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Love, Mutual Respect, and Faith…

April 23, 2016

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Looking at this picture it seems like ages ago since I was in uniform as a Chaplain. This picture was from my last deployment with the Air Force in 2007. Technically it was a deployment, however in all reality it was more like a Temporary Duty Assignment (TDY). We were in a fairly westernized area of South West Asia and we could go off base three times a month to shop or explore (the picture above was taken on a Sunset Safari a bunch of us went on in December in Dubai). Unlike Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, or Kyrgyzstan where I spent nearly five months in 2005 where we were pretty much locked down to base and in Afghanistan we actually had mortar attacks on the base while I was there, Al Dhafra Air Base was a cakewalk by comparison.

I remember people getting upset when the pool had to be closed for maintenance or when the Dining Facility (DFAC) ran out of sweet tea. People were absolutely enraged! One day, an individual came to me griping about “conditions” at Al Dhafra and I lost my cool. This Padre had zero sympathy for their gripes. I told them in no uncertain terms that they needed to talk to our Security Forces about what rough was like. Talk to the cops who had to go into Abu Ghraib prison in after the Army got kicked out following the horrendous prisoner abuses of late 2003. These cops had human fecal matter thrown at them and daily their lives were threatened. These same cops found themselves at Al Dhafra Air Base and told me on nearly a daily basis how much better this assignment was than the last one in Iraq (or Afghanistan). They literally laughed out loud when they heard about the complaints and told me to send the whiners their way so that they could tell them about the realities of deployments and how this one was a cakewalk by comparison.

This wasn’t the only instance during that tour where I found myself scratching my head and even getting ticked off. One of my responsibilities at the base as the Senior Chaplain was to offer a class on Islam at the request of the Commanding General. One evening, when I was leaving the chapel for the day, I encountered a young Staff Sergeant with an attitude. He was pretty testy and ticked off that I was teaching a class about Islam. Without bringing the General’s name into it, I told him that since we were in a Muslim country and dealing with fanatics, it was a wise thing to learn about the country we were living in and their religion. He didn’t back down at all and was downright arrogant and disrespectful of me as a Chaplain and a superior officer.

I asked him, do YOU know any Muslims? Essentially he said in response why in the hell would I. I told him that I had served along side of a good number of US Military members who were Muslim and knew them to be honorable individuals who were doing their part to protect and to serve. What truly appalled me was his massive ignorance, lack of respect, and hatefulness. Today I would say that he was no better than the fanatics who desecrate the religion of Islam.

So Padre, what does this have to do with the Fifth Sunday after Easter? Well, actually, more than you realize. Sunday’s reading from the book of Acts (Acts 11:1-18) and from the Gospel of John (John 13:31-35) actually have a lot to do with the above commentary. The reading from Acts is about an early conflict in the church that Peter experienced. “Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?'” (Acts 11:1-3)

Peter, why on earth did you speak with those filthy Gentiles and God forbid, eat with them? How could you! Don’t you know those dirty Gentiles are lower than pond scum? You made yourself unclean for them? Seriously?

According to their ritual law, Peter was clearly in the wrong. As an observant Jew of the First Century CE or Common Era which didn’t exist in the time of Peter (Jesus was crucified in 3790 according to one Jewish calendar that I found), Peter would have “kept kosher” and never consorted with Gentiles, let alone food that was considered unclean. When Paul began his ministry to the Gentiles, it was Peter who was adamant that Paul was in the wrong. It wasn’t until his vision that Peter “changed” his mind. Isn’t it ironic that God had to give Peter the vision not once, not twice, but three times? Peter was a bit slow to respond, but God’s patience was much greater than Peter’s!

Peter, Peter, Peter… What I created and made clean you must not call profane. (Acts 11:9) It was slow going for Peter… he had a lot of old habits to unlearn. But after the third revelation (okay, one revelation repeated three times) Peter got it. What God had created was NOT unclean! Remember back in Genesis when, after surveying all that had been created, God declared it to be very good? (Genesis 1:31) Yep, God was once again declaring to Peter that what God had created was indeed very good!

How often do I find myself condemning what God has created just because it is different from me? One of the HUGE issues that was a cornerstone of my ministry in the Air Force was Religious Respect and Accommodation. It is still a big deal for me post Air Force as I continue to serve God in ministry post-Air Force. Just tonight Denise and I were having a discussion with a friend of ours in Estes Park. It all boiled down to mutual respect and how it is sadly lacking on all fronts. In my own mind and heart, how God must weep over the conduct of the children created “Imago Dei”, in the image of God.

Essentially that was what Peter faced in Acts 11:1-18. The purists of the religious community were outraged that Peter would actually break bread with outsiders. You would think that they would be happy that the so-called “unclean” had been given the opportunity to draw closer to God. After all, wasn’t that what Peter was doing?

This is where the Gospel reading from John comes into play. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) This takes me back to the conversation Denise and I had with our friend tonight. His thought was that if people spent more time loving those closest to them, they might begin to love others as well. If love begins at home, can you imagine how it might spread like wildfire?!

The religious elite of Peter’s day were more concerned about separating and condemning than they were about loving. Lord knows I have seen more hate and vitriol in the past few years, let alone in my life, to cause even the most hopeful person to lose hope. If it makes me ill, how it must grief the One who created all and declared it to be very good!

Denise is fond of calling this story from Acts the “Holy Picnic.” What the religious elite called unclean and filthy, God called VERY GOOD! Maybe if we spent a little more time looking at ALL of God’s creation through God’s eyes instead of ours, we too might see in the eyes of another… Brother… Sister… Friend… Imago Dei… Created in the Image of God. If we simply did that, can you imagine how wonderful that picnic would be?

What it takes is a change of mind… a change of heart… an opening of the spirit… Will you join me in this transformative moment, dear reader? Come, the blanket has been laid out and the holy picnic is spread before you. Taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy are the ones who find refuge in Him. (Psalm 34:8)

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