What happens after we die?

at-his-resurrectionI’ve been doing “Sermon Talkback” in the adult Sunday school classes at Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the past few months.  In the older adult classes, in particular, people often want to know what comes next.  “What happens after we die?” they ask.  There are lots of answers to that question out there, depending on which books and magazines you read, which movies you watch, and which radio stations you listen to, but not all of those answers are strictly biblical.  The best biblical answer I’ve found comes from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner in his discussion of the word immortality.  Take a look:

“Immortal means death-proof.  To believe in the immortality of the soul is to believe that though John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on simply because marching on is the nature of souls just the way producing butterflies is the nature of caterpillars.  Bodies die, but souls don’t.  True or false, this is not the biblical view.  The biblical view differs in several significant ways:

  1. “As someone has put it, the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul.  Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire.  When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.  All of you.  There is nothing left to go marching on with.
  2. “The idea that the body dies and the soul doesn’t is an idea which implies that the body is something rather disgusting and embarrassing, something you’d rather be done with. The Greeks spoke of it as the prison house of the soul.  The suggestion was that to escape it altogether was something less than a disaster.  The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body in particular and the material world in general as a good and glorious invention.  How could it be otherwise when it was invented by a good and glorious God?  The Old Testament rings loud with the praises of trees and birds and rain and mountains, of wine that gladdens the heart of man and oil that makes his face shine and bread that strengthens him.
  3. “Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is as natural a human function as waking after sleep. The Bible instead speaks of resurrection.  It is entirely unnatural.  We do not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how we are made.  Rather, we go to our graves as dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e. resurrected) just as we were given them by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made.
  4. “All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of human beings but a new and revised version of all the things which made them the particular human beings they were and which they need something like a body to express: their personality, the way they looked, the sound of their voices, their particular capacity for creating and loving, in some sense their faces.
  5. “The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of humanity’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love” (Wishful Thinking, pp. 49-52).

In Light of Recent Events

gay marriageThis is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 28, setting aside my summer sermon series to address a number of recent events in our nation.  I publish it here by request:

On Thursday Christy and I drove from Richmond, Virginia, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, which means that we waited in line to cross the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the border. I don’t know why. You can see the falls from the American side. But we love international travel, and it only cost $3.50 to cross the bridge, so we did it. And, besides, we had reservations at a bed and breakfast on the Canadian side. To avoid roaming charges we switched our phones to “airplane mode” and spent a blissful sixteen hours ignoring the news. When we crossed back over the next day it seemed that everything had changed. Christy sat in the passenger seat looking at her Facebook feed and telling me that the Governor of Alabama had taken down the Confederate flag. And then she told me the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act and made gay marriage legal everywhere in America. A little later in the day she told me that President Obama had started singing “Amazing Grace” near the end of his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and that someone here in our own town had spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the Jefferson Davis Monument just down the street.

Honestly, you leave the country for one day!

But now I’m back, and like most of you I’m trying to discern what these events will mean for America, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, for Metropolitan Richmond, and for First Baptist Church. It’s a complicated question, and I went for a run yesterday morning to sort things out. During that run I stopped at the Jefferson Davis Monument and looked for evidence of the words “Black Lives Matter.” I couldn’t find them anywhere. But I thought about the person whose job it was to remove those words from the monument—James Robertson, a private contractor, a white man. I had seen his picture in the paper before I went for my run. And I wondered: what was he thinking as he scrubbed those words from the stone? Because I wouldn’t be surprised if, even as he was doing it, he was thinking, “But black lives DO matter!”

Every life matters.

I preached in Dallas, Texas, on June 19, at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and I reminded the audience that exactly 150 years earlier Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect some two-and-a-half years earlier, but most Confederate states ignored it until they were forced to free their slaves by advancing Union troops. From the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, General Gordon Granger read the contents of General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after that announcement, but you might imagine that former slave owners did not rejoice. In a single moment they had gone from owning slaves, who worked for free, to having hired hands, who would expect to be paid.

I also reminded the audience that on June 19, 1964, exactly 51 years earlier, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On that day I’m sure there was rejoicing in the streets, but again, not everyone was rejoicing. And so it was on Friday, when the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. I saw a picture of a woman holding a sign that read: “I’m not just gay; I’m ecstatic!” Everywhere on Facebook people were putting rainbow stripes over their profile pictures and celebrating this momentous day in our nation’s history, but again…not everyone.

Does it always have to come to this? Big decisions by the government that split the country into two groups: those who are rejoicing and those who are not? Does it always have to divide us as a people? Will this latest decision divide us as a church? I hope and pray that it will not, and to that end I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes talking about just what is at stake here.

First of all: marriage.

In the Bible, as far as I can tell, marriage is the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and raised. It is the logical outcome of the first commandment ever given in the Bible, Genesis 1:28, in which God says to the people he has just created, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” In the very next chapter the Bible says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This is how humans multiply. A man and a woman “cleave” to each other. Biologists call it sexual reproduction.

This appears to be the primary purpose of marriage in the Bible, and for that reason it is necessarily between a man and a woman. But not only one woman. Early in the Bible we have the story of Jacob who married first Leah and then Rachel and then had children by their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Ultimately he produced twelve sons and who knows how many daughters. He was fruitful. He multiplied. He fulfilled the first commandment. But I don’t know many people these days who argue for that kind of biblical marriage. Instead they talk about a lifetime of love and commitment and I agree. That’s a better model than pure procreation. But I’m not sure where we get that. Not from the Bible, certainly, where Jacob may be the only example of someone who wanted to get married because he was in love. Most of those marriages were arranged by parents who made the best matches they could for their children and then waited for the grandchildren to come. It wasn’t about love; it was about multiplication.

But these days we talk about love and commitment. A woman gets married because she falls in love with a man and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. A man gets married for the same reason. And while he may want a family at some point it’s hardly ever the main point. That became clear to me on the day I did a wedding for a couple in their eighties. They were so precious! And each had survived the loss of a spouse after more than fifty years of marriage. When I asked the groom, “Do you take this woman in sickness and in health?” I saw the tears come to his eyes, because he had nursed his wife through a lengthy illness. And when I asked the bride the same question she did the same thing. She had sat by her husband’s bed until he drew his last breath. These two knew what they were getting into! But they weren’t getting into it to start a family. They were lonely, and they had come to love each other, and they longed for human companionship. How could I deny them that?

So, our understanding of marriage has changed since biblical times. It’s not just about multiplication anymore. It’s about love and commitment. And our understanding of human beings has changed since biblical times. We know now that while most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to members of the same sex. What we don’t know is why. Is it genetic? Is it something determined at an early age? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be a choice. I can still remember the day I discovered that I was attracted to the opposite sex: it was in fourth grade, and her name was Bamma Donohue. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. But I didn’t choose to be attracted to her; it just happened. People who are attracted to members of the same sex report precisely that kind of experience.

And so the Supreme Court has decided that, since marriage is no longer strictly about multiplication, but rather a matter of love and commitment, and since people don’t seem to choose whom they are attracted to, but rather discover those attractions at an early age, then who are they to tell two adults that they can’t share their lives with each other? That they can’t have joint ownership of property and joint custody of children? The Supreme Court has decided that marriage is a civil right, and that withholding that right on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unconstitutional. But what about us? We are not the Supreme Court. We are, most of us, members of First Baptist Church, and when it comes to marriage the separation of church and state prevails. No one can force me to do a same-sex wedding: all they can do is ask.

And so far, no one has.

But surely, someday, someone will, and so, when same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia a few months ago, I asked our deacons where we stand on the issue of homosexuality. I passed out little slips of paper and put four points on the spectrum: 1) we condemn homosexuality and exclude homosexuals from our church, 2) we tolerate homosexuals under an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, 3) we welcome homosexuals as members but we do not ordain or marry them, or 4) we extend to our homosexual members the same rights, privileges, and blessings as any other member. I asked the deacons to write down the number that best described First Baptist Church and the average was 2.5—somewhere between tolerance and welcome. And then I passed out more slips of paper and asked them to write down where we should be and this time the average was 3—welcome. We weren’t drafting policy. We weren’t making decisions. We were just finding out where we were on this issue and not everyone was in the same place. There was at least one 1 on those little slips of paper and a few 4’s. As I’ve said before, this church is a big tent. It has all kinds of people in it. The only common denominator is our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which brings me back to my first thoughts on this topic.

When I was still wondering whether I should address these recent events in today’s sermon I thought I might just say something during the welcome. I might say, “There have been a lot of changes in our country in the last few days, but as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (13:8). So, maybe we should spend some time sitting at his feet in the next few weeks, listening to what he has to say about all this.” But then I gave it some more thought. What does Jesus say about gay marriage? Nothing at all. What does he say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing. What does he say about the Confederate flag? Nothing. What does he say about black lives? Nothing that I can recall. But he does say something that could be extended to all lives. He tells us to love our neighbors, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that the people or groups of people we have the hardest time loving are also our neighbors. Samaritans were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time, but the Samaritan in his story stopped and helped a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead.

“If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said, “then go and do likewise.”

What would he say to us in these days when some people have been shot because their skin was black and others have been allowed to marry even though they are gay? I’m fairly sure he would say, “Love your neighbor.” And I think he might add (although I don’t want to put words in his mouth) that the commandment to love applies to everyone with no exceptions, that those of us who follow Jesus must love our black neighbors, our white neighbors, our gay neighbors, our straight neighbors, our Christian neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and even the neighbors who borrow our tools and forget to return them. Leave the work of judgment up to God and the Supreme Court. Our job is not to judge; it is to love. And it is to love everyone.

Because every life matters.

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How Good and Pleasant It Is

Nabil HaddadI’m traveling to Amman, Jordan, next week with a priest, an imam, and a rabbi.

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

But it’s not.  My Richmond interfaith group has been invited to participate in something called “World Interfaith Harmony Week” by Father Nabil Haddad, a Catholic priest who lives in Amman and works to promote peaceful relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

These days, more than ever, that kind of work needs to be done.

I told someone at the Jewish Community Center that I was on my way to Jordan for this conference and he said, “Well, good!  Someone needs to tell those Muslims to quit blowing us up.”  I tried to explain that it’s not “those Muslims,” but rather radical extremists who are the problem, and you can find those in almost any religion.  “Not ours,” he said.  “You don’t see us cutting anybody’s heads off.”

Maybe not today, but during the Crusades “Christian Soldiers” massacred both Muslims and Jews in their efforts to re-take the Holy Land.  And, yes, they used swords.  Many modern-day extremists refer to those events when they try to justify their own actions.  “We are only doing what was done to us!” they say.

Yes, but that was a thousand years ago.  Can’t we let it go?  Must we always be at war with each other?

In my interfaith group we are often reminded that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (through Ishmael) consider Abraham their ancestor.  If that’s true, if he is in fact our “father,” then we are in fact “brothers.”  It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything anymore than my biological brothers and I agree on everything,  It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to adopt each other’s beliefs or practice each other’s religion.*  But I hope it would mean that we would try to get along with each other, and at the very least not kill each other.

I love the beginning of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (KJV).  It is good and pleasant.  And the times I have spent with the members of my interfaith group talking, sharing meals, and even bowling together, has convinced me that we don’t have to hate each other just because we’re different.  We “children of Abraham” can dwell together in unity.  May it be so as we travel to Amman, and may we set an example for the world to follow.

These days, more than ever, that work needs to be done.

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*I spent a good bit of time on the phone recently trying to convince a woman that I was not promoting “Chrislam” (her word for a supposed synthesis between Christianity and Islam).  For years in my interfaith work I have followed the advice that the best way to have interfaith dialogue is to be a wholehearted adherent of your own faith and not try to water it down or make it more palatable to others.  That’s how we reach a place of mutual understanding and respect.

KOH2RVA: Day 184

don't hateLast night I went to something called an “Interfaith Friendship Dinner” in the Adams Room at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. There were about 30 people there, mostly Episcopalians, with a generous number of Muslims, Baptists, and Presbyterians mixed in (the Jewish delegation had to cancel at the last minute due to illness).

Why interfaith friendship, and why at a Baptist church? I stood at the podium last night and explained it like this:

“There is a story in the Christian tradition about a time when an expert in the law of Moses asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus said, ‘You’re the expert. What do you think?’ and the lawyer said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘Good answer!’ Jesus said. ‘Do that and you will live.’ But the lawyer asked (and I’m sure you’ve heard this part before), ‘Who is my neighbor?’ And Jesus told a story in which the example of ‘neighbor’ was a Samaritan: someone who shared a common religious ancestry with the Jews, but who was of another faith. And that’s us, isn’t it? Jews, Christians, and Muslims can all trace their religious ancestry back to Abraham. Although our paths have diverged since then and we claim different faiths I think Jesus would say that we are still ‘neighbors’ and still bound by the obligation to love each other. But we can’t love what we don’t know and that’s why we’re having dinner tonight: to get to know each other so that we can come to love each other.”

Several others stepped up to the podium after that including Bill Sachs from St. Stephens Episcopal Church who has been doing interfaith work for years. “Those of us who invited you here tonight don’t have any master plan,” he said, “no grand design. Our goal is interfaith friendship.” Wallace Adams-Riley from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church echoed those sentiments, as did Ammar Amonette from the Virginia Islamic Center and Alex Evans from Second Presbyterian Church. But Imad Damaj, a professor at VCU and a tireless advocate for interfaith understanding, said, “We do have a master plan. We want to see Richmond united. And one of the things that threatens to divide it is religion.”

That’s true, isn’t it? The same kinds of tensions that once existed between Christians and Jews in this country now exist between Christians and Muslims, and some of the emails that are forwarded to me by well-meaning church members don’t help. But what we did last night helps. Sitting around the tables, breaking bread together, talking about our common struggles, bursting out laughing—these things help us get to know each other and as we do the possibility emerges that one day, if we keep it up, we might learn to love each other,

Just as Christ commanded.

KOH2RVA: Day 149

Personal TrainerMy friend Peter is a personal trainer at the Jewish Community Center.  He is also a committed Christian.  Yesterday he asked me how far he should go with the Great Commission in a place like that.

“Well, that depends,” I answered, “on whether you’re trying to make converts or disciples.

“When you try to make a convert,” I said, “you’re hoping to bring somebody around to your worldview.  You want them to believe all the things you believe.  As a Christian, you might want them to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead, etc.  And if you try to do that here, at the Jewish Community Center, you might lose your job.

“But making a disciple is different,” I said.  “Look at the way Jesus made them: he didn’t ask those fishermen to believe that he was the Son of God, he just asked them to follow him.  It was only after months of listening to him preach and teach, watching him help and heal, that Jesus asked them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’  And that’s when Peter said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!’

“So, why not simply invite people to join you in Christ’s mission, instead of trying to convert them to a Christian worldview?  Eventually they will come to see him for who he really is.”

And then I talked to Peter about his work as a personal trainer.  I said, “You don’t want people to sit out in the lobby and read fitness magazines; you want them to come in here and work out.  You don’t want them only to believe that exercise is good for them; you want them to experience it.  When they do, you won’t have to convince them; they will know it for themselves.  That’s the difference,” I said, “between a convert and a disciple.”

In yesterday’s blog I mentioned Warren and Julie Pierce, who have been helping refugees get resettled here in Richmond.  Today I want to share this invitation from Julie (below) to help out with a massive clothing distribution for New Americans (i.e. refugees) this Saturday.  This could be your opportunity to follow Jesus in discipleship and to invite someone else to come with you.  You don’t have to say, “If you died tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?” (the standard street-corner evangelist’s question).  You can just say, “Hey, I’m going to help distribute clothes to refugees on Saturday…

“Want to come?”

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Dear ones, this is a two part message –

(1) an opportunity for you to bring heaven to earth and

(2) an update on the New American ministry

We appreciate your time in reading this, and also your response whether in person or through much needed prayer.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, NKJV).

We are offering another of our quarterly massive clothing distribution events hosted by Westover Baptist Church, 1000 Westover Hills Boulevard, just across the Nickel Bridge.

Saturday, February 9th

8:00-9:00am Team needed at Outreach Center** to load clothing bins & hanging clothes – transport to Westover BC and unload (trucks/station wagons needed)

9:00-10:30am Set up team needed to unpack and display clothing on tables and on hanging racks

10:30-11:30am Actual event

11:30am-noon Break down – load bins/racks and transport back to Outreach Center, all leftover clothing to Goodwill

12:00-12:30pm Sweep and clean church

All done in ½ day!

Any questions, please respond to this email and if you can volunteer for all or part, thanks for letting us know. If you have donations, you may bring them on that day to Westover BC, however, they must be received during the set up time between 9:00-10:30am. Thanks for bringing dresses, blouses, all coats and men’s shirts on hangers if possible on that day. We are in desperate need of coats, hoodies, sweaters; all sizes, all types. We have very few men’s clothes at this time. Please take a look in your closets and get those to us before February 9th.

**Outreach Center address: 2944 West Marshall St. 23230 3rd building back from corner faces Altamont, yellow w/brown doors.

–Julie Pierce

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Editor’s Note: Julie is being ordained as a deacon tonight.  Do you see what happens when you begin to follow Jesus and work alongside him to bring heaven to earth?  People notice.

KOH2RVA: Day 105

The world did not end yesterday.

Walter R. T. Witschey was right: the Maya calendar simply rolled over from one cycle to the next, as smoothly as the odometer on your car.  According to that calendar, yesterday was 13.0.0.0.0 and today is 13.0.0.0.1.

According to the Gregorian calendar today is December 22, 2012, and according to the Christian calendar tomorrow is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which means that—since the world didn’t end—I need to get busy writing a sermon.

But before I do, let me tell you what happened yesterday, on Day 104 of KOH2RVA (speaking of calendars): our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

I went to jail.

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I told you I was going, and I told you I was going to tell a story.  I did.  I was escorted through a set of iron bars and down a long hallway past the high-security lockdown and the dining hall, up a flight of iron steps and in through another set of iron bars to a room where I found about fifty men in brown jump suits waiting patiently for my arrival.  As I walked in they rose to their feet applauding and, honestly, I looked around to see who they were clapping for.  They didn’t know me.  I hadn’t even been introduced.  Apparently they are so glad to see anybody from the outside that they will clap even for a Baptist preacher.

Father Pruitt, the chaplain, gave a long speech about what a sacrifice I was making, how I was taking time out of my extremely busy schedule to be with them, and how grateful they should be, and then I got to tell my story.

I decided to tell the one about the time my brothers and I accidentally burned down the house while making a volcano in the back yard, but I did say at one point, “Friends, please don’t try this at home and especially don’t try it at the Richmond Jail.”

Let the record show.

It was a funny story and they seemed to enjoy it and at the end I said, “My brothers and I have never told my parents what really happened, and if you don’t tell them they will never know.  So, raise your right hands and repeat after me: I promise…never to tell…Dr. Somerville’s parents…who burned down the house!”

They laughed out loud.

It did feel as if heaven came a little closer to earth yesterday afternoon, in an iron-barred room at the Richmond Jail where inmates became—for a little while—children again, listening to a story.  In that moment I was glad that the world hadn’t come to an end.  I even began to feel hopeful that it might become a better place,

One loving act at a time.

KOH2RVA: Day 87

come inRemember Jeremy and Monica, the church planters who invited their Muslim neighbors over for dinner?  Well, they’re at it again.  Take a look at this letter I got from Jeremy yesterday:

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Meet Sasha:

This past month we connected with a young VCU student who, for the sake of confidentiality, we will call “Sasha.” Sasha is from a Catholic and Eastern Orthodox background. I would describe her as having a “casual respect for God, Jesus and the Bible,” but as having no understanding of who Christ is, or the message of the Bible! She connected with Monica at the VCU Gym and then we had her over for an evening, which turned into an 8-hour conversation!

We ate dinner, and Sasha immediately began asking us about what we believe as “followers of Jesus.” The conversation was an excellent opportunity for us to start to plant seeds about what it means to live by faith and to have a genuine relationship with Christ. After dinner, I went to a meeting and when I came back a few hours later, Sasha was STILL THERE with Monica and she had opened up about so many difficulties in her life and then she opened up to both of us asking for advice concerning her difficulties. So we shared some biblical counsel with her, and then the conversation went back to what it means to be a true follower of Jesus (and, surprisingly enough, SHE is the one who brought the conversation back to that issue too!).

We see her a few times a week at the campus (just interacted with her again last night!). Please be praying for Sasha as she has heard the gospel and is rethinking her own stance towards Christ. Please pray that she will come to a conviction concerning her need to submit and surrender her life to Christ, pray that we will have wisdom, discernment, humility and boldness in our interactions with her!

God is moving, it is SOOOO exciting! The doors are opening! Pray for MORE doors for the gospel to open up, and pray for those who are hearing the gospel, that they may put their faith in Him and that His love may SHINE into their lives!

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One of the things I love about Jeremy and Monica’s approach is the way they offer hospitality to strangers.  When they open the door of their home, they literally open doors of communication and understanding.  And I don’t get the feeling they’re being disingenuous about it—they’re not pretending to be nice in order to convert people to Christianity.  They genuinely love people, all kinds of people, even (or perhaps especially) people who don’t know Jesus.

I think we need to talk about this more on our year-long, every-member mission trip.  How can we practice the kind of radical hospitality that welcomes people into our homes, into our churches, and into our lives?  How can we share with them the hope that is in us, not simply so we can carve another notch on the spines of our Bibles, but because these are people God loves, and because he calls us to love them, too?