Alien [Un]Intelligence

This St. Patrick’s Day, as I listen to my favorite Irish music, drink my favorite Irish beer, and eat my favorite “Irish” food, I remember we celebrate Ireland because the Irish came here as immigrants attempting to escape a humanitarian horror… and were feared, unwanted, and unwelcome.

U2 Boston Stuck in a Moment

Guinness & Grill

Lucky CharmsI originally posted this story on my old blog, and I believe it is more relevant now than when I wrote it eight years ago. As always, I hope it helps us tell an alternate story.

***

I take my truck to the dealer for some work. After handing over my keys I walk into the waiting area – a small room with a pot of coffee, a bunch of magazines, and a television on the wall blaring CNN. The only other waiting customer is a woman with her head buried in a fast food bag.

I’ve brought the book Teacher Man with me, a memoir by the Irishman Frank McCort. In the chapter I’m reading, McCort is describing an ongoing struggle: He was born in America, but raised in Ireland. When he returns to work in New York, he is considered an Irish immigrant. But when he returns to study in Dublin, he is labeled a Yankee. He is a a foreigner in both the land of his birth and the land of his roots.

As I try to focus on the story over the sound of the news, more customers make their way in and sit down around me: A very old man in an old cap and oversized sunglasses, and a well-to-do couple who look like they are close to retirement.

After a few minutes they start the small talk. Then a story on the news laments the price of gas, and the woman with the fast food observes out loud that the cost of gas is messed up.

The husband of the couple agrees with her, then says that the culprit is the ever increasing demand for gas versus the supply.

Then fast-food lady drops the bomb:

“Well, you know the main reason for the high supply is all the foreigners who live in this country. They come over here and drive all their cars and use up all the gas. Get rid of the aliens, and you get rid of half the demand right there!”

My reading freezes in the middle of a sentence, but I don’t look up. Without a moment of thought, the husband agrees. I wonder if they are talking about all foreigners, or just illegal immigrants.

The husband clears up any confusion:

“And then of course there are also the illegal aliens who come here. They want to work? Okay… fine. Put ‘em in a uniform and ship ‘em off to Iraq and that’ll put ‘em to work.”

Then something is said about how that will keep ‘em from wanting to come over here or something. But my brain locks up for a second in shock and I miss it. Besides, now they are talking about immigrants, oil, and war in the Middle East.

I decide not to jump in and tell them my father is an immigrant petroleum engineer from Iraq.

It won’t be until I am driving away an hour later when I’ll think of something clever I should have said. Instead I grip the edges of my book a little tighter, and this son of an Iraqi immigrant keeps reading the story of Irish immigrant, while sitting in a room full of people who don’t like immigrants.

McCourt

My Muslim Problem

I’ve wrestled with what to say (if anything) the last few weeks as the rhetorical temperature about Muslims has risen.

I want to tell a story that does more than getting the folks who already agree to click “like” and the folks who disagree to un-follow. 

The best I could come up with was to revise and update a piece I wrote in July for Seedbed.

I hope it tells an alternate story.

Mosque of Omar

During a trip to Jerusalem in 2007, I stumbled upon this place next to the site where tradition says Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

I have a Muslim problem.

I am a Christian pastor in North Texas. I am also the proud son of a Muslim immigrant from the Middle East, and I have a very wonderful—and large—Muslim family.

This is a problem, because when I hear about San Bernardino, or Paris, or any other terror event, my first prayer is to hold my breath and hope the killers do not have names like mine.

This is a problem because down the highway from me some men with guns protested outside a mosque, then posted the names and home addresses of local Muslims online.

This is a problem because a brother in Christ, and president of a large Christian university, received thunderous applause when he told his student body to get guns and help end Muslims before they kill us.

This is a problem because a leading presidential candidate, along with the son of an iconic preacher, called for Muslims in our country to be tracked, databased, and banned from coming into the country, with both looking to the U.S. treatment of Japanese during WWII as inspiration.

These stories frighten me, but they do not cause shock and awe. I’ve heard this kind of rhetoric spoken beneath the public surface most of my life. Like the one time, somewhere between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, when I received an email from a friend in ministry. It was a joke that read something like this:

A cowboy, an Indian, and a Muslim walk into a bar. The Indian said, “My people used to be very great in number, but now are very small.” The Muslim replied, “My people used to be very small in number, but now are very big in number. Why do you think this is?” The cowboy responded, “Because we ain’t played cowboys and Muslims yet.”

I reminded him of my family’s background, and told him I found the joke theologically tasteless and unfunny. My friend said he understood, but “we’re at war,” and as a Christian I should be more concerned with being on “God’s winning side.”

This is a problem.

In seminary, after I gave a talk in chapel about this, another pastor came up to me and said, “I’ve always hated Muslims. I’ve never led my congregation to pray for them as humans.” So goes the trend in some churches and politics of creating Muslims as the other: A less than human without a face or a story… or only a story veiled in hate and violence.

But a trip through my family’s reunions, Skype calls, and Facebook feeds tells more common Muslim stories: my retired uncle who lives with his kids and grandkids near the beach; my cousin who just graduated college and started her first job; her mom who also went back to school and finished her degree; one has a new girlfriend; another can’t stop posting about his favorite football team tanking their season; many came together this fall from around the world to celebrate a wedding… some had not seen each other in years, while others met for the first time.

They are Muslims who are falling in love and having a first kiss; trying to get an education and looking for jobs; wanting to have families and buying homes; celebrating the birth of a child and suffering the loss of loved one; playing video games and going on vacations…

In other words: common human stories.

***

Christmas reminds us God is redeeming all our little human stories into his great divine story through Jesus Christ. This is the good news of the Gospel. The nature of Jesus’s incarnation—God becoming human to be in relationship with each of us—puts us face to face with real people with real stories. When we choose to distort, ignore, or not enter into another’s story, we deny the incarnation and change what is happening.

I get the fear of terrorism. Part of my family’s story includes those living as refugees in foreign countries, mourning the memory of a loved one shot to death because of religious and ethnic extremism.

And I have fears, too. I fear what the rhetoric of “track and ban” could lead to, because history’s darkest ethnic atrocities started with this kind of talk. And I’m afraid, because of our current climate, that someone will hurt my wife or my girls because our name sounds like those terrorist names.

Yes, there are Muslims who commit horrible acts of violence. But violence is not unique to Islam. It is common to all humanity. In our fallen depravity, all of us are radicalized by sin.

This is not a Muslim problem.

This is a human problem.

We need to get our stories straight, because  the Gospel of Christ does not discount anyone from grace and salvation… even terrorists. Take Paul, who started out as a religious militant, overseeing the execution of Christians he saw as infidels because he thought that put him on God’s winning side.

He went on to become the author of most of the New Testament.

If I believe in prevenient grace—that Jesus is pursuing every person—I can only know what He’s up to by entering into another’s story through His holy love. How can I join in if I am running in fear from, discounting, and demonizing those made in the image of God?

This is a problem for me, because it means I cannot dehumanize the politicians, preachers, and even friends who dehumanize my Muslim family.

I cannot become a monster to defeat a monster.

Because dehumanization may be a casualty of war, but it should never be a casualty of the Gospel.

 

Pray For Me

pope congress“Daddy, is he preaching in a church?”

A church, no. A house of worship, yes. 

My almost five year old daughter, Norah, and I watched Pope Francis address a joint session of Congress last week (a.k.a. his “Sermon on the Hill”). I love the pomp and circumstance of a State of the Union address, and I enjoy “high church” done well. So I didn’t want to miss the historic moment of the two things you’re never supposed to talk about in public together on the main stage: religion and politics.

I’ve written a story about why I, like many Protestants, don’t mind calling Francis my Pope. But conservative New York Times commentator David Brooks nailed it on NPR:

“…he’s operating on a different axis. We normally do politics on a horizontal axis. He’s doing a vertical axis… he’s a radically countercultural figure. And we talk about self-interest. He’s about selfless love.”

After his speech, Francis went to the balcony of the Capitol to greet over 50,000 people, I got a little choked up when he started praying for the children, whom he called the most important people here:

“Father of all, bless these. Bless each of them. Bless the families. Bless them all. And I ask you all please to pray for me.”

I was holding Norah in my lap by this point, and I could see her out of the corner of my eye, staring at me and wondering why my eyes had tears.

Without looking away from me, she asked, “What’s he saying, Daddy?”

“He’s praying for all the children, and asking the people to pray for him,” I said.

The shepherd of the Catholic church, asking the people to pray for him.

Later in the day, the Washington Post ran a story of the Speaker of the House telling what happened inside the Capitol rotunda:

“When he gets here, there are all of these kids he is going to bless…. So, the Pope puts his arm around my left arm [and says] ‘Please pray for me.’ ”

The shepherd of the Catholic church, asking the leader of the People’s House to pray for him. 

I’ve noticed this pattern, going back to his first address the night he was elected Pope:

“Before [I bless] the people, I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me…”

As Francis asked both the people and the power to pray for him, I was reminded that we are all equal before the throne of God.

And I had to ask, “How big is my ego and pride? As a local church pastor, why don’t I ask everyone to pray for me?”

***

Later that day, we went to visit our friends from out of town at their hotel. Norah went to sit on the curb while we unloaded our car, but instead sat on a fire ant hill. Her screams were so rapid, so loud… I thought she had been run over. A stranger ran over with a cold bottle of water to pour on her legs, and the hotel staff brought burn cream. She had over a dozen bites on her thighs and between her toes.

After she calmed down, we went to the pool. She doesn’t know how to swim yet, and before she could get her life jacket on, she fell in the water over her head. We immediately pulled her out, but it really scared her.

“Daddy, I almost drowned-ed,” she moped.

But once she calmed down and put her jacket on, she was ready to go again. She ran around to the other side of the pool, but tripped and fell face first into a deck chair, slicing the muscle inside her cheek, around to the outside of her mouth where her top and bottom lips meet.

The screams.

The blood.

The long wait in the emergency room.

A plastic surgeon was called in to stitch her mouth back together, but not after I held her down so they could open an IV line to sedate her.

During the long wait, I posted what was happening on Facebook for our family and friends. Norah blank-stared at my phone why I’ll tapped the keys.

“Is there anything you want me to tell them?” I asked.

Between a mouth full of beach towel to stop the bleeding, she mumbled, “Please ask the people to pray for me.”

stitches

I’d like to think the seed of her request was rooted in what she heard Pope Francis say that morning. I believe it was.

I’m thinking of making that my signature:

Please pray for me,
Omar.

We expect our pastors to have it all together. But we don’t.

We all try our best to look like we have it all together. But we don’t.

I often use prayer as triage and travel insurance: What are the medical issues facing me or those I love, and “traveling mercies” for my next trip (so I don’t end up in the hospital needing prayer).

But I never seem to ask for prayers for my mental health, my thoughts, my doubts, my temptations… or my soul.

These are wounded and hurt just as much, if not more. A slice to my soul leaves a deep scar just like a slice to my skin.

But as God’s people, we are never too powerful to stop asking for prayer.

May I have faith like a child… and a Pope… to always ask: Please pray for me.

 

 

He Had a Name

sadie shoesI have an almost daily battle with my six-year-old daughter to get dressed for school.

This morning it was her sneakers. She calls them her happy shoes.  She can put them on herself, and even tie them. But she always wants “Daddy to do it.”

And I do. I always do.

***

She’s my firstborn. My princess… because that’s what we named her. The day we came home from the hospital, I called my dad on speakerphone so he could talk to her. He worked in Egypt and Syria, so this was how they would have to meet. Before I put the phone down by her head, he asked me, “What did you name her?”

“Sadie.”

“What does it mean, this Sadie?”

“Princess.”

“In what language does it mean princess?”

“Hebrew.”

There was a small pause, as his Iraqi culture of the father choosing an Arab name for his children tried to process this.

“Hebrew?…. Let me talk to her.”

sadie meets jedu

***

After I got sneakers on her feet and her feet to school, I listened to NPR while eating breakfast and heard the story of a boy.

A small refugee boy who drowned fleeing Syria in a raft crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

He wasn’t the only one. Thousands have died like this… of the millions in Syria and Iraq driven from their homes by war.

But a photo of the boy went viral, and NPR interviewed Peter Boukhaert for Human Rights Watch:

“What really touched me in the photo was the little sneakers… One of my favorite moments each day is to dress my boys before they go to school. I saw those little sneakers and I realized that his parents had dressed him that morning for a very difficult journey.”

My wife and I have a policy of not listening to or watching stories of dead children. We can’t think about it.

But as I listened, I dared myself to look for the picture of this boy. And as I looked at him… facedown in the sand and surf, dressed in a red shirt, blue shorts, and his little velcro sneakers… Bouckhaert continued:

“Aylan was his name. He was age three.”

He had a name.

This was not a photo of a body. This was a photo of a boy.

And he had a name.

***

Against my wife’s better judgement, I’ve been looking at Aylan all day.

I can feel his parents putting on his shorts. His shirt. His shoes.

Did they fuss with him to stay still and get dressed, trying to stay calm for his sake, trying to hide the urgency in their voice?

Did he get all dressed up, only then needing to go potty?

Did they make up a story of an adventure so he wouldn’t be scared?

I can hear the mixture of love and frustration a parent has when dressing their child, calling his name over and over again to be still.

Because he had a name.

***

The first name given in creation was Adam. It means humanity.

The Scripture story tells us that God, through Jesus Christ, created all of humanity in his image and breathed into us the breath of life.

I thought of Adam when I saw the first hashtag given to Aylan’s story: Humanity Washed Ashore.

I’m a minister of the gospel that calls Jesus the new Adam: The Son of God who died and rose from the grave to rescue all of humanity. And though I’ve preached, written, and told countless stories about this gospel of peace for the Middle East, before this morning I’d grown numb: Why can I tell you more about the impact of Tom Brady’s reinstatement on my Dallas Cowboys in week 4 than I can about the backstory that led to Aylan’s death?

Later, NPR updated the piece and told the father’s story. I had to dare myself to read it:

“The Turk smuggler jumped into the sea, then a wave came and flipped us over. I grabbed my sons and wife and we held onto the boat,” Mr. Kurdi said, speaking slowly in Arabic and struggling at times for words.

“We stayed like that for an hour, then the first son died and I left him so I can help the other, then the second died, so I left him as well to help his mom and found her dead… What do I do… I spent three hours waiting for the coast guard to come. The life jackets we were wearing were all fake… I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms.” 

***

He had a name.

Why did his father choose Aylan? What does it mean, this Aylan?

His father’s name is Abdullah.

His big brother’s name was Ghalib.

His mother’s name was Rehan.

Abdullah was a barber. He cut hair. That was his honest day’s labor. But how did Abdullah and Rehan meet? When did they know they were in love? Where was their first kiss? What did they feel when she became pregnant for the first time? What happened when they brought their firstborn home?

Now we know their names. But what was their whole story?

Because they all have names.

They all have stories.

The same name and story as you and me.

Adam.

I dare you to get to know them.

bless the little children

Snicker Snack Sacrament

snicker snack

The Rikabi’s first “real summer” is in the books. We made some memories, while avoiding the make it the best summer ever! trap. We had a bucket list that included big things for us like swimming lessons and trip to Fayetteville, and small things like shop at Trader Joe’s and learn to tie shoes.

If summers are about making childhood memories, then I’m sure we made some this year. I think about what memories my girls will hold onto and how they’ll be formed by them. In the end, the memories they keep are out of my control, but I do try, because of how mine formed me. My favorite summer memories were about hard work and forbidden food.

Growing up, part of my summers were spent at my grandparent’s farm in central Texas. My parents would drop my little brother and me off for a couple of weeks at a time, and my Papa would put us to work. On these days, I didn’t mind getting up early… always to the smell of bacon. Granny would send me out to the barn to dig out eggs from between hay bails, then she’d fry them up for breakfast. Throw in the biscuits with lots of butter and honey, and her breakfasts were royal feasts compared to the cold, milk-wet Cheerios mom fed us back home.

When Papa finally finished his second cup of coffee and cigarette, it was off to work. Feeding chickens and hogs in the barnyard, checking on cows in the pasture, riding the tractor down to the creek to work on a fence. He’d be so patient with us, as we’d hammer nail after nail in crooked, needing him to pull it out and help us start over. Or when we’d drop bags of feed and they’d spill open. Stuff like that. But he never stopped showing us how to do it; never got flustered or upset.

hosing hogs

shucking corn

brothers feeding hay

papa dam

As the morning wore on and the bacon and eggs worn off, we’d head back up to the house for what Papa called a “Snicker snack.”

He kept large, 2 liter glass bottles of Coke and a bag of little Snickers bars in the fridge. He’d twist open the top and hold the bottle as me and my brother took turns… the icy burn hitting the back of my throat before the flavor hit my tongue. Then he’d tear open a little bar or two, and we’d chomp down hard on the cold candy sticking to our teeth.

While we headed back out to work the farm, Granny worked the kitchen. The meal plan at the farm was a big breakfast, dinner in the afternoon, and supper in the evening. So lunch was the full spread: roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and cornbread.

After naps to ride out the hottest part of the day, we’d grab another sip of Coke and a couple more Snickers bars, then head out to finish the day’s tasks. In the early evening we’d go down to the stock tank to fish bass, perch and catfish. If we caught anything, Granny would help us clean it and save it to fry for tomorrow’s dinner.

Then came supper… Papa’s specialty.

He’d grab a cutting board and his Buck knife, and slice up cantaloupe seasoned with salt and pepper, bell pepper cut in half and stuffed with chunky peanut butter, summer sausage on saltines with pepper-jack cheese, and leftover cornbread swimming in a big glass of buttermilk.

I’m pretty sure I would never try any of those things for the first time today unless it was on a dare. But at six-years-old, whatever Papa did, I did (except the buttermilk). And I loved it. (I still eat these concoctions, even when my wife watches me pepper cantaloupe or spread peanut butter on a bell pepper and say, “That’s disgusting.”).

And to polish it all off, he’d scoop up a bowl of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream, and one last Snicker bar. Always a Snickers bar.

We never got Cokes and candy at home. Not a chance. But we were in Papa’s house, and we were his. Granny and Papa were the grandparent’s of our feast, and the farm was our sanctuary… our holy ground.

Today, my grandparents are gone, and with them much of the magic of the farm. I’ve taken the girls, but it’s not quite the same.

Thankfully, through our taste buds, tummies, and traditions, connections can still be made.

Last month we had a family meeting: all the aunts, uncles and cousins together, and I brought a bag of Snickers and some bottles of the imported Coke from Mexico… the ones still made with pure cane sugar like they all were when Papa was alive.

As we tore the wrappers and popped the tops, my aunt said, “This really is our family communion, isn’t it? Do you let your little girls eat these?”

I hadn’t thought about it, but this is our family sacrament: Our chocolate covered, peanut and caramel filled bread. Our pure cane sugar, carbonated cup of wine. Together they are the tangible mystery, inviting the next generation into the same story that gives us identity and makes us family.

So I came home, found Papa’s old knife, and set the table.

The girls love cantaloupe, but they questioned the salt and pepper. My oldest loves bell peppers, but adding the peanut butter will take time. The middle one inhaled the summer sausage, but nothing else.

And that’s the way it works… we need time to taste and see. But not to belong.

That’s why we share the sacraments.

sadie & coke

norah & snickers

The Spice(s) of Life: A Recipe

spices

My parents had been married about five years when Mom bought a whole fish at the Safeway, threw on spices and seasonings at random, and broiled him up for dinner. When Dad got home and took his first bite, he declared, “This tastes just like masgouf!”

Masgouf should be considered the national dish of Iraq. The fish is caught right out of the river, gutted, split open, seasoned, and grilled on an open flame. Many family members have told me of the “good old days” of sitting at outdoor restaurants along the Tigris River in Baghdad, eating Masgouf and mezes, drinking arak and beer, and telling stories until dark.

It had been almost a decade since Daddy left Baghdad, and his tastebuds seemed as homesick as his soul.

“How did you season this?” he asked Mom.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention,” Mom said (I’m sure four-year-old me had something to do with this).

“Please… you must season it like this every time,” Daddy said.

Thirty-seven years of trying later, and lightening hasn’t struck twice.

***

I’ve not yet had the courage to grill masgouf. But I have tried to cook as close as I can to the flavors of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates. A few years ago, I came across Alton Brown’s kebab episode of Good Eats where he tells the story of the kebab’s Middle Eastern origins. I adapted his recipe and tried it on some lamb kebabs for Dad’s birthday.

I chose lamb because Dad once told me his father farmed lamb, so grilled lamb was his favorite and what he ate most growing up.

I also made some hummus, falafel, tabouli, and seasoned rice with pine nuts… all in hope of hitting as close to his home as I knew how.

When dinner was over, I asked Dad what the thought of the meal.

“The lamb tasted close to home.”

Nailed it.

***

Since then, I’ve further adapted Alton’s recipe into two versions: a marinade and a dry rub. It’s pretty much all I use to season any meat I grill… beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and fish.

My daughters say my steak is better than candy, so I hope someday when they grill for their kids, they’ll use the same recipe and tell them, “This tastes like home.”

SPICES
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder (3-4 chopped cloves for liquid marinade)
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon za’atar (if you can find it, but not necessary)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon cayenne red pepper (depending on how spicy you like it)
1/4 teaspoon allspice

DRY RUB
Mix all the spices together, lightly rub the meat with olive oil, cover the meat with the seasoning, and throw on the grill (or in the oven).

MARINADE
Mix the spices with 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup red wine vinegar. Put meat in ziplock bag and pour in marinade. Squeeze out the air and let marinate for two hours to overnight (for fish it will only need about half an hour tops). Take straight out of the bag and onto the grill (you can pat dry if you want to. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If I do, then I’ll add some fresh ground pepper and sea salt before grilling).

lamblamb on pk-2grilled lamb

 

 

Flag of Our Father

flags of our fathersWhen I was a kid, during the summer flag and firework season, my church would cover the cross above the altar with the stars and stripes.

After my father’s country and my mother’s country went to war… twice… I’ve come back to that image as I’ve wrestled through some questions:

Am I an American Christian, or a Christian who happens to be an American? Is there a difference?

Is my identity found in the the work of the Heavenly Father or the Founding Fathers?

Is my defining narrative the Apostle’s Creed or the Pledge of Allegiance?

How does “For God so loved the world,” square with “One nation under God?”

Do I bear the cross as a sign of reconciliation, or wave the flag as a sign of victory?

I’ve lived with these tensions over the last dozen years of ministry… while at the same time trying to avoid them. But from time to time, the wresting match finds me.

Most recently, I was invited to offer a prayer at our local National Day of Prayer event.

I was assigned to pray for “justice,” following the prayers for our nation’s elected officials and the military.

Here is what I prayed:

Heavenly Father,

You created all of humanity in your image, and breathed into us the breath of life. But we rebelled, and turned away, and our love failed. But your love has remained steadfast.

We confess that many times when we have spoken of justice, we really meant revenge. 

We confess that sometimes when we’ve talked about fairness, we were only thinking about punishment. 

We confess that what we sometimes call a blessing may have been built on the backs of injustice to others.

Through your Son Jesus Christ, you have given us an alternate story… one that looks beyond our limited ideas of justice to a call for Holiness.

By your Holy Spirit, and through your Holy Word, open the eyes of our hearts to see what Holiness looks like… to have a Holy love for you, a Holy love for others, and even a Holy love for ourselves.

And may that Holy love move us from a place of “social justice” to a place of “social holiness.” 

Where every person laid low is raised up. Where systems of greed become systems of giving. Where sweat shops become sanctuaries. Where prisoners are still people. Where the foreigner becomes family, the enemy becomes friend, and we are know more for our bread than our bombs. 

We look for that day to come when Jesus returns and you will wipe every tear from every eye.

When there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain… because of the victory won by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But until that day comes, may we not wait. Because you loved the world so much that you gave your only Son, may we live as Kingdom Citizens first on earth as it is in heaven… now.

In your mercy, hear our prayers… 

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This I Believe

For the second Sunday in a row, I felt compelled to make a statement as a pastor to my congregation about what was happening nationally (you can listen here).

Here’s my position:

A friend posted a meme that summed it up: “My Facebook feed looks like a battle broke out between Confederates and a Skittles factory.”

These last ten days have have made me want to give up social media.

Racism. Terrorism. Gun Control. Health Care. Gay Marriage.

So many cultural and historical events back to back, immediately moving to political and theological arguments online, reminded me how quickly the tumor of you’re either with me or against me metastasizes. (free tip: stay away from comments).

I was also reminded how many friends and family I have with completely opposite beliefs. Not only about gay marriage, but all the issues listed above (let’s throw in abortion and immigration to complete the circle).

I have family and friends with very different political or theological positions, but who also have real life experiences with these issues.

These are people who dearly love Jesus, and whom Jesus dearly loves (and people who don’t know Jesus, but whom He also dearly loves).

Christianity has always had its disagreements: From our beginning in the book of Acts over who gets the Gospel, to today’s ongoing debate over who gets saved.

So I’m not surprise the Body of Christ disagrees over marriage, or war, or foreigners… and that each side uses Scripture to back up their claims.

But I’ve found the goal in all of this is to have the posture of Holy Love in Christ.

This means the winning side doesn’t spike the ball and dance in the end-zone. The losing side doesn’t run around screaming about the sky falling.

But, as a pastor, I’m also asked where I stand on these issues, or what I think is “happening to our country.”

Pastor, what do you believe?

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son and our Lord, who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead, but on the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and right now sits at the right hand of God the Father, from where he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit.

I believe in the Holy and universal Church… the Body of Christ… and the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

I believe Jesus is Lord, which means I am not.

I believe every person exists because of Jesus, even if they’re not aware of it.

I believe sin exists, it’s effects are catastrophic, but grace abounds, and so God is pursing all people.

I do not believe in a Jesus who bludgeons people with fear and anger for not living up to Daddy’s expectations.

I do not believe in a Jesus who considers unconditional love to be unconditional approval.

I believe we can be exemplars of grace through the Holy Love of Jesus (by the power of the Holy Sprit) who could love and embrace anyone, while at the same time telling them, “Go and sin no more.”

And I believe that is the heart of the Gospel… as the late Rich Mullins sang: The whores all seemed to love Him, and the drunks proposed a toast, saying, “Truly God is with us.”

And so I pray:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” – Thomas Merton

jesus the teacher

A Gift From Dad That Keeps On Giving

PK Father's Day

For Father’s Day, my girls made a card with a drawing of my PK charcoal grill, along with the gift of a PK Grills t-shirt and hat. My wife gave me the gift that keeps on giving… for everyone: A charcoal chimney starter and five bags of charcoal.

Why are lumps of coal the best gift in our house?

Here’s a little story for you:

The road to my hibachi hobby started with my maternal grandfather. Before I was born, my Papa retired to a farm in Central Texas. His 98 acres were my sanctuary, and he was my hero.

Not far from the farm house he built a smoker out of an old fridge. He cut a hole in the bottom, put a smokestack on top, dug a hole in the ground for the fire, and set the fridge on cinder blocks over it. Inside he smoked all kinds of meats… including his own venison sausage recipe that he took to the grave. I can close my eyes, take a deep breath, and still taste it.

deersausage

Papa’s venison sausage smoking in the fridge.

Papa liked smoking meats in bulk, but for whatever reason he didn’t like grilling. He bought a PK Grill in the late 60s, but didn’t use it much. So when my parents married in 1971, he gave it to my father, because Dad’s a griller.

I’ve only known Dad to cook with fire. In old pictures, he’s working the coals. I believe with just a flame and a carcass he can make anything taste good. But I’ve only seen Dad cook on my Papa’s PK Grill.

dadkebabs

Dad working the kebabs on the PK circa 1973.

Growing up, Saturdays were big eating days in our home: The mornings were for cartoons and Mom’s pancakes, but the evenings were for Cowboy games and grilled steaks.

Dad would fashion together a mixture of liquids and seasonings to marinate the meat, then light a pyramid pyre of coals. Once the steaks were on, he worked the PK like a musician with a fine instrument: closing the lid, adjusting vents, re-opening to turn the meat.

When grease would melt and drip onto the coals, causing flames to shoot up, he’d close the lid and say, “That’s why you cook with charcoal. It’s the only way you get good flavor.” I would wait in anticipation for him to open the lid each time because I loved the cumulonimbus smoke billows that would rise up.

Mom sautéd mushrooms and made a salad, and then we feasted. Rarely did we go out to eat and order steaks. For us, Dad’s were better than any restaurant.

Then, one day around 5th or 6th grade, my apprenticeship officially began. “Why don’t you go start the fire,” my father said.

Later he told me when to open and close the lid. Then it was when to turn the meat. At some point I graduated to him sitting and drinking a scotch and water while he watched me grill from start to finish.

***

I once asked my wife if she wanted to go to a fancy steak house for her birthday. “Why would I want to pay for that when you’re steaks are better than any restaurant?”

They probably aren’t, but she thinks so… and that’s all that matters.

“Daddy, your steak is better than candy,” my oldest daughter once declared while devouring dinner.

Better than candy.

If you’ve ever tried to get a six-year-old to eat dinner and not beg for sweets, you know the magnitude of that win.

I burned through my share of cheap grills before I broke down and bought a really nice Webber. Then, three years ago, my folks bought me a new PK Grill for my birthday from the resurrected company.

Recently I found and fixed up the PK my grandfather gave my dad. My parents hadn’t used it in years. It needed some cleaning, and a new grill grate, but after a little work I had it back on fire. Now I alternate back and forth between the new grill and the old one. If I have a lot to cook, I’ll fire up both. My wife wonders why I need two grills. I’m trying to convince her I need three.

Why three? Because now my daughters help me get the coals ready on the same grill their father learned to cook on from his father that he got from his father-in-law.

That’s four generations on one grill. A culinary heirloom. A flame-kissed inheritance. A barbecued birthright.

Papa’s nature and Daddy’s culture mandated love though fire and food. I have three daughters, so I need three grills to pass on to each of them, because it’s the gift that keeps on giving…

pkapprentice

* PK Grills once sent me a couple of free beer koozies, but otherwise they don’t pay me to endorse their products. But if they did, I’d use the money to get one of those fancy grilling aprons and grill covers.

 

“What Do We Pray For?” Signs of Peace Part 3: Forgiveness

peace sign in ashkelon

Outdoor sign near the beach in Ashkelon, Israel.

 

First send in the missiles. Then send in the Marines. Then send in the missionaries.

That was a strategy I heard on “Christian talk radio” about how to deal with Islam and the Middle East.

Kill. Then convert.

In a battle against a radicalism, which says one must convert or be killed, why is a common answer among many evangelical Christians is to kill, then hope to convert?

I wish I could say such an extreme theological world view was limited to extreme radio hosts. And I wish I could believe that deep, deep down they are really only talking about those extreme sects of Islam, not the whole 1.2 billion.

But they aren’t. Bad theology grafted with current events have infected parts of the church for a long time, just below the surface, like a low grade fever.

In 2007, during our last semester of seminary, my wife and I were on a study abroad trip to the Holy Land. One day our group went to Ashkelon, a beautiful city on the Mediterranean coast. As the sun set and we posed for pics in the sand and surf, a Blackhawk helicopter flew low overhead, making it’s way south towards Gaza a few miles away. I snapped a picture, and as the loud thump thump thump of the rotors grew quiet, a fellow seminary student said, “Arabs are such a hospitable people. It’s a shame they have a natural tendency towards violence.”

blackhawk in ashkelon

I wasn’t surprised. The idea of Arabs/Muslims being “the more violent ones” is an idea I’ve heard for a long time.

In September 2001, the first Sunday after the attacks, I was standing outside the sanctuary of my church as clumps of people grouped together to talk about what had happened five days before. I stood next to a friend of mine who summed up the entire event with, “Well, what would you expect from the descendants of Ishmael?”

These stories bother me because, while I am a Christian and a pastor, I am also one of them. I am a descendent of Ishmael. I am an a Arab of Muslim descent. Because of this, I can’t divide my prayers by region, race or religion. It shouldn’t be that way for anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ.

If all of humanity is created in the image of God, and Christ calls us to love everyone as I love myself, then what is missing? Why the default to  they’re violent, so let’s respond in violence.

So let’s finally answer the question: What are we praying for when we pray for peace?

***

Shalom.

That’s what we’re praying for.

The Hebrew word in Scripture for “peace.”

Salaam in Arabic.

We tend to define peace as the absence of conflict. If we can just get the bombs to stop and everyone to quiet down and go about life… BOOM. We got peace.

But the theology behind shalom is more than just an end to violence. In the Scriptures, shalom is understood as wholeness: The ideal human state, both as an individual and a society, which is the ultimate gift of God. *

Shalom was only in the presence of God, and humanity became seperated from that presence when Adam and Eve went for their own security and bit the fruit. Next in the story came violence and death, the ultimate result of being out of the presence of God. And where there is violence, there are the wounded.

And when we’re wounded, we often respond with violence. Which leads to more wounds. So more violence. And more wounds. So more violence…

And so, as Thomas Cahill says, “The problem of all unresolved conflict is the same: Each side makes the same one-sided claim, “Only my wounds matter.” *

***

Let’s take this a bit further. If shalom is the perfect wholeness in God at creation, then what do the New Testament writers have to say?

Genesis opens by telling us in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. John clarifies by telling us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth through Jesus Christ. 

The Apostle Paul details it even more in his letter to the Colossian church: Christ made everything, and Christ holds everything together. Every human on earth exists because Christ breathed into them the breath of life.

Everyone.

Every. One.

So if Jesus is the one who created all of humanity in his image, I cannot simply change my twitter icon and pray only for Chrisitans who are being slaughtered.

***

It doesn’t stop there.

Paul finishes by telling us God restored peace with everything by Christ’s blood on the cross.

I tend to focus on the cross as the place where God deals with our sin. But it is also where God deals with our wounds. As my friend Steve Seamands writes, the cross of Christ deals with us as both villains and victims.

Seamands points out how Christ was beaten, mocked, and hung naked.

In other words, he was violently wounded physically, verbally and sexually.

But by his death and resurrection, the Scriptures are clear he is healing and restoring all of creation from the wounds of violence.

So the cycle looks like this: We are hurt. We respond by hurting, either each other, ourselves, or both. We are victims. So we become villains. Which makes more victims. Who create more villains.

This cycle started in the Garden of Eden, and Christ confronts it in the Garden of Gethsemani.

Therefore, peace is not just the absence of conflict. Peace is healing and wholeness, found in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who created us and makes all things whole again.

And as we allow ourselves to be made whole in Christ, we are then free to create that space for others. In other words, as we are healed from being victims, we are no longer villains.

The cycle can’t end by inserting more violence. The cycle begins to break with the prayer forgive us our sins and we forgive those who have sinned against us. And forgiveness does not start with I’m okay, you’re okay, or it doesn’t matter or let bygones be bygones. Forgiveness begins with I willfully choose not to retaliate against you.

Which then creates the space to say, with honesty, your wounds matter.

So maybe praying for peace starts with asking for my wounds to be healed, and then praying the same for my enemy and the other. To pray like this, instead of for bombs to clear the way for baptisms, is to take on the real enemy: the spiritual forces who tempted humanity into this mess in the first place.

Because the natural tendency towards violence doesn’t come from the descendants of Ishmael, it comes from the descendants of Adam and Eve.

To be continued.

ShalomSalaamPeace be with you.

 

Harper Collins Bible Dictionary

* from Thomas Cahill’s introduction to the LIFE magazine special “Holy Lands: One Place Three Faiths.”  Copyright 2002, Time Magazine.