Love gets to know people

I have had a few nicknames conveyed by coaches and youth groups – Sledgehammer, Turquoise, Dr. P, Abraham Lincoln (it’s a long story about seminary Greek and a blizzard), Dr. P, P, P-Funk, Triple P and one of my favorite swim team coaches called my brother “Purdue” and me “Purdon’t”.  

If you had a spiritual nickname, what would it be? What would the faith community call you? Jesus nicknamed James and John “sons of thunder” (Mark 3) and called Peter “the Rock”. God renamed Jacob from “guy who trips you up,” to Israel “one who strives.” Tabitha whose life “overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need” means “gracious”. (Acts 9) In Acts 4, the whole church confers a nickname on “Joseph, whom the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (that is, “one who encourages”).” Barnabus was a Levite from Cyprus, who sold a field and gave the proceeds to the church to eradicate poverty. 

 It is no surprise that a person nicknamed “one who encourages” was deeply generous. James tells us that words of encouragement offered without real world help are not worth too much. (James 2) What good does it do to say “be blessed” if people need a coat, a chance, or documents? Giving always accompanies genuine encouragement. Giving and encouragement begin with seeing the other person. Good gift givers take the time to get to know what a person loves, needs, or wants. They give first by listening and learning. My daughter in law gave me a dog frisbee and a bow tie for Father’s Day, perfect gifts for me but maybe not for a cat dad. Generosity, encouragement, and community begin with our seeking to understand the other person, group or perspective. Love gets to know people. Perhaps we do not think often enough about how God‘s self-giving begins at Christmas as God comes into the world and takes on the nickname “Emmanuel,” God with us. (Matthew 1) In Christ God comes alongside humanity by becoming one of us.  God so loved the world, God gives God’s very self to the world. 

Sometimes we rush in to help and slap on what we see as a solution, without honoring the person we want to help by learning their story.  It hurts whenever someone fails to see us. Hospitality welcomes us for who we are, trusting God alone to judge. (Matthew 7) There once was a teenager, who dropped out of school, almost living on the streets, who started coming to our country church. They dressed in grunge or maybe early Goth with boxy ripped black oversized jeans with tassels dragging the ground, black shirt, safety pin piercing, jet black hair, and black eyeliner. A well-meaning church member bought them new church clothes. The do-gooder was heartbroken and confused when the teen walked out in anger without even opening the second Dillard’s gift box. Again adrift from the church the teen shared, “I guess I need to be someone else to fit in here.” Who has made space for you- deeply welcoming you for who you are? Love always makes room, hears stories, and strives to make everyone welcomed. Love asks, “what do you want for dinner; what do you want to do, what can I do to help you feel at home?”  Love is not stuck in its own thing, own culture, or own way. Love gives itself away. God’s love embraces all cultures, foods, music, and needs. Love sees and embraces the other person’s sacred worth before anything else.  

During seminary, I lived and learned in Chicago with a group of folks in recovery and temporary housing during a cold January. On my last day at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, I stepped into our cafeteria and Mike, our resident cook, came out from the kitchen banging a pan with a metal spoon and announced to everyone that our meal of fried chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes was in my honor. And then he laughed and said, “Don’t worry, Paul, I grew up in Arkansas; I know how to fry chicken better than your mama.” I have rarely felt so undeservedly honored. Love sees us and strives to make us feel at home.

“To live up to their name, local churches must be continually moving out, extending themselves into the world, being the missional, witnessing community we were called into being to be: the manifestation of God’s going into the world, crossing boundaries, proclaiming, teaching, healing, loving, serving and extending the reign of God. In short, churches need to keep adventuring or they will die.” Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Just as God came into the world in Jesus, Jesus tells us, “Go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.” (Matthew 22) 

One of the stranger images in the Bible is Jesus slipping off his tuxedo jacket and putting on an apron to wash the disciples’ feet. Jesus flips the narrative of work parties, being the one who serves in the hardest dirtiest job. Jesus saw their feet. After washing our feet, Jesus calls us to love just as radically. It always amazes me how when we deeply love, changing a diaper can become a beautiful act. We raise our voices and talk like a baby, “Oh you made a little stinky… oh you’re a good baby!” It is not that bussing tables, changing diapers, or making peace is easy or odor free work but maybe such self-giving is the root of all holy work.  

Deuteronomy’s command to celebrate God’s presence with feasting is repeated three times, repeating God’s joyous “Celebrate” theme and adding party planning essentials: “celebrate in the presence of the Lord your God—you, your sons, your daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites who live in your cities, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows who are among you.” All means all. The command is to welcome everyone to the party, invite everyone to come and celebrate God’s presence. Jesus tells us that when we throw a party, don’t invite those who can invite you right back. No, “Go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.” (Matthew 22) Love never excludes. How can we be happy knowing someone is not welcomed at the table? Remember, God loved the world so deeply as to come and live with us, taking on the nickname “Emmanuel” or God with us. (Matthew 1) Exclusive clubs or churches are sad places, always measuring and judging who belongs. You always need to worry if they might throw you out next. They build walls to keep people out. The religious folks could never seem to understand how Jesus could hang out with those they considered less than themselves from immigrants to party people. Love keeps no one out. Love tears down every dividing wall. (Ephesians 2) Go celebrate in the presence of the Lord your God—in you, in your sons, in your daughters, in your non-binary children, in the Levites who live in your cities, in the immigrants, in the grieving and in the single folks. See them. Get to know them. See their sacred worth. Love them. Invite them.  Welcome them. Don’t judge. (Matthew 7) Know they have something to give. Try the hand ground tortillas- they taste like heaven. Value what your guests bring to God’s party. See them.  

I worked for the American Cancer Society for 18 months right out of college.  We borrowed what seemed to be the largest tent in the US Army for a chili cook-off! A group of managers, dentists, teachers, and the vice mayor gathered to erect the tent along with a van load of trustee volunteers and an officer from the county jail. The tent loomed before us like an unassembled canvas Stonehenge; we waited for instructions!  We had planned for two National Guard soldiers to guide us, but they were called out to help with a disaster somewhere else. Not to worry, our unit chair had secured her next-door neighbor, a retired general to lead us. When informed of his command, the embarrassed general confessed to the volunteers that “Generals really don’t put up tents.” We were in trouble, plenty of worker bees, but no idea what to do. There was no such thing as YouTube to see a video trainer! When it was clear our band of doctors, lawyers and the vice mayor had no ideas, I decided to go and visit our incarcerated friends. Stepping over to the light blue jumpsuits, the trustees spoke with one voice, “Clarence knows how to erect this tent.” Spotting hope, the general joined me asking, “Soldier, Where did you serve?”  Clarence and the General then exchanged military jargon that eluded me, but the General spun around and announced to the surprised upper middle-class community leaders, “Clarence is going to tell us what to do.”  The bishop us at ordination “take thou authority.” Clarence took authority, stepping front and center, standing straight and barking clear and direct orders.  The general grabbed a side pole and fell into the line of blue jumpsuits without being told. And after we were all aligned, Clarence commanded, “all right, all right people, on my count,” and in 15 minutes the tent was up and we were enjoying pizza and ice cold Cokes on a beautiful October evening. The relieved general thanked each trustee as they got on the van, adding “good job, corporal” to a smiling Clarence who may still be telling a version of this story.  See people. Don’t judge them.  Those you think you are serving, may have what you really need. Hebrews 13 tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

See people. Get to know them. Love them. Celebrate God’s presence in them. Love leaves no one out!  Love knows everyone has something to offer to God’s Kindom party. Amen.

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