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Friday, July 12, 2019

Replacing Religion

     …Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.    
-Ephesians 5:25-27 (NIV)


I read an article this week called “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals.” The article was pretty much just what it sounds like it is: it’s an “investigation” of “a growing number of young people…who have turned away from traditional organized religion and are embracing more spiritual beliefs and practices like tarot, astrology, meditation, energy healing, and crystals.” That’s not really anything earth-shaking, of course: it’s been apparent for quite some time that many young adults do look outside the church for their spirituality. The article references the 2017 Pew survey that shows Millennials (defined roughly as people born between 1981 and 1996) increasingly identifying as “unaffiliated” when given a choice of (Christian) religious groups to choose from. (But might only giving a choice of Christian groups skew the results?) 
     The article quotes a young woman who teaches “breathwork,” a combination of breathing exercises and affirmation, as saying that she knows it’s “weird.” She goes on to say, “But it makes me feel better and that’s why I keep doing it.” It’s not hard to see why it makes her feel better. The affirmations she and other practitioners receive during the class include I love myself, I am beautiful, I am powerful, I am a bright light, and I am ready to be seen.  Who doesn’t need more affirmation in our world? Who doesn’t need to be told sometimes that they’re worth something, that they’re of value, that they matter? Honestly, if the church can’t do that for each other, then we deserve to have people go elsewhere.
     Of course, religion is more than feeling better. I can’t help but think that some adults who have turned their backs on the church — or never given the church a chance — do so because they have a therapeutic view toward religion. It’s supposed to make them feel better. So as the article points out, they “cook up their own spiritual or religious stew…their way,” as a “progressive Christian reverend” at the University of Southern California puts it in the article. “You’re seeing an aggregation of disaffiliation,” he goes on to say, “people coming up with their own meaning-making and their own personal spiritualities.”
     Some days I’d like that better too, to be honest.
     Thing is, though — and it looks like this needs to be said — I’m a Christian, and thus a part of the church, because I believe in Jesus. I believe in trying to live the way he taught, and I believe that he died for the sins of the world, that he literally rose from the dead three days later to defeat sin and death once and for all, and that he’s coming back to inaugurate a new creation, redeemed and restored from all the damage that’s been done to it. I believe in the God that Jesus reveals to us, who’s behind all of it. And I believe that he has filled those who believe in him with his Spirit and that our reason for being in the world is to shine his light of love and grace through all of our words and actions.
     That all means that sometimes what I see in myself won’t measure up to his teachings or his sacrificial love. It means I’ll notice some things in my life that are hurting my witness to his love and grace in the world. Because I believe in Jesus, and not just in feeling better, sometimes I’ll need to do uncomfortable things like repent, change, ask forgiveness, give in to someone else, or be patient in suffering. I don’t get the privilege of “coming up with my own meaning-making.” My recipe for “spiritual stew” is not all that palatable, it turns out, so I need to eat what God puts on the menu. And if my personal spirituality isn’t created by and energized by the Spirit of God, then it’s pointless, powerless, and hopeless.
     Because I believe in Jesus, I don’t get to “disaffiliate” from his followers, either. Even though sometimes I might want to. He loves them, and so should I. He sacrificed for them, and so should I. He called us all together to be his hands and feet and mouth and heart in our world, and so I have to play my part in that to the best of my ability. 
     If the church is what we should be to each other, we’ll help each other. We’ll help each other to feel better sometimes, but just feeling better isn’t the point of being part of the church, either.
     None of what’s in that article surprises or even upsets me. Why should I find it surprising that people who have ejected faith from their lives — or never had it — would try to piece together something transcendent?
     What bothers me — and the fact that it bothers me isn’t the problem — is that some who are still part of the church in name have in practice replaced their faith in Jesus with a quest for feeling better.
     Why else would people “belong” to churches they’re not really a part of? I know, I know: being in church doesn’t make you a Christian. Neither does being in a hospital make you a surgeon, and yet when I want to find a surgeon I’m not going to a Cubs game. There are legitimate reasons to be absent when the church is together, but too many of us think that any reason is legitimate. We’ve long said in church that twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work — so why do we just keep saying it while nodding knowingly? By definition, most of us aren’t part of that twenty percent. Why don’t we have people lining up to teach our kids, help with VBS, work in our ministries? Why aren’t we in each others’ homes? With each other in the hospital? Celebrating each others’ happy occasions together? Praying together?
     Isn’t it because we’ve bought into the idea that church is only valuable to the degree that it gives me something? Beyond that, it’s take it or leave it. Mostly, my schedule will tell me to leave it.
     It’s worse than that, though. Why do we so easily silence our faith in favor of our politics? You know why: because we think this political candidate or platform will make us feel better quicker than Jesus will.
     Why do we get angry when we don’t hear the songs we like sung in church? Or when a sermon rattles our cages? Or when the leaders make a decision we don’t like, or fail to do or say what we think they should?
     It’s because we think the church exists to make us feel better. 
     Those folks trying to cobble together their own “spirituality” to help them deal just honestly don’t know the difference. We should know better.
     Our Scriptures tell us that Jesus “gave himself up for the church.” And, what…we can’t give up a couple hours a week? A little energy? A few prayers? A moment or two to cry with or laugh with one of those people for whom Christ gave himself up?
     I get it: nothing about your church is perfect. It’s not even close. Then again, neither are you. 
     You know what, though? The Bible tells us that Christ had a purpose for giving himself for the church, and part of that purpose is “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” We’re imperfect people, and together we make up an imperfect church, but Jesus is working on us even now. And, spoiler alert, at the end we all wind up looking pretty good. 
     Let that make you feel better.

     Until then, feeling better isn’t the point. Let’s be the church. Lots of people need us to be.  

Friday, July 5, 2019

God Bless America

Truly I am your servant, LORD;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.
  I will sacrifice a thank offering to you 
and call on the name of the LORD.   
-Psalm 116:16-17 (NIV)


Some thoughts on July 4th, American Independence Day (in no particular order)…
     I’m thankful that I live in a country in which I’m free to practice my faith. I’m thankful even that I’m allowed by my government to choose, when necessary, my faith in Jesus over loyalty to my country. I’m thankful that I’m allowed, if my faith demands, to be openly critical of my government. There are many places in the world where that isn’t possible. There are people in America who would restrict that particular freedom. I’m thankful that, with occasional lapses, that freedom has remained part of our identity.
     I’m thankful that no one is forced to share my faith. Faith becomes something else when it is coerced. Religion only becomes “the opiate of the masses” when it’s used as a tool of government. It becomes a means of conquest, oppression, and domination. Christianity thrives best in a context in which we’re out of power and outnumbered, in which there’s no political advantage in being a Christian. It’s when our motives are most pure, our mission most clear, and the necessity of trust in the Lord most apparent.    
     I’m thankful that justice is an important part of our national conscience. Though its wheels sometimes seem to turn infinitesimally slowly, they do turn. When voices cry out in complaint that they are marginalized, mistreated, and defrauded, our lawmakers — in time — respond. It almost never happens as quickly as we might like. It’s almost always more incremental than those who have suffered injustice deserve, and it almost never solves all of a marginalized population’s problems overnight. But it almost always happens, and when it does it opens the way for others who are the victims of injustice to finally have their day. Nearly all Americans today deeply regret the suffering of Native Americans, blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and a host of other ethnic and cultural minorities. Most of us hate injustice in any form (despite sometimes being complicit in it) —whether it be toward ethnic and racial minorities, children, the elderly, or the poor. A nation founded on subjugation and cruelty became a place of freedom and hope for millions. It continues to be a place of new beginnings for refugees across the world (Even when we don’t know how to welcome them). Our economic and justice systems, flawed as they are, make it possible for people to prosper in ways unimaginable in much of the world.
     I’m thankful that our country continually rises above its leaders. We’ve had some amazing leaders, certainly. But we’ve also had our share of despots, tyrants, and fools. When they’re in power, there are always voices that remind us that the emperor has no clothes. Sometimes they are of the minority party. Sometimes they take the form of grassroots movements or local initiatives. Sometimes, even, it has been the church that has spoken with a prophetic voice calling for sin to be removed from the palace. From whichever direction they come, they always come, and they convince, coerce, and shame us into actually being in some way or another the country that we like to tell ourselves we are.
     I’m thankful that loving our nation doesn’t require that we uncritically accept everything done in it and by it.
Despite the “love it or leave it” attitude some “patriots” take, America has always invited the critique of its citizens. We can protest, we can write, we can speak, we can contact our lawmakers. Our voices are unsuppressed, and we can raise them to call our nation to account. 
     So can those who disagree with us, and we can listen to them and learn why and how they disagree, and our nation can be that much stronger and broader and deeper.    
     I’m concerned, though.
     I’m concerned that we don’t listen to each other. I’m concerned that social media, which should have made national discourse easier, threatens to choke it out. Faced with a differing viewpoint, many of us now resort to unfriending, blocking, and in other ways metaphorically sticking our fingers in our ears so we don’t have to hear the voices dissonant from our own. It’s that national discourse on which our nation is built. From our origins, people with differing viewpoints and agendas have hammered together alliances in service of the greater good of freedom, justice, and opportunity. To lose that discourse now would be fatal to our nation.
     I’m concerned that our national identity as a land of opportunity is eroding, replaced with the conviction that we can Make America Great Again by strengthening our borders, fetishizing the military, raising tariffs, and protecting jobs. There seems to be a battle raging in our national conscience between our impulse to close ourselves off and surround ourselves with others like us and our understanding that it’s always been in our diversity that we’ve been at our best. We’ll never Make America Great Again by making it less diverse. I pray that we don’t forget that.
     The United States isn’t what we sometimes want to pretend it is. It’s not a Christian nation. (It borders on blasphemy to say so.) It’s not above criticism. Our national myth, that anyone in America who works hard enough can be prosperous and successful, is not true for very many of our citizens and those who come to our shores. Neither is the “hard work” part of the myth true for the percentage of our population that was born wealthy. We’re like many other powerful nations, full of contradictions. We speak of peace and freedom, but are built on bloodshed and oppression. We claim to be a land of opportunity, but deny that opportunity to many who could benefit the most from it. We have in some undeniable ways been blessed by God, and yet routinely deny that our blessings are from him. In some undeniable ways we stand under God’s judgment, and yet refuse to learn our lessons and turn from our sins. And so it shall be until the Lord returns.
     Today, as millions of Americans celebrate independence by taking a day off work, cooking out, going to the beach, watching fireworks, my friend Juan is working. He’s painting our church classrooms. When I asked him if he wanted to take the Fourth off he said he’d rather come to the building, if that was OK with me. “I don’t have any benefits,” he said. “I need to work.”
     As we celebrate our freedom, as we celebrate the good things about our nation, let’s remember that they are gifts of God. We don’t deserve them more than others. All we can do is thank our gracious God.
     And let’s remember Juan, and others like him: hard-working people for whom the American Dream is anything but a certainty, and who know that disaster is just a step away.

     When we ask for God’s blessings on America, may we also ask him to help us be as generous to people like Juan as he has been to us.

Friday, June 28, 2019

How Things Should Be

  The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   
-Luke 4:18-19 (NIV)


Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez was just 26 when he died. His daughter, Valeria, was just a month shy of 2 years old when she died with her arm around his neck. Their bodies were found last week in the shallow water and undergrowth along the bank of the Rio Grande, near Matamoros, Mexico. There was nothing between them and the United States but the river. It might as well have been a wall.
     Óscar left San Martin, El Salvador, in April, along with Valeria and his wife, Tania. They made it to Matamoros about a week ago, where they intended to apply for asylum in the US. That’s something to note about their case: they intended to enter the US legally. But they heard that Mexico would crack down on migrants in response to threats of trade tariffs from the States. They found that with the sheer number of asylum-seekers and the reductions in the number of migrants the US allows to apply for asylum each day, it could take weeks to even begin the process. That’s when they decided to cross the river and figure out what to do from there.
     Witnesses say Óscar took Valeria across while Tania waited on the Mexico side. He got Valeria safely to the US side, then went back for his wife. Valeria, unfortunately, went into the river after him. He went back to get her, and the current took them both.    
     Isabel Turcios, a nun who directs the Casa del Migrante shelter in Piedras Negras, has seen it many times. She says that those who work for her shelter warn migrants not to try their luck in the Rio Grande, but often their warnings aren’t heeded. “People get desperate and cannot keep waiting. They just want to cross.” 
     “They always tell me that if God wants them to make it then somehow they will make it. It’s not how things should be.”    
     No. No, it isn’t. I think surely everyone can understand that, can’t we? I mean, we’re told that there are rapists, murderers, and terrorists massing at our border, just waiting to get in and prey on us, the good people who live on the right side of the border. Strange, then, that what we keep hearing about are kids kept without their parents in abysmal conditions while the government — the one that’s of the people, for the people, and, oh yeah, by the people — wrangles in court over the definition of “safe and sanitary.” Our political leaders keep telling us about the dire consequences of migration to “our way of life” (Whose way? Defined by whom?) Strange that they can’t offer statistics for any of those dire consequences. Politicians win elections playing to our fear of an army of migrants coming across the border to invade our country.
     Strange that all we keep pulling out of the water are the bodies of toddlers holding on to their daddies. 
     Parents shouldn’t have to wade into a raging river to provide for and protect their children. But they will, you know they will if they’re desperate enough, because so would you. Sister Isabel is right, it’s not how things should be. But it’s how things are.
     As Christians, though, one thing we should be quite clear on is the difference, the Rio Grande-sized divide,  in our world between how things should be and how they are. We’ve always held that distinction in our minds. Our Scriptures and songs proclaim it. In fact, the central story of our faith is all about that wide discrepancy between things as they are and things as they should be.
     Sometimes we’ve dealt with that discrepancy by pointing to the coming of Christ as the time when things will be made right, when we’ll no longer have any use for that phrase, “It’s not how things should be.” There’s truth and hope in that, of course. But, to be honest, we’ve also sometimes used that hope as a way to stifle the objections of those who are hurt most by things not being as they should be. Some of us use that hope, in fact, to say that our faith has no place for those aspirations that things should be better. We should just buckle down, have faith, and not make trouble. “Our hope is not in this world,” after all. 
     The thing you might notice is that the Christians who say this with the most volume and conviction are often those who seem to have the most invested in the way things are, and who fear they’ll lose the most from how things should be
     Bruce Springsteen’s song of a few years ago, Matamoros Banks, seems prescient. Unfortunately, it’s just that what he was singing about back then hasn’t changed:
For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound…
Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
'Till every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same.
     But, really, did the one we follow think that the things of heaven and the things of earth should be so far apart? Did he teach us that it doesn’t matter if the inequities of where a person is born and how much money they have takes away every trace of who they ever were? Didn’t he teach us to pray, “Your Kingdom come/ Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? 
     Jesus came proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor;” that the blind could see, the oppressed could have relief, prisoners could go free, and that there was actually good news for the poor. We believe that time will be culminated and brought to completion when he returns, but we believe (because he believed) that it started when he came the first time. When he healed someone, when he raised the dead, when he showed love and compassion for the weakest in his world, when he died for our sins and rose for our redemption, he was proclaiming that the year of the Lord’s favor had commenced.
     How could those of us who follow him not do the same?
     I believe there is still hope in the gospel of Christ for Oscar and little Valeria. I believe a day is coming when they will wake to security, peace, and joy that they never found in this life. I hope I’ll get to meet them then, if only to see them smiling and laughing and enjoying being with each other and with Tania. But that hope doesn’t make it OK that they died, nor that some of us who wear Jesus’ name could shrug it off, or object that it’s just the way things are.
     Protest. Write decision-makers. Vote, or don’t vote. Those are the tools of a democracy. But we depend on something greater than that. Pray. Add words of hope, gospel words, to the debate. Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, then show our world what that looks like. It looks like love, grace, acceptance, compassion. 

     That’s how to begin to change the way things are into the way things should be.    

Friday, June 7, 2019

Belonging

     For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. 
-Romans 12:4-6 (NIV)


     
A friend of mine emailed me about leaving his church recently. I have a lot of conversations about things like that. I guess people figure I’ll be interested because of what I do. 
     Anyway, he didn’t have any deep theological concerns about his decision to leave. No doctrinal worries, at least none that he expressed. He did talk a little about “pastoral vision,” but when I asked him to tell me more about that he really couldn’t seem to elaborate. 
     What really drove his decision to leave this church he had been a part of for a significant number of years seemed to boil down to the fact that this church didn’t offer some things he was looking for. He’s a good guy, a strong Christian with a solid faith. But it felt like he was making the decision to leave a group of believers with whom he had served and prayed and worshipped and laughed and wept for nearly a decade, over a couple of things that weren’t to his liking. Things that I suppose he could have started himself.
     Talking with him, the phrase in that text in Romans up at the top of this page came to mind: “each member belongs to all the others.” That might be a tough sell in our world; after all, we switch cable companies every couple of years to get the promotional rates. We change employers if we see a better opportunity for advancement. We’re loyal to brands only to the point that they disappoint us, and then we’re trying something else. We even end marriages sometimes because we meet someone we like better.
     It’s a little quaint, in a world like that, to talk about being so knitted together in Jesus that we have the sense of belonging to each other.
     Paul isn’t really saying there that we’re stuck with each other because we’re part of the same group. I mean, that’s true as well, but what he’s getting at is theologically more important. The comparison he’s making is with the human body; we all know that the parts of our bodies are interdependent. The brain knows when something needs to be picked up. It sends the electrical impulses down the nerves that move the muscles of the arm and hand to pick that thing up. But if there’s no hand to grasp it, then the brain’s best efforts amount to nothing. Your right hand won’t independently cut off a finger from your left hand. Your eyes won’t close while you’re walking down the street so that you run into a lamppost because you wouldn’t let them look longer at the flowers in the park you just passed. There’s no mutiny among the parts of your body because your body has been put together for the purpose of living, surviving, and thriving. 
     Paul’s saying that in the church we belong to each other like that. We belong to each other in the sense that we’re responsible to use our gifts for one another, and for the good of the church as a whole. I know that isn’t always easy to remember, but forgetting it doesn’t make it less true. 
     Right here is where church leaders sometimes want to use this body metaphor to manipulate members by saying something like, “So you members should do what we leaders tell you to do.” (We’re rarely that explicit, but I assure you we’re sometimes thinking exactly that…) The problem with that thinking, of course, is that it assumes church leaders are “in charge” like managers or CEOs or officers. I recall, however, that Jesus said something about leadership in the kingdom being done from a position of service. So I want to start unpacking this idea of belonging to each other by saying that church leaders belong to the church, and to the people we would lead. Our job is to help the church to grow in Christ; not command them, tell them what to do, or use their efforts for our own agendas. We listen, pray, sympathize, serve, demonstrate — then we teach and talk. “Belonging” is dangerous if it doesn’t start at the top.  
     In the church, adults belong to the children. Sometimes we rationalize that there are people in church who are “gifted” at working with children, and sometimes that’s true. Mostly, though, I find that those who are “gifted” at working with children are just those who choose to invest the time and effort in doing it. It’s a shame that in the church we have to coerce people to teach Sunday school or help in VBS or whatever. It’s a shame that we adults aren’t lining up to share our faith with what is potentially the next generation of the church; and what is, at the same time, potentially not. Children in the church aren’t a distraction, an inconvenience, or a special interest group best served by specialists in segregated Sunday schools or youth ministries. They’re a part of the church, and they need we who are more mature in years and in faith to look out for them. 
     In the church, young and old belong to each other. In opposition to a world that wants to segregate young and old with individualized marketing, forced retirement, and the mutual dismissiveness and distrust with which generations treat one another, we witness to a different reality. We believe that young and old need one another, that each is less without the other. We believe that our differing experiences of the world better inform our life together and make us better able to live out the gospel of Christ.
     In the church, conservative and liberal belong to each other. We don’t believe the false dichotomy that says the church has to be one or the other, that either label can accurately represent or encapsulate God’s kingdom. We don’t bow to the cultural pressure to demonize the other side. We don’t buy into the message that one or the other is the salvation of the world. We think that both conservative and liberal believers have something to bring to the table, as well as those with no political persuasion at all. We recognize that each helps us as Christ’s body to better understand the problems in our world and act as salt and light 
     In the church, those in the minority and those in the majority belong to each other. Those of us who have advantages in the world based on where we’re born, the color of our skin, our gender, our education, or the money we make recognize those advantages. We see them as resources, blessings from God that can be used on behalf of the church and the world. We use them especially for those who don’t have such advantages, following Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and the early church’s example of sharing in one another’s suffering. 
     We don’t leave when we get frustrated or discouraged. We don’t let “issues” separate us. We talk out disagreements, listen to each other, and try to understand. When we can’t agree, we go forward anyway as parts of the same body.
     It’s hard to commit to this way of thinking about one another when there are many other churches in close proximity to you. That, I suppose, is the reality my friend is running into. He’ll be a blessing, I’m sure, in whatever church he decides to attend next. I can’t help but think, though, of those believers he chose to walk away from. In what ways is that body less now because he chose not to belong?

     May we choose to belong, really belong, to the churches we’re a part of. Not as subscribers, consumers, or investors, but as indispensable parts of the body of Christ in those places.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Even If He Does Not

King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. ” 
-Daniel 3:16-18 (NIV)


I’ve been thinking a lot about the act of testimony lately. In a world that mostly seems to prefer that faith be a private matter that’s never discussed in polite company, how do we as God’s people find ways to speak about our experiences with God? If our friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even family members would prefer that we keep our faith to ourselves, is it even possible to testify about our belief that God exists and that he’s faithful, compassionate, and powerful? Who will hear us when we do if our testimony is perceived as transgressing some sort of boundary?
     Tyler Smith and Heather Brown have a testimony. Celebrating Senior Skip Day by swimming in the ocean at Vilano Beach, Florida, they found themselves caught in a current that took them two miles out to sea. For two hours, the teenagers fought to stay above the surface. They were growing weaker, suffering from hypothermia, and there was no one around to hear their cries for help.
     Smith prayed out loud for a boat to come by. He says he said something like, “If you really do have a plan for us, like, come on. Just bring something.” 
     Eric Wagner was bringing his boat from Delray to New Jersey when he and his crew thought they heard a scream over the sound of the wind and the waves. As they scanned the water around them, they saw an arm waving above the swells. They changed course and pulled the two wet, cold, tired teenagers out of the ocean, out of what had been looking more and more like an early grave. 
     “The first words that came out of my mouth were, 'God is real,'" Heather told reporters after she and Tyler were safe. Eric Wagner’s testimony goes like this: "There were too many coincidences, in my opinion, for this to be a coincidence. I truly believe it was divine intervention. It had nothing to do with me. I was just put there at the right place at the right time, and I did the same thing anyone else would have done, pulled them aboard.”
     Bless Tyler, Heather, and Eric for testifying to their belief in the power of God. They’re willing to ascribe to God acts of mercy and salvation that others would doubt or even scoff at. They’re willing to talk about their personal faith in a very public setting, and that’s never easy.
     But, indulge me: What if God hadn’t intervened?
     I’m glad he did, and I’m Eric, Tyler and Heather are willing to call it what it is and give God the glory. But what if God had not done whatever he did to get that boat where Tyler and Heather needed it to be?
     I ask that because a lot of God’s people through the ages have discovered that God doesn’t always intervene in such a convenient and miraculous way. Think of Job. Think of the prophets who suffered for their willingness to be the line of communication between their people and God. Think of Jesus, who wasn’t plucked out of the grasp of death at the eleventh hour.  
     Think of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, three young guys who probably weren’t much more than teenagers themselves. We know how their story ended, of course, but they didn’t know. They didn’t wait to see if God would deliver them before they found their voice. They testified to an already-angry king that they had no doubt their God was able to deliver them, that he could set them free. But they didn’t tie their obedience to God doing anything. “Even if he does not…,” they vowed, “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold…”
     It’s great to testify when God does something wonderful. But if that’s the only time we have something to say about him, then testimony is only for those who God rescues dramatically.
     We can and should, however, testify “even if he does not.”  
     I get what Heather was saying, and I don’t have a problem with her saying it. But, of course, God is real whether he saved Heather and Tyler or not. We need to be able to say that.
     Lament and protest are a biblical way for God’s people to relate to God. It’s all through the psalms, if you don’t skip over it: complaints that God isn’t doing more (Psalm 74:11), questions of “how long?” (Psalm 13:1) and “Why?” (Psalm 44:24). But the psalmists are always asking those questions and making those complaints to God. This isn’t the existential doubt that seems so romantic and fashionable today, even among people who call themselves believers. These people of God believe that he exists and that he’s good, and so they’re trying to make sense of what’s gone wrong in their world. They’re determined to praise him and worship him, even if they aren’t sure at a given moment how they’re going to manage it.
     God’s people don’t believe because we understand his good reasons for the pervasive, capricious, and gratuitous suffering in the world. We know who he is, and so we trust his intentions for creation and within creation. We trust that he can save us and will save us even when he does not. We testify to his compassion and grace and power even when at a given moment we can see no evidence of it. 
     That’s why the psalmists worship even as they protest and complain; their feelings about what’s happening to them shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should they be allowed to determine whether they believe.   
     That’s why those three boys in Babylon said they wouldn’t give up on God even if he didn’t save them.
     That’s why Job kept after God, even though he had no hope of understanding what was happening to him.
     That’s why Jesus could weep and beg in the Garden and still say “Not what I will, but what you will."
    We weep over the condition of our world. We lash out over the pain in our lives and the lives of the people around us. We despair of ever understanding it or even being OK with it. We protest that God hasn’t done anything about it.
     When we do, we’re in good company. 
     Sometimes lament and protest are our best testimony: they speak volumes about our belief that God is all about justice, righteousness, peace, love, and healing. They show that there are no strings on our faith: we put our trust and hope in God even in those moments when doing so doesn’t save us. 
     When God rescues you, talk about it like Tyler, Heather, and Eric did. But don’t imagine that’s the only testimony you have. 
     Say you’ll worship him only, even if he does not rescue you. Worship him when your faith is messy, ugly, and unsettled. God doesn’t need us to prove to someone else how great he is. He wants us to speak about our walk with him, even when we don’t have much to say that we consider good. There’s someone else who needs to hear that God is loving, compassionate, full of grace and mercy, and that he can and will save.

     Even when…especially when…he, for a moment, does not.

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