The Heart of Stranger Love

[“stranger love”: 1) a biblical theme that flows from the heart of God, through Israel, Jesus, and the Church to welcome the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:17-19); 2) a two-year, unifying emphasis of study, service, and mission at the First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, Colorado.]

In a recent adult Sunday School setting I was asked about the personal impact our church’s new emphasis “Stranger Love” (SL) is having on me. I had to be honest. On the one hand, I love the idea! As I study it more deeply in the Bible, I find that God’s love of the stranger, God’s welcoming home of the estranged child, is a unifying theme, a narrative arc that holds together Old and New Testament. I think, at its heart, SL is the gospel. So, what’s not to like?

But if I’m honest, I respond to this theme with a splitting of head/hands/heart. Like many Presbyterians, I value the life of the mind. Our rich tradition of thoughtful biblical theology and intellectual engagement is stimulating to me. My head is 100% excited about SL. And, like many in our church, it’s easy for me to jump straight to the hands: “how do we now practice SL?” We’ve had a historic flood in Boulder County that invites (if not demands) we serve our neighbor and welcome the stranger in practical ways. As a congregation we are studying Pathak and Runyon’s very practical book The Art of Neighboring. We’ve got Thanksgiving this week and our deacons welcome church members to assist them in serving the downtown homeless. It’s so easy to jump from head to hands. But to do so can neglect the heart—to our detriment. Here’s what I mean:

Good ideas lead to good practice, right? Not so fast. There’s this often-overlooked area of the heart. From it spring our motives and our deeper feelings. As we rush into service, trying to apply SL, it’s too easy for us to bring old, fallen motives into our activity. We likely never articulate them, but I suspect that many of us, in an honest moment, might hear ourselves saying, “If I’m a good Christian (especially like so-and-so) I should go serve the stranger/help with the homeless/etc.” Beneath this impulse is shame and guilt, a need to deny, hide, or otherwise mask our feelings of essential unworthiness by our performance or our good deeds. In many cases, we grit our teeth and end up doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Essentially, we’re trying to serve God and others in the power of our flesh (self-reliance and self-interest). This isn’t the world’s worst thing, by any means. But it’s a far cry from the biblical example of SL in Jesus Christ. So, I urge you reading this--you, who like I, want to live SL fully and joyfully--to pause and examine your heart. How do you really feel about SL?

Honestly, sometimes I find the practical outworking of SL to be painful, humbling, messy, and burdensome. Sad, but true. My hope for all of us is to have hearts that are free and joyful to respond to strangers in our midst, realizing full well that we may not solve their life’s problems, but can still reach out to them in love, even with just the cup of cold water Jesus spoke of (Matthew 10:42).

You see, SL is just another name for the gospel: God’s gracious love for the unworthy, poured out richly and fully in Jesus Christ, free of charge. To offer SL with head, heart, and hands requires that we be gospel people, immersed in the downpour of God’s grace, fully aware of our undeserving status, in the beginning, middle, and end of our Christian life. Only as I am being filled with God’s SL am I even able to pour out a bit toward others in a healthy way.

Last thought: all of this is a journey that is cyclical, not linear. We are instructed in the compelling biblical vision of God’s love for the stranger, a love that welcomes us home and now calls us to do the same with others. We step out to practice this love and find ourselves frustrated and shackled by old habits of thinking and feeling. We then go back to the source of God’s grace and freedom in Christ and find ourselves loved fully even in our struggles and shame. And we try again. Repeatedly moving under and out of God’s stream of grace, we take our buckets to others and seek to satiate their thirst, even as we quench our own. It’s a rhythm of grace and gospel. That’s what Stranger Love is all about.

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