God Doesn’t Show Partiality

I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!” (Acts 10:34-36)

These words spoken by the apostle Peter two thousand years ago in the city of Caesarea provided a fitting place to begin our pilgrimage to Israel. Caesarea was an insignificant coastal Mediterranean town until 22 B.C.E., when Herod the Great developed it into a magnificent harbor that held 300 ships. Herod built a stunning palace along the Mediterranean with an almost Olympic size fresh water swimming pool jutting out into the harbor. He also constructed a theater with stone seats that could hold 3,500 people.

As we sat on the same two-thousand-year-old stone steps, we remembered that it was in Caesarea where Peter had an experience that forever changed the early Christian church and still transforms us today. The primary issue that faced the first Christians, who were Jews, was what role Gentile (non-Jewish) converts could play in the church. In particular, did Gentiles who accepted the word of God have to become Jews first and keep the whole Jewish law before being welcomed into the church?

Acts 10 clearly applies to our world today, especially as many of us struggle with President Trump’s crude and unfortunate remarks last week about immigrants from Haiti and African countries. Dismissing entire countries and continents that are predominantly black or brown is painful to hear, yet arbitrarily deciding who’s in and who’s out and who should be included or excluded is not new.

One day, a Gentile but God-fearing man named Cornelius, who lived in Caesarea and gave generously to those in need and prayed constantly, had a vision. In the vision, an angel told Cornelius to have some of his men travel to Joppa and send for Peter, and he obeyed. The next day, Peter went up on his roof to pray, and he, too, had vision. He saw a sheet coming down from heaven that was filled with different kinds of animals and birds. The voice told Peter to “Get up, kill and eat,” but Peter protested, saying, “I can’t do that. It’s against the law!” And the voice replied three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Right then, the three men from Joppa arrived on behalf of Cornelius and invited Peter to accompany them back to Caesarea. When Peter arrived, he said to Cornelius, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.”

When Cornelius asked Peter to speak what God had directed him to say, Peter admitted that he was trying to learn not to show partiality to some and not others and that in every nation, whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable. It was an incredible insight for a stubborn and hard-headed man. Yet it was this very experience that laid the groundwork for the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), where the early Christians chose to find a way to be united around how to treat Gentile converts to Christianity.

If it were not for Peter’s courage in standing up to his peers, if he had not stated that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews did, and if he had not insisted that there is no distinction between “them” and “us”, there would likely not be a Christian church today. In the end, the early Christian leaders decided that the Gentiles only had to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality, and from “whatever has been strangled and from blood” in order to be a part of the church of Jesus Christ.Three days after remembering the leadership of Peter in Caesarea, where he became convicted that God shows no partiality, our group of one hundred pilgrims from Iowa was sitting on stone steps again, this time at a baptismal site along the Jordan River. We had come to reaffirm our baptismal vows in the same Jordan River where, when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he heard a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

One woman in our group had been active in the church for years but had never been baptized. It was a moving experience for all of us to be witnesses as she proclaimed her baptismal vows. Then, as the rest of us reaffirmed our baptism, with clergy administering the sign of the cross and saying the words, “Remember your baptism and be thankful,” some stayed on the sidewalk, others stepped into the chilly waters of the Jordan, and still others were fully immersed.

I admit that I was shivering but not just from the cold water. I was shivering because the Holy Spirit was moving in a mighty way. I was trembling because when the Lord gets ahold of you, watch out! Before the baptism, I read from Matthew 3, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” At that very moment, a dozen doves flew right over the water directly in front of us. No kidding.

After we had finished the baptismal reaffirmation, four women from Nigeria who had been watching came forward and requested to be baptized. I asked if they had been baptized before, and three said no. The fourth asked for a renewal of baptism. Then I, too, had a vision of Acts 8, where Peter proclaims the good news of Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch, who, upon seeing some water and says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized!”

What was to prevent these women from being baptized? Nothing. I had never seen or met these women before, yet I could not deny them baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. I cannot put into words the power of that moment and the joy on the faces of those women. I will never see them again, yet when I signed their baptismal/renewal certificates, I knew that their names would be etched in my heart forever.

Like Peter, I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Each day I learn. Rather, in every nation, including Haiti, the countries of Africa, and Israel, God’s love extends to every person, no matter what. By the way, as Peter was witnessing to Cornelius and his Gentile friends, the Holy Spirit came upon them. Peter said, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and they were. Thanks be to God.

Twenty Impossible Things

We shared our hopes and dreams for 2018 around the family dinner table on Christmas Day. Some were crazy big, seemingly impossible dreams, like “peace on earth” or “a safe and warm home for everyone around the world.” Some were related to our jobs, like “I wish we could treat each other with more kindness in my workplace.” And others were more personal, such as, “I need to exercise more in the coming year.”

As we lamented the gravity of major issues facing our world and laughed at the absurdity of some of own fears and foibles, I recalled a quote from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. Carroll was a pen name for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a nineteenth century author, mathematician, photographer, and Anglican priest.

In 1865, Carroll wrote a fantasy adventure for the young daughters of a friend. It was called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book is about a girl named Alice (the name of one of the daughters), who travels down a rabbit hole into a fantastical underworld. At the beginning of Alice in Wonderland, we find these words, “… so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

After the amazing success of his first book, Carroll published a sequel six years later called Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Nothing is quite what it seems as Alice continues her adventures. A third of the way through the book, after Alice has already had some incredible experiences, she has a conversation with the White Queen, who says,

“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I can’t help but believe that the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s books stems from Alice’s conviction that very few things are really impossible. As we enter a new year, what things do you believe are possible that the rest of the world would write off as impossible and foolish? As you ponder the most difficult challenges facing our country and world, how do you believe God is calling you to act? As you pray about the future of The United Methodist Church and the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, how is God asking you to have a heart of peace in the midst of anxiety and fear?

Here is my list of twenty impossible things that I believe and am committed to working on in 2018.

  1. It is possible to live a life of holiness by loving God and our neighbor (which means all neighbors, not just some).
  2. It is possible to see Jesus in everyone we meet, including those who are not like us or those whom we do not like.
  3. It is possible to take a leap of faith and empty ourselves of the need to judge, condemn, or keep score.
  4. When we ask in exasperation or despair, “Are we there yet?” it is still possible to make a commitment to be part of the solution, not the problem.
  5. It is possible to engage in deep listening and dialogue and learn from those with whom we disagree.
  6. It is possible to recognize that the need to win drains us of Holy Spirit power.
  7. It is possible to follow John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules in all that we say or do: do no harm; do good; and stay in love with God.

  1. It is possible to resist the impulse to be oppositional or reactive and instead be a calm, loving presence, even when we have profound differences.
  2. When we are on unplanned journeys that are not of our choosing, or when the journey is taking longer than we think, it is possible to relish the adventure and the opportunity to grow, persevere, learn from failure, and deepen our faith.
  3. It is possible to treat others with the grace and tenderness with which we want to be treated.
  4. It is possible that our disagreements around human sexuality do not have to threaten our unity in Christ in The United Methodist Church as, together, we make disciples of Jesus and transform of the world.
  5. It is possible to let go of old hurts and forgive from our heart.
  6. It is possible to devote our life to reconciliation, just as “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s fault against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
  7. It is possible to make a difference by being an encouraging, loving, and healing presence to everyone we meet.
  8. It is possible to open wide our hearts to the needs of all of God’s children in our world.
  9. It is possible to humbly lay aside all of our misconceptions, prejudices, and biases to see people as God sees them.
  10. It is possible to empty ourselves, stand with those at the back of the line, sit with those who have no hope, and walk beside those who see no future.
  11. It is possible to live creatively, compassionately, and hopefully in the midst of change and loss.
  12. It is possible to treat ourselves gently and take the time to nurture our mind, body, and spirit.
  13. It is possible to give, expecting nothing in return.

“One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

“Jesus looked at them carefully and said, ‘It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.’” (Matthew 19:26)

What if we all paused before breakfast every day to practice believing something impossible and then use the rest of the day to make it happen? After all, so many out-of-the-way, out-of-the-box, beautiful, life-giving things happen every day that maybe, just maybe, very few things really are impossible.

The Longest Night

What a strange juxtaposition! The longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice, is this Thursday, December 21, just days before we celebrate the coming of Jesus, the light of the world. In Des Moines, Iowa, where I live, we will have exactly nine hours, nine minutes, and forty seconds of daylight from sunrise to sunset on December 21.

It’s always disconcerting at this time of year to leave home in the morning in the dark and return home in the dark. But that’s nothing compared to Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town on the Norwegian island of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. In Longyearbyen, whose 2,200 residents are outnumbered by 3,500 polar bears and 4,000 snowmobiles, the sun does not rise for four months!

Every year the sun sets for the last time on October 25th and does not rise again until March 8, when it is first seen illuminating the steps of the old hospital. A week-long celebration called Solfestuka welcomes the return of the sun as everyone in town gathers on the steps of the hospital at exactly 12:15 to await its arrival. Then, from the end of April to end of August, the sun never sets in Longyearbyen.

The truth is that every night is the longest night for some people in our world. The coming of Christmas does not put a halt to suffering, tragedy, death, hate, or bigotry. Nor does it relieve the scourge of poverty, the anxiety of immigrants and refugees seeking a new life in a new land, or the progression of cancer or other diseases.

We had some longest nights last week here in Iowa. Last Tuesday morning, a school bus caught fire in southwest Iowa, killing a sixteen-year-old girl and the bus driver, who was an active member in one of our United Methodist churches. On Friday, an active youth at the local church and conference level who was the son of one our pastors died in a car accident. In the days between, there have been major surgeries, deaths of family members, and diagnoses of cancer and other major diseases. There are no words to describe the grief of families who have been devastated by these tragedies.

Every day is the longest night for someone. And the pain is only intensified at this time of year when our culture assumes that everyone is happy and full of good cheer. How might our Christmas celebrations gain more depth if we consciously recognized that Christmas is not always a joyous time for people who are grieving, suffering, sick, or struggling for whatever reason? How might we gain a more outward focus at Christmas by acknowledging that God can be found in the darkness as well as in the light?

The prophecy of Isaiah 9:2 is one of our lectionary Christmas Eve scriptures (Year C), “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” Yet the same prophet (Isaiah 45:3) also shares this wisdom, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”

It is gratifying to observe how many churches are reaching out to those who experience more darkness than light at this time of year. Longest Night or Blue Christmas services are intended to provide a safe space for those who are mourning, grieving, or are experiencing sadness in their life. Holy Communion, healing prayers, silence, candle lighting, and meditative Christmas hymns mark the reflective nature of these services.

Another strange juxtaposition is that December 21, the Winter Solstice, is the traditional feast day for Saint Thomas the Apostle, established in the twelfth century. The Roman Catholic Church has since moved St. Thomas’s Day to July 3, but the Anglican Church still observes the day on December 21. It’s another reminder that the doubt that Thomas experienced when he struggled to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, is the same doubt that many of us experience in December when everyone else is full of Christmas cheer and we only see loss.

One of the most meaningful Christmas carols for me over the years has been stanza three of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. I can never sing it without weeping because these words not only speak of the weariness that many of us feel at this time of year, but they express our solidarity with the least, the last, and the lost of the world and all those who are not able to “celebrate” because of their own grief.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,

Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,

Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.

O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

 

How do the residents of Longyearbyen, isolated on an island in the Arctic Circle, survive those long four months without any light at all? Unfortunately, the challenges of Longyearbyen are far greater than darkness. The weather in Longyearbyen is rapidly changing because of global warming. And with increasingly warmer temperatures rising at a much greater rate than the rest of the world, come many problems.

According to Arctic climate expert David Barber of the University of Manitoba, higher temperatures and melting permafrost and glaciers are having “profound effects on the physics, biology, and geochemistry of the Arctic.”[i] This, in turn, is causing deadly avalanches that have destroyed homes, closed roads, and discouraged adventure tourists. Some residents have gone bankrupt and have had to leave the island.

The people who live on Longyearbyen choose to be there. There is no indigenous population. The permanent residents are mavericks and individualists: hardy and unique. And, amazingly, SAD, (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a winter depression caused by the lack of sunlight, is rarely found in Longyearbyen. Why are people willing to live in a place that might be described as God-forsaken? How do they survive the long winters and relish the treasures of darkness?

The key is relationships. During those long months, residents are intentional about creating community gatherings and participating in joint projects around town. They do not remain isolated but understand that, together, they can live creatively and joyously and find riches in hidden places.There is only one church in Longyearbyen called Svalbard Church, which was consecrated on August 28, 1921 and is part of the Church of Norway (Lutheran). The church was bombed in World War 2, burned to the ground, and was rebuilt in 1956-59. Svalbard Church extends its ministry to everyone, regardless of church affiliation, and includes all settlements on the island as well as fishing stations.

Every Tuesday night the church has a community meal and a time for informal conversation. On Wednesdays, a children’s gospel choir called Polargospel practices. On Thursday mornings there is a gathering for parents of young children. And Svalbard Church has the northernmost scouting group in the world! There are many other activities during the year, all intended to share the love of Jesus, build community, and enhance relationships.

There are four months of longest nights in Longyearbyen, yet the community and church survive and thrive because they care about each other and make sure that everyone is accepted and valued. I wonder. Could we, who live in much more comfortable surroundings, become more like Longyearbyen? How might God open our eyes to the darkness of the impending longest night and reach out to those who are living in their own darkness of grief, doubt, loneliness, and hopelessness?

Can we walk alongside those who are toiling along the climbing way with painful steps and slow? Will we take the time to rest with them beside the weary road and hear the angels sing? Can we, too, claim the treasures of darkness as well as the joy of the great light?

May the grace of Jesus Christ enfold, encourage, and shape you on the Longest Night, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and into a New Year of hope.

  • The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, January 8, 2018.

[i] World’s Most Northerly Town on Verge of Vanishing, Matthew Vickery, USA Today, December 8-10, 2017.