Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections


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Lebron, Moses, and Ingrid

Update on Driving Miss Caroline: Miss Caroline is now driving outside our cloistered neighborhood! Overall, she is doing extremely well, although she nearly went through a stop sign the other day. To offer the other drivers a heads-up and to give Caroline some reassurance (Seriously, she thought this was a good idea), I fashioned some over-sized STUDENT DRIVER signs for the front and rear windshield. Oh, they will see Caroline coming now!

What is this? As of late, I have been dominating the big TV at home watching the NBA playoffs. Over the years, I have come to admire Lebron James. Yes, he is as fast, strong, and as scary as Marshawn Lynch running at you. Plus, his basketball IQ is off the charts and his skills are beyond formidable. Yet, what most fascinates me about Lebron is his iron will to win. His refusal to lose reminds me of Michael Jordan. This season is, perhaps, his most remarkable as he carries his mostly mediocre teammates to the NBA championship finals. This is his eighth trip in a row. His not-quite-adequate teammates play out of fear, awe, and obedience to the King. Seeing his game-face, I would do the same. What gives this athletic phenom this iron will and weighty personality? Sports Illustrated detailed his childhood as a time of deprivation and high anxiety. Every 3-6 months, he and his wife will go for what they call “the drive”. What they do is return to their childhood locations to remember their roots, all they’ve been through, and to recall again with gratitude the opportunities they’ve been given.

What does this mean? The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is the great faith chapter, where the author reminisces and ruminates about the heroes of the faith like Sarah and Abraham, David and Rahab, Joshua and Noah. According to the author, what sets these saints apart is their faith that is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for”. There is also something at play I will call the “Lebron Factor”. There is this iron will, a refusal to turn back, a weightiness of the soul. Knowing the frailty and fallibility of humanity, I don’t believe for a moment these qualities are all innate or learned by example. No, the kind of gravitas (Cool word, huh?) the writer of Hebrews is extolling comes the hard way; experience, failure, deprivation, and, most of all, a history of knowing God is faithful. Maybe every worship is similar to Mr. and Mrs. Lebron’s “the drive” as we return to the sanctuary to remember and rehearse the story of our salvation. Moses is the OT Lebron. Maybe he didn’t really want the job as Liberator and so what if he wasn’t Toastmaster material. Yet, once at the helm of the Exodus there was no turning back. Through plagues of blood and locusts, Pharaoh’s armies drowning in the Red Sea, grumbling and mutiny from within the ranks of the chosen people, and even arguments with God, Moses refused to quit. His grace-filled gravitas and weighty soul were instrumental in delivering this stiff-necked herd all the way to the Promised Land.

What is the takeaway? Ingrid Parrish was a small, fragile package of a person, yet within there was a titanium will, a substantial soul, and GRANDE gravitas. When Ingrid wanted something, I’d put her unyielding game-face up against Lebron’s and her perseverance over against Moses any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I wonder if even God sits up and takes notice when Ingrid speaks. My favorite Ingrid story was when I saw her at a nursing home. She was in and out of consciousness, as her life was slipping away. I came into her room, quietly said some prayers, and was making a hasty retreat, when I heard a scratchy voice, “Communion”. At first, I looked around, thinking maybe this was an orderly who smoked too much or even an angel of the Lord with laryngitis. Then I heard it again, “Communion”. It was Ingrid, she of iron will and sheer-force-of-personality, as if to say, “Not so fast, Pastor Hasty! This dying soul still requires you to bring me the body and blood of my Savior. Soon, I will be in his heavenly company. But, right now, I must share sweet communion with the Bread of Life”. It was only fitting that I presided at three different funeral services for her: once on board a Washington State ferry, once at our home church, and once at the retirement home where she lived. Her daughter had a hard time letting go. If the Letter to the Hebrews had been written more recently, I think Ingrid might have made the final cut. Thanks be to God for the weighty souls we meet in this life, for they reflect the relentless, steadfast grace of Christ Jesus.

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Driving Miss Caroline

What is this? My fifteen year-old daughter, Caroline, has started driver’s education! Up to now she has driven in our empty church parking lot and the adjoining car-forsaken dead end street. Now she has her learner’s permit and Caroline is ready to be unleashed on the highways, byways, and ruthless roundabouts in our neighborhood. The problem is dear-old Dad is not ready for Caroline to pilot my car in prime time. I was looking for some back-up at the parents orientation when I asked “It’s probably a good idea to wait until our student has had a couple of supervised drives with you before we really turn them loose, don’t you think”? Big Ed, the teacher of 911 driving school (all the instructors are police officers) was no help, “Oh no, you want her behind the wheel right away”. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Caroline smile smugly. To set the record straight, Caroline is remarkably mature and I am confident will be an excellent driver. The key phrase in that sentence is “will be” as in “not yet”. All of you parents who have been down this road, pun intended, know there is tension between getting started, getting a learner’s permit, and getting the car keys. It’s a collaborative process of constantly renegotiating the boundaries, a parent-child give-n-take, push-n-pull, catch-n-release, and sometimes tug-of-war. The driver’s education experience is a microcosm of all parental progression.

What does this mean? Being in the driver’s education classroom was a blast from the past. The retired police officer had to tell a couple of gory stories to get the attention of apathetic students who want to get through this so they can get out on the road, just like when I was fifteen. On the wall were various road signs that give direction. John Ortberg writes about “Relational Rules for the Road” that seem applicable to this parenting conversation. People send signals all the time to STOP talking, STOP advising, and STOP pushing. People close to me tell me that I’ve always had a habit of saying, “COME ON” as I try to bring them around to doing what I ask. I’m convinced it is God’s judgment that my daughter does precisely the same thing, “COME ON DAD, I need to be driving!” It isn’t the suggestion, it is the sheer repetition and her ferocity that chip away. Now being on the receiving end, that is like annoying. So I need to STOP running those non-verbal stop signs, usually looking away or leaning back. Another road sign we are wise to pay careful attention to is WARNING: CONSTRUCTION ZONE AHEAD. In reality, every relationship is a construction zone. In families, there is an “emotional economy” and, no doubt, some of our family are “low maintenance” and others are “high maintenance”. Of course, we all say “I am low-maintenance”. Maybe you or maybe you are not, but I know I am. Please don’t ask Caroline for her opinion. The truth is you can’t just leave a relationship alone and expect it flourish. It takes time, listening, encouragement, patience, and attention. Perhaps, most important is to faithfully pray to the Father in Heaven for those you love.

What is the takeaway? As I have been sitting in my office working on this, two parents have dropped in to discuss some personal struggles. The first lamented how she feels she is working so hard to guide, encourage, and get her children out on their own. Yet, she feels like the target of their frustrations. The second was a grieving mother, who through tears, recalled how she was holding her son’s hand as he was dying in the hospital. This old memory is so graphic for her at times, she just loses it. This brings to mind that so much of loving and relating as a parent is summed up in SHOULDER WORK. There are times we feel beaten down by failures, families, sins, and struggles. Our shoulders have a way of signaling where we are at. Squared shoulders suggest a confident, robust spirit. Hunched-up shoulders send a message of resignation, ready-to-surrender. Being a child and a parent are heavy responsibilities. We are to honor our mother and father as long as we live. To help us follow-through on our family duties, we need to turn to others to share the load with us; hold us up in prayer, share our burdens, and cheer us on. My best friend has no kids but what an amazing sounding board, he listens and I know I have been heard. Through years of teaching confirmation, when we come to the command to honor your mother and father, I enjoy quoting Ephesians 5:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children”. My instruction is go home and challenge your father with that. Today I will try to keep Paul’s admonition in mind as I take Caroline beyond our neighborhood to do some audacious driving for the first time. Lord, have mercy on father and daughter!

 


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Holy Contradictions

What is this? Ulysses S. Grant was a contradiction. I just finished a superb biography of the Civil War general and U.S. President by Ron Chernow. What a contradictory fellow! Grant was a shrewd military strategist, Chernow suggests more gifted than Robert E. Lee. Yet at the same time, in civilian life, he was a real sucker, far too trusting of fast-talking confidence men. In his last years, Grant lost a fortune (as did his son) in the first great American Ponzi scheme. Grant would inevitably rise to the occasion, at his absolute best in an emergency, in command, whether it be combat or a cabinet meeting. However, in everyday life he was often naive, lax, and rudderless. For a leader so renowned for his integrity, he presided over immense corruption and scandal in his administration. We are all a contradiction, both saint and sinner simultaneously. A contradiction is when two realities stand in opposition. Logically, they both can’t be true and yet they are. To be a Christian you have to believe in holy contradictions, theologians like the word paradox, better. We live in a world of contradictions; social media increases loneliness, obesity and hunger, sin and grace, soldiers serving as peacemakers, beauty and brokenness.

What does this mean? Faith in God is all about playing along with paradox. The Trinity is Three in One. Jesus Christ is our servant king. We trust an unseen God for an unknown future (that’s supposed to give us peace?!) The Roman execution weapon of choice, the cross, is our sign for love, mercy, and reconciliation. We’re commanded to forgive others and love our enemies. Perhaps, the most blatant contradiction comes from Paul as he wrestles with his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians. After praying vigorously for God to take away his suffering, God responds, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. Paul sums it up this way, “when I am weak, I am strong”. This contradiction is at the core of the cross and central to the gospel. There is vast exposure, tremendous vulnerability when we open up ourselves to love and being loved. What I believe Paul means with “when I am weak, I am strong” is faith in Christ calls us to yield to God’s way, to surrender our souls to God’s purposes. This doesn’t mean we are passive, pathetic, and a panty-waste for Jesus’ sake. It does mean we realize our lives are not our own. Jesus says ironically, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”. I’ve always been tightly wound, overly concerned with control, so this hasn’t come easily to me.

What is the takeaway? Over my 57 years, God has had his work cut out for him, trying to get me to loosen my grip on this life. Yet, over time, through failures and frustrations, by the grace of family and friends, and the graduate school for letting go – raising children, my choke-hold on my life has loosened significantly. I was prayerfully taking personal inventory the other day and I asked, “How could so many things have gone so wrong in my life?” Alcoholism in my family, severe depression, divorced parents, lost party years, autistic son. I also thought, “How could so many things go so right in my life?” Sturdy faith, meaningful work, married well, traveled overseas, healthy family life, a life-long love of fitness (the YMCA is only a mile away). Just like the theologians say, “It’s a paradox!” Although I’ve been both a victim and a perpetrator of sin and destruction, I have also been a recipient and worker of grace and God’s handiwork. I hope you see your story in my story. We are all a big old contradiction, saint and sinner at the same time. How could so many things go right and wrong in the same life?! The good news is Jesus loves us unconditionally and eternally. That makes all the difference, because God’s grace anoints our raw material, wounds, abilities, relationships, failings, and future. God’s endgame is we be wounded healers in the world and realize we are so blessed.


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Surprised By Hope

What is this? Surprised by Hope is a fascinating book by a popular biblical writer, N.T. Wright, that has the audacity to try to spell out what actually happens at resurrection. It is a hefty read, slow at times, places you will disagree, and Wright probably speaks with too much confidence about the unseen and unknowable Easter mystery. Nevertheless, it gets you thinking, hoping, even looking forward to eternal life. Wright tells a funny story of a wife who smuggled a can of aerosol hair spray into her deceased husband’s casket just prior to him being cremated. Of course, the result was a detonation. In some ways, that is what Easter is; detonation, demolition, explosion, implosion, and blowing up our cosmic and eternal enemies- sin, hell, the Evil One, and death. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, we’re set free to live and embrace a new future, a hopeful future. If there is one thing lacking in our young people, our churches, our families, and our nation, it is hope. Hope is not optimism, that is more of a human-generated positivity, more-or-less wishful thinking, with a lame and limited power source inside me. Hope is a gift from God, it comes from outside of us. Like the kind of peace, joy, and resilience the bible lifts up, the kind of hope God provides is not dependent on circumstances and emotions but based on grace. It give us what we need for a tomorrow we cannot control.

What does this mean? Lewis Smedes offers some helpful insights about biblical hope in his simple yet profound book, Keeping Hope Alive. Smedes begins by saying Our Creator has bred hope in our bones, it is our fuel for the journey as we move into a future we can imagine but cannot control. Christ is our fountain of hope and Easter is the gusher that keeps on giving, sustaining, restoring, and replentishing us on the way, all the way to eternal life. There is a solid saint in our congregation that’s been given a grave diagnosis. Sandy is sixty-plus, hospice has been called in, and she is constantly surrounded by  her very loving family. I come out on Mondays, we check-in, speculate on heaven, share some Scripture, pray, and have the Lord’s Supper. Sandy is so at peace, resting in hope, I am constantly amazed. Doesn’t she know death is approaching?! I trust the resurrection, too. But, I’d be way more worried, not just for myself, but what about the people I love. It can only be attributed to the peace/hope that passes all understanding. It doesn’t make earthly sense. Smedes suggests hope is a spiritual power that keeps us striving to achieve things we hope for and keeps us waiting for the things we know we cannot achieve.

What is the takeaway? Hebrews sums it up this way, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”. 1 Peter adds, “In God’s great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. A couple of details there clarify what is hope and what is not. As the baptized, we are born into a story, a way of life, a company of believers, all sojourning toward a common destiny, where every step is immersed in hope. Not because we can know or control the specifics, but because we do know and can trust the Good Shepherd who restores our souls and guides us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Early and often in my relationship with God, I was disappointed when my plans, prayers, hopes didn’t come to fruition. I had followed what I thought was the biblical formula, name it and claim it. I learned the hard way that “faith is being sure of what you hope for”. Now, I hear that as having confidence in biblical hopes; God’s promises, worship helps me grow, eternal life, I am forgiven, loved, eligible for good things, and have been given work that matters. Christian hope does not mean my path will be smooth, my career productive, my children a success, or I will live to a ripe, old age. None of that worked out for Jesus, did it. Hopeful people live by faith, not by fate, ready and relaxed in God.


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Making a Difference?

What is this? The Reverend Billy Graham died this week at the age of 99. Born the son of North Carolina farmers, Graham was ordained in 1939 and launched his evangelical ministry in 1950. Talk about making a difference, his sermons were translated into 48 languages. The Billy Graham Evangelical Association estimates his crusades were broadcast to 185 nations and reached 215 million people for the gospel. His global reach even provided him opportunity to preach in the forbidden kingdom of North Korea. In the biography of Louis Zamperini, UNBROKEN, the author Laura Hillebrand, recalls Zamperini’s conversion to faith at a Billy Graham Crusade. Zamperini, a WWII veteran, had survived a brutal experience in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. When he returned to the United States, Zamperini was haunted by such violent memories. He became addicted to alcohol. His young wife insisted he join her at a Billy Graham Crusade. There he was miraculously, and more importantly, completely healed of his alcoholism. His faith not only stuck with him, but grew his whole life long, all beginning at a Billy Graham Crusade.

What does this mean? I thank God for Billy Graham, I am a huge fan. His spiritual impact is up there with Mother Teresa, St. Augustine, and Tim Tebow (tongue-in-cheek). Yet, I confess, as a pastor, it is easy to feel insignificant by comparison. Who have I impacted? I’m not in anyone’s biography as a change agent for Jesus? Am I making a difference? Yes, pastors are competitive when it comes to being effective, although “ministry” is so hard to measure. Same goes for teaching, parenting, giving, serving, and being a friend. Being the insecure people we are, we are anxious, as Christians, about are we doing enough.. My impact seems so trivial, especially compared to her. Let’s be clear, it is God’s purpose that you and I make a difference for Jesus’ sake. We are blessed in order to be a blessing. In my twenty-five pastoral years, there are few more rewarding experiences as seeing one of God’s people utilize their gifts and see tangible results. Amen. Having said all that, I want to emphasize what Jesus says (Matthew 10:42 MSG), “It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. This small act of giving or receiving makes you an apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing (reward from God)”. What I am getting around to saying is that our call is to be faithful in small things, everyday tasks, and familiar relationships. I invite you to reflect on your own life. Who impacted you primarily? It probably wasn’t Billy Graham, Oprah Winfrey, or even Tim Tebow.

What is the takeaway? As a pastor, those who made a real difference in my life and ministry formation were local pastors. In high school, Pastor Carlson was my Baptist pastor with a passion for outreach and a jolly sense of humor. In him (and his sons) I experienced the joy of the Lord. At a Lutheran camp where I served as a counselor fresh out of college, Pastor Bob Quam was a change agent for me. He was a quirky guy with thick coke-bottled glasses, but he made a Lutheran out of me and witnessed to what it is to serve Jesus. Working as a youth director in my 20’s at a large suburban Portland church, Pastor Mike Foss was a mentor and a friend. Such a dynamic pastor with so many parish demands, he always took time to listen to me. My first call was to Silverton, Oregon where I partnered with Pastor Frank Wilson. Frank was such a faithful pastor of quality character, who PATIENTLY instructed me in grasping the power of the sacraments. At my previous parish in Poulsbo, there was a retired pastor, Bob Winkel, who was so wise, content in his own pastoral skin, and quotable at council meetings (“Well leaders, here is what we should do insert Bob Winkel quote” then Pastor Chuck takes credit). God has used these typical pastors to shape me significantly. So I am sure it is the everyday people who have made a difference in your life. I guess Billy Graham was an “unenthusiastic Christian” at age 16. His father insisted on daily bible readings as part of their Presbyterian faith. But, only when an unlikely, itinerant preacher named Mordecai Ham came to town in 1934 did Graham truly hear God calling him to faith, to follow Jesus, and to launch a remarkable evangelical ministry. Who knows you may be the next Billy Graham’s Mordecai Ham?


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Forgetting to Remember

What is this? One of thee most moving sites our group experienced in Israel on our November pilgrimage was the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Set appropriately, on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, it has nine chilling galleries of photographs, works of art, multi-media presentations, and personal items found in the camps and ghettos. There is the Hall of Remembrance where the ashes of the dead are laid to rest and an eternal flame burns in commemoration. The Hall of Names includes over 3 millions names of Holocaust victims. The Children’s memorial is dedicated to the 1.5 million children that died under Nazi Germany. I was wowed by the technology utilized, no expense was spared. For good reason, as the purpose of the museum is to make sure that future generations do not forget. Coming away from our two hour experience, the names ring in your ear, the faces emblazoned in your memory, your heart is broken, you can’t help but weep. Some things as human beings, we forget at our own peril. For Christians, we are called to remember the darkness like the Holocaust and the goodness like Easter.

What does this mean? Yet, we have such a difficult time remembering what is worth remembering. Inundated with so much information, swamped with social media, plied with facts and figures, subject to 24-hour cable news, we are drowning in knowledge and communication. Plus, if you are like me, you tend to retain some inane statistics or trivial facts. I still remember when I was a sophomore pitcher in high school, I was 10-0 and I had an ERA of 0.63. Wow, was I good! That is a long time ago, and as my best friend Dave always reminds me, “nobody cares”. Remembering is a central task for Christians and the church. As I am defining it, memory is our storehouse, personal archive of experiences, images, and knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. To remember in one sense is to recall facts, events, and even emotions. But, in the sense I am referring to is to bear in mind, remain focused on a significant reality or perspective. To remember the Holocaust means, as humanity, we must never repeat that inhumanity. So to remember in this sense means to realize and respond to a relationship (your mother), event (your baptism), or a future reality (Christ is coming again). Biblically, to remember means to live based on, to honor, to follow God and God’s way in Christ Jesus.

What is the takeaway? Scripture is loaded with remembering, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”, “Remember me, according to your great mercy”, “God will remember their sins no more”, “Do this in remembrance of me” and “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy”. To remember is the church family’s vocation. That is why Sunday worship looks like so much repetition. We need regular rituals like crossing ourselves, creeds we internalize, weekly communion, and hear again the absolution. Why? Because, we sinners forget all about the goodness of God, our dependence of the Great Giver and Forgiver, and the bounty of grace we receive in Christ. I find one of the realities with youth ministry is that unless their faith is constantly reinforced it will simply erode away. Most young people turn away, not because they reject Jesus, but their faith is not being fortified in fellowship, study, and forgiveness. I am amazed how sturdy a believer’s faith is when they commit to lifelong faith practices. There was a great saint of our church who was suffering in an advance stage so Dementia. I visited her one time. She unlocked her door and found another resident sleeping in her bed, like the Three Bears. After shooing her out the door, we sat together. She could not remember my name or her name, for that matter. However, she recited the Apostles Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Twenty-third Psalm with me, perfectly. We shared communion as a way of remembering that Jesus will never forget us, our names and faces are emblazoned on His heart forever.


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The #MeToo Movement is Seismic

What is this? Let me begin with a big disclaimer, I am a middle-aged, white male in America. I won’t try to claim any spiritual credibility on this issue because I am clergy, either. I’d say that I have at most; impressions, literary commentary, & female family & friends who have shared of their experience. In terms of sexual harassment & assault, I’ve heard dark stories of violence, abuse, and shame heaped on women in pastoral counseling sessions. Beginning with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the early advances of #MeToo began sending tremors throughout the entertainment world (Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, even Garrison Keillor). The dominoes continue to fall there and now in Congress (Roy Moore, Al Franken). Call it an uprising, a revolution, or a social justice movement, but it’s about time. That feels strange coming from a white male who has been a part of the larger systemic problem. When in seminary, I was quietly eating lunch by myself in the cafeteria. A group of women were writing a letter to editor of the seminary newspaper expressing their anger with sexist treatment from the faculty. Looking for signatures, they surrounded me. Admittedly, I was a little intimidated, but I signed it because it was the right thing to do. Later, when it came out in the school newspaper, mine was the only male signature among seventy-five. My friends were giving me a bad time. I responded, “Just like Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”

What does this mean? The God revealed in Jesus Christ, is for our freedom. Not only for Christians to be forgiven and freed from sin, but for slaves to be liberated, creation to be unshackled from exploitation, racism to be shattered, and for women to realize full gender equality. This movement has been hampered by the fact, the bible is, in many ways, a patriarchal book. Yet, in Christ’ ministry, women were at the core of the action, serving as key leaders. And when Easter arrived, it was the women who were chosen to be witnesses to the resurrection. This is scandalous, because women weren’t authorized to serve as witnesses in Roman courts. Why? Because they were women. But, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other females were chosen by God to testify to the most important event in history. There is something enormously liberating when a courageous woman testifies to her experience of sexual harassment or assault as truth. It breaks the conspiracy of silence, validates her pain and person, and empowers others to step out of the shadows. A woman shared with me her former husband had physically abused her, putting her in the hospital, due to her trying to warn him about his drug and alcohol addiction. She wept, but I think they were tears of freedom, she was out of that prison of a relationship.

What is It’s early, but I have been taken aback by how powerful and precipitous this movement has advanced. Once an allegation or two is out there, it is Ba-bam, the perpetrator is gone. My hope is this will not lead to miscarriages of justice, but is says something for how short the fuse is for this behavior now, and that’s a good thing. My sense is this not a short-term effort but a seismic crusade that is already changing the way things are. I saw a story of a New Jersey county commissioner who was mocking the women’s march in 2016, he was quoted as saying, “Will the women’s protest be over in time for the women to fix dinner”. A 32 year-old woman, Ashley Bennet, an ER psychiatric screener, was offended by his comments so she decided to run against him in the next election. This November, she beat Carman by ten percent of the vote. Hallelujah! Power is good or bad, depending if it utilized for self-aggrandizement or helping others thrive. Like the Good Samaritan, we have a God-given responsibility to welcome the stranger, help and heal the underdog, and speak out against injustice. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, told the NY Times, “People need to be afraid not just of doing these things, but also of not doing anything when someone around them does it. If you know something is happening and you fail to take action, whether you are male or female, especially you are in power, you are responsible, too.” That is another way of keeping Jesus’ command to “Love your Neighbor”!