Thursday, April 18, 2013

Stop Hating on Creepy Uncle Ralph

There's one in every family. Uncle Ralph is kind of an odd-ball. He shows up to family gatherings wearing a bow tie and tie-dyed shirt, a thin wisp of hair combed over his balding head. Ralph has always been a little socially awkward. People who don't know Ralph very well may be put off by him. He tends to talk over people, so excited about what he has to say that he rarely notices if  anyone is listening. Ralph has some weird interests too. He was a "prepper" long before prepping was cool (Is it cool now, or just cool to talk about and watch on reality TV?)  Ralph makes it his mission to ensure everyone has adequate stores of food, fuel,and ammo for the coming financial meltdown. He also makes his own wicker furniture, a hobby he has spent years perfecting, planning for day when he will quit his job to do wicker full-time.

Ralph cornered me at a barbecue last Memorial Day. My wife conveniently had get up at just that moment to help the kids with something or another. After a discussion of his latest wicker projects, Ralph proceeded to give me a staunch 15 minute lecture about having a six month food stock and some fire arms.

"How you gonna take care a your family when it all hits the fan?" He asked me. I didn't have an answer.

As much as Ralph annoys me, what really annoys me is when I hear people badmouthing Ralph. I have run into a couple people around town who know Ralph.  They have said some pretty mean things about him. Yes he's an odd guy, but he is my uncle.  He is not a bad guy. He is actually generous and thoughtful. You should see the wicker patio chairs he gave us last year for Christmas.Yes, he can be a bit overbearing, especially about prepping, but he does it because he cares for me and my family. His concern is genuine. But I guess I don't expect people who don't know him that well to really get it. When someone says something bad about Ralph, I say, "Yes, he can get a little annoying, but he really cares about his family and about helping others."

Then last week I was hanging out with my brother-in-law and a mutual friend.  This friend of ours started talking about Ralph and how weird and annoying Ralph is. Then my brother-in-law started in too.

"Ralph is just crazy." My brother-in-law exclaimed. "Why can't he just keep his mouth shut. No one wants to hear about the meltdown. I get so sick of his stupid prepping, and his stupid shirts." and then turning to our friend. "I'm really sorry you have to deal with Ralph.  Just don't think all our family is like that."

I was shocked at what I heard. You just don't treat your family that way. Yes, there are some things we'd like to change about Ralph, but at the end of the day we love him. He is a good albeit misguided guy.

So this is the point of my fictitious tale. Ralph is that other part of the church. The people who are annoying. The people who embarrass us.  The people who still think Obama is a Muslim.  The people who leave tracts for their server with their tip.  Ralph is the Christians who get all their news from Fox and Glen Beck. Christians that may protest the building of a mosque, an abortion clinic, or a Starbucks.

Stop hating on Ralph. It's one thing to hear people who don't know Jesus making disparaging comments about the church, or about the more conservative elements therein.  It is quite another thing to hear it from those who claim to be Christ-followers. Ridiculing other believers will not make people like you (as if that is the goal). Ridiculing your brothers and sisters will only serve to justify peoples contempt for them. The world will not know Jesus because we side with them against annoying or uninformed Christians. They will know Jesus because of the love we have for each other. (John 13:34-35)

I am sure I am somebody else's creepy Uncle Ralph. You probably are too. I still think we have more in common because of our relationship to Jesus than those who do not know Him, regardless of our differences in style, theology, interests, education, economic status, or political affiliation. I will try to love you despite your annoying habits and I hope you will do the same for me.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The House: An Explanation

I wrote "The House" to highlight the complexity of a real life situation between two nations of people. one calls themselves Israel, the other Palestine. 

In our story, Jacob represents the ancient nation of Israel, as we see in the pages of scripture, removed from the land of promise (the house) as a slave in Egypt. The discovery of his father's trust fund represents God's grace upon Israel, rescuing them from slavery and bringing them into the land. But, as Israel's sin led to their removal from their homeland, Jacob's sin in our story caused him to loose his beloved house as well.

Arnie represents the Arabs.  After the Jews were dispersed top the corners of the world, other people groups settled in the ancient land, finally in the seventh century, Arabs settled into the land.

The Jews faced persecution everywhere they went, but nowhere so severe as Nazi Germany (Dutch), which led to a mass migration of Jews to the land now known as Palestine. The more Jews came to Palestine, the more resentment grew between Jews and the Arabs who already lived in the land. Eventually, a large portion of the land was awarded to the Jews by the U.N. to form the state of Israel in 1948.

Just as Jude took over Arnie's house, Jews eventually came to occupy all the former land of the Palestinian Arabs. Paul, represents modern Palestinians, who live on a fraction of their former land under a military occupation that has lasted almost 50 years. Like Paul, they are seeking a way to gain back their lands and establish sovereignty there. 

People harbor a lot of strong feelings about this land half way around the world, especially Christians. A recent Gallup poll shows that less than 40% of Americans feel any sympathies toward Palestinians, an all time low. Do the Palestinians deserve these feelings? Are they completely evil? Is their cause unjust? I believe that much of the strong sentiment is fueled my a few common misconceptions. Consider the following five facts about the Holy Land.

1. The Conquest is over.  Most liberal Christians, and not a small number of evangelicals are uncomfortable with the Israelite conquest of Canaan. God clearly commanded the ancient Israelites to conquer, kill, and displace nations (Duet 20:17). God gave them the land of Israel in order to punish the sinfulness of the nations who had resided there (Duet 9:4). In a like manner, He would use Assyria and Babylon to punish and displace Israel when they fell into similar sin. But this mandate to conquest was not an open ended invitation or a blank check. By the time of King David we see conquered people living peacefully in Israel, serving Israel's God and falling under His protection. God was angry with David over his injustice to Uriah the Hittite, a faithful soldier for Israel (2 Sam 12:9). 

God is a champion of the cause of the foreigner (Lev 19:34, Psalm 146:9). He did not ever intend for Israel to be in a perpetual state of war.  He never intended for them to kill and conquer indefinitely. Rather, He ordained them to be a "light to the nations" (Isaiah 49:6).  The conquest is over. Please do not misuse the Bible to justify the modern state of Israel in conquering and displacing other nations and denying the foreigners among them justice.

2. Arabs are a part of God's plan of redemption. There is a mistaken notion among some Christians that Arabs are a people cursed by God, that He does not really love or care for them, that they are somehow outside of his plan of redemption. This does not come from the Bible. Many Arabs played prominent roles in the history of redemption. Job, a shining example of righteousness was an Arab, as were Lemuel and Agur, two of the writers of Proverbs.  Arab magi were the first to acknowledge the kingship of Jesus, and their faithfulness kept Jesus safe from the clutches of king Herod.  Arabs were present at the day of Pentecost  and became followers of Jesus (Acts 2:11).  Today many Arabs follow Him, working to share His good news and bring His Kingdom rule to earth as it is in heaven. (for a detailed discussion of Arabs in the Bible, read Arabs in the Shadow of Israel by Tony Maalouf. Kregal Pub., 2003)

3. The ethnic lines are a lot blurrier than most people think. Politics usually requires people to self-identify as Arab or Jewish, but studies show both groups are largely descended from a common gene pool. Most Palestinian Arabs are a mixture of Arab, Jewish, and other ancestries. Nearly 20% of the citizens of  Israel speak Arabic as a first language, Muslims, Christians, and Jews who have spoken Arabic for generations. The Arab/Israeli dichotomy leaves out a large number of people who live there, and creates an unnecessary "us" versus "them" mentality.

4. Palestine has lived in a state of national slavery since 1967.  If there was ever a modern-day example of the slavery the ancient Hebrews suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, it would be Palestinians at the hand of Israel. Half of the people in lands controlled by Israel  are not citizens and may not become citizens, even though their ancestors have lived in the land for hundreds of years. The Palestinian Authority has no real authority.  Palestinians are severely restricted in travel, both into Israel proper and abroad. They also lack basic freedoms we take for granted, such as protection from unlawful search and seizure and unreasonable detention. Their condition keeps them from developing industry on their own lands. Many subsist by working for Israelis in largely menial and poorly-paid jobs.

5. Israel has repeatedly ignored the consensus of the world community in their treatment of Palestinians. Not that the international community is always right, but it should still pull some weight. The state of Israel occupied the territories of Gaza and the West Bank defending itself from invasion. But 45 years later, Israel still occupies the land. The people who lived there have not been incorporated into Israel or allowed to form their own state. Meanwhile Israeli settlers have seized large portions of the occupied territory from the original inhabitants.  U.N. resolution 446 confirms Israel has no right to settle these occupied territories. The occupation also violates the Geneva Convention of 1949 (Which Israel is party to).

If you come out of this hating Israel and loving Palestine, I have failed. I am as deeply concerned for Israelis as for Palestinians. God loves and cares for them all. He also has a heart to see justice for all the oppressed (Psalm 103:6).

Living every day for Jesus means to live his mission.  When Jesus unveiled his mission at his hometown of Nazareth he read this prophecy from Isaiah.

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke:4:18-19)

Who are the poor and the oppressed in the Holy Land today? Are we joining Jesus in his mission to bring freedom to the oppressed? Do our thoughts and feelings about them agree with God's? Do our prayers reflect His heart?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The House: An Allegory

Jacob was born in a comfortable upper middle class neighborhood, the son of a successful mechanical engineer and a stay at home mom. While he would never have thought himself rich, Jacob enjoyed the privileges of affluence.

Jacob came to love the house of his youth. It was not the largest house around, or the nicest, but it was home.  Jacob had his own room with a big loft bed. Jacob's father had a big den he would retire to when he had visitors. They would come out hours later laughing heartily and smelling of cigar smoke. Jacob dreamed of the day he would join his father and the other men there.

Out in the back his mother planted flower beds with tulips for the spring and lilies for the summer. His dad, the engineer built Jacob a tree-house on the big tree in the back yard. It was the best tree-house anyone in the neighborhood had ever seen. Jacob loved sleeping out there on warm summer nights.

Young Jacob was a model student. He excelled at mathematics, and dreamed of being an engineer like his father.  He had lots of friends and was decent at sports for a math wiz.  He gained a reputation as a wrestler. Jacob was happy.

One night at age sixteen, Jacob's life of comfort ended.  The trucker didn't even see Jacob's dad until his car was careening off the bridge. The paramedics said he was probably dead before he hit the water.  In the aftermath, Jacob and his mother were shocked to learn that his father had been secretly harboring a gambling addiction. He had gambled away most of their savings. Six months before he died, Jacob's father had cashed in his life insurance policy to pay off some gambling debts. Jacob and his mother were left with nothing. They had to sell the house of his youth and move into a small apartment. Jacob had to go to a new school where he had no any friends.  He missed his father. He missed wrestling.  He missed the house.

Jacob graduated high school, but with no money for college, Jacob took a job working construction. He spent long hours laying concrete block in the hot sun. He continued to live with his mother and helped pay rent on their meager apartment.

A few days after Jacob turned 21, he received a letter in the mail from an attorney he had never heard of. Evidently, there was some unresolved matter from his father's will. Jacob waited a full week before he darkened the door of the law offices of  Whitby, Whitby and Morse.  When he told the secretary his name, she gave him a very startled look and immediately ushered him back to an empty meeting room.  A few minutes later a kind-looking old man entered the room.

"Arthur Whitby," the man extended his hand. "I was a friend of your father's. You probably don't remember, but I saw you at the funeral."

Jacob said nothing.

"You know your father was a gambler. He just couldn't pass up a good bet."

"Yes, I know." Jacob replied a little harsher than he had intended. "He lost everything we owned. We have nothing thanks to him."

"Well, he didn't always lose.  About eight years ago he came into my office. He had placed a risky bet on a horse, but it paid off. At ten to one odds, he had made over $200,000 in one day. He knew his weakness, his likelihood to gamble all his winnings away, so he came to me and had me set up a trust, for you. According to the terms of the trust, he could not legally touch the money, and it would transfer to you automatically at age 21.

Jacob was dumbfounded. "So I have $200,000 waiting for me in a trust?"

"Not exactly. You see, your father was still a gambler at heart, and this was his last chance to play the odds on the money.  He invested it in some up-and-coming tech stocks. I told him it was foolish, but that was the only way he would part with the money. It turns out, those stocks did well. In fact, the value has more than tripled in eight years. I can write you a check today for $680,000 dollars."

Jacob quit his construction job the next day. He enrolled in the engineering program at a local university for the next fall.  Then he looked up the current owner of his old house. He still loved that house. Jacob paid almost double what it had been sold for, but he moved in two weeks later.

 Jacob graduated from engineering school at the top of his class and was immediately hired by the same firm his father had worked for. He was successful and was soon married. A couple of years later, he had a son of his own.  He called him Jude.

But Jacob's life was not all rosy after that. Jacob not only inherited his math skills from his father, he also inherited his proclivity toward gambling. Like his father, Jacob tried to keep his addiction hidden, but it soon overwhelmed him. In spite of a very good paying job, Jacob was shuffling bills each month, paying off the oldest of them. He put a mortgage against his house to pay off the gambling debts.

When Jude was six years old, the bank foreclosed on the family's house. His parents got divorced soon after and Jude grew up with his mother. Jacob never kept a steady job after that. He moved from place to place, sometimes it was a friend's couch. Jacob finally took his own life when Jude was 14.

Twenty minutes away from the house Jacob grew up in, Arnie grew up in a small house with his father, a factory worker. His mother had left them when he was four years old. Arnie's house was always hot in the summer. His father could not afford to put in air-conditioning. There were no flowers in the yard, not even much grass, as the soil was contaminated.  When the wind picked up in the summer, it blew clouds of dust from the yard into Arnie's open windows.

Arnie never had a lot of things, but Arnie had learned the value of hard work early.  He operated a successful lemonade stand when he was nine.  His natural skills at business served him well, and by the age of 19 he was managing a restaurant. Two years later, Arnie went into business for himself. He owned and operated his own restaurant. It was small, but it was his.

A few years after that, Arnie, who was now married with a new baby, got a call from his old friend Greg. Greg worked for the bank.

"Hey, Arnie, I've got a deal for you."

Arnie had discovered long ago to take everything Greg said with a grain of salt. "I'm listening."

"You need a house don't you."

"Well everyone needs a house, but not everyone can afford one."

"I got one you can afford," Greg assured him.

"I'm trying to save up for something nice.  I've got a baby now."

"This is quality, " Greg explained. "A nice three bedroom. Big kitchen. Beautiful little yard. Nice neighborhood too. Great schools. It even has a man-cave."

"How could I afford something like that?" Arnie asked.

"It's a foreclosure. The owner couldn't make payments, so the bank owns the house. We need to get rid of it fast, so it'l go for half the market value. Now, I took the liberty to run your  credit. We can give you the loan for it.  You just need the down payment. You been saving anything from that little diner of yours?

Arnie couldn't believe his luck. He had been saving a little back each month from the restaurant. He went in to the bank the very next day.  A couple weeks later, Arnie  moved his wife and baby into Jacob's old house.

Arnie and his wife went on to have several children, filling the house with joy once again. He repaired the old tree-house for his boys. They loved sleeping out there on warm summer nights.

In the meantime, Arnie's restaurant grew, and he hired several employees to help out at the store.  One of those employees was a young man named Jude.  Arnie took a liking to Jude from the start. The troubled boy's story reminded him a little of his own.

Jude was now 17 years old. His father was dead. He lived with his mother and her motorcycle driving boyfriend named Dutch. Dutch was a cruel man who physically and verbally abused Jude on a near daily basis. One day when Jude came to work with a particularly rough looking black eye, Arnie's compassion got the best of him. He offered to let Jude come stay with him. And so Jude returned to the house of his childhood once again.

Arnie's own children were not particularly happy about having Jude coming to stay with them. Jude was somewhat of a bully at their school. The abused becomes the abuser.  Jude was shrewd, and, through deals, bribes, and threats, had soon staked out his place in Arnie's household. Arnie's children tried to leave him alone as best they could.

One day Jude returned to his mother's house to pick up the last of his things to move to Arnie's house. Inside, he found some old bank documents relating to the house, the house he was now living in with Arnie's family. As Jude looked over the documents carefully, he discovered several discrepancies in the foreclosure proceedings that had ultimately ejected his family from that house so many years before. If Jude was right, the house should never have been foreclosed. It should never have been taken from him and his family.  It was his house.

What followed was a messy legal battle that would nearly bankrupt both sides. Jude insisted that he was not trying to take anything from Arnie and his family, that he was just trying to get what the bank had taken from him. Arnie couldn't believe that this boy that he had welcomed into his own house was now trying to take it out from under him.

After a lengthy court review, the house was awarded to Jude. Arnie appealed the decision. In the end, the fairest verdict might have been for them to split the house, to sell it and divide the profits between the two, but neither would agree to this. In desperation, Arnie was forced to sell his restaurant to pay all the legal fees. Still, there was no resolution in sight. After four long years of struggle, Arnie finally gave up his claim to the house and moved out. He found a job in another city and took his family to start a new life there. Jude in his shrewdness was able to get a loan to buy the restaurant that had once employed him.

By this time, Paul, Arnie's oldest son was finishing up his last semester of high school. He would soon begin premed classes at the local university. He could not afford to move with his family. Jude made a contract for Paul allowing him to stay in the house in exchange for 20 hours of work in the restaurant. Paul did not trust Jude, but felt he had no other choice. Of course, Paul has had many other expenses and has worked more than 40 hours a week to get by. His studies have suffered, and he is now eight years into his medical program with at least two more years to go. In spite of all his work, Paul has built up a small debt to Jude that he will have to pay off even after he graduates college.

To this day, Paul continues to live in the basement of Jude's house.  Although it was once his family home, he now has no share in it. He works long hours for Jude so he can continue to subside in a corner of the house that was once his home. Jude resents Paul's presence there, but is unable to kick him out because of the contract they had both signed. Meanwhile, Paul is looking over the court documents from the case that deprived his family of their house. He has noticed a few discrepancies himself.