personal hygiene in preventing the spread of disease. Be sure to remind your church about diligent handwashing, alternate greetings, sneezing into arm, using tissues and disposing of them immediately, avoiding touching one’s face, staying home when sick, taking advantage of media broadcasts, and self-quarantining if experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or if exposed to COVID-19.
  • Urging high-risk individuals to stay home: COVID-19 does not affect every person the same way, and according to the CDC, some are at higher risk if they become sick, including older adults and those with existing medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.
  • Directing your church to trusted, professional information sites: Your people need to know who they can trust, which starts with letting them know who you trust. Direct your church to information at the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Local and state government will also also have information about COVID-19 in your area.

Your vehicles of communication to your congregation: 

As a reminder, here’s a list of the numerous communications tools you have to keep your church apprised of the latest developments and steps you are taking regarding coronavirus. Your messaging needs to be clearly and consistently overcommunicated through all these channels.

  • Regular updates
  • Church-wide email
  • Emails to leaders
  • Emails to parents
  • Weekly newsletter
  • Members meeting
  • Pulpit
  • Sunday announcement slides
  • Social media
  • Facebook live
  • Standing COVID-19 update on your webpage 
  • Updates from missionaries in affected areas
  • Flyers to encourage people to wash hands
  • Video updates

Additional resources:

By / Jan 24

Don’t let the title fool you: The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction is not a pedantic self-help book—it is a clarion call to a life of loving God and loving others.

An anxious pace 

Author Justin Whitmel Earley begins his narrative by describing an experience exactly like my own in my mid-20s: an overachiever, he was living far beyond his means, sleeping precious little, and enslaved to a chaotic calendar (“busyness functions like an addiction”). Without even feeling anxious or stressed, he experienced a full-blown “anxiety breakdown,” complete with panic attacks and a trip to the emergency room. He owed his body an unpayable debt, and his body finally called his bluff. He writes, 

“When we try to be present everywhere, we end up being present nowhere. When we try to free ourselves from the limitations of our presence, we always become enslaved to absence. . . . My life was an ode of worship to omniscience, omnipresence, and limitlessness. No wonder my body rebelled.”

The shock and severity of the breakdown motivated Earley to reevaluate his life, to exchange his hemorrhaging habits for life-giving ones, for “…habits are the water we swim in. . . . Habits are something we do over and over without thinking about them. They shape our world effortlessly. They form us more than we form them—and that’s why they are so powerful.”

A call to purposeful living 

While I typically bristle at books that propose “rules for living” (boiling down intricate complexities into trite tinctures), Earley’s “common rule” doesn’t feel at all like a prescription, but rather a call to eternally purposeful living. In an age where the loudest voice wins, the smart phone perpetually distracts, and we keep frantically busy to avoid facing our inner turmoil, Earley challenges his readers to practice habits of authentic relationship, resting, praying, and limiting our endless choices: “What if the good life doesn’t come from having the ability to do what we want but from having the ability to do what we were made for? What if true freedom comes from choosing the right limitations, not avoiding all limitations?”

He explains that the good life is a life spent in formation (he cites Romans 12:1-2)—formation that results in our better loving God and loving others. The habits he proposes are not ultimately for our self-preservation or success—they are intended to enlarge our hearts for a Godward life of beauty—because how can we ever hope to love anyone well, or have a vision of what is truly beautiful, when we are perennially stressed, exhausted, and distracted? So Earley suggests practicing four daily habits and four weekly habits to curate a whole, undistracted life of love. 

These eight habits include practicing a weekly Sabbath and a weekly fast; beginning each morning with Scripture-before-phone; sharing a meal in community once a day and an hour-long conversation with a friend each week; as well as limiting social media intake. I found myself nodding and smiling at his rationale behind each habit, thinking of how these same “micro shifts have brought about macro effects” in my own life over the past 10 years (to the extent that I’ve practiced them). 

While each of us may flesh out these habits differently, the principles are universally applicable. For example, I wouldn’t personally recommend a routine fast like Earley’s (at least from my own imperfect understanding of God’s intent for fasting as seen throughout Scripture), but we all desperately need Earley’s encouragement to practice limiting our excess, to regularly deny ourselves in order to live more fully. His call to fasting helped me go to God again and ask, “What do you want to say to me about fasting in this particular season of my life?”

These daily, weekly habits are intended to fix our attention (which is “our precious commodity”) on the things that matter, that endure, that benefit those around us. They are a way of displaying God’s good news to our friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and world. Earley writes of the urgent need for us to spend our time well (especially in the area of media) so that we have an opportunity to love the most vulnerable among us:

“I believe a new problem of my generation is the way that (whether right or left leaning) the ever-outraged and always-offended tone of mainstream news sources is making us numb to the world’s pain. When everything is a crisis, nothing is. We think we’re becoming informed, but actually we’re becoming numb.”

This endless stream of media will drown out the quiet cries of the vulnerable unless we curate specifically in order to hear them, to love them, to close our screens and walk out our doors to where they are.

In an age where the loudest voice wins, the smart phone perpetually distracts, and we keep frantically busy to avoid facing our inner turmoil, Earley challenges his readers to practice habits of authentic relationship, resting, praying, and limiting our endless choices.

I’m so grateful Earley didn’t conclude his book without the epilogue, “On failure and beauty.” In it, he freely confesses his own failed efforts at faithfully practicing these healthy habits and thus loving God and others well. I can relate with his failure. I can also relate with his hopeful words:

“Look at me or at any other human being long enough, and you’ll see nothing but a hypocrite. . . . But if you stand next to me and look where I’m looking, then we’ll both see Jesus. He’s the life we want. He’s the life given for us. And the gold of the resurrection inlays all our fault lines. He is the one who lived the beautiful life. He is the one redeeming ours.”

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I do deeply appreciate the opportunity to look again at the habits that are shaping my days, to make course adjustments where needed, and to fix my eyes on the One who has purposed for me a beautiful life of love. The Common Rule has helped me to do just that, which makes it a book I will refer to and recommend for years to come.

By / Oct 3

Shalom is the word we reach for to talk about justice, mercy, and the God-honoring relationship between people, places, and things. It’s the interconnectedness that we long for; it’s the satiation of desire and longing; it’s the proper relationship between earth, humankind, and our work. Our word shalom points to the acceptance, unity, peace, flourishing, and rightness of the created order that God originally intended and to which we are moving.

What would it look like for the suburbs to flourish, to experience shalom? Suburbs are built on the premise of safety, comfort, and insulation. But safety is more than that—it’s security that is deeper.

Experiencing shalom, suburbs would evidence strong marriages and stalwart communities. Children would be safe and free, and yet live for more than the latest gadget or what they could acquire. Imagine children growing up in safety, but not a safety borne from walling out others who aren’t like us. Imagine people working hard, not for their beach vacation but for the good of the community. Imagine a tight knit community where we valued our particularities and differences, we knew each other’s names, and we saw needs and sought to meet them. Imagine homes flung open in hospitality, not traded in for bigger and better.

Imagine a community where it was safe to be broken, where kindness was the first word, where privilege and affluence bred generosity, justice, and humility not simply for that community’s sake but for the communities around it. Wouldn’t that be a revolution in the suburbs?

Then imagine how the church is called to hold out the hope of the gospel and live it out in your suburb. Here’s one small way our church is beginning to dream about meeting the deep need for safety in our community: we’re brainstorming how to mobilize the gifts and knowledge of our people to offer free community classes on parenting in which we engage the culture of affluence, the influence of technology, and how parents can stay connected to their children in a culture of busyness.

We hope that we’ll be able to start discussions about how safety and success shouldn’t be turned inward: instead, families would use safety and socioeconomic and racial privilege to move outward—to bring others in, create friendships, and use their power and authority not to puff themselves up but to actually help create a culture of flourishing for all people.

Paper birds and pain

Opening up space for lament is one way we can work toward shalom in the suburbs. This is the lesson I learned from my son, Porter, one spring morning. He called me out to our suburban patio, and with a joyful gesture he pointed out how he’d spied our mama bird up on the house next to ours. She had made a nest in a little pot on our patio; even strewn with weeds it had held her eggs for three seasons. I wondered why she wasn’t watching over her eggs. I turned to look at our pots we’d just cleaned up yesterday in a Saturday morning spent weeding. Her pot was missing. My stomach dropped. I got fidgety. Where was the pot? Where were her babies?

I went to the source, and when I could bear to peek, I peered into the trash can. There the nest was nestled in the bottom of the green bin. There were no more eggs. I stomped like a two-year-old, I slammed doors, I ugly cried. I hugged my husband and then pushed him away. I couldn’t contain the sadness. I wanted to run forever. Then came the guttural sounds inches from my bedroom floor, echoes of the ones that had reverberated over a toilet I sat on a dozen years ago: “No! No! No! No! Not another baby lost!”

Meanwhile, my son Porter rushed to the couch, scissors in hand. I ran and collapsed on my bedroom floor, no words for the pain. A few minutes later, my son presented me with his gifts. He took to paper and scissors when he saw ache, loss, and how broken the world is. He cut out and drew a mama bird and then a baby bird coming out of an egg—paper gifts handed to me with his outturned lip. He proceeded to create a bird family and unbroken paper eggs, and a baby bird that looked like a phoenix rising from the ashes. He dove right into my pain, anger, and confusion, and created art.

That is shalom. He saw pain and dove into its cracks, pointing me to something better, something that communicated deep sadness with a hint of redemption at its edges. Shalom in the suburbs dives into pain and makes paper birds.

Knowing our neighbors’ pain

Pain may look different in suburbia than homelessness, hunger, and insufficient resources, although those are there too. It looks like crippling debt behind closed doors. It looks like hidden poverty. It looks like microaggressions when you don’t fit a dominant racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic mainstream. It looks like windows closed so wives and husbands can vent their rage. It looks like disconnection and emotional vacancy. It can even be an anesthetized version of safety, peace, and security when underneath we are not really living life. It looks like an outward presentation of manicured lawns while our souls grow lazy with our consumption, pride, and greed.

We have to know our neighbors and our own hearts well enough to ask hard questions and draw people out of hiding. We must practice vulnerably sharing our failures first and the goodness of Yahweh-Shalom to redeem our failures—to call us men and women of valor, even when we’re hiding out.

Be purposeful in your place

Be purposeful in your place: whether you move to a needier spot in your suburb or commit to staying put, or even keep an old car. As agents of shalom, we dig our hands in: we build houses and plant gardens. We commit to lives of vulnerability and hospitality—not to “bigger is better”—because Jesus did that. We say yes for the long haul to a particular people and place. When we attach ourselves to a place, writes Kathleen Norris, we “surrender to it, and suffer with it.” That means that, yes, we suffer with the suburb’s idols and idiosyncrasies.

But we also hold out hope for a life of abundance that isn’t defined by working harder. It means we can exhibit the shalom of God in our contentment and help others get off the moving walkway of hustling for their worthiness. We do this in countless small ways. We invite people into our homes. We engage difference with compassion and questions, not condescension. We ask for eyes to see all the ways our affluence blinds us.

Then we take one small step. I easily get overwhelmed with the state of racial, social, and economic injustice, and I feel powerless to change anything. The call to be radical and world-changing can stifle any small ways we work out shalom in our neighborhoods. But, it must be said, these acts of kindness may be how shalom in the suburbs starts. Acts of kindness are not the sum and substance of shalom, but they may be one baby step we take to begin to see others. We must start small and start somewhere if we’re not going to be overwhelmed and do nothing.

Conclusion

As you create habits of smaller “acts of kindness”—as you sit down to family dinner more often than not, as you open up your home to neighbors and neighborhood children, as you donate your time and money, as you dream with others about what your suburb would look like redeemed—your vision extends. We begin to see those on the margins. We see the homeless man who we’ve been driving by. We see the person of color who steps into our white church and we make an effort to offer welcome. We ask, Who’s excluded because of their race, or who has no access because of their class, gender, or ability? Who isn’t seen because they don’t look right, sound right, or have the right education or house? Then, as we embody and practice the welcome of Christ, we don’t just react to those on the margins, but we learn to move toward the marginalized, the broken, and the invisible.

The call to the suburban Christian is to wake up. And if God isn’t calling you elsewhere, we stay put. We start small. We don’t settle for the absence of conflict as an indication of peace. We instead seek the flourishing of our place and all the people—prominent and invisible—who are our neighbors.

Adapted from Finding Holy in the Suburbs by Ashley Hales. Copyright (c) 2018 by Ashley Hales. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

By / Dec 20

I celebrated my first Christmas Eve service overseas a few years ago in South Asia. I went with a missionary family in my city to their church in a local school. I wore a Christmas dress much different than ones I had worn in the States, embroidered with bright patterns and sequins, with leggings and a dupatta for modesty. We piled into the wooden desks and benches; I sat on one side with the ladies in a sea of sarees and dupatta-covered heads. We sang unfamiliar songs in an unfamiliar language for two hours and afterward gathered outside to share some biryani with each other.

There was nothing familiar about this Christmas Eve service. No candlelight service. No Silent Night sung by a choir. No Christmas ham. But these believers were celebrating the same Christmas story we celebrate in the American church, and I would dare say despite the persecution they faced, with more joy. It was a reminder to me that the Christmas Story is certainly not American, nor is it intended to be. It has always been a story for the nations.

The Christmas story didn't actually begin 2,000 years ago. It began much earlier. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose disobedience in the Garden, and the result was sin and a broken world. But God promised in that there would be One who would come and crush the head of Satan (Gen. 3:15), providing a way of salvation for fallen man. God fulfilled his promise. He sent his only Son into this mess of a world, formed in a virgin’s s womb, born in a stable, to live the perfect life we could not live, to die the death we should have died, and to rise again, conquering sin and giving us the gift of a relationship with him. This is the Christmas story. This is the gospel. This is not just good news. It is the best news! 

The Christmas Story is certainly not American, nor is it intended to be. It has always been a story for the nations.

Carl F. H. Henry said, "The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time." Christian, God has sovereignly placed nonbelievers in your life because you are the one he wants to use to proclaim this good news. The good news of Christmas can only be understood for what it is by your friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor if they have the opportunity to hear it and believe it!

Amazingly, there is a good chance that you have an international friend, co-worker, or neighbor who only knows Christmas as the time Americans drink peppermint mochas and talk about an overweight old guy in a red suit who hands out toys. They have never heard the true meaning and story of Christmas. Many internationals worship gods they fear or live in fear that they have not done enough good or religious works to inherit eternal life. They do not know the hope of Christmas. They do not know the Savior who willingly and humbly chose to come and enter our broken world to redeem us. They do not know this God who loves them deeply.

The opportunities for gospel conversations at Christmas are ripe if you are intentional in seeking them out. I have listed a few ideas below on how to engage and share with internationals this Christmas, but of course, these ideas could also be used to engage with any of your lost friends, family, and neighbors.

  1. Invite them to church events and a meal or coffee afterward to talk about the content. For example, if it is a Christmas concert, you can ask if they noticed any themes in the songs or if they have any questions about what the songs talked about. This is an easy way to open the door to sharing the Christmas story.
  2. Bake some Christmas treats for your neighbors. This is a great way to start a conversation with your neighbors and a great time to invite them to your home. Internationals tend to come from more hospitable cultures, and an invitation to your home would be a significant way to begin a relationship with them. You’ll also learn along the way what they can and can’t eat, either because of their traditions or religions. But don’t let this stop you from taking the first step.
  3. Invite parents and children over to help decorate Christmas cookies or even your tree. This provides an opportunity to ask if they have heard the Christmas story and may open a door to share it with them. For example, they might inquire about ornaments you have and what they mean, especially if they display something about Christianity.
  4. Invite them to look at Christmas lights in your community. Who doesn’t love looking at Christmas lights? You could point out manger scenes you see and ask, "Do you know what that is? Have you ever heard the story of Christmas and why we celebrate? Could I share the story with you?"    
  5. Invite international students to celebrate Christmas with you. If you live close to a large university, I guarantee you there are international students that will be the U.S. during Christmas, far away from their families and home countries. As you can imagine, they are very lonely and would most likely welcome an invitation to celebrate Christmas with an American family. You can contact a local campus ministry, such as a BCM (Baptist Campus Ministry), that could connect you with an international student. You could invite them to a Christmas Eve service, take them to look at Christmas lights, or better yet, invite them into your home on Christmas Day to celebrate with your family.  
  6. Serve a local ministry that serves refugee communities. You can contact a ministry like this and ask if there are opportunities for you, your family, and/or your church to partner with them. If possible, you could ask to adopt a refugee family and provide them with a warm meal and winter coats for the family members. This could open the door to an intentional relationship with a family as you seek to meet their physical and spiritual needs.  

These are just a few ideas, but I would encourage you to think about the community around you, their needs and their habits, and use your creativity to find ways to engage that community with the gospel. Our Lord has come. Let us joyfully proclaim the best news to the world.  

By / Jun 21

Jesus teaches us to “love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength” (Mark 12:30). Furthermore, he teaches us to “love our neighbor as ourself” (Mark 12:31). This command to love our neighbor is rooted in God’s love for us. We take our cues from God when it comes to how we demonstrate love to others. Therefore, when it comes to loving those with whom we disagree or with whose lifestyles we cannot condone, we must look to God for our example.

The following points represent a brief survey of some biblical truths from the writings of the apostle Paul that will help us love our gay neighbors well:

1. Love your gay neighbor fearlessly

“…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Timothy was a young, timid minister who needed encouragement from the seasoned, mature Paul. Just like us, Timothy had to be reminded that God had given him a spirit of power, love, and self-control. Regardless of the circumstances, we are called to love our gay neighbor in the strength of God’s power, which drives out fear and increases our faith. Fearless love takes risks. It steps outside of its comfort zone. It breaks down stereotypes and demonstrates trust in God.

God’s compassion serves as the paradigm for Christian compassion.

2. Love your gay neighbor compassionately

“Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12-13).

God’s compassion serves as the paradigm for Christian compassion. When we seek to show compassion to others, we begin by considering how God showed compassion to us. When it comes to our gay neighbor, we show compassion and offer forgiveness on the basis of what God has done in Christ to redeem us and demonstrate his love toward us. Compassion is the clothing of the Christian. It is the scent that should linger when a Christian comes around.

3. Love your gay neighbor truthfully

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

Biblical love is inextricably related to the truth. If the source of love is God himself, then our expressions of love must not neglect the truth of God. Love and truth are the two sides of the Gospel we share with others. People will never see how loved they truly are until they understand who they are apart from God’s love and redemption. When Christians conceal the truth about sin from their neighbor, it may appear loving, but it is not loving at all. Loving our gay neighbor in the truth means not only addressing the reality and consequence of the sin, but it also means faithfully declaring the grace and freedom that are found in Christ Jesus. Christians should speak the whole truth to their gay neighbor, which means truthful speech about both God’s just holiness and God’s redemptive mercy.

4. Love your gay neighbor redemptively

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7).

The “loving kindness of God our Savior appeared” to save us! In other words, God’s love has a salvific purpose. The end goal of his love is the redemption of the sinner. We are told this in no uncertain terms in John 3:16, where we read that God’s love for us compelled him to send his Son, Jesus, into the world for the salvation of sinners. He does not love for love’s sake, but for the sake of his glory in salvation. Our love for our gay neighbor is incomplete if its end goal is not their full redemption. We are called to adorn the gospel with our good works, but we must be careful that we do not neglect the gospel on account of our busyness.

5. Love your gay neighbor patiently

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).

“And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Very few people respond to the gospel the first time that they hear it. As those who have been saved by a patient God, we need to be patient with our gay neighbor. Furthermore, while our love must be redemptive, it must not be dehumanizing. What I mean by this is that our gay neighbor is not some salvific notch in our evangelistic belt. We must not view our neighbor as a threat to be neutralized, but as a human being created in the image of a loving and patient God. We should demonstrate love to our gay neighbor regardless if they ever attend our church meetings. So when we start loving our neighbors redemptively, we must do so with patience and longsuffering. Often, repentance will be messy and we must be willing to walk alongside them, discipling them to follow Jesus. We must not give up on the gospel. In due season, God’s message will bear fruit if we do not grow weary in doing good.

In conclusion, God’s Word is clear that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. This necessarily includes even those with whom we disagree and whose lifestyles conflict with God’s Word. God’s intention is to use Christians to demonstrate a love for their gay neighbor that is marked by a fearless hope in the transforming truth of the gospel, which declares the compassion of God toward all sinners with the aim of bringing about their full redemption. This love is a patient love that rests in the sovereign kindness of a loving God. It is a love that looks strikingly similar to the love that God has poured out on us through Jesus Christ.

By / Nov 23

There’s no doubt that many tables will be divided during this holiday season for various reasons. But as the discussions begin and potential tempers flare, Christians can exercise self-control and remember there is a greater reason for our engagement on important topics.

There’s a great need for the display of empathy in this day. Empathy, by definition, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The Word of God describes this as love: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). As we exercise this radical and supernatural love, it leads us to act out of empathy, to rejoice and weep with others: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

Biblical love allows us to forgive and put-off offenses: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sin” (1 Peter 4:8). And this unique love keeps us from harming others: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).

But how do we grow in empathy, especially during tense times? How do we understand and share the feelings of another? James would say that part of our growth in loving others practically starts by being quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger (James. 1:20). Growing in empathy starts by listening to others.  In order to encourage you to exercise empathy, especially during this holiday season, here are the voices of five women and their empathetic reflections.

Christian Walker | Kids City Director | Redemption City Church

I’ve lived a very homogeneous life. Most of the people who have surrounded me look and think just like me. I’ve never actually had deep friendships with others from different racial backgrounds. I grew up thinking that minority struggles, particularly for African-Americans, were something to be glossed over. I’ve heard family members and friends say things like: “Those things happened so long ago; why are people still mad?”

It’s easy for me to see how people who have never had an honest conversation or relationship with a person of another race can be apathetic. If most people’s experiences are like my own, it wasn’t an intentional apathy. I guess that’s why indifference is a special type of sin, because it is blinding.

In 2016, we experienced an ugly election campaign, intense racial divides in communities all across the nation and a vote to remove the Confederate flag as a symbol of hatred at the Southern Baptist Convention. My sweet grandmother, who is very educated and intelligent, debated with me over the symbol of the Confederate flag. Her response to the Civil Rights Movement was, “I am very friendly to blacks. When I pass a black lady on the sidewalk, we smile at each other.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I realized her lack of understanding came directly from her lack of relationship. My grandmother is not a racist person; in fact, she’s tender-hearted and kind. But the distance between her and those around her is wide.

I realized that I might have said the same thing without my relationship with Trillia. She has opened up her heart and shared personal feelings with me. My understanding of pain and hurt for my African-American brothers and sisters comes directly from my personal friendship with a woman of another race.

I pray everyone would have the opportunity for a friendship with someone from another tribe and another tongue who could help us develop greater understanding and empathy for others.

Catherine Parks | Author of A Christ Centered Wedding

I don't think empathy comes naturally. It certainly hasn't for me. Proverbs 18:2 says, "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion." If that doesn't sum up the echo chamber of this past year, I don't know what does. The Philippian church had to be instructed to not just look out for their own interests, but also for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4), and Jesus was their example for the kind of humility required to do this. Humility is a necessity when we choose to set aside our own opinions in order to truly understand and hear one another.

Many wise people have said that empathy requires proximity. I certainly wouldn't understand some of the issues facing Mexican immigrants without my neighbors, the challenges to people with disabilities if it weren’t for my friends and the fears of some of my African-American brothers and sisters if it weren't for relationships with Trillia and others.

I have no doubt that each of these people have been patient and long suffering with my questions and ignorance at times. It isn’t an easy burden to bear—to be gently educating others constantly—but they have done it with love. Perhaps that is their Philippians 2:4 obedience. Maybe all along they have known something I didn't.

I always assume I'm the one looking out for their interests by understanding them, and I think that's somewhat true. But I've realized they are also looking out for my interests. When they open up and share about their experiences, they are giving me a glimpse of the grandness of God's design for humanity, and especially the beauty of his Body. They are giving me an opportunity to step outside my limited, self-absorbed, daily existence in order to participate in something far greater. 

Courtney Reissig | Author of Glory in the Ordinary and The Accidental Feminist

As Christians, our response to those who are different than us should never be fear. While our natural bent might be to retreat from otherness, Christ’s call on our lives is to empathy and understanding. In Christ, we have no need to fear.

First, to truly empathize we need to see our brothers and sisters as image bearers, not as “others” (Gen. 1:27). Bearing the image of God is our great leveler. Before the Lord, we are all created equal, we are all valued, and we all deserve to be heard. Our image bearing should drive us to seek to understand those who are different than us, not retreat from them.

But along with that, we must also recognize that the privilege and majority status of some of us does not make our vantage point the superior one. We should be compelled to use these things for good, not our own gain. We should treat others as we would like to be treated, which means listening, understanding and advocating for those who are oppressed and misunderstood (Luke 6:23). This privilege is a call to stewardship not prejudice. God didn’t create one ethnicity or cultural experience. He created many, and this forces us to confront our own biases as the majority. People of privilege have a responsibility to listen first, talk later (James 1:19)

In all of this, our greatest model for empathy is our Savior, Jesus. He went to people who were despised, rejected and outcasts of society. If image-bearing is the great leveler, the gospel levels us even more. In Christ, we have one Savior and one Church (1 Tim. 2:5). There is one way to be saved, and it’s on the basis of grace, not ethnicity, class or majority status (John 14:6; Gal. 3:28). The path to heaven is filled with people not like us, because God is calling all nations to himself. Let this fuel us to love and listen to those who aren’t like us, not turn away in fear or anger.

Kristie Anyabwile | Contributor to Women on Life and Word-Filled Women’s Ministry

Where is empathy? I wonder where others were when I poured out my heart about fears I felt for my own son in the wake of the deaths of young black boys and men. I felt the ache when I needed someone to grieve with me over faulty moral compasses that seem to value political parties and ideologies over people. I sensed the loneliness when I needed someone to listen, understand and validate—not negotiate—my feelings.

I didn’t need someone to assuage my grief; I just needed a friend to cry with me—to enter into my emotional space until my feelings became hers. When someone sits with me in that space, I feel safe, heard, loved and respected.

I’m often told to turn to Christ and remember the gospel, yet asking one another to help bear our burdens is turning to Christ. It’s using his appointed means to comfort and encourage his people. Are we not to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2)?

For too long, empathy has been locked away in the darkest caverns of apathy that can spawn pride, self-righteousness, impatience, disunity and even hate. But exercising empathy allows us to enter into the emotional center of another, to feel what they feel, to see what they see, to own with them their fear, hurt, anger, joy and love. It’s the ability to understand and share in the feelings and experiences of another. Empathy is rooted in the kind of love that listens in order to understand with the intent of growing into deeper, more genuine love and practical care for one another.

Where there’s no empathy, there’s no Christian love and fellowship. Our Christian witness is tarnished without it. How can we love each other this way—genuinely, deeply, tenderly, humbly, compassionately, patiently, meekly—if we don’t enter the sacred space of another’s feelings and circumstances? We can’t live out our calling as disciples if we don’t love one another (John 13:35).

Christ set the example for us clearly, calling us to love one another just as he has loved us with a sacrificial, everlasting love (John 13:34). He loved us when we were unlovely. He loved us by entering into our grief, our pain, our sorrows, taking the sins of others against us and our own sins to the cross. Empathy is the pathway to loving others as Christ has loved us. Would you join me in unlocking and freeing empathy and rolling a stone of forgetfulness over the cavern of apathy?

Katie Richards | Director of Development for Siloam Health

This past week, I sat in a room and listened to my coworkers share the disappointment and sadness they (and members of their community) were feeling about our country. My coworkers represent various immigrant and refugee communities in my city, and each brings a unique glimpse into what is happening in people’s lives and hearts that live just miles from me.

It struck me that the church has an opportunity in the coming days to engage immigrants and refugees in our communities in meaningful conversations. I kept thinking of people I’ve had conversations with over the past few months that I wish were in the room with me, listening to the rich cultural perspectives being shared. Those people may not change their stances, but they may be moved to change their tone.

In the coming days, the church has an opportunity to go to the immigrant community and to invite others to come to know these communities. The church can lead the way in embracing immigrants and refugees that are living in fear for whatever reasons. We can lead the way in humanizing an increasingly inhumane conversation happening in our culture around these populations. We can lead the way in validating their status as fellow men and women, boys and girls, who are made in God’s image.


Perhaps this holiday season will be the beginning of new, helpful and needed conversations with others. As we seek to grow in understanding, let’s also ask the Lord to teach us to empathize that in a way that will ultimately reflect his love.

By / Oct 17

These are hard, painful days on many fronts. I don’t need to walk you through photos of refugee children washing up on shore or African-Americans being shot by police. We’ve all seen them. And most of you reading this article get to decide what to think about these things or, more importantly, if you will think about these things.

This won’t be an argument for the reality of the pain that the black community feels right now and has felt for generations (though that needs to be talked about), or the grief this brings to many police officers. This won’t be a political plea to open our borders to refugees, or a statistical appeal to the safety of bringing them in.

I have a bigger question today. A more foundational question. Rather than circling up around our opinions, let’s start asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Then, let’s start moving toward them with all the tenderness and care that we would treat Jesus with if he was suffering one neighborhood over from us.

But, how do we that? I’m so glad you asked. This is not exhaustive, but I have a few thoughts based on my experience.

1. Seek to understand. When I first got involved in cross-cultural ministry, someone told me, “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood”. That has served me well for years now. We have to assume that we have biases and ignorance. Likewise, we need to start with assumptions that we have much to learn and that we don’t have the full picture. We should be genuinely curious about the perspective of someone from the other side of the table.

If you don’t know anyone from the other side of the table, follow blogs and podcasts and twitter feeds. As you do, compassion (sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others) will grow and undeniably lead you to empathy (the capacity to place oneself in another’s position).

2. Show hospitality. I picked “hospitality” as my focus word this year. I thought I would learn a few things about cooking, maybe buy a bigger table and set aside some extra time and money to share meals with others. Then I started studying.

In the New Testament, the word hospitality actually means “love of strangers”; the same kind of love that you would love your family with. This is where things get interesting. Martha Stewart suddenly has less bearing on the conversation, and it gets a little more uncomfortable. This tells me that I am not off the hook after I invite my friends and family over for a meal. It also tells me that it’s not an event to be checked off the list. Instead, it’s a lifestyle of sacrificial love.

This love of strangers or outsiders (typically categorized as immigrants, widows, orphans and the poor) is a common thread woven throughout the Old and New Testament (Isa. 58; Rom. 13). What is God telling us about his character in this? He is showing us that he is a God who goes outside the gate for people who have nothing to give. He is a God that must go through Samaria. He is a God that invites enemies into his family and has the audacity to adopt them as sons and daughters through his Son.

I’ll never forget a hands-on representation of this I experienced. I was with my friends who are missionaries to refugees in Chicago, and we walked into a home where an impossibly small and aged grandmother was sitting in the corner—obviously blind, mostly deaf and very frail. And sadly, she was completely unnoticed by me. But this was not the case with my friends. They walked directly to her and sat with her, sang to her and prayed with her as our hosts patiently waited. One of my friends turned to me and said something to this effect—and I hope to never forget it—“Liza, always go to the smallest person in the room. It’s what Jesus would want.”

Hospitality practiced in a biblical sense matters to God because it is a direct reflection of the gospel. I don’t believe it’s just for a few believers with a calling; I truly believe it’s for everyone who follows Jesus. We are supposed to be taking care of the vulnerable—those that don’t have natural, societal provisions for thriving. Furthermore, we are to be intentional about putting the hand of the stranger into the hand of the Savior.

This preaches so “amen-y,” but it’s so hard to live. If you are going to adjust your actual lifestyle and go out of your way to be hospitable, it will end up turning some, if not all, of your life upside down. You will invite misunderstanding on both sides. You will be interrupted, taken advantage of, made uncomfortable. These kinds of relationships are messy and refuse to serve our ideals for efficiency.

3. Stay until you empathize. Another thing, and maybe the hardest thing, is to embrace an empathy for our neighbors—the kind that only comes after you sit with them long enough to crawl under their burden. And then, before you know it, you can’t turn your head, change the channel or be OK again until your neighbor is OK, too. A quote from a black brother drives this home: “I need people who don’t feel my pain to believe me when I say it hurts.” It’s possible to start to believe your neighbor, in the marrow of  your bones, even though you don’t directly feel what he is feeling.

This is obviously painful, but isn’t it a better than apathy, ignorance or crossed arms? If the brokenness of the world hasn’t affected you, may I softly and tenderly suggest that, as a follower of Jesus, it probably should.

4. Start where you are. Most of us will not move to a refugee camp or live in an urban setting or open an orphanage in Thailand (but don’t rule those options out!), But you can start closer to home.

Another story from my everyday life illustrates this. I was with a friend on a business trip in Dallas. The pizza delivery youth in the lobby of the hotel didn’t seem to care much that his pants were around his knees, but he did care, deeply and loudly, that his pepsi was stuck in the vending machine. It was so easy to move past and be annoyed. But it wasn’t for my friend. She moved toward him, expressed sympathy and said, “Wait. Do you like RedBull? Yes? OK, stay right here.” She ran to her room, grabbed a 4-pack of RedBull, handed it to him and warmly wished him a good day. The pizza delivery guy was her neighbor for that moment.

We can do this, too. We can stop for the people that no one else stops for. We can be free to love them with arms wide open. We can go out of our way to be in their lane at the grocery store. We can intentionally get to know our immigrant neighbor. We can buy an extra coffee and stop next to that homeless man that we drive by every day and get to know them. We can sit next to the mentally handicapped person at our next party.

That’s my dream and constant prayer; that we, as the church, would be compassionate and courageous; that we would be sad, but not afraid; that we would spend more time asking who our neighbor is and less time ensuring our own comfort. I’m praying we lay down our rights and opinions, and instead, take up the incredible blessing of this burden.

*A form of this post originally appeared on Liza’s blog.