Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bearking the Marks of Christ: James Otis Sargent Huntington

What in the world would motivate someone to give up his possessions, his relationships, his independence, even his whole life to become a monk? Well, on this day (November 25) in 1885, James Otis Sargent Huntington did exactly that. Today is the anniversary of his entrance into monastic life, and we remember it not only because it is a remarkable thing for anyone to accept that religious discipline but also because of the distinct life and work that came out of that monastic profession.

Huntington was an S.O.B--a "son of a bishop"--and he was ordained an Episcopal priest when he was around 26 years old. Initially, his ministry was among some working-class immigrants of New York City, but that immersion into the lives of the working poor only grew throughout his life. Not long after he was ordained, Huntington felt the call to monastic life, but, of course, as an Episcopalian and not a Roman Catholic, the opportunities for being a monk or a nun were fairly limited. So what did Huntington do? He started his own order. The Order of the Holy Cross was formed, and its mother house is still open and active in West Park, New York. Closer to home, Huntington founded St. Andrew's School in Sewanee along with other religious institutions in this and other countries. On the whole, it seems, Huntington was able to do amazing work despite having limited personal financial resources with which to accomplish that work (Information from Wikipedia).

Ironically, there is a freedom that comes from giving up everything you have in the service of the Lord. Although most religious live in community with other monks and nuns, the worldly concerns that are shared within that community are miniscule when compared with our worries. As a monk, you don't have a family to take care of. You don't have physical needs to worry about. College tuition, vacation to Disney World, retirement savings--none of that is a direct burden felt by a religious. Those concerns are just taken care of. Sure, the order must take care of its members, and each person works for the good of the group, but there is a remarkable liberation that comes from making such a profession. As such, one gives up one's own life and becomes completely united to the Body of Christ.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote, "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." As a Christian, converted from a zealous adherence to Judaism, Paul claimed the cross of Christ as the only thing of value in his life and in this world. A prisoner for Christ, he gave up everything he had and devoted his life to the message of forgiveness, freedom, and salvation that the cross proclaims. Paul knew what it meant to let go of the troubles and concerns of the world to focus exclusively on the good news of Jesus. James Huntington, too, knew what it meant to seek a life unburdened by earthly needs. He sought that lift in a religious community so that he could devote every effort he had to carrying the good news to the poor. What about us? Is the cross of Christ that real to us?

Who's ready to become a monk or a nun? Of course, that call is given to some, but most of us answer Christ's call in other ways. We serve Christ as teachers, janitors, mothers, fathers, doctors, bankers, and cooks. But we must find a way to leave our earthly burdens behind so that we, too, might be set free to live fully for the gospel. In some ways, that's harder because we need to deal with things like college tuition and Disney World and retirement savings. Those things aren't going to go away. But we must keep them in the right perspective. We must find a way to know for ourselves what it means to "boast of [nothing] except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." We must know what it means to be "crucified to the world." We must let the power of the cross shape us just as clearly as it shaped Huntington and Paul. We must be willing to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. That may not come as a religious profession or a life-occupying missionary journey, but it will surely cost us just as much. Will we say yes?

Giving Thanks Every Day

This piece originally appeared in our parish newsletter. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about what's going on at St. John's, Decatur, please click here.

During the month of November, I have seen several people posting a daily thanksgiving on Facebook. What a wonderful practice! Each day for thirty days, these individuals are thinking about their lives, naming one thing for which they are grateful, and then sharing their gratitude with the world. Consider that practice for a moment. What are some of the things you would share? Could you think of thirty? Could you figure out which thirty among hundreds you would post?

I have never undertaken that particular exercise, and I wonder what sort of effect it has on those who do. Does the daily practice of giving thanks deepen their overall appreciation for the blessings they have received? Does the spirit of gratitude persist beyond the thirty days? Does the habit of sharing a positive perspective change the way they view and use social media? Is their thanksgiving contagious? Does it invite other Facebook friends to consider the blessings in their own lives?

Although it does not appear in social media, part of my daily practice is to name before God those things that are troubling me and those things for which I am thankful. That is how I structure my daily prayers—intercessions and thanksgivings. And something arises out of the daily habit. I discover a shape or direction of how God is present with me each day. For me, my life finds balance as I consider both challenges and blessings together. If I focus too much on the troubles around me and forget the importance of intentional thanksgiving, God’s presence in my life is harder to see. When I am steeped in that daily practice, however, God’s work seems clear and obvious even when times are tough.

The bible is replete with examples of gratitude in the face of adversity. James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds” (1:2). Even from prison, Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content…In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). Again and again, the Psalmist reminded God’s people to choose hope in the midst of struggle: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (46:1) and “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (23:4). Those sacred words are written so that you and I might take comfort in moments of difficulty, but, in my life, the invitation to intentional thanksgiving has come more substantially from another source: the grateful people around me.

Maybe you know those people, too—the sorts of people who always seem to see the blessings in their lives even when they are surrounded by hardship. Although they always lead with a cheerful smile, just below the surface is considerable pain. Story after story of disappointment, difficulty, and disaster have filled their lives, yet they never complain. Instead, they remind me what it means to be truly thankful. They know what it means to let gratitude define their lives, and they invite me to do the same.

Gratitude, it seems, increases resilience. “How do you do it?” we might ask those whose lives have been filled with tragedy. “How do you even get out of bed in the morning?” And their answer is as astounding as it is simple: “Because each day is another blessing.” Those who refuse to let the challenges of life beat them down are the ones who never forget to count their blessings. That is not a coincidence.
This Thanksgiving, consider more than those things for which you are grateful. That question is too easy. We are all thankful for family and friends and food. Instead, ask yourself how you are grateful. Do you give thanks every day? Have you adopted a pattern of gratitude as a way of life? Are you building up your resilience for whatever hardship might lie ahead by counting the blessings that have already come your way? Gratitude is not a list; it is a way of life. May thanksgiving become a part of who we are.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Keeping Faith

It's easier to live either with total certainty or total abstraction. When you mix the two, things get tough.

Consider the emotional state of a person and her family as they progress through a terminal illness. Before the diagnosis, death, although certain, is too far away--too abstract--to bring any real daily burden. Then, she finds a lump, and everything changes. "What could it be?" she asks herself. She shares the news with her husband, who says, "It's probably nothing," but, of course, on the inside he's anxious, too. Each step closer to a diagnosis is a step of dread. The specific possibility of her mortality is coalescing quickly. Finally, the doctor does the biopsy and sends the sample tissue off for a pathology report. "We'll know in a few days," he says, and the agony only grows. Waiting and not knowing is terrible. Then, the terrible news is disclosed. Shock and anguish overwhelm the woman and her husband. They share the news with their children. "But there are some treatment options," the parents quickly interject, knowing that, still, the prognosis is not good. Months of fighting and struggling pass. A confusion of hope and gloom pass over them in waves. Ultimately, things do not improve, and eventually the decision is reached to offer palliative treatment--enough to keep her comfortable and ensure the best possible quality of life until death arrives. And, strangely enough, for the first time since the lump was found, peace begins to settle in.

We'd rather know or not know, but being stuck in between is agony. Welcome to Christianity.

On Sunday, we begin the season of Advent--the time of waiting, watching, and preparing for the coming of our Lord. We celebrate how the world longed for the savior, who was born 2000 years ago, and we renew that longing as we await his return. The scriptural language of this season is "be on your guard" and "the Lord is coming" and "salvation is near." And, as Christians, we are called to embrace both the imminence and the obscurity of the Lord's return.

In Luke 21:25-36, Jesus declares that the end is coming soon: "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves." In other words, the creation itself will reveal that the Son of Man is on his way. Underscoring the clarity of these signs, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a fig tree in leaf: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near." As Jesus puts it, it's that simple: "When you see signs in the heavens and distress among nations, get ready; it won't be long."

But it is long. It's very long. The followers of Jesus have been interpreting these signs of distress for 2000 years, and still we're waiting for his return. We've seen the persecutions of the ancient world, the fall of the Christian empire, the darkness of the Middle Ages, the skepticism of Modernism, and all the floods, typhoons, famines, and earthquakes that have accompanied the passing of time. And still no Jesus.

Nevertheless, Jesus urges us, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap." Well, that's tough. It's hard to live as if the coming of the Son of Man is certain yet know that the timing is abstract. And that's the point. Faith is hard.

We believe in a God who will save us, but salvation sometimes feels very far away. We believe in a God who has the power to make all things right, but his decision to exercise that power seems continually delayed. We believe that Jesus will come again, but we've been waiting for a long, long time. What makes us think that tomorrow will be any different?

Yet we live for tomorrow. The urgency of the kingdom is absolute. We cannot be lackadaisical. Following Jesus means living as if the end is always near. Yes, that is exhausting, but that's what shapes our lives and our faith. Living for the kingdom is what Christianity is all about. As we structure our lives around the imminence of Jesus' return, we see the kingdom breaking through. Our waiting and watching is how the kingdom becomes manifest to us. It's how the abstract becomes certain.

Does Our Kingdom Match Our King?

November 22, 2015 – Proper 29B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Text and audio of other sermons preached at St. John's, Decatur, can be found on its parish website.
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says. Well, he ain’t joking. Has there ever been a time when God’s kingdom—when God’s reign of love and peace and salvation—seemed further away than it does right now? Terrorists have brought the battlefield into our back yards. Gun violence and murder have come to our small town. Our nation seems to have lost its moral compass. Christianity is shrinking—both in numbers and in influence. And the fastest growing religion in the world—in fact, the only religion that is growing faster than the world’s population—is Islam.

And all of those factors have combined with the timing of our political cycle to create a perfect storm of ungodly proportions. As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I have never felt greater disappointment in our political leaders and candidates than I do right now. In an attempt to satisfy the demands of the electorate, politicians are saying things that, in any other context, would be dismissed as fear-mongering and hate speech. And we are buying into it! In this political season, candidates are appealing to our desire for power and prosperity by promoting unabashed greed. In this season of fear, politicians are capitalizing on our irrational anxieties by calling blindly for more walls and more guns and more bombs. That might be a good way to run a state or a country. That might be a good way to get elected. But that way of being, living, and doing is antithetical to everything that God’s kingdom stands for.

In fact, those are exactly the things that Jesus tells us to let go of. What does he ask us to do? Sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Lay down your life. So what does that mean that God’s kingdom looks like? Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are those who suffer. If that is going to be a reality, what is God asking us to do? Welcome the stranger. Bless those who persecute you. Render to no one evil for evil. Live peaceably with all. Those aren’t campaign slogans. They’re the pillars of God’s kingdom. And that kingdom is getting harder and harder to find.

Standing before Pilate, having been arrested by his own people, Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Remember: the Jewish leaders had accused Jesus of leading an insurrection against the Roman Empire—of pretending to be a king who rivaled the authority of the Emperor. But Pilate looked at the humble prisoner before him and thought, “What sort of a king is this? Where are his followers? And why have his own countrymen betrayed him?” So Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And, while we know him to be the King of Kings, Pilate saw Jesus as nothing more than a radical preacher whose threat was not to any earthly empire but only to a religious hierarchy that had no place for him or his message. Naturally, that Roman prelate was looking for a king who reigns in power, but that’s not the sort of king that Jesus is. Instead, Jesus’ kingship is nothing like the kingdoms of this world. It is one of weakness and vulnerability. It is one in which the king himself wears not a crown of gold but a crown of thorns.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” but what does that mean for us? “If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus continued, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” That’s a really big “if,” and it’s one we need to remember. If Jesus’ kingdom were an earthly kingdom, then fighting would be an appropriate response. But it’s not. So what is an appropriate response to the threat of violence for those of us who claim God’s kingdom to be our own? How is the reign of Christ demonstrated when our lives are inundated by fear? By laying down our arms, by setting aside our hate, by searching for the humanity of our enemies, by choosing love, by opening our doors as well as our hearts, and by accepting the vulnerability that is indicative of the kingdom of God.

But how is that possible? In this climate of fear, how can we surrender everything that we hold dear—even our own lives—when our instincts tell us to defend ourselves and protect our own interests? The only thing that makes that possible is the cross. The cross is what turns the ways of the world on their head and demonstrates once and for all that God will turn weakness into strength, vulnerability into invincibility, even death into life. The cross is what frees us from the need to win the victory for ourselves. The cross is what makes it possible for us to put to death our own needs for protection and survival and success and let God achieve all of those for us. When Jesus died on the cross, God raised him from the dead not so that he could come back and rule over us in earthly power but so that we might die with him and then be raised to life everlasting. That is the power of God. That is how God’s kingdom works.

We must be sure that our kingdom matches our king. Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world. If we want to claim him as our king—if we want to worship him as our Lord—we cannot remain tied to the kingdoms of the earth. We cannot embrace the old ways of winner-take-all and I’ll-get-what’s-mine and let’s-take-care-of-our-own if we want a place in God’s kingdom. Instead, we must embrace the cross as the way of true life—the posture by which God welcomes all people unto himself. We must become followers of the crucified one. We must let his sacrificial, vulnerable love become the model for our lives—not just a dream for the future. As we will sing in a few minutes when we present our offerings at the altar, “The Church of Christ is calling us to make the dream come true: a world redeemed by Christ-like love; all life in Christ made new.[1]” We must allow that kingdom—God’s kingdom—to come in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world—not tomorrow, but today.

[1] “As those of old their first fruits brought” by Frank von Christierson; © 1961 The Hymn Society.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jesus or God?

I had a conversation with someone the other day who acknowledged that, in her prayer life, she has always felt close to Jesus but has always "had a hard time with God." In those sorts of conversations, as a priest and/or a spiritual director, I try to hide my instinctive heresy-search-and-destroy reactions, but this one, I could tell, crept out onto my face. Actually, I winced. I didn't say anything at the time. Trust me, this wasn't the right moment to say, "Let me introduce you to the heresy of Arianism." But I'm pretty sure she could tell by my facial expression that she had touch a nerve that had evoked a less-than-pastoral response in my countenance.

It's common, though, isn't it? In today's biblically illiterate, doctrinally vacuous, post-Christian world, there are lots of SBNRs who like the sound of Jesus but don't want anything to do with God. (That wasn't her point, but I'm taking it and running with it.) Jesus is all about loving your enemies, welcoming the stranger, turning the other cheek, eating with sinners, and dying for your friends. As long as he's not asking us to do the same thing (hint, hint: he is), how can anyone be against Jesus? God, on the other hand, is terrible. He's a wrath-flinging, judgment-pronouncing, damn-them-all-to-hell God. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd suspect that Jesus wasn't a big fan of God either.

But that's my fault. That's our fault. As church leaders, as Christians, as evangelists, we are all called to share the good news that Jesus Christ shows the whole world that God loves us--the stranger, the outcast, the sinner. Jesus is God. Jesus is the fullest revelation of who God is. Unmitigated by human interpretation but fully integrated into humanity itself, the Incarnate Word is God as clear as we will ever get him. Jesus is the lens through which we must understand and interpret everything we have ever thought about God. If you want to know what God is really like, start with Jesus, and make sure everything else falls into place.

On Sunday, we'll read about the kingship of Christ: "My kingdom is not from this world...For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." That's not just Jesus' plan for the world; it's God's plan. Jesus elevates the significance of the moment by harkening back to his birth--his coming into the world. His life, death, and resurrection isn't just a moment in human history; it's a fundamental shift in God's encounter with humanity. And, if we want to know what God is really like and what his kingdom is all about, we should listen to Jesus' voice and belong to his truth.

God's kingdom isn't built around a throne of power but a seat of mercy. God's kingship isn't adorned with a crown of gold but a crown of thorns. Jesus isn't an accident. Jesus is the fullness of God. He represents everything that God is. God didn't give us a glimpse of who he is. He gave us the full thing. Gaze upon the crucified one and see your king. This is God. This is God with us.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Suspicious Gazes

Last Friday, I was walking with my three-and-a-half-year-old son to pick up my older two children from school. It's a short walk, and we often take the alley way behind our house because it's less heavily trafficked during the after-school rush. As we held hands, swinging our arms between us, I saw in the distance a cat making its way blissfully down the alley toward us. It was ambling on the edge of the gravel alley, occasionally rubbing its head against the grass shoulder. "Look, Sam!" I said in a hushed voice. "There's a cat!"

By the time Sam said, "Where?" the cat had spotted us. It froze. It squatted down with its belly flat against the ground. Its tail was tucked behind it. Starting at us, it watched our every movement. As we took our next step or two, the cat, having instinctively calculated in its animalistic brain the distance between it and us and the safety of its driveway in between, darted in a flash--at first toward us but then quickly to the side, escaping our potentially predatory grasp and gaze. I don't think Sam even got a chance to see the nimble four-footed creature.

Today, I am travelling to Baltimore for a church meeting. I've been asked to serve on the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, and I am looking forward to our time together. It seems that most (perhaps all) of the "interim bodies" (groups that meet in between General Conventions) are gathering for an orientation and some initial face-to-face work. I trust that the rest of our work this triennium will be through virtual meetings, so I consider this trip a valuable luxury--the chance to get things started in a big, bold way before the inherent limitations of telephones and webchats begin to take away from our productivity. But, as I make my way through the airport, excited about seeing old friends and new colleagues, I am reminded of just how suspicious everyone has become.

I live in Decatur, Alabama. It's a thirty-minute drive from Huntsville's airport. Understandably, it's a small facility with only ten commercial gates. Since it's a small community and a small airport, I halfway expect to see at least one person I know. But the people I don't know keep looking at me with what feels like suspicious glances. Yes, I know a bowtie can be a little off-putting (perhaps even threatening), but seriously? Do I look that scary?

Of course, I don't know if their glances are suspicious. They might be, but my interpretation of their looks--quick, examining glances followed by a sharp look-away followed again by another raising of the eyes to check me out a second time--as the evaluation of a potential threat says more about me than them. But can I help it?

The televisions around the terminal, all tuned to Fox News, are reminding all of us that terrorists are being arrested at an airport in Istanbul. Flashes of this past weekend's scenes in Paris are not only in our minds but also on the screens. The newsfeed on the NPR app is dominated by updates on a raid in a Paris suburb. Posts on Facebook remind us of the inability of the immigration screening process to ensure that refugees are not terrorists. The headlines in the State of Alabama are a reechoing of Governor Bentley's sentiment that our state's borders are closed to anyone fleeing the crisis in Syria.

In the midst of all this fear and anxiety and resentment, I stop to read the lessons for this coming Sunday, and I ponder how far away the kingdom of God and the kingship of Christ are from this world.

Everyone is a potential threat. Everyone could be a terrorist. Everyone has the potential to hurt us or kill us. I may not be squatting down on the ground, but, as I clutch my bag tightly against my body and dart my eyes around the terminal, I realize I am no different from the cat in the alley. None of us is.

And I don't think that's anything new. Sure, the nature of the threat is a lot bigger than it was in the ancient world, but travel has always been dangerous. Why else would Isaiah's prophecy of salvation look like a safe journey:
And a highway shall be there,
     and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
     It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
     even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there,
     nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
     but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return
     and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
     they shall obtain gladness and joy,
     and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
 (Isaiah 35:8-10 ESV)
I don't know about you, but I want the world I live in to look more like the kingdom of God. I want my children to grow up in a place that feels less like a terrorism-dominated headline and more like a God-sheltered highway through the rough places. And, if our response to God's promises of salvation is to throw up our hands and wait on God to make all that happen, we will die having seen the kingdom get no closer in this life. Yes, salvation waits for us in the next life, but God's promises are not only for the some-day. They are for now. And that means we have work to do.

To be the kingdom of God, we must act like the kingdom of God. we must open our borders to refugees. Far better for us to accept vulnerability by welcoming in the poor and oppressed than to shut our gates and try to lock everyone out. We must let our guard down--not only as a State and as a nation but also as individuals. Far better for us to greet a stranger with a smile and accept the unknown than to hold everyone at arms length. For the kingdom of God to become a reality, we must all start looking for it. And, as long as we're treating everyone and everything with suspicion, we'll never see it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Love Your Enemies

This post first appeared as the cover article from the parish newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of The View and learn about St. John's, click here.

In a long list of his difficult teachings, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is perhaps the most challenging. Love our enemies. Love? We are supposed to love them? Maybe Jesus was mistaken, or maybe we misheard him. Maybe he meant to tell us to deal respectfully with those who disagree with us. Maybe he wasn’t talking about our real enemies. After all, Jesus did not know anything about ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Surely he would not ask us to love those who behead his followers and post the gruesome videos on the Internet. Surely Jesus would not ask us to love those who terrorize his people and indiscriminately kill men, women, and children by the thousands. Love, after all, is what we feel towards our spouses and children. Love is what we do for those whom we treasure in our hearts. How can love be an appropriate response to violence, hatred, and terrorism? How can love be God’s answer for those who represent everything that God is not?

This morning, I concluded a nine-week bible study on the contradictory nature of scripture. Entitled “Two Testaments, One God,” it explored a range of topics like war and women and slavery in an attempt to demonstrate that reconciling the inscrutable passages of the bible with our experience of and belief in God is not as simple as saying that the New Testament trumps the Old. The final subject in our series was vengeance, and we could not help but wrestle with last weekend’s attacks in Paris and our instinctive desire for retribution.

With those headlines and death-filled images still fresh in our minds, we read about the great flood in Genesis 6 and 7. We studied the Passover in Exodus 12. Had we not run out of time, we would have read Jesus’ mini-apocalypse in Matthew 12 and the opening of the seven seals in Revelation 6. Each of those is a horrifying, terrifying, and head-spinning account of God enacting his justice against the unjust. In a moment like this, when all people of faith yearn for the Almighty to right the wrongs of terrorism, those passages offer a glimmer of hope—a reminder that someday God will impose his final and complete vengeance upon the earth.

As we all know, however, the bible does not speak with one voice when it comes to divine justice. In our study of vengeance, we also read from Romans 12, in which Paul wrote, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Easy enough, you might think; we can relax and know that eventually God will punish our enemies on our behalf. But do not forget about the next two verses: “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

What does it mean to “overcome evil with good?” What does it mean to “turn the other cheek?” What does it mean to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” We might want to see the destruction of those who hate us. We might wait with expectant glee for God to wipe our enemies off the face of the earth. But that is not God’s invitation to us. I believe that Jesus meant what he said. I believe that he asks us to love the very worst among our enemies. I believe that he wants us to let even the most inhumane killer into our hearts because that is what God would do. That is what God does.

I do not pretend that it is easy, nor do I maintain the illusion that my miniscule experience of suffering even compares with the agony and anguish of those who stare godless, gun-wielding terrorists in the face or who bear the scars of their horrific acts for the rest of their lives. But I do believe that loving our enemies is what God calls all of us to do. To love means to let someone into our heart. It means to hope for the best for someone. It means to care about them and suffer with them—even for them. It means to remember that beneath the inhuman persona of a terrorist lies a human being, created in God’s image and loved by God as much as he loves you or me. How is that possible? I do not know…except that, with God, it is.
If we reject Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies, we lose the entire gospel along with it. God loves you and me. Even though we are sinful, God still loves us. Even though we turn our backs on him, his love is certain. Even though we reject him and his love on a daily basis, God’s love is guaranteed. Why? Because that is who God is—because God chooses to love even the unlovable. There can be no limits to God’s love. That is the message of Jesus. That is the declaration of the cross and empty tomb. That is what it means to be a Christian. And, like it or not, that is precisely who we are called to be.