Back in mid November, the Syrian refugee crisis was at the forefront of the US news media. Like many others, I responded to this situation, offering my opinion and perspective publicly, on social media and privately. I am a passionate person. It is at times my greatest blessing and at others my greatest curse. I am deeply passionate about the Gospel, my family and people. I am deeply in love with Jesus and want to be someone who lives the Gospel message and the Kingdom of God to its fullest.
In all fairness, there are a lot of different opinions on this issue. In my passion for these refugees, people who Jesus loves deeply and called “the least of these,” I got myself into some trouble. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last. Anytime my words or actions genuinely hurt someone, I feel remorse. It is not my intent; it is not the posture of my heart. In the case of social media, I can see where some of my commentary on this issue in November could be taken in such a way and for that I do feel great remorse. I certainly lost Facebook friends and I understand and respect their decision, but personally I do not take differences of opinion (or social media for that matter) that seriously.
The problem since then has been that as a result I have felt some guilt (guilt of any kind is not of God) over this issue and the backlash from it. While I know I should not feel guilty and should not feel badly about trying to stick up for the least of these (See Matthew 25:31-46), I did. Then today happened. My heart has been changed once again.
I am currently on a trip in Greece and Turkey. It is an educational trip and is my primary continuing education experience for this year. The trip is the journeys of Paul, referring to the Apostle Paul. We are traveling Greece and Turkey as the scripture comes alive as we see, learn more about and experience these very places where Paul did ministry and wrote the bulk of the New Testament. The trip has been educational and meaningful, but the most powerful experience so far came at a highway rest stop of all places. As we stopped to use the facilities and get some coffee, there were three large busses at the rest stop. They were all full. The people on those busses were not tourists like our group, rather they were all Syrian refugees. They are mostly traveling from Syria to Germany where they have the possibility of being welcome and accepted.
We had the chance to speak to and pray for some of them. I watched on my way to the restroom as they lined up in front of police officers for rations of fruit and other food to be given to them. They were almost all families and there were at least as many kids as adults, if not more. Other than a slightly different skin tone, and some different clothing on about 1/3 of the women, they were just like me: parents with kids the same age as my own and some even younger. My heart broke for them. I saw in them the very face of Jesus, just like Jesus commanded us in Matthew 25:31-46; whatever you do for the least of these, you did it for me. God loves these people. So do I. It could have been me, could have been my family. I could only begin to imagine as I walked around what it must be like for those parents who are falling into an awful situation beyond their control. I tried to reflect on what it would feel like to have nothing, to need to find a new place to live, new work, new home and all the while to care for my children and keep them safe. It broke my heart. Then all of a sudden it came together for me. I really should stop feeling bad for myself and should rid my heart of any guilt in sticking up for the refugees. While my words may have been imperfect in that (and still will be here), these are God’s children with no different status than I have in the eyes of God.
One of the personal takeaways from this trip so far was the boldness of Paul in his faith and ministry and its impact. I doubt I would be a follower of Jesus without the ministry of Paul. My first mentor and adult most responsible for me coming to know Jesus often compared me to him, mostly for my blunt presentation of the truth and passion for Jesus and the Gospel. Paul was unapologetically bold about and for Jesus and the Gospel. Today over 90% of Greece is Christian. His legacy certainly lives there. Yet it is hard to be bold. You make enemies. You get hurt. You get attacked. People say terrible, hurtful and inaccurate things about you, mostly behind your back, because we as Christians have ignored all Jesus and Paul have taught us about conflict and gossip. Paul did not worry about self-esteem or worth. He did not measure himself at all by how he felt or what people thought about him. He only looked at himself through the eyes of Christ. The truth is that Jesus’ call in Matthew to care for the least of these is no joke. Jesus cares deeply about the least, the last and the lost, more so even than those who are followers of him; the Gospels are clear about this fact. Jesus who also was a refugee cares about the refugees.
He tells us that at the time of judgment he will separate his sheep from the goats and a big part of the measure will be based on how we treat the least of these. We have failed in living the Gospel. We have failed as a church of Jesus Christ. We have failed as a country. I have failed as a Christ follower. We are not living out the Gospel, especially when it comes to the least of these. The refugees are a stark reminder of that.
We do not talk about these things though. Rather we just regurgitate what we hear from the news media, our favorite opinion channel, political party or perspective. The truth is that this is not a political issue; it is a Biblical one. It is a Gospel issue. We live in worry, fear and hatred instead of love, grace and mercy. We make assumptions without any real accurate information and perspective. We put our own needs and desires ahead of others, which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus did and taught us to do. It is funny, because every time I am on a plane, there is one point where I shake my head. It is when the flight attendant tells the passengers that in an emergency they should help themselves before helping the person next to them. I get the rationale and it is probably right in terms of safety, though there is no way I would follow those instructions if I am with my family and something happens. Though their rationale is right, it is not the Gospel.
The truth is our political perspective on the refugees is not at all consistent with the Gospel. That is a problem. Of course there are challenges and issues and we must be wise and safe; that is not the point of my reflection. The irony is that the one country these refugees are trying to get to is Germany, because they are accepting them there (with papers etc). It is ironic because in Germany years ago, the Nazis attempted to kill an entire religion and ethnicity during the Holocaust. It is interesting how history comes around. At the start of the Holocaust when the Jews were fleeing Germany and other countries, they wanted to come to the US. We did not want them to come because we were not sure they were safe, we were worried they would take our jobs and thought that there could be people who would hurt us. We would later lead a force to defeat the Nazi party, but not until after millions of Jews died. In the Holocaust the church was as culpable as anyone else, in Germany and across the world. We have continually failed to live the Gospel to the least, especially if they look, live or believe differently than we do. I guess I can only be thankful that Jesus has not taken that posture towards us.
We have failed to live the Gospel, but we can do better. We must do better. We can change the world. The Gospel and Jesus can be known to the whole world. Lives, families, communities and countries can be changed. Paul was bold enough do it. Jesus has given us all we need to live it. Will we be different, or will we continue to repeat our history of failing to live up to the Gospel living that Jesus called us to?
I am a father. I love my children. They are my universe. Jesus is the only one I love more than my children and if I am honest, that may not always be the case sometimes. I look into the eyes of those suffering refugee parents and children, real people, and I see myself. I see my wife. I see my children. Above all else I see the least of these.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
Come Holy Spirit come.
Give us, give me the boldness of Paul. May your church rise up and live your Gospel, making the Kingdom of God a reality on our earth.
Amen and Amen.