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Friday, June 24, 2016

Seventy-Two

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals…
-Luke 10:1-4 (NIV)


You can call me a disciple, I guess. Just not with a capital D.
     I wasn’t one of the main group, the ones we all called The Twelve. They were around him pretty much 24/7. He told them things, I think, that he never shared with the rest of us. People got to know them, just like they got to know Jesus. You know them too, or at least their names: John, Matthew, James, Andrew. Peter, of course. Philip and Bartholomew. Even Judas and the other Judas. Thomas, the one you probably remember as the doubter. The other James. Simon. When I tell people I was a disciple of Jesus, they think I was one of those guys. But you don’t know my name. 
     The fact is, I didn’t know him that well at all. 
     It isn’t that I didn’t want to. It’s just that there were a lot of us gathered around him. While The Twelve were almost always with him, the rest of us kind of came and went. I had a home, after all. A family. A job that I had to do. I think I would have liked being with him all the time. Maybe, if I had been, I would have understood him better. I loved the things he said, but I didn’t always get it. Sometimes he talked like a revolutionary, like one of those Zealots who worked for the overthrow of the Romans and the return of the House of David to the throne. But then he’d tell us that if a Roman soldier made us carry his stuff for a mile, we should go another mile. Instead of preaching violence, he preached love. Instead of a God who was raising up an army to wipe out the pagans, he talked about a heavenly Father who would give us what we need, and whose Kingdom was big enough for anyone to enter. He never made you feel like you weren’t good enough, or religious enough, or important enough. He treated everyone around him with compassion and grace.
     And the things he did! I saw him heal people, over and over — the blind, the deaf, the lame. Once, I swear to you (oh, he wouldn’t like that!), I saw him feed thousands of people with just a few fish and a few loaves of bread. He drove demons out of people, too. And I even heard stories that he could raise the dead. 
     So, yeah, we followed him. When he came to my area, I’d catch up with him. Even had him to the house to meet the family a few times. I’d stay with him for a while until I had to get back. I listened to every word he said, too, and tried to live like he wanted us to. So, yeah, call me a disciple. Just not with a capital D.
     Except, well, I had one big moment. One day, I heard he was looking for volunteers, so I went and signed up. I was one of the 70 or so that he sent out on a big mission to spread the word of the coming Kingdom of God. He wasn’t going with us, he just sent us out to knock on doors and share the good news that God hadn’t left us, that even now he was inviting people to be citizens of his kingdom, and that one day his kingdom would displace all the other ones that ruled us. He told us not to take any money, not even changes of clothes. He promised us that there were people of peace who would welcome us, and that we should stay with them.
     He told us to heal the sick. Yeah. I couldn’t believe it. Me, heal the sick? And he said that when we did, we should say that the Kingdom of God had come near to them. So, you know what? That’s what we did. The first time we went into a town, we started healing the sick. We’d do it in his name, and we were more amazed than anyone when it worked! And we’d tell people, “We can only do this because God is bringing his kingdom near.” 
     I guess it shouldn't have surprised us that they believed us.
     I can tell you this: what we were able to do didn’t come from us. We just went where he told us to go, said what he told us to say, and tried to do what he told us to do. The power and authority to do it — all that came from him. “Even the demons submitted to us in your name,” we reported to him later, laughing with the wonder of it all.
     If I deserve any credit for anything, it’s just for the fact that I showed up. 
     That’s who this guy Jesus is. He doesn’t need the educated religious minds, or the political minds, or even the sword arms of the soldiers. He doesn’t need royalty, because quite frankly he already occupies the highest throne in the universe. He doesn’t even need me, or my fellow disciples (with a small d). But he used us, because we showed up.
     This Jesus uses people who show up. Don’t know your Bible too well? Neither did I. Ultra-religious people make you a little squirmy? I feel you. Have some stuff in your life you aren’t too proud of? Same here. But, since what Jesus is doing doesn’t depend on any of that, he can still work with you. Just show up. Show up and trust him. Go where he says go. Say what he tells you to say. Ease the pain of the hurting.  Love the unloved. And I think you’ll find that the demons tormenting the people around you will submit to you in his name, even if just for a little while. And the Kingdom of God will break through into their lives, even if just a little bit.

     That’s what it means to be a disciple, after all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Beautiful and Terrible

     I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
-John 16:33 (NIV)



“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.”
     I’m reminded of that quote by Frederick Buechner this week. On the beautiful side of the equation, this week my son graduates from high school. We’ll celebrate this accomplishment enthusiastically, because it represents the culmination of twelve years of hard work. We forget as we enter adulthood the struggle, frustration, stress, and sometimes exhaustion of our school years. “The best years of our lives,” we call them, though I don’t think any of us really think so if we give it more than a moment’s thought. Josh deserves to celebrate this milestone and look forward to what comes next. His mom and I, his grandparents, his family and friends — we’re prouder of him than we can even say. So we’ll go downtown Thursday night, to the beautiful Auditorium Theater in the heart of Chicago, and we’ll cheer as he walks across the stage and gets his diploma. We’ll celebrate with family and friends all weekend. Everything else going on in the world, more or less, will kind of get put on hold for a couple of days.
     But, of course, we live in Buechner’s beautiful and terrible world. And on the terrible side of the equation is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, inside (of all places) an Orlando nightclub. Less than a week after other parents lost their children, we’ll be cheering for ours. 
     The Orlando attacks, as terrible as they were, don’t make me afraid, really. Neither do the shootings that happen daily in my city, shootings that, if the victims were tallied up, would surpass Orlando as the worst mass shooting in just a couple of average weeks. But since they’re names just ticked off in newspaper columns, they kind of go over my head. The average shooting in Chicago doesn’t seem to even merit its own story anymore.
     It’s easy for me to think of tragedies like what happened in Orlando, or what happen each night in my city, as far-removed from me. To be honest, I’m in one very significant way different from the victims in Orlando: I’m not gay. That happened to other people, just like most of the shootings in my city seem to happen to other people, people who are affiliated with gangs and for whom violence is a way of life. 
     So I’m like most folks, I guess. I’m celebrating the milestone in my family, while the more distant tragedies kind of go on in the background. How else can you live? How else can you get out of bed in the morning? Yes, we live in a beautiful and terrible world, and we choose which of those adjectives to fixate on, which of those realities we allow to determine the lives we live.
     Buechner didn’t say what he said just to remark on the state of the world. He was speaking, when he said it, in God’s voice, as if the Creator was offering the world to the first man anew. “Here it is, your home. Sometimes it will be wonderful. Sometimes it will be horrific.” I like the quote because it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and violence and pain in the world. It doesn’t invite us to pretend in the glow of the beautiful that the terrible cannot ever happen to us. It reminds us that both the beautiful and the terrible will touch us. We can’t pretend forever that the horrors of the world will somehow skip over us. And, if we’re fortunate enough to not be touched by some of them, we can’t pretend that the people to whom they’re happening don’t matter. 
    But it also reminds us not to live in fear. It tells us that when the world is terrible aren’t to be paralyzed by fear. And that we aren’t to ruin the beautiful moments by being afraid of the terrible ones that may be coming. We so easily make both mistakes. But do we or do we not, after all, believe in the One who tells us not to be afraid, that he has overcome the world? Can we say believe if the terrible so terrifies us that our lives bear witness only to the power of fear?
     “Take heart,” says Jesus. In the face of the terrible, we’re to bear up courageously. That doesn’t mean stick-on smiles and fake laughter. Courage doesn’t rule out tears, or grief, or sadness. It doesn’t require blindness to the ways the world can be terrible. Courage isn’t pretending the fire doesn’t exist; it’s doing the job of saving others regardless. Courage isn’t doing your best to fake being well; it’s facing sickness with faith and hope and the peace of Christ. 
     “I have overcome the world,” he says. Not “I might overcome the world,” not even “I will.” The tense is past: “I have overcome the world.” The promises of Jesus, the promises of peace and safety, sharing in God’s life, aren’t just promises for one day after we die. They are to inform our lives hear and now. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” asked one of Jesus’ followers. God’s intent was set long ago, his plan put into motion, and the resurrection of Jesus is not just another promise, it’s the final triumphant exclamation point. If Jesus is alive, then he has overcome the most terrible things the world can do. It’s no longer something to hope for. Now it’s something to believe in and live by.
     Josh’ first day of preschool was September 11, 2001. He ends his high school career a few days after the deadliest attack on US soil since then. The world hasn’t gotten a lot better since then. But we don’t pin our hopes for the future on the idea of the world getting better. We pin them on the promise of Jesus sealed with that empty tomb. We take heart, believing that he  has indeed overcome the world. 
     If you’ve graduated this spring, or love someone who has, then that hope is for you.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Foreigners

“Hear my prayer, Lord, listen to my cry for help; do not be deaf to my weeping. I dwell with you as a foreigner, a stranger, as all my ancestors were.
-Psalm 39:12 (NIV)


Larissa Martinez moved to McKinney, Texas, from Mexico City in 2010, when she was 12 years old. Her mother had to work long hours to provide for Larissa and her sister, and Larissa had to take on responsibilities for her little sister that most 12-year-old girls in America don’t have to think about. “School became a safe haven for me,” Larissa says, “because despite not having internet, a washing machine, or even my own bed, I always had knowledge at my fingertips thanks to the library at my school.”
     Apparently, Larissa made good use of that library. She finished her high school career with almost a 5.0 GPA, and has a full ride to Yale in the fall. Last week, at McKinney Boyd High School’s graduation ceremony, Valedictorian Larissa Martinez spoke to her classmates and, as it turned out, a good portion of the world. Ironically for a girl who didn’t have internet access at home, her speech went viral.
     In her address, Larissa identifies three “Unexpected Realities” that have marked her life. The first was being an 11-year-old girl with an abusive and alcoholic father who naively thought that becoming an American would solve all her problems. The second was, at 12, trying to fit into a new culture while having her intelligence and accomplishments questioned and unacknowledged. As for the third — here, I’ll let Larissa tell you in her own words:

“Well, after all of these years, I’ve finally mustered up the courage to stand before you and share a struggle I’ve had to deal with each and every day. Unexpected Reality Number Three: I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States. I decided to stand before you today and reveal these Unexpected Realities because this might be my only chance to convey the truth to you that undocumented immigrants are people too.”

     I encourage you to watch Larissa’s speech. It will give you hope for the future, and it just might  change the way you think of undocumented immigrants. (Her opening joke about Beyonce and President Obama is pretty good, too.) 
     I know, immigration is a thorny political issue. Voices get pretty loud and strident on both sides of the debate, and both sides of the debate occasionally make some pretty good points as well. I don’t pretend to have answers; I don’t even know what questions to ask. Clearly, the system we have doesn’t work very well to deal with the sheer number of immigrants coming to our borders. (Larissa mentions in her speech that she’s been waiting for years for her application to even be processed.) 
     There’s a lot of space between those on one side who like the idea of a wall on the border, and those on the other who think we might as well do away with the border. But if you can listen to Larissa’s speech and still think that the immigration debate is simply a matter of law, then let me respectfully suggest to you that you’ve missed the point. Think of the myriad ways that Larissa’s life would be different if she and her mother weren’t living in America. Because they’re here, Larissa had teachers who didn’t ask for a green card, a school library with doors open for her. 
     Go back to the Old Testament and you start to notice a trend: God’s people have always been foreigners. Abram (Abraham) was told to leave his country and go to one that God would show him, and God promised him that one day he’d give the land which he lived in as a foreigner to his descendants. Moses was a Hebrew born in Egypt, and later lived as a foreigner in Midian. In view of their historic status as foreigners, God included in Israel’s Law a requirement that they should treat foreigners well. 
     God revealed himself to Israel as a God who “loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18) Foreigners in Israel were invited to share in the joy of community celebrations, feasts, and worship, and they were not to be deprived of justice. They were to be provided for through charitable giving. God even promises to testify against those who treat foreigners unfairly
     Apparently, when Israel found security and prosperity in their own land it was easy for them to forget that they had once been foreigners in a strange land too.
     So maybe, as God’s people, what we need to do before we can add something meaningful to the immigration debate is to remember that we are foreigners too. Whatever your birth certificate or your passport says, believers in Christ are to live as foreigners in this world. We’re citizens of a different country, and our hope is not in the security of our jobs or our property values or our children’s access to the Ivy League. 
     We’re called in Christ to cast our lot with the One who didn’t have a place to lay his head, and with those who through the centuries have looked with faith for God to build them a city where they would be truly at home. If our attitudes toward the foreigners among us don’t look much like God’s, then it may be because we’re too at home here, too invested in being secure and prosperous in our nice neighborhoods, in our kids’ schools not being “burdened” with too many ESL students. It might be because we’ve forgotten that, in the words of Larissa Martinez (but also in the spirit of the Bible), “immigrants are people too.” 
     That’s not primarily a political position. It’s not to say that there shouldn’t be immigration laws. None of us, though, are given the responsibility for enforcing whatever laws there may be. We are, however, given the responsibility to treat the foreigners among us with love, justice, respect, and care. We have to ask ourselves honestly how much of our attitudes toward immigrants around us comes from a desire to preserve our security as Americans. And whether that desire might conflict with our status as citizens of the kingdom of God.  
     Let’s not forget where our true citizenship is. Then we’ll remember how to treat foreigners among us.


Friday, June 3, 2016

From Judge to Friend

Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.
-John 7:24 (NIV)


When Lavante Dell was pulled over by a police officer in Westland, Michigan, he probably had an idea of how it was going to go. 
     Lavante, a black man, was pulled over in the predominantly white Detroit suburb for having tinted windows on his car. As the officer, Joshua Scaglione, was walking back to his car to run Lavante’s license and registration, he noticed Lavante’s 3-year-old daughter in the back, belted in but not in a car seat. Officer Scaglione asked Lavante why the girl wasn’t in the appropriate seat, and Lavante began explaining that he couldn’t afford one. That’s when Officer Scaglione asked him to get out of the car. And this, no doubt, is where Lavante thought it could go bad. There are too many stories, after all, that start just this way, with a white police officer asking a black man to get out of the car. But Lavante got out.
     Officer Scaglione  asked for some more information about his financial situation. Then he asked where he was going. Finally, he asked, “Can you follow me to Wal-Mart?”
     And that’s how it came about that Lavante and Officer Scaglione walked into Wal-Mart like, as Lavante put it in a Facebook post, “we were best friends.” Officer Scaglione bought Lavante a car seat — after asking his daughter what color and design she wanted. (Pink, incidentally.) 
     Lavante was so surprised that he didn’t think about asking the officer his name, or even looking at his name tag. He posted on Facebook, then spent some time on the phone with the police department trying to track down the officer who had been so kind to him. And, eventually, he found Officer Scaglione. The Westland Police Department arranged a meeting with, of course, cameras present, though of course Officer Scaglione dismissed all the attention by saying he was just doing his job, and that giving Lavante a ticket would have just made his situation worse. Of his gift, he simply said, “You have a daughter and she is a Number 1 priority and you deserve it.”
     Lavante’s takeaway from his experience is a bit cliched, perhaps, but still true: “never judge a book by its cover.”
      Either Lavante or Officer Scaglione could have. Either could have taken a glance at the situation and assumed they knew all they needed to know about each other: a young black man who didn’t care about his daughter, a racist white cop who was never going to give a black man in a white suburb the benefit of the doubt. But by suspending judgement, the two of them (Lavante chose to cooperate, remember) wrote a story that judging by appearances could never have written.
     Honestly, we judge by appearances so often we might not even know when we’re doing it. It’s how we process information — we relate it to something we already know. So you see a guy with a sign at an intersection, and you immediately think you know his story. Someone hurts me, and I immediately assume I know why. We see someone dressed well at church, and someone dressed shabbily, and we make all kinds of assumptions about success and morality and even faith.
     Judging by appearances is easier, of course. It’s faster than gathering the information needed to make a right judgment. It’s the path of least resistance because it feeds our own preconceptions and prejudices.
     But, of course, judging by appearances usually gets us on the wrong side. Judging by appearances has led us, hasn’t it, to taking the side of the tyrant against the tyrannized? It’s caused us to vilify virtue while glorifying evil and corruption. Judging by appearances has given the well-mannered, the eloquent, the educated, the charming a pass to do whatever they like, without accountability. It’s allowed free reign to those who look, speak, act, and dress like the majority.
     Judging by appearances lets us dismiss uncritically any thought, any idea, any person that doesn’t line up with our experiences, assumptions, and prejudices. When we judge by appearances, the mistakes of those we dislike become character flaws while the deep-seated immorality of those we approve can be overlooked or written off.  
     We can, apparently, even mistake the work of God for the work of the Devil. And vice-versa, probably.
     And so Jesus reminds us not to judge by appearances. In other places, he says not to judge at all. I tend to think in both places he means pretty much the same thing. Judging by appearances can be a handy way to dismiss someone, to deny him or her personhood, to in effect objectify them as a caricature of a human being. Though there are times when perhaps we must make a judgment about a person’s words, or actions — such as the judgment about Jesus’ words or actions that he invited — we’re never to let knee-jerk surface judgments cloud the picture.
      The only way to avoid this, probably, is the way that Lavante Dell and Joshua Scaglione took. We have to be willing to get to know one another. We have to be willing to push past the surface impressions to the people underneath. We have to learn each others’ stories, become comfortable with the fact that all of us are big collections of mixed motives, past mistakes and hopes for the future, successes and failures, victories and defeats. When we do, we can start to see God’s fingerprints on one another, and to believe that every one of us is loved by him and depends entirely on him.
     Then, maybe, we’ll start to treat each other with the generosity, grace, and love that Jesus was known for. And maybe we’ll be able to see the hypocrisy, selfishness, and violence around us — and in us — for what it is, too. The way that he did.

     Maybe there’s someone right now who you’re judging by appearances, some situation that you haven’t looked at 6 inches below the surface. If so, you’re in no position to make a right judgment. Give judgment to the Lord, and instead get to know that person. Move toward her or him in a spirit of love and grace. And just see if, like Lavante and Officer Scaglione, you might find a friend.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Unwritten Rules

     I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.
-1 Corinthians 4:6 (NRSV)


If you’re much into baseball, then you’ve probably seen “The Punch Heard ‘Round the World” — Rangers infielder Rougned Odor catching Bluejays outfielder Jose Bautista with a right cross after Baustista’s hard slide in a game last weekend. It’s just the latest entry in a long series of baseball altercations that revolve around what pundits refer to as baseball’s “unwritten rules.” 
     The fight really started during the playoffs last season, when Bautista flipped his bat in celebration after a clutch home run against the Rangers. That’s one of the unwritten rules — you can’t celebrate a home run in a way that the other team might consider showing up their pitcher. So, you can pump a fist as you round the bases, or high-five your teammates at the plate, or even go back out of the dugout and tip your cap to the crowd. But you can’t flip your bat. You might hurt the pitcher’s feelings. 
     So Bautista was on base in the game last weekend because Rangers pitcher Matt Bush had hit him with a pitch — almost certainly intentionally, almost certainly in retaliation for the bat flip. That’s another unwritten rule: there are times a pitcher must throw at a batter. In the logic of baseball’s unwritten rules, Bautista had earned a beaning by celebrating a home run he hit off an entirely different pitcher in an entirely different game that happened last season. Oh, and Bush wasn’t even on the team last year when the bat flip happened. 
     And then there’s the matter of the hard slide. Bautista slid late, and he slid at Odor instead of at the bag. This is most commonly done to break up a potential double play, which is ostensibly what Bautista was doing in this case. But it really looked more like he was trying to hurt Odor to get some payback for getting plunked. It’s another of those “unwritten rules” of baseball, though in this case it runs counter to a new written rule that says a baserunner can’t interfere with an infielder trying to turn a double play. 
     If you’re confused, don’t be surprised. You’re not a Major League baseball player, and so the minutiae of the unwritten rules understandably eludes you. But note this: at any time, the progression of events that led to the punch could have been interrupted, either by application of the written rules or by one player choosing not to escalate. But, with everyone reading off those unwritten rules, the two teams moved inexorably toward the punch.
     That’s the problem with unwritten rules: they generally have the power to escalate conflict, but none to  resolve it. 
     It’s a good thing the church has never had a problem with unwritten rules.
     All right, I’ll wait while you catch your breath and wipe away the tears from the outburst of laughter. 
     Historically, I guess it’s true: the church has created, lived with, and divided over a lot of unwritten rules. The excuse we’ve used is the importance of being doctrinally correct, and so strong-willed leaders have forced their understandings of what “right” is on the church at large. And so we’ve been inundated by unwritten rules about everything from the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit  to the relationship between grace and works to the amount a believer should give every Sunday. We’ve had, at various times and places, unwritten rules about how many converts a Christian should make, how many drinks a Christian can have, and how churches should be governed. In my own little fellowship of believers, I’ve known folks with hard and rigid unwritten rules about how many cups we can use in communion, whether it’s OK to have Sunday School classes or not, and whether or not it’s OK to clap in a worship service.
     But the church does have written rules: the Bible, of course, though sometimes certainty on what is written in the Bible can be hard to come by. There are some disputes in the church that could be settled by an appeal to Scripture, but the fact is a lot of our disputes come from the fact that honest people who want to please the Lord read the Bible differently. And, maybe, once we’ve made our cases to each other, it’s important to assume the best of one another and agree to disagree. Instead of going beyond what is written and judging brothers and sisters who see things differently, we could give each other a break and praise God for our diversity. We aren’t, after all, the Lord’s people because we have the Bible exactly right.
     We’re the Lord’s people because of Jesus, the One through whom God has made himself known most clearly. John the Evangelist calls him the Word made flesh, and so maybe we should turn to him as the “written” rule to displace our unwritten ones.  Through Jesus, God says “this is who I am and this is what I care about most.” The early church even read their Bible, the Jewish scriptures, through the lens of this new thing God had done in Jesus. Those Old Testament texts had meaning back when they were written, but they took on new meaning as the church saw them in a different light, the light cast by Jesus.      
     Remember the lesson of baseball: unwritten rules have the power to escalate conflict, but none to  resolve it. When we go “beyond what is written,” we get in trouble. When we make our opinions on the Bible equal to the Bible itself, when we make tradition into law, or when we read the Bible without “reading” the Word made flesh, we invariably get it wrong. We hurt people, we divide churches, we fail in our responsibility to be salt and light, and we bring shame on the name of Jesus. 
      This is a particular danger for people who take their identity so heavily from Scripture. We can easily allow ourselves to make the mistake of those who ended up opposing Jesus’ work because of their unwritten rules. 
      If you can’t imagine Jesus doing what you’re doing, saying what you’re saying — then you’re wrong.

     That’s a rule you can write down.

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