This blog post is part of a recurring series called the #reHumanize Project, an initiative by Nazarenes United for Peace that seeks to help us rediscover our shared, divine humanity.
This article first appeared in Holiness Today in Fall of 2016 and seems more apropos than ever. Since it is not included in their digital archives, the full text is below:
“Don’t you want to avoid spending eternity being tortured in hell?” my friend asked as I sat in his living room listening to his Gospel presentation.
“I’m already living in hell,” I replied. “How could things get much worse?”
I was sixteen years old at the time and had heard this refrain countless times from well-meaning friends. I’m sure they were legitimately concerned about my eternal state, but I heard little interest from them in the story of my own life that had brought me to that point.
Had they really taken the time, they might have learned that my inner turmoil had been so great, I had tried to end my life that year. They could have heard about the trust that was violated by a parent-figure when I was a young child, which launched me into a life-long spiral of self-destructive behavior and doubt about my own value.
I didn’t just need my future to be secured in “heaven,” I needed a very real and present healing—an encounter with a transforming God. I needed someone to show me the healing grace of God, not stand above me pronouncing judgment over my lifestyle. I was in desperate need of someone to hold open space for me and help me to see and hear the God who was already calling me.
Entering Into Our Stories
It wasn’t until I encountered a group of high school students at a Nazarene camp in Ohio a few years later that I finally had a life-changing encounter with God. I met some incredible people who made room for me at their tables. Despite my incredibly rough, violent, toxic—exterior, they invited me into their fellowship. They listened to my stories. The looked at me in the eye and acknowledged my value as a child of God.
They invited me to into a holy imagination that allowed me to envision a new life for myself, one marked by love and service to God and others.
They held up a mirror for me, which allowed me to see myself as God does: beloved. Even I was an image-bearer of God. That was a narrative often unheard in my youth.
The more I read the words of Jesus, the more aware I am of just how much time and energy he spent entering into the stories of those he encountered. Even though he was often addressed as “rabbi” or “teacher”, he seemed to spend at least as much time listening as he did talking. He asked lots of questions:
“Who touched me?” “Do you want to get well?” “Why are you crying?” “Who is it you are looking for?”
Now Jesus may have known the answers to these questions anyway, but he asked them over and over. I count at least 300 questions on the lips of Jesus. He’s not just asking to find out the answer, but he is engaging in the lives and stories of those he ministered among.
Jesus treated people as ends in themselves in hearing their stories, not just as means to an end.
Jesus is often described as a “friend of sinners” (Mt. 11:19, LK 7:34). He stood in direct opposition to both the social and religious norms and customs of the day in order to achieve this friendship. He did more than just “have coffee” with them—he allowed his life to become intertwined permanently with them.
And isn’t this really the good news of the incarnation? That God would become forever intermingled with humanity? For deity to take on flesh means that God and humankind are intertwined in an inextricably bound relationship. There is now no godforsaken place that God will not go for us and with us. Human flesh is the redemptive vehicle through which God chose—and still chooses to—work.
Our Wesleyan heritage teaches us that we are not just changed in our standing with God (justification), but we are actually changed and transformed into Christlikeness (sanctification). And the church, even with all of her imperfections, is the primary conduit through which God enacts his transforming grace in this world, in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
By inviting others to our table, by extending grace and hospitality to those who may be on the margins (either of society or the religious establishment), we are participating in the transforming power of God at work in the world.
When I was in the darkest of the days of my youth, I knew that something needed to change and I needed a way out.
I needed someone to show me the way, not just tell me.
In his book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen says,
“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
This idea of hospitality might radically transform the way we approach evangelism. This doesn’t just mean that we simply invite people into the Kingdom by caring for them (although this is important!) Instead, this means that the very act of “creating free space” for people—their ideas, their stories, their hurts—presents the palette on which their new narrative can be created, all in cooperation with God. This kind of evangelism helps the world imagine the alternative kingdom of God, which stands apart from the power-hungry, violence-loving way of the empires of this world. It bears hope for those who carry only despair.
This means that, instead of standing on the outside of the world making angry pronouncements about how wrong it is, we enter into the pain of the world with the compassion of God. And if “compassion” means “suffering with,” then our lives have to be intertwined with those around us in such a way that anything that hurts them hurts us, too.
The story of my friend, Abbas, illustrates this for me. For years I had heard about refugees and their struggles, but I cannot say I had every really cried for them. However, a few years ago when Abbas laid out the painful details of imprisonment for his faith in his Middle Eastern country and his subsequent harrowing escape via a dangerous smuggler—all with his wife and 2 little girls in tow—I wept at the suffering he had endured.
This means that, instead of standing on the outside of the world making angry pronouncements about how wrong it is, we enter into the pain of the world with the compassion of God. And if “compassion” means “suffering with,” then our lives have to be intertwined with those around us in such a way that anything that hurts them hurts us, too.Tweet
The incarnation of Christ compels us to practice this kind of holy hospitality—to create space and make room for the stories of others without condemnation or judgment.
And this might be easy to do with people who are like us or who have stories that are similar to our own. But it becomes much more difficult with those who look different from us, who have a different social struggle, faith or value system than we do.
From Death to Life
The coming of the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Jesus and we are invited to participate in helping this world move from death to life. In a culture so obsessed with death, we are called to help it imagine a world that lives as if God were in charge.
The way of Jesus to the cross is called “cruciform” in that it is in the shape of the cross. Shouldn’t our lives be in the same shape? Willing to go where God will lead for the sake of others, knowing that resurrection lies ahead?
My own journey is one from death to life, and this is quite literal for me—I would likely be dead if it were not for those kids at that Nazarene camp, showing me how to love God and myself. My self-destruction would have surely been made complete, otherwise. They showed me that a redeemed life can participate in redeeming this world with Christ.
And this is what propels me into the world, to share the good news of the power of God to transform us. The radical change in my own life is not something can be hidden, and so I have dedicated my life to tearing down the walls that divide us and building longer tables of hospitality for even the most unlikely of guests.