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Friday, September 23, 2016

"Can You Please Go Get Him...?"

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 
     He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
-Matthew 18:1-4 (NIV)


No matter who you are, what your politics are, the sight of a suffering child goes to your heart, doesn’t it? It appeals to our instincts to protect children from suffering, pain, grief, the loss of innocence. And so, if you saw the photo of pitiful little 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting in an ambulance shell-shocked and covered head to toe in dust after bombs reduced the Aleppo neighborhood of Qaterji to rubble, your heart probably broke. Doesn’t matter what you think should be done about the civil war in Syria and its refugees, if anything. To he human is to grieve over horror like this.
     A boy in New York named Alex saw Omran’s photo, and he decided to do something about it. He sat down and wrote a letter to President Obama. Here’s the text:

Dear President Obama,     Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.     Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.     Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!Alex

     There’s a video of Alex reading his letter to the President, just in case you aren’t teary-eyed enough already. 
     Look, there are reasons why children don’t run the world. The fact is, they have a lot to learn. Sadly, though, a lot of what they learn (from us, the grown-ups) is what they can’t do, what won’t work. They learn that refugee crises aren’t solved just by people opening their hearts and being generous. They learn that just sharing and learning from each other won’t always bring people together. They learn that some people are just different from them, and that people can’t cross borders just like that, and that Americans need to take care of Americans first. They learn…
     Remind me again what kids like Alex need to learn from us?
     Children, you see, are used to receiving. They can be generous because they know that what they have comes from somewhere beyond them, from moms and dads who can always give them more to replace what they’ve given away. Children who are loved and cared for aren’t insecure about that. (Even if they sometimes have to be reminded to share!) 
     That’s why Jesus said that God’s Kingdom is for people like children. That’s why he holds up children as the ideal subjects of the Kingdom. “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,” he once said. Receive, because the life God wants to share with us doesn’t depend on how good I am. He shares it because he’s good and generous and loving. 
     So we need to change and become like little children. In that specific way, children have it right. Of course, Alex doesn’t know that little Omran’s fate will be determined by a host of factors beyond his control. Of course the issue of Syria and its refugees is a complicated one. But what we can learn from Alex is that, complicated or not, we’re always at our best when we’re so secure in the generosity and grace of our Father that we generously include others in that circle of his grace and compassion.
     Alex didn’t sit down and figure out how his family could take on another child. He just assumed that there was so much love and and generosity in his family there would plenty to go around. He shared freely because he had received freely. He has a bike, and school friends, and a family to share. He didn’t work to get those things. He doesn’t have to earn them, or even deserve them. They were just given to him. He has no doubt that there is more where that came from. So why wouldn’t he share?
     Why indeed? See, we adults think in terms of going out and getting, of earning what we have. I worked hard for what I have, after all. If you don’t have as much, then the obvious conclusion is that you didn’t work as hard as me. You and I are in competition for a finite amount of stuff, and so, like Jesus’ original followers, we tend to argue about who is greatest. 
     But Jesus turns the order we think is established on its head. You’re great, finally, when you’re like this child, receiving the blessings God gives. Not figuring out how to get more of what I think I want, not scheming to make the world run according to my plans, not trying to out-hustle everyone around you — receiving what God wants to generously give, the love and grace to which the life and death and resurrection of Jesus testifies.

     Then there’ll be room in your heart for those who are most in need. And you won’t think twice about opening your heart and inviting them in.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Mindset List

“All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)


Maybe you've heard of the Mindset List. It's the creation of Beloit College Professor Tom McBride and former Beloit administrator Ron Nief, originally created to keep faculty members aware of how quickly “contemporary” references in lectures can become dated. Each year a new list for the entering freshman class is created, and its main function for non-college students or professors seems to be simply to make us feel old. I’m especially interested this year since my son is a college freshman. (One of his friends is at Beloit.) Some excerpts from this year’s list, in case you were thinking that you really aren’t all that old…
     For this year’s entering freshman class, there has always been a digital swap meet called eBay. They have never heard Harry Caray try to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” (At least not live.) West Nile has always been a virus found in the U.S., and Vladimir Putin has always been calling the shots at the Kremlin. The Euro has always been the coin of the realm in most of Europe. They have never seen a billboard ad for cigarettes.
     For their generation, Ali/Frazier means a fight between their daughters, and Serena Williams has always been winning Grand Slam singles titles. Women’s basketball players have always had their own Hall of Fame. John Elway and Wayne Gretzky have always been retired athletes.
     They have never had to watch a TV show at its scheduled time. For them, Bluetooth has always been keeping us wireless and synchronized, and there have always been iMacs on desks. Airline tickets have always been purchased online. Ice makers on refrigerators have never been a novelty to them. They’ve always preferred text to email.
     They disagree with their parents over which is the first Star Wars movie. War films have always shown horrific battle scenes inspired by Saving Private Ryan. Michael J. Fox has always been better known as an activist for Parkinson’s research than as Alex P. Keaton. 
     In their lifetimes, Exxon and Mobil have always been one company — that doesn’t own any gas stations. Presidents have never had line-item veto power. A Bush and a Clinton have always been campaigning. While chads were hanging in Florida, they were potty-training in all fifty states. 
      And, Newt who?
     It seems that we instinctively freak out about change and the passage of time. We don't like it when things change around us. Hang around an office one day when they upgrade the computers and you'll see it. Or a church when they change – well, pretty much anything. As a rule, change makes us uncomfortable. We develop little shortcuts in life, routines that revolve around things staying generally the same. It can be downright unsettling when things change and those little shortcuts don't work anymore.
     And, of course, the most unsettling changes of all are the changes that we see in the mirror. A few more lines in the face. A few more gray hairs. A little more width around the middle. The inability to hold what you're reading far enough away from your face to get it into focus. All evidence of the one change in the world that affects all of us most deeply: that one day we won't be here anymore.
     Our world screams hysterically that we have to resist the passage of time. It sells us creams and dyes and exercise equipment and clothing and surgeries that will make us look – more or less - like the passage of time isn't affecting us. But that's an illusion, of course, as evidenced by the fact that it gets harder and harder to pull off as the years go by. However loudly our culture screams that we must look untouched by age, over the din you can still hear the rush of the river of time. 
     “People are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,” the prophet reminds us. It's a good thing he does, otherwise we might forget what really matters. We're not built to resist the passage of time, any more than the grass and flowers in a meadow are. We navigate a changing world in dying bodies, and all the hair coloring and pilates in the world won't alter that. In some cases we can improve a little on Job's “three score and ten,” but not forever. “The grass withers and the flowers fall,” the prophet says. “Surely the people are grass.”
     Our world calls that depressing, but it isn't. Depressing is people going about their lives like they're going to be anything but a hazy memory a mere century from now. Depressing is not being able to read the writing on the wall. Depressing is living for wealth and influence and control. Depressing is forgetting that we are mortal. And forgetting what does last.
     “The word of our God stands forever.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, what God says is true. What he speaks, exists. Isaiah's point in reminding us of our mortality is to remind us of God's glory. “The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it,” he says. “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:5) 
     And this God never forgets his people. That's our hope – not in holding on to our youth, because “even youths grow tired and weary.” (Isaiah 40:30) “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.” So while our world changes around us, we trust in the God who never does. When our strength fails, we trust in the God who renews our strength. And when our bodies fade and die like a flower dropping its petals, we trust even then in the God who lives. And who gives life.

     So bring on your Mindset List, Beloit College. You don't scare me. I know how to make ice in a tray.

Friday, September 9, 2016

New Testament Church

The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
-Revelation 2:7 (NET)


I grew up hearing a lot about the “New Testament Church.” The group of believers among whom I was raised stressed the importance of restoring the church described in the New Testament. We especially focused on a few particular characteristics that we supposed we saw in the Bible, and noted the absence of those characteristics among the other denominations, flavors, and brands of Christianity that dotted the landscape of Chattanooga, Tennessee. 
     This was in the 1970s and 80s, before the megachurch movement eroded and smoothed out denominational loyalty and distinctiveness. Our focus was on what made us different from those other churches — and, not surprisingly, more biblical. While “they” had been afflicted with centuries of tradition, “we” were simply an incarnation of the New Testament Church. You could open your Bibles and find us, we liked to say.
     Please understand: I came to know Jesus among these people. I have no doubt of their love for the Lord. The faith of many of those men and women trivializes mine. Many of them have gone on to be with the Lord, and I don’t mean to insult them or demean them. This is only to point out how our understanding of what makes a church faithful, biblical, or whatever adjective you want to use can be subject to change.           
     Mostly, we were well-meaning. But, if you listened to us get descriptive about what made a church a New Testament Church, you might walk away thinking that the New Testament Church was all about baptism (adults, by immersion, for the remission of sins), worship music (vocal and congregational only — no instruments and no choir), the frequency of the Lord’s Supper (every Sunday), church organization (local elders, with no higher organization), and the distinction between clergy and laity (no Pastors, Reverends, Fathers, and so forth, and no vestments. We could call our Preacher or Minister “Brother.”). Roughly, that order corresponds to the emphasis placed on them. And, to be honest, any sermon or class series I ever heard on the New Testament Church would begin and end with that list. 
     That is, until I was in my early 20s, studying to be a minister at one of “our” universities. 
     Jim Woodroof was a former missionary and minister in Churches of Christ who had come to teach at the school I was attending. He taught a class called, yep, The New Testament Church. I imagine it was intended to be all about the characteristics I mentioned a couple of paragraphs earlier. But Jim did not teach it that way. 
     The most interesting (and, in hindsight, obvious) difference in Jim’s class was that he started his discussion of The New Testament Church with Jesus. (The emphases I had heard growing up came mostly  from Paul.) There was a historic component to the class, so we learned some things about how other believers who had come before us had felt the need to restore The New Testament Church, but had maybe emphasized different points. We learned how, often, we read the Bible through lenses colored by our own places, times, and situations. And we were reminded how Jesus exposed as hypocrites religious people who thought they were right and everyone else was wrong. It was a formative semester for me. 
     I thought of my own history with The New Testament Church this week as I read Scot McKnight’s blog post about a new book by James Thompson called The Church According to Paul. McKnight’s post includes a list from the book of ten observations about Paul’s churches.  
     Some of the items on the list jibe with the lists I heard growing up. Number one, for example, is that Paul “nowhere mentions administrative institutions that coordinate or have authority over the activities of the local community.” We would have agreed with Thompson’s #7 that the church is not “a theater for entertaining attendees; rather, it is a body in which all participate.” I’m smiling even now at how irrationally happy it makes me to see the concerns of my childhood church reflected in this list. Others — like number 8: “the competition between the churches and the struggle for market share in metropolitan areas undermines the united witness of the churches” — reflect concerns about the same things expressed in different ways. (Our response to the “competition” and “struggle for market share” among churches would have been to position ourselves as the only one who were getting this New Testament Church thing really right.)
     Other items on Thompson’s list, sadly, don’t correspond to much of anything I heard growing up. Of particular note, his #5, where the local church is to be “a place for the care of the most vulnerable in the society.” That’s not to say we didn’t do that, but we wouldn’t, I think, have spoken of it as integral to the identity of The New Testament Church. And then there’s his #9: “The ecclesial vision of Paul challenges the churches to engage in ecumenical cooperation in the context of the diversity of cultures.” Yeah, that one we didn’t even much try to do.
     All this to say, I guess, that this business of being the New Testament Church is about a lot more than just copying a few practices that we think we see in Scripture. I’m enough of a product of my heritage that I still think it’s a worthy goal. But I’m also enough of a product of my heritage that I sometimes say, “Wait, which New Testament Church do you want to restore?” Because, as I recall, not one of them was perfect. In fact, the reason we know anything about them today is because someone wrote them a letter telling them some things they needed to know in order to be more faithful to their Lord.

     So maybe that is the mark of a New Testament Church: that we can listen to our Lord when he tells us we need to change. That, as painful as it may be, we can face up to our failings, repent of our sins, and move forward as his people again. That we don’t give in to the arrogance of thinking we have arrived, but know that the quickening pulse of the Holy Spirit within us and among us will always break down walls, heal the broken, lift up the defeated, and bring down the proud. And that to be the church our Lord intends for us to be is to be the people among whom He is free to move. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Judges With Evil Thoughts

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”  have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 
     Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
-James 2:1-5 (NIV)


Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, refuses to stand for the National Anthem before games. “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he explains. He gets booed for expressing himself in this way.
     The Black Lives Matter movement uses marches and organized protests to call attention to incidents involving black people killed, mostly by police, in Ferguson, MO, New York, Baltimore, Charleston, and Chicago, among other places. In response to the movement and their hashtag, other movements grow up around #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter. 
     The color of a person’s skin — and, more precisely, the very different ways people of different skin colors often see the the world — still gives us trouble. Skin color, in America and in much of the world, can still keep us from communicating, understanding, and relating.
     But it isn’t just about lack of communication. What Colin Kaepernick, what Black Lives Matter, what every person who has ever put themselves at risk to advance the cause of civil rights for all people have understood is that racism is alive and well. It is perhaps, in most cases, below the surface now. Instead of being codified by law it is entrenched in many of our power structures, in our assumptions and habits, and in the ways whites enjoy an inherent advantage in the world over blacks or Hispanics or other minorities. 
     Here’s something to consider: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
     That sentiment explains white anger toward Affirmative Action, or why the All Lives Matter movement popped up, predictably, in the wake of Black Lives Matter. It’s why, in comment sections all across the internet, white people accuse anyone who dares to call for an end to the entrenched racism in our society of “reverse racism.” When you’re used to the advantages that the color of your skin gives you, it’s hard to listen to anyone suggest that those advantages should be taken away, or given equally to others.
     One of the core truths about God that the church has always held is that he “does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” It’s easy for white people to read that text as saying that God wants everyone to be treated equally, all the time. I suppose, in a perfect world, that’s exactly what would happen. But this is not a perfect world. So fairness and justice might demand that some who have been cheated — by accident of birth, skin pigment, geography, and so on — of the fair chance that should have been theirs should expect the historically privileged to look particularly after their interests.
     The Bible is full of demands that God’s people look after the widows and orphans. God’s expectation that those who have material things should show special regard for those who don’t is one of the clearest, most unambiguous themes in Scripture. So there you have it: God, who shows no favoritism, still looks with special favor on those who are marginalized and oppressed by society.
     And, oh, yes: he expects that his people will as well.
     Sometimes that will mean, as in the hypothetical situation from James, that we not show special attention to those who don’t need it. The practice of flattering and currying favor from those already in power and who already enjoy privilege shouldn’t ever be evident among people who wear the name of Jesus. It’s ugly and unworthy of the One who spent his time with the sick and broken and blind and poor and metaphorically thumbed his nose at those in the seats of honor. 
     It means listening when those in our world who are treated unfairly because of the color of their skin, or the number of their chromosomes, or their country of origin speak out against the treatment they’ve received. It means giving them the respect of admitting that they may see some things we don’t see, that they are acquainted with some ugliness in the world that the rest of us don’t know. That they’re not trying to get something for nothing, but only want the same chances that we enjoy. Not to have their rights trampled because of their skin color. To work at a job for a wage that will give their families food and shelter. To get an education that will better their situation. To live in a safe neighborhood.
     It means recognizing that sometimes showing God’s favor for those who are marginalized will mean acknowledging our own privilege. I know, you don’t feel like anyone ever gave you anything. If you’re educated, financially secure, and living in a safe place it has to do with how hard you’ve worked. I don’t deny that. But someone with a different skin color, or who comes from a different place, or was born in different circumstances could potentially work twice as hard as you and do half as well. And where the reason for that is injustice, God demands his people to be willing to try to set right what is wrong.
     In the kingdom of God, there should be no favoritism. Does your church have in leadership positions some who have been historically denied those positions? Do you serve the poor and uneducated with respect, dignity, and compassion? Do you lend your voice and assistance to those who have no voice or power? Do the biggest givers at your church have the loudest voice? Or do you “clothe with greater honor” those members who are “less honorable”?
     The church has not always been on the right side in the battles in our country over civil rights.

     May we be on the right side in this era’s battles. May we be on God’s side.          

Friday, August 26, 2016

Prodigal

Parables sometimes muddy the waters. But sometimes they hold up a mirror so we can see ourselves. This is one of those parables, adapted from Luke 15…


Once there was a man who lived in a nice, quiet town. He went through good times and bad in that little town. And always the people of that town were there to celebrate or grieve with him.
     The man worked hard. And God blessed his efforts. And so, as he got older, he found himself one of the wealthiest people in the town. He had a beautiful house, the best food, the best clothes. But his pride and joy was never in the things he had. It was in his two sons.
     They grew up with all the advantages: education, security, love. They grew into handsome young men that everyone in town admired. Their father taught them his business. He set aside a trust that they could access upon his death. But he also taught them to love the Lord, their family, and their town. 
     The older son was dutiful. He did his best to learn the business and take on the increasing responsibilities his father gave him. Sometimes he thought about what else he might do, where he might go, but in the end all he wanted was to be at home and follow his father’s example.
     The younger son was different. He was always dreaming of other places and chafing under the responsibilities his father gave him. Until, one day, he came to his father. Full of arrogance, he dismissed the father’s work and the town he loved as provincial and boring. 
     “It seems like you’re going to live forever, and I’m tired of waiting for what’s mine,” he said. “I don’t want your life. I don’t want your God. I don’t want your church. Change that trust so I can have it now. And then I’m gone.”
     His arrogance was breathtaking. And, yet, his father agreed. Sadly, he rearranged his affairs so that both his sons could take possession of what he intended to be theirs. He divided everything he had between the two brothers. His advisers were shocked, and warned him that he’d have nothing. But he shushed them and told them that’s how he wanted it.
     So the younger son left. He went to a thriving, vibrant city far away from the little town, a city that never slept, full of treasures for a young man with wealth to uncover. He explored every scene, ate in the best restaurants, became a fixture in the most exclusive clubs. And he also discovered, and enjoyed, some other experiences that just weren’t available in a small town. He had no shortage of friends, especially when he pulled out the card and paid the checks. He had known it all along: there was so much more to life than that small, dead-end town where his father and brother worked the days away.
     But, faster than he expected, the money ran out. His cards started getting declined. The clubs that welcomed him turned him away. The friends avoided him. The girls who had opened their beds to him laughed at him. He lost his downtown apartment, his car, his tabs at the best restaurants. He found himself washing dishes in steaming kitchens, collecting cans from the garbage, squeegeeing windshields for loose change. And then some things he didn’t want to think about.
     And one day, rooting through the garbage on a cold, windy street corner for a crushed Pabst Blue Ribbon can, a thought struck him. He remembered his father’s guest room. It was just a bedroom, but the memory reminded him of how his father never turned away someone in need of a roof over their head. And then he was in tears, sobbing, thinking about the home he had left. 
     It took a while. He hitchhiked, walked. Stole a bus ticket once. But eventually he was back in the little town. And there was the driveway of the house. He almost lost his nerve, but calmed himself by reciting his speech in his head. “I’m so, so sorry for all I’ve done. I’m so tired and hungry. Can I just stay a few nights in the guest room until I figure out my next step? Maybe have a few leftovers to eat? I know I can never make up for my sins, but I’ll do any work you need done.”
     And then he saw someone running toward him. He started to run away, but then saw who it was. His father. His graying father, sprinting toward him like Usain Bolt, with his arms wide, eyes wet, and a smile on his face. Before he could move, his father had him in a bear hug. He thought briefly of how bad he smelled, but his dad didn’t seem to notice. He started to recite his speech, but it was muffled by his father’s shoulder and then drowned out by his shouting.
     “Look who’s home!” he roared, to no one and everyone in particular. And then he was shouting orders to the cook, to get a feast on the table. “We have to celebrate!” he screamed. Hustling his son inside, he pushed him into the bathroom to take a long shower. There was a pile of his father’s own clothes waiting for him when he got out: his rags were nowhere to be seen. And, when he was dressed, his father told him to take a nap — in the bedroom he’d grown up in, still just as he had left it.
     That night, there was a party like that little town had never seen. His father had invited everyone. The food was abundant, the music was loud, and the party went well into the night.
     Conspicuous by his absence, though, was the man’s other son. The father found him in his own room, headphones clamped tightly over his ears to drown out the sounds of the celebration. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Come join the party.”
     The older son responded with a bitterness his father had never heard in him before. “You know, if you’d wanted to have a party for one of your sons, I can think of a better choice than that ungrateful, manipulative freeloader. You have another son, you know, who’s always tried to be loyal and responsible. Maybe you could have at least ordered him a pizza so he could have a few friends over.”
     The father shook his head, tears coming to his eyes for the second time that day. “Son, you have always been with me. And, for that, I’m happy to give you everything I have. But the celebration tonight isn’t about reward. It’s about the fact that one of the two people I love more than anyone or anything in the world, a son who everyone else had given up for dead, has come home to me.”

     Taking his son’s hand in his own, he looked him in the eye. “Don’t you see? We have to celebrate.”

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