Unto the Least of These

I was shopping today at a big name general merchandise store, just waiting my turn in line to checkout. There was a lady with her two daughters checking out at the register. When she saw the total, she grimaced a little and then asked the cashier to start pulling items off… healthy snacks for lunches… bread…. a couple more items…. From the look on her face and the reaction of her girls, I surmised this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Then a man in line asked the clerk to put the items back on the bill and he would cover the difference. Such a simple act. From his appearance, it wasn’t much for him (about $12). Maybe he’d have to miss a takeout meal this week and eat a sandwich instead. The woman was grateful, of course, and the kids were happy. Life went on.

Later on, as I reflected on this simple event, I started to wonder, what if the woman and her girls hadn’t been nicely dressed and pretty? Would the man still have helped? What if they’d spoken a different language? What if their ancestors had come from a different continent than his? What if they’d been tattooed and pierced? What if she had, in her embarrassment, lashed out in anger at the clerk?

My thoughts then drifted to how often I go into the world among people and never see them as people. I get out of my truck and go shopping as if on a mission. The people around me don’t come to my attention unless it’s as a distraction or interruption of my mission.

Jesus said:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV)

Notice He did not say ‘if it’s convenient’, nor did he say ‘make sure to pay your taxes so there are programs for the poor’. I also don’t think He meant for our helping to necessarily be something special we go out of our way to do. He meant for our attitude to be one of always looking for ways to help those around us. I’m sure that the list He gave is incomplete and also that those who are sick and in prison are not always in an institution. What about the prison of hate or anger or pain? What about the sickness of loneliness or strife?

May God help us all to get out of our shell of self-centeredness and notice those around us, and give us the love and grace for them that He has given to us.

Losing My Religion

While in a truck stop the other day, a song from the past that I have always detested played over the muzak. I’m not sure I’ve ever understood the song or even really listened to it much. The line that has always bothered me is;

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it

R.E.M. ‘Losing My Religion’ 1991

But when I heard it yesterday, I realized that is exactly what God wants me to do, lose MY religion.

re·li·gion – noun \ri-ˈli-jən\

: the belief in a god or in a group of gods
: an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
: an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group

All the trappings of religion get in the way of just loving, and being loved by, God. To the religious leaders of His day, Jesus said: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.  Matthew 23:23-24 (NIV). To another leader who was trying to justify himself and make sure hadn’t missed a rule, Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV)

I want to think that following a list of rules brings me closer to God. It’s easy to measure my progress if I have a checklist to check off. I like hard and fast do this, don’t do that. And while lists and rules may be helpful at times to bring a sense of order to the amorphous command of ‘Love God and your neighbor’, it becomes way too easy to stop at the end of the list and think I’ve done my best.

The main thing I’ve learned over my journey the last six months is that it’s not about action, it’s about my heart. I can do all the right things and have a heart as cold as stone. I find it much harder to have a heart that is tuned into God and still want to behave badly. When I am spending time and energy focused on God, I tend to see that the right actions flow naturally from my heart. So, it’s not about my religion and my rules and trying to please God. It’s about being in touch with Him and learning to think and feel in the way He does. It’s about love.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8 (NIV)