Friday, November 17, 2023

Let's Stop Being Nice

Luke 10:25-48

Tomorrow, I will be teaching the story of the Good Samaritan. This is one of the most challenging stories for me to read, teach, or preach. The difficulty is that when I sit down to read it, I think I already know what it means, but I don't. And when I stand up to talk about it, the people I'm talking to think they already know what it means, but they don't.

When I sit down to read it, or when I stand up to talk about it, my assumption, and I'm afraid that the general assumption of those I'm talking to is this: Jesus wants us to be nice to people.

That's how I remember hearing the story taught in Sunday School, and I've never recovered. I still hear it as Jesus saying, "Be nice."

For the most part, in this culture we have seen Christianity as something that makes us nice. We want our children to be Christians, not so they'll be passionate disciples in the kingdom of God, living by kingdom standards, choosing careers of service and sacrifice, but so they'll be nice.

Jesus did not say, "Follow me, and I'll make you nice." He did not say, "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him be nice and follow me." He did not call us to make us nice. The Holy Spirit of God did not fall from Heaven on the Day of Pentecost to make the church nice. The God of all the Universe came to dwell within us to transform us into distinctive people who reflect his glory in how we live, love, serve, and sacrifice.

Sometimes I think we have anesthetized the tyrannosaurus rex of the Christian life, trimmed his claws, pulled his teeth, and turned him into a mindless purple dinosaur that sings: I love you, you love me, we're a happy family…" There is no more power, danger, risk, strength, or energy to Christian love in this culture. This stuff we deal with is so anemic that it would never have sent Jesus to the cross. It's just nice.

And the parable of the Good Samaritan does not simply call us to be nice.
So, my task this week, as I approached this text, was to listen, to hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan again, and to let it call me to something more than being nice to people.

Jesus is talking about big things – eternal life, God's kind of life, the kind of like we know in the coming age. He's talking about one of the two most important principles by which any person will ever guide his or her life – the 2nd greatest commandment––loving a neighbor as we love ourselves. He's talking about the kind of life God wishes to build into us by painfully extracting it from us.

Jesus is talking about a life of extravagant compassion, wild, risk-taking love, and selfless abandonment. He's talking about living with a definition of humanity in the image of God that obliterates all the false and fearful boundaries we erect to keep others out of our lives. He's talking about seeing the world in a totally different way. He's teaching us that the way of life we are now pursuing only approximates what we were created for. He is not teaching us to be nice.

Jesus is using this story to penetrate the false self I erect around me to protect me and to tell myself that I am doing well. I love those who love me. I love the loveable and the lovely. I love those who are easy to love. I love those I know. I love those who are like me. I love those who are convenient to love. I love those who can repay my love. I love those who cost me little. I try to be a nice person.
Jesus' story insists that I look inside for something else – the self-protective, demanding part of me that has not yet been changed into the image of Christ and does not yet reflect his character. The story asks me to see that he intentionally shapes me into a kingdom citizen. This work of the heart creates compassionate, selfless, boundless, risk-taking servants of God. Not nice people. 

The story of the Good Samaritan, rightly read, leaves me hurting. I know how much my behavior and attitude reflect more closely the responses of the priest and the Levite. I know how little it costs me to love the people I allow in my life. I know how little risk-taking is involved in such love. I know how much I get back from it. 

The story of the Good Samaritan, rightly read, leaves me yearning for more of Jesus in my life. I hear that story and want to clear out space in my life for wounded people. But my life is so crowded with nice people and with being nice to people. I fill up my schedule with being nice. Nothing radical, risky, costly, or challenging in the way of love. I have no doubt that Jesus' life perfectly reflected the behavior demonstrated by the Samaritan. When I was wounded and sinful, he did what the Samaritan did. I yearn to have such a heart and such a life in me.

The story of the Good Samaritan, rightly read, leaves me changed. I don't become nicer. I see people differently. I regard people differently. They are all travelers. All bear the image of God. All are people for whom Christ died. Their wounds beckon me to help. Their needs place demands on my resources, time, and effort. I can't use my religion as an excuse for remaining distant and preoccupied. The second commandment is more demanding than that. The story changes me when I read it rightly. 

The story of the Good Samaritan, rightly read, simply turns my world upside down. It says that the world is not the way I think it is. Gang members and child-molesters, homosexuals dying of AIDS, alcoholics and drug addicts, pushers, pimps, prostitutes, liars, cheats, adulterers – all those that I and my culture label, objectify, marginalize, and ignore – are people the second commandment calls on me as a follower of Jesus to love extravagantly.

It also includes those I, in my pride, look down on as not so bright or too dull to hang around, those whose agendas differ from mine, and those who oppose, ignore, judge, or even hate me. The second commandment does not have boundaries outside of which are people I am not expected to love as neighbors.

So here I am, trying to read this parable rightly, knowing that I'm also going to be required to teach it to nice people who think that's about the extent of what it calls for. I could prepare a lesson that encourages us, in light of the nice behavior of the Samaritan, to be nicer to the people around us. That wouldn't be a bad thing. We could do with more nice people. 

Or I could make an effort to set the parable on fire and invite others to stand with me and watch it burn, to feel its intense heat and to shield our eyes against its light, and to allow it to consume our bland obedience to the second commandment and to enflame our hearts with attitudes and behaviors that look more like Jesus than those we brought to our class on Sunday morning.

But such an effort would require us to acknowledge that God is serious about transforming our lives. He does really intend us to be something other than nice. 
So, I think that instead of making that kind of effort, I will just tell my class what I struggle with as I read this story. It's not a nice story. It puts a twist in my comfortable way of living. It calls me to be a different kind of person––not nice, but sacrificially compassionate, boundlessly generous, passionately merciful–– something with power, life, and joy. 

Friday, July 07, 2023

 On Earth As It Is in Heaven

Jesus preached, “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mark 1:15; Matt. 4:17). The kingdom has, in fact, “come to you” (Matt 12:28; Lu. 11:20). At the same time, he taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10; Luke 11:2). Matthew’s version of that prayer contains a parallel statement following: “your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Since COVID-19 kept us home and introduced us to Zoom meetings, Melinda and I have been gathering most mornings with a group of friends to pray together. We end our prayer time by praying the Lord’s Prayer together in the beautiful cacophony of everyone unmuted on Zoom. As do millions of Christians worldwide each day, we pray those simple words of Jesus. And we ask God to cause the kingdom of God to come and to cause the will of God to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The kingdom of God is the realm in which God’s effective reign extends, and his will is done (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 25).  Jesus said that the kingdom is already here. Yet, he said that we should pray for it to come and for God’s will to be done on Earth, here and now, as it is in heaven. He does not mean that we should pray for it to come into existence, but for it to “take over at all points in the personal, social, and political order where it is now excluded: ‘On earth as it is in heaven’” (Willard, p. 26)

I long understood the petition “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as purely eschatological,  expressing a longing for that day when the kingdom is present in its fullness, and Christ reigns over all the Earth (Rev. 11:15) ––the time when the knowledge of the glory God will fill the Earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). It is a maranatha prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus!” It is hopeful, eschatological praying. Prayed like this, it is the long prayed, faithful entreaty of the church that has been offered to God worldwide thousands of times each day as devout disciples have used Jesus’ words to pray. But it remains an unanswered prayer. 

I think I have only partially understood that petition when I have thought of it like this. I’ve come to believe that this is a prayer God is constantly answering.

What does it mean to pray that God’s kingdom would come and that God’s will would be done on Earth as it is in heaven when that kingdom is already present? What if God, who has promised to answer the faithful prayers of the people of God, responds to this petition daily as it is prayed by Christ’s followers around the world with a resounding, “Yes, I will! Amen! So be it!” What if God’s kingdom comes daily, powerfully, in response to that prayer? What if God’s will is being done on Earth as it is in Heaven had we eyes to see it?

I am sometimes a news junkie, which can be depressing. Given the limited time to report their stories, news agencies on both ends of the political spectrum consistently report the worst of human behavior, with an occasional positive “human interest story” thrown in. But is that the way the world really is? My daughter, who studied journalism, remarked that it’s only news because it is not normal. If all the violence, corruption, inhumanity, and injustices reported ever became the norm, they would cease to be news. That helps.

With a bit of holy imagination, we can see God answering that prayer daily, on Earth as it is in Heaven. More than eight billion people walk this Earth today. Many suffer from disease, poverty, war, hunger, and oppression. Yet even those are not excluded from the presence of the kingdom (Matt. 5:1–11).  What is not reported, and so must be imagined, is the evidence for the kingdom’s presence, the many billions of places where God’s will is done daily. How many acts of sacrificial obedience are offered by people of faith? How many say “yes” to God with their time, money, homes, experience, sweat, blood, and tears? How many acts of kindness are done in homes among family members, workplaces between friends, and public places for strangers? How many words of encouragement are spoken each day? How many sick ones are cared for? How many homeless are sheltered? How many prisoners find respite from their loneliness through the care of a chaplain or volunteer? How many hungry ones are fed? The list could go on and on. The will of God is being done on Earth as it is in Heaven. The kingdom of God comes. God answers this prayer.

It is still good to pray for the kingdom's coming to its fullness in God’s good time. But we do well to recall that the Lord’s Prayer focuses on the here and now. We need our daily bread here and now, this day. We need to forgive and be forgiven today. The trials and temptations from which we require deliverance will be in our path today. Why would this first petition not focus on the here and now? We pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done “on earth,” here and now, today. We want the effective range of God’s will to be extended to all those places where it is not currently operating: the wars and violence, the oppression and injustice, the pain and grief and disease. But we also want to express the kingdom in our lives as we live out of Christlike love, walk humbly with God, depending on the Holy Spirit, and express God’s will with our everyday, ordinary words and actions. 

Our kind words to family members or strangers today will never make the evening news. But they are answers to the prayer. Generosity with our time and knowledge, and goods will make no headlines, but the will of God will be done on Earth. Billions of times in billions of ways, God’s will is done by people each day. The world about us, despite the reports, is filled with people who do love each other. Some love strangers. Some even love their enemies. These acts of love and ten thousand others bear witness to the reality of a different kingdom, another culture––one produced by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is how it is in Heaven, and so it is being done on Earth.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Revolution Has Begun

 I have sometimes thought of spring like a conversion––Paul on the Damascus Road. A field I have driven past all winter is suddenly and without warning painted in colors of green, yellow, pink, and blue. Overnight, it seems. The new life of spring, green and fresh, supplants last year's old life, depleted and dried.

It isn't really like that, although it appears that way through my driver's side window. Up close, it looks very different. Spring, it turns out, does not magically appear overnight, but sneaks up slowly before the surprise attack.

I walked for an hour in the prairie this morning and noticed the evidence of the coming insurrection. Scanning the fields, I could see only the brown, dried stalks of little bluestem, switchgrass, side oats, camphor weed, and scores of other grasses and forbs that once bloomed and flourished but now stood brittle and lifeless.


However, beneath the cover of those old stalks, something else is taking place. A green carpet is beginning to spread, preparing to burst into colors and reclaim the fields in a glorious revolution that happens every spring. 

Texas Ragwort is springing up, forming its blossoms, preparing to cover the prairie in bright yellow, and hosting bees and wasps and butterflies. 


Dakota Mock Vervain, one of the first blooms to show up each year, is already opening its tiny, pink and purple flowers and staking spring's claim. 



Bluebonnets, which showed up with their little Mickey Mouse ear sprouts in December, are now spreading and expanding, eager to make Texans proud in a few weeks. 

Yellow Corydalis aurea, also known as Scrambled Eggs, has already appeared.


As has the Western Tansy Mustard.


I think renewal is often like this. I wait for the sudden conversion in my life or my world, which seldom comes. Instead, evidence of the new life shows up here and there, beautiful and small but indicative of the powerful force that is driving it to the surface, a sign of so much more to come. 

I don't mean to sound maudlin, but it strikes me that as I watch my sixty-ninth spring dawn around me, I will get to witness a finite, small, and diminishing number of those in my life. Once, they seemed ordinary and plentiful. They are not. I hope to observe this revolution in detail, gratefully and affectionately. 

Monday, February 22, 2021



Snow-on-the-Prairie is a species of Euphorbia that blooms in Texas in September. We've seen it in fields around the Hill Country. But last week we had snow on the prairie in a way we had not seen. Winter storm Uri scattered the white stuff all over our fields.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Square Meter Project: Week 3

 Things have not changed much in the square meter I'm monitoring in the prairie. But today, things were dewy and damp, leaving jewel-like droplets on the grasses. The sparkling bluebonnet leaves in the square meter were replicated throughout the prairie as I walked through this January morning.

Crested Caracara

Mock Vervain

Big Bluestem

Peeling Puffball

Most of these are Sandy Land Bluebonnets






Little Bluestem in the Square Meter

Sandy Land Bluebonnets in the Square Meter