8 benefits of spiritual disciplines

I just hit a snag in my sermon-writing. I've got some helpful insights that will bog down the sermon and distract from the main point.

So, as is my tradition, I'm posting those insights here.

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches on 3 familiar spiritual disciplines:
- giving to the needy
- prayer
- fasting

Spiritual disciplines help us grow and transform, to become the people he desires us to be: people capable of "doing the right thing at the right time in the right spirit" (to quote Ortberg).

So, how do these familiar spiritual disciplines help us?

Giving to the needy helps us ...
  1. become more grateful for what we have
  2. become less devoted to what we have
  3. help someone God cares about (don't underestimate the transformative power of mission inclusion)
The practice of prayer helps us ...
  1. demonstrate faith that God is real
  2. demonstrate faith that God is generous
  3. demonstrate faith that God is able to help us
And fasting? Fasting helps us ...
  1. acknowledge dependence on food (human limitedness)
  2. acknowledge dependence on God
So, 3 benefits of giving and 3 benefits of prayer and 2 benefits of fasting ... that 8 benefits for these spiritual disciplines.

Thanks for letting me dump ideas here. Not every good insight has to make it into a sermon!

Campus Applications concerning Immigration

Many of our Christian students have had their thinking about immigration shaped by everything but their faith. Personal experience gets a say, as does upbringing and environment and culture and politics. But faith? What happens when our faith begins to shape our engagement with the immigration conversation?

Here are four campus applications ...

1) We need to reach out to international students

If God has a special concern for immigrants, so should we. Every year, students come to our campuses on visas, move here for school, many knowing no one. They should be on our radar. They should be on our hearts.

Practicing hospitality is the key activity here. Opening up your life and your schedule to international students can make such a huge difference. Many schools have programs designed to connect international students with local hosts. We should make ourselves available. Who knows what God will do?

2) We need to reach out to undocumented students

Whatever you believe about the politics around immigration, undocumented students are some of the most vulnerable students on campus. They struggle to have access to resources that citizen-students and visa-students enjoy. A compassionate response to them honors Jesus, who in wild grace experienced compassion for us when we were trapped in disobedience and rebellion. How can we not, like him, show love to these students?

Educating yourself is a key activity here. I can't more highly recommend Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang. This is an excellent book. A must-read as you educate yourself and your community about undocumented students in your midst.

3) We need to share this material

It makes me so sad to think about how little our faith communities have engaged in the conversation about immigration. A few good conversations could make such a big difference. A voice chimed in at the right moment can help people view this conversation through a biblical lens. A passionate advocate can create a ripple effect, a community of advocacy.

Conversations like this happen all the time on college campuses. Yet these conversations often remain in the abstract and political. And though the political realm has to engage the immigration conversation, God was talking about it first. We can inject a dose of deep God-reality into the conversations about immigration that are already happening on campus. And we can offer students advocacy and ministry experiences that help them to put some action behind their thinking around the immigration conversation.

4) We need to pray

Our campuses face a deep and seductive temptation when it comes to immigration: to welcome only the privileged immigrants to our campuses. Economic demands and historic protocol have paved a pathway of immigration for the wealthy, the already well-educated, and the well-connected. And we need to welcome them. It is wonderful that they can be with us.

But there are immigrants who struggle to access our campuses and struggle to thrive there. And the power that creates these struggles is so deeply entrenched. This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting. And this we can do.

This is the last post in the Short Series: A Biblical Perspective on Immigration. Thanks for reading and sharing!


The Immigrant Church

Every church is called to be an immigrant church.

The concept of an immigrant church may be foreign to you (pardon the pun). There are immigrant churches everywhere. Sometimes they're organized around a non-majority culture language. Sometimes they form around a persecuted community. Sometimes they form around people who have a common formative going-out experience.

In your neighborhood, look for a Korean Presbyterian Church or a Chinese Baptist Church. Look for a church whose services are not in English. They're not too hard to find, if you look carefully.

Immigrant churches have existed through history. German Christians set up shop in England and Spain (Bonhoeffer actually pastored German congregations in both countries). British Christians fled to the Netherlands before they moved to Massachusetts, swindled the locals and gave us Thanksgiving. Immigrants formed churches in Persia and China. Immigrants from Jerusalem planted most of the early Christian churches.

These immigrant churches are easy to identify. Immigrant churches act and look and speak in ways that are distinct from the world around them. And, yet, there's more to being an immigrant church than this.

In 1 Peter 2, the Apostle calls the church to live as foreigners and aliens in the midst of the pagan culture. They are to live distinct lives, present but separate. This distinctiveness is difficult to maintain. This is why Stanley Hauerwas jokes that the church doesn't have to make the world more just, but instead has to make the world the world.

Who knows this better than immigrants? As immigrants struggle with assimilation, they live out a metaphor for every Christian community. Distinct in language, composition and behavior. The distinctiveness that emerges en la idioma que hablamos, also emerges in the way we speak the truth in love and speak the truth to power. It emerges in the make-up of our community. It emerges in how we live our lives.

Immigrants are a gift to the church because the church is called to be an immigrant church. Yet many of us are not immigrants. We live in the places where we grew up. We know the culture and feel comfortable in it. We are so familiar with our surroundings. And when God calls us out, to live as foreigners and exiles, we don't know where to begin.

Thank God for the immigrants in our churches. Whether they know it or not, they teach us important parts of what it looks like to be the church Jesus calls us to be. Without them, we'd be lost. By God's grace, we will always have immigrants in our midst. By God's grace, our churches will be immigrant churches.

This is the eighth post in a Short Series: A Biblical Perspective on Immigration. The next post in this series will be ... Campus Applications concerning Immigration.

Immigration and the Justice of God

There has been a lot of fabulous work done on Old Testament laws that protect immigrants. I would highly recommend you check out Daniel Carroll's book Christians at the Border and Matt Soerens and Jenny Hwang's Welcoming the Stranger.

Without repeating their excellent work, I want to point out one idea when it comes to immigration.

God desires that immigrants be treated justly.

Our temptation, when it comes to justice, is to define justice as "behavior within the law." To treat immigrants with justice, then, may look like protecting them from abuse and arresting them if their documents are out of line.

But the justice of God doesn't assume the law. At least, the justice of God doesn't assume the human law.

When God formed and re-formed and re-re-formed his people, he gave them a new set of laws. The laws God gave his people looked a lot like the laws they already had, the laws of the surrounding culture. Moses has a lot in common with Hammurabi. Paul has a lot in common with Philo. But the law of God always pushed the edges of the law.

Jesus was famous for this.

In his teaching on divorce, he shifted the conversation from "when can a man divorce his wife?" to "when must a man divorce his wife?" In his teaching on neighborliness, he shift the conversation from "to whom must I prove neighbor?" to "to whom can I prove neighbor?"

We can see God's values from his law. When Jesus teaches on the law, he always pushes people to consider the heart and the Person behind it.

This comes through with blinding clarity in Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus teaches that a long list of kind and generous deeds, done for a certain set of people, will be considered as though they had been done for him. See how deeply he identifies with these people. These deeds are done for him. Even if the doers don't realize it.

This principle of identification, which I wrote about yesterday, lies behind and beneath, as a foundation for Jesus' ethic of generosity. Jesus doesn't just tell people to be generous. He tells them why. Be generous to these people because I so closely identify with them that everything you do for them will be, in some mysterious way, done for me.

What does this have to do with immigration?

Buried in the center of this list in Matthew 25 is this phrase: "I was a stranger and you invited me in."

The word "stranger" reverberates back through the Old Testament. In Genesis 15 God's people are called out to be strangers. This is re-affirmed later in Leviticus 25 as they are reminded that they live in the land as strangers. And a few breaths later they are called to help their fellow-strangers.

But the Why behind all this lay obscured in shadow until the right time. When God revealed himself in Christ, the reason behind his legal command for justice for immigrants finally became clear.

This is the seventh post in a Short Series: A Biblical Perspective on Immigration. The next post in this series will be ... The Immigrant Church.

God the Immigrant

Another reason God shows a special concern for immigrants is that, in the fullness of time, he became one himself.

God the Son entered our world in the flesh as Christ Jesus our Lord.

Christian theology claims that God the Son has existed since before the beginning of the world in community with God the Father and God the Spirit, three persons yet mysteriously one God. Their dwelling place - the eternal dwelling place of God - has been called "heaven."

Yet, in a way, God the Son has always been present in our world. God is not absent and has never been absent from his creation. God made the world and sustains it continually. He intervenes in history for our good and for his glory.

In the incarnation of God the Son, however, God became human and entered the world in a new way. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God immigrated to our world.

No cultural divide has ever been greater than that between heaven and earth. 

On the one hand, you have an eternal and pure realm, where God's presence is plainly seen and all acknowledge his rule and reign.

On the other, you have a world created perfectly but broken by sin and death, where stories of God are filled with static and none look to him with love apart from his intervention.

No immigrant has been more unwanted than God the Immigrant. 

Humanity erected a wall of sin, attempting to keep him out. Yet he still entered our world.

His entire generation was persecuted, as Herod slaughtered children right and left attempting to stave off a shift in the balance of political power. Jesus' parents then were forced to leave Israel and spend years as refugees in Egypt, later settling in Nazareth (away from home) for fear of persecution.

All his life, Jesus was labeled as an outsider, from Nazareth, a Galilean.

And ultimately, he was executed without justice, the most horrible deportation ever.

No immigrant has ever had a harder experience.

But the Bible says that Jesus did what he did for the joy set before him.

God became an immigrant because he loved the world.
God became an immigrant for us and for our salvation.
God became an immigrant to enter into the story of Israel.

God became an immigrant.

This is the sixth post in a Short Series: A Biblical Perspective on Immigration. The next post in this series will be ... Immigration and the Justice of God.

God shows special concern for immigrants

What sort of religion does God our Father accept as pure and faultless?

James 1:27 has the answer: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

These are core concepts in biblical ethics: God's people are called to live holy lives and God's people are supposed to take care of the vulnerable. It's this idea of "care of the vulnerable" that I want to focus in on tonight.

The Bible doesn't just leave us with a vague prescription to care for the vulnerable (though the principle can be expanded later, if you want). The Bible gets specific with three classes that God singles out for special charitable attention.

What are those three classes?

Widows and orphans, to start off with. #1 and #2. Right off the bat.

So, what's #3?

You've read the title to this post. You know the answer.

Widows and orphans and immigrants.

Now, we often ignore this third protected class. In part, this is because of the above-mentioned verse. If God has a special concern for immigrants and wants his people to go and do likewise, why do we hear about widows and orphans but not immigrants in James 1:27?

The answer is quite simple: James 1:1. James address his entire letter to "the twelve tribes scattered among the nations." People debate whether this means that this letter was only written for Jews or for Jewish Christians or whether the "twelve tribes" language is metaphorical for the church.

Whatever you believe, James was writing to people who were scattered. James was writing to people living "among the nations." He was writing to immigrants.

In fact, throughout the Bible, God seems to pay a lot of attention to immigrants. He noticed the oppression of a group of immigrants in Egypt and set them free (through immigration). He arranged the laws of Israel to protect immigrants. He intervened in the lives of immigrants to bring healing and life.

But why? Why does God care about immigrants?

The immigrant experience resonates with the bigger story of humanity. We are all living in exile, refugees, trying to make our way in a dry and thirsty land. The frame of the biblical narrative tells a story of a people who left their home and returned to it after many, many generations. Your ancestors may have left Cuba or Mexico or China, but before that it was Eden. We fell and how great was that fall!

This idea extends to all of the protected classes: a woman separated from her husband, a child separated from parents, a person separated from home. These all stand in for the human condition: separated from relationship with God, from his protection and from his presence.

Few, in our society would encourage the abandonment of widows. Instead, we extend the category to include single moms and folks who have experienced divorce and abandonment. We go out of our way as a Christian community to take care of them, to show them love and compassion.

Likewise with orphans. You'll never hear a pastor say "Let those orphans take care of themselves." Instead, we have Orphan Sundays and celebrate adoption.

And all this is well and good and pleases God. Because God cares for these people.

What would it look like for us to go and do likewise with immigrants?

This is the fifth post in a Short Series: A Biblical Perspective on Immigration. The next post in this series will be ... God the Immigrant.