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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Peace on Christmas Night

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)


Christmas Night. The gifts are put away. The food eaten. The sounds of tearing wrapping paper, the tones of my son’s new keyboard, the laughter of family and friends have given way to quiet. Even the weather has slipped into the peace of this most peaceful of nights, the rain that pattered steadily against the windows all day having turned a few hours ago into a light and silent snowfall while my attention was on other things.

That’s a nice parable, really, a good analogy for the way the peace of Christ comes: quietly, softly, while we’re focused on other things. It comes in dingy stables in out-of-the-way places, on silent nights when only a few have eyes to see and ears to hear what’s happening. It comes in turmoil and chaos, while the world roils and writhes and tyrants seem to carry the day. Into fear and grief and pain and even death it comes, in the labor pains of a young woman and the faith of a young man.

The peace of Christ comes crying and wailing, wrapped in rags and lying in the hollowed-out log where cattle usually munch hay. No wonder so few seem to recognize it.

Read an article from a magazine called Slate yesterday (http://www.slate.com/id/2179865/). The article, written by Melinda Wenner, was titled “Can a Virgin Give Birth?” I was struck, as I read the title, that if not for Jesus and the story of his birth I would have laughed out loud at that title. After all, it’s so ridiculous a question that except for the Christmas story, no one in her right mind would even entertain it. Can a virgin give birth? Might as well ask if an anvil can float.

Well it turns out that, according to the article, a virgin can give birth – it’s just very, very unlikely. I’ll spare the details, but basically it comes down to three or four one-in-a-billion genetic mutations occurring simultaneously. The conditions have only been replicated in a lab, and not with human beings. But according to Ms. Wenner, it’s at least theoretically possible.

Of course, that does nothing to ease the embarrassment of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. That’s right, embarrassment. Just ask Joseph, who when he heard of Mary’s pregnancy was of a mind to end his engagement as quickly and quietly as possible. By the time Paul wrote his letters, some 10 or 15 years after Jesus’ death, the embarrassment seems to have lingered. Paul never mentions the virgin birth; the closest he comes is when he makes the point that Jesus was “born of a woman,” more to emphasize that he shared in the human condition than to theologize about the meaning of the circumstances surrounding his birth. In fact, it’s pretty significant that the church has never placed much theological weight on the virgin birth. And, since the word translated “virgin” in Isaiah 7 is probably better translated “young woman,” we don’t even need a virgin birth for the prophecy to work.

Biblically and theologically, then, there doesn’t seem to be a need for God to bring Jesus into the world in so strange and potentially embarrassing a manner. Incidentally, that’s a very good reason to believe it. There seems to be no reason at all for Jesus’ followers to have preserved the story of his conception – except that it happened that way. The word Matthew chooses is “virgin” – not “young woman” – and the best explanation for that is that it’s the story he heard.

So with all of its technical detail, the article misses a very important point. We don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus because it makes sense in terms of science, or because it might be possible under the right laboratory conditions. We celebrate his birth because it doesn’t make sense. We celebrate its strangeness and wonder at its weirdness. In the unlikeliest of circumstances, God came to be with us in Christ. The virgin gave birth to a son, and we call him Immanuel – “God with us.”

As the article demonstrates, he comes when we have our attention focused elsewhere. While we make our plans and meditate on our theories and make our decisions, Jesus comes like a Christmas night snow and disrupts everything. He comes in less-than-ideal circumstances, in ways that are easily missed or misinterpreted. He comes in turmoil and chaos, into fear and grief and pain and even death. He comes crying and wailing, wrapped in rags. And he comes that way because those are the people for whom he comes. Those who cry and wail. Those who are wrapped in rags. Those who feel the chaos and turmoil of a world gone wrong, who feel the tyrant’s hand keenly and have lived too long in death’s shadow. He comes, in short, to people like us, and brings peace to real lives like the ones we live.

Apparently, though, the peace of Christ is something we have to let rule in our hearts. I guess that’s because it’s human nature to let other things rule: doubt, or fear, or guilt, maybe. Or, on the other hand, our own abilities, plans, common sense, or intellect. The peace Jesus brings doesn’t come insisting on being heard and heeded. It comes offering another way to live, another compass by which to calibrate our hearts. It comes promising that the things we can see and hear and touch around us aren’t the only things, or even the most important things. It comes suggesting that what we understand is far too shaky a foundation upon which to build a life.

So as Christmas comes to a close for another year, it would be a shame if we put the peace of Christ away in the attic with the decorations, only to be taken out and appreciated for a few weeks next year. The peace he brings is for our everyday world, much more than it is for some mass-marketed “holiday season.” He offers us everyday peace, and invites us to choose to let our hearts be ruled by it. Let’s begin now to trust him, even when everything around us is messy and chaotic and shouts that we should panic. Allow his peace to rule in your heart: to set your agenda, determine your priorities, and inform your thoughts, words and actions.

That’s Christmas. That’s the point.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"His Name Is John"

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David… (Luke 1:68-69)



“His name is John.”

The angel was very clear. Our son – Elizabeth’s and mine – would be called John. You’d think that God would have much more important things to do than choose the name of our kid. Then again, his birth was anything but usual.

For starters, Elizabeth and I are – well, “well along in years” is a nice way to put it. I hope he’ll be out of diapers before we’re in them, if you want to know the truth of the matter. Elizabeth’s prayed faithfully for a child for our entire life together, but, honestly, I had given up hope. Wouldn’t have said that to her, of course, but with every year that passed I knew the chances got worse. I know – it’s not like God hasn’t done it before. We’re not nearly as old as Abraham and Sarah were. Still, when we take him out people will mistake him for our grandson.

I guess that’s why I didn’t believe it. People always ask me that: “Zechariah, why didn’t you just believe that angel?” I know, it sounds stupid: an angel appears and tells me I’m going to have a child, and I doubt his word? It wasn’t, I guess, that I didn’t believe God could give us children in our, umm, golden years if he wanted to. I just doubted that he would want to. I mean, I’m not Abraham, and Elizabeth isn’t Sarah. We’re not building a nation here. We’re just an old priest and his wife who were getting used to the notion that we’d never have children.

Believe me, I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I said. I’ve replayed in my head countless times. The angel speaks, and I say something like, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Honestly, though, what I actually said was a lot more honest: “How can I possibly believe this?”

Apparently I didn’t get points for honesty. Nine months is a long time when your wife is pregnant and you can’t talk. (Though, actually, Elizabeth now thinks all men should temporarily lose the power of speech when their wives are expecting…) Not having the ability to speak certainly gives you the chance to listen, though. And think. And pray. Everyone else has been talking: about my story, about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, about what it all means. Everyone’s got a theory, and they all want everyone else to hear it.

I think that’s why Gabriel told me I couldn’t speak until John was born. I thought at first it was punishment, but I don’t think so anymore. It makes more sense to me now that he took away my voice so that I could shut up for a little while about my own agenda and pay some attention to God’s. Thinking back to that day at the temple, I was going on so much about not being able to believe what God said that I couldn’t really hear him.

Like I said, though – I’ve had plenty to time to think about it since then. And when I finally stopped talking, God visited me with some understanding.

God only does things like what happened to Elizabeth and me when cataclysmic things are happening in the world. The last time something like this happened, God created a nation for himself.

Now he’s doing it again. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Gabriel said about our son: “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” He told me, that day, but I just couldn’t hear him. Our son will call God’s people back to him, like the prophets of old. His birth is the sign that God is coming to redeem us, to save us from our enemies. He’ll forgive our sins and come to us in his mercy like the sunrise at the end of a long, dark night. He’s going to show us that the covenant he made so long ago means something to him – even though we’ve taken it too lightly.

And when he comes, our son will prepare the way for him. He will bring “the knowledge of salvation” to us, the people God loves so dearly.

Oh, I don’t know any more than you do how it will happen. I just know that it will. In one way or another, God will come to save his people – just like he’s always done. He’ll come in judgment, in righteousness, and – for those who want it – in peace. You can write it down. You can quote me on it.

On second thought, don’t quote me. The most significant thing I ever said was something I never actually said. “His name is John.” Not that it would matter to God’s plan if I named him Fred or Garth or Aloysious. I like “John,” though. It has a nice ring. And it has come to mean something to me. It signifies the day I stopped doubting God, stopped dictating to him how he should behave, and learned to shut up and trust him. “If you say his name’s John, Lord, then John it is.”

Maybe that speaks to you where you live. If so, then I’m glad. Trust me – it’s never wrong to shut up and trust the Lord. He won’t always do things the way you would, or when you would. I can guarantee you that. Sometimes people will look at you like you’re crazy when you decide to shut up and trust God. “John? Where did you get John?” they’ll say. Or, you know, something like that. But when they question, and wonder, and argue, you don’t have to answer. You don’t have to say anything. Just smile, and shrug, and say it again. “His name is John.” What God says, goes. If no one else understands, or agrees, or even has a clue, that’s OK.

If nine months of being quiet has taught me anything, it’s that all of us are at our best when we shut up and trust the Lord.

You can learn that the easy way, or the hard way. This is the easy way. Trust me.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Difference

“…Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:15-16)


“Joseph – you say his name was Joseph. That’s a good name. I mean, it must be, since every other family on our street had a son named Joseph.”

That was Eleazar’s response when I told him about his great-grandson (in my imagination). He was considerably more enthusiastic when I told him what Joseph did for a living. He smiled – beamed, in fact. “A carpenter. Like me. Like his grandfather. Like my father and grandfather. You know, carpentry’s a good trade. Everyone needs things made of wood, and so everyone needs a craftsman who knows how to join and shape and finish wood. Do you know that someone who knows what he’s doing can make a mortise joint so tight that…”

I cut him off there. (It’s my imagination, after all…) Truthfully, I didn’t really want to talk to Eleazar about carpentry. I was really sort of looking for something, to be honest – some kind of insight into what made Joseph the man he turned out to be. Not that Joseph did anything overtly heroic, of course. But he trusted God, and he faithfully took care of the people God gave him. And I wondered if any of that came from Eleazar.

At first, I thought I was going to be disappointed. Eleazar was much more comfortable talking about woodgrain and chisels than he was talking about faith and angels and dreams. When I told him about Joseph’s strange betrothal, and the circumstances of his first son’s birth, he got a very strange look on his face. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably, cleared his throat a couple of times, and opened and closed his mouth as he tried to think of what to say, and how to say it. Finally, he was able to get it out.

“And the dream…what the angel said…was true?”

I nodded, and he shook his head and chuckled nervously. I told him that Joseph did exactly what the angel told him to do: he swallowed his pride, took Mary to be his wife, and named her baby Jesus.

“The Lord saves,” he said, half to himself. “I always liked that name.”

He was quiet for a moment, then he said, “Well, I guess if an angel speaks to you, you really don’t have much choice, do you?”

I asked Eleazar what he’d taught Joseph’s grandfather, Matthan, about God. He thought for a moment. “Well,” he began, “I sort of think I didn’t teach him enough. I mean, there was always work to do. Something to build. Something to repair. Something to plant. Something to cultivate. Something to pick. Most of what I remember telling him had to do with work. But I showed him how to make a mortise joint so tight that…”

I cut him off again. (It’s still my imagination.) I asked if he ever prayed with Matthan. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Every day, we thanked God for our blessings. And we all prayed together when business was bad, or when the rain didn’t come.

“I told him the stories, too. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Moses and the Exodus. Joshua. I told him how our family was descended from kings, from David himself. I told him about Goliath’s defiance and his ancestor’s bravery, and how God saved him and defeated the giant through him.”

He went on, gathering steam. “The commandments were big in our house,” he remembered. “We kept the Sabbath and the festivals, and the fast on the Day of Atonement. We went to Jerusalem for the Passover most every year.” He laughed. “There was this one year when Matthan got lost, we thought. But we found him with my cousin and his kids.”

I started to tell him, but he broke in. “I guess, maybe, I taught Matthan more than I thought. Do you think…maybe…I don’t know…maybe he passed on what he learned from me to his son?” I told him I thought that might very well be. “And maybe his son passed that on to Joseph, then? And maybe that had something to do with the man Joseph turned out to be?”

“I’m thinking that too,” I told him.

“And what happened to Joseph’s son? I mean, Mary’s son. Jesus.”

So I told him. I told him about Jesus’ life and death, and he wiped tears from his eyes with his carpenter’s hands. And I told him about Jesus rising from the dead, and he gasped audibly. And then I told him that millions and millions of people had found hope, redemption, and life in his adopted great-great-grandson, that they had lived for him and died for him and spread the word about him through a world that was many times as large as he had ever imagined. He turned his face away for a few moments, stoically trying to compose himself.

When he turned back, he looked at me and, voice quivering, asked if what I’d told him was true. So I pulled out a Bible and read to him: “Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

He gasped when he heard that last. Christ. Messiah. “The king the prophets promised would come and restore Israel.” And then he laughed out loud. “And I’m his great-great-grandfather.” He laughed, hard, and then it seemed to suddenly turn to sobs. After a long, frankly kind of uncomfortable few minutes (even if it is my imagination), he whispered, “I never imagined.”

Of course he didn’t. How could he? I don’t know what I expected him to be, but what he turned out to be was better. He was just a guy who found it much easier to talk about carpentry than God. But as he taught his son about life, he passed on his faith, too. That’s the way it always is with faith – it’s taught best in the context of life. Faith’s great lessons are learned most memorably in carpentry shops, around dinner tables, and in prayers of thanksgiving and petition.

And we never know what difference those lessons will make in the lives of those who learn them. What difference they’ll make in countless lives. We can’t know. But we can be faithful. We can pass on our faith, tell the stories that have made us who we are, believing that God will do wonderful things with those stories.

So let’s tell our stories. Let’s live our faith with the people who God gives us. There’s no way to know what difference we might make in the lives of the generations that come behind us. No way for us to know, I mean.

God already does.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Letting Down Our Hair

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (Luke 7:40-43)



Her actions were rash. Heedless of the limits of politeness. Even scandalous. It was a serious enough breach that she walked into the home of a respected religious leader and interrupted his banquet without an invitation or introduction. Her faux pas was made worse by virtue of the fact that she was a woman. And everyone knew what kind of woman, and about the life she had lived – even if her exploits were more lurid in the town’s collective imagination than in actuality. She was pushing the boundaries of propriety by even showing up.

But then what she did…oh, what she did.

It seems, maybe, that her intent was originally to offer him the most valuable thing she owned – an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. She approached him as he reclined at the table on his side, his feet extended. But as she drew closer, the tears started to fall. One landed on Jesus’ feet, still dusty from his walk to Simon’s house. Then another. Then another. And then she noticed that his feet hadn’t been washed, and then she loosened her hair – loosened her hair – and used it to wipe off the tears and dust. And then it just made sense, somehow to open the jar and pour the perfume on his feet.

Simon, predictably and even understandably, is shocked. His righteous indignation builds with every moment the woman is in his house. His disapproval of Jesus, noticeable from the beginning to judge by his failure to see that Jesus’ feet were washed, rises accordingly. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner,” he sneers to himself, comfortably satisfied that his initial judgment of Jesus in on target.

Maybe Jesus was able to read his mind. Most likely, he didn’t need to. What he thought of Jesus – and the woman – was probably written all over his face and body language. So Jesus can’t resist the opportunity to tell a parable, try to help Simon, or at least his other guests, to think differently about this woman and her actions. And more importantly, maybe, themselves and their own actions.

What Jesus does, in short, is to recast the woman’s actions in terms of gratitude. Even Simon, in his pious sanctimony, can see that the larger the debt forgiven, the greater the gratitude of the one forgiven. And therein lies his problem.

Simon sees Jesus, you see, entirely in terms of the religious system he’s inherited. For Simon, good people and bad people are easily distinguished, and movement from one category to the other is unlikely. Simon sees himself as “good,” probably always has, and so he doesn’t know much about the way grateful people behave.

For Jesus, though, the woman’s actions aren’t shocking at all. They spring from her gratitude. She’s heard, somewhere, Jesus’ message of God opening his kingdom to all. She’s believed that God’s kingdom is for the “prostitutes and tax collectors,” and so she’s come to imagine that it might be for her, too. She’s received God’s forgiveness, grace, and love, in spite of her sin, and her tribute to Jesus is the spontaneous response of a grateful heart.

“If you don’t get it,” Jesus tells his host, “then it might be because you don’t know what it is to be grateful.”

That’s what happens when religion starts being about defining ourselves as good, and stops being about celebrating the one who has given us such love, grace, and forgiveness. Our church pews can easily become full of Simons who wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he came in and sat down with us, and we show ourselves for who we are in the way we treat those who come among us full of the joy and gratitude of newly-received forgiveness. Too often we sit with arms folded, scowls on our faces, dwelling on who people used to be and oblivious to who God is making them into. Sometimes traces of gratitude and joy are hard to find in our churches, obscured as they are by our concerns for rigid respectability and religiosity. It’s been so long since some of us have considered how much we’ve been forgiven that we’ve forgotten how to love – love God, and love others.

Thankfully, though, the rehabilitation of our inner Simons isn’t as difficult as we might think. Gratitude isn’t that hard to recapture. It starts with acknowledging that we’re sinners, and not all that different from the folks that we’re tempted to look down upon when we’re in our “religious” frames of mind. We need to confess our sins, to ourselves and even to one another, for the simple reason that we need to know how much we’ve been forgiven. We need to stop excusing ourselves, stop justifying the things we do by minimizing them in relation to other sins or telling ourselves that they’re understandable under the circumstances.

If gratitude has to do with knowing how much we’ve been forgiven, then let us affirm that we’re sinners in need of mercy, and then joyfully proclaim the good news that in Christ we have received it. Let’s honor Jesus for what he has given us, and let us welcome into his presence other sinners who are learning the joy of God’s grace. And let our expressions of gratitude be so extravagant and un-self-conscious as to make Pharisees everywhere squirm uncomfortably.

Maybe then our churches will become what they’re supposed to be: communities in which all who want to express their gratitude to Jesus can let down their hair and find a place with us at the table.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Off the Hook

There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12)


Two robbers forced their way into a home in Indianapolis last week. They tied up the owners and hit one with a handgun, but as they ransacked the house, the family’s infant son, Jaylin, started to cry. Jaylin’s mom asked one of the invaders if there was any way he could let her oldest son feed the baby.

“Yeah, dude. Yeah dude; I can do that,” he said.

He even warmed Jaylin’s bottle in the microwave, Jaylin’s mom reported.

Maybe you don’t expect someone who breaks into someone else’s home, ties them up, and pistol-whips them to have much of a heart. That’s why this story is news, isn’t it – because it’s unexpected? We know, after all, who these guys are who break into homes and hurt people. We know what kind of people they are, and we don’t have a lot of room for the picture of them taking time out of their busy day of robbing and terrorizing to take care of a hungry baby. It doesn’t fit.

Could it be, maybe, that we’re too quick to put people into boxes based on the limited knowledge we have of their motives, actions, values, and situations? We’re so prone to judge people on so little evidence: on the basis of one bad day or a few careless words, a poor choice made in a weak moment, a disagreement, a personality quirk. We shove them in our mental boxes and bolt down the lids: liar, thief, cheater. Heretic. Selfish. Failure. Sinner.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” Jesus once cautioned. The reason he gives emphasizes what a double-standard it is when we pigeonhole people a little too efficiently and expeditiously: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” None of us want to be placed in a box based on a few of our worst actions. We all prefer to be evaluated, if at all, on our entire body of work. Jesus just reminds us to extend that same courtesy to those with whom we share life.

No one would suggest that it’s OK, under any circumstances, to break into a house, assault the people living there, and take their possessions. I wouldn’t know where to begin to defend those actions, and wouldn’t want to try even if I did. From the perspective of the law, of simple right and wrong, the people who committed that crime should be found and punished. That’s not at issue here.

What Jesus reminds us, though, is that we don’t see people as just the sum total of their bad decisions and less-than-greatest moments. Even as we hold people accountable for their actions, we can recognize that they’re more than the sum of their actions. And even when we come into contact – as we will – with people who have elevated wrongdoing to an art form, he reminds us that it’s too much like the world and too little like him to slap a label on that person and dismiss him or her as irredeemably and irretrievably broken.

What do you think when you see a homeless person? What are your opinions of a friend who’s hurt you? How do you evaluate a person who’s victimized you or someone you care about? A brother or sister who’s disappointed you? A spouse who’s taken his or her vows too lightly?

Even home invaders can have compassionate moments. You can never tell what might be buried in a person’s heart, waiting to be rediscovered. And don’t we believe that God can uncover the things that have been buried by years of pain, bitterness, self-preservation, and bad choices?

James reminds us in no uncertain terms that there’s only one who’s qualified to be judge and jury, only one who can be trusted to truthfully evaluate hearts and minds. He will save and destroy. “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” he asks. That’s a reasonable question, isn’t it? Who, exactly, am I to sit in judgment on anyone?

I’m a person who’s made my share of bad decisions, that’s who. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been angry. I’ve said things I’ve regretted, and probably a few things I should have regretted and didn’t. I’m aware enough of my own failures that I feel pretty sure that, given less-ideal circumstances than the ones I enjoy, I might very well have made even worse choices. Given all that, I need to be very cautious about treating anyone else in way that keeps them perpetually on the hook for every sin they’ve ever committed. I don’t want to spend my life in someone’s convenient box for my sins, and I’m certainly grateful God hasn’t treated me that way. I’m grateful that he sees value in me in spite of the sinful things I’ve done and the good things I haven’t. How else can I show that gratitude but by giving others the grace I’ve received.

Because that’s what it is not to pass judgment: grace. To say to someone, in words and actions, “In spite of what you’ve done I see and celebrate the image of God in you” – that’s a great gift to give. That’s not to say we celebrate or wink at sin. It’s not to say we don’t mourn the way the image of God in a person can be so warped and obscured. In the end, we choose not to pass judgment because in doing so we human beings almost always overlook the potential for good that exists in all of God’s creation. And that’s an affront to our Creator.

Our Creator. That’s what we all share in common, whichever side of the law or respectability or society’s approval we may find ourselves on at any given moment. We’re all God’s creatures, and none of us are called to sit in judgment on any of the rest of us. We’re called instead to love each other, serve each other, and be witnesses to the grace of God in Jesus Christ by the things we do and say.

Maybe there’s someone you need to let off the hook. You need to open the box you’ve placed them in and let them out. Maybe just in your heart, to start with – but rest assured that choice will affect the way you treat that person, talk about him, and think about him. You’ll start to see how much he matters to God, and you’ll start to imagine what God can do with him and in him.

Trust him to judge. He will, rightly, and at the right time.

And you won’t want to change a thing.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Eternal(?) Flame

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said...
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25, 28-22)



What part of “eternal” don't they understand?

Late last year, town officials in Bullhead City, Arizona, came to terms with a veterans' organization to pay for the maintenance on a park and memorial honoring veterans that the organization had financed and built. Part of the memorial is an “eternal flame” intended to symbolize the city's remembrance of the sacrifices of veterans and their families. But for most of this year, the eternal flame has been cold and dark.

In December of last year, the first month's gas bill arrived, and the city was on the hook for $961.17.

They bit the bullet through the holidays, then pulled the plug – or turned the valve, I guess – on the eternal flame.

Not surprisingly, people were upset. The city manager suggested that the “eternal” flame only be lit for holidays and special occasions, but of course that sort of misses the point of an eternal flame. The veterans say that the cost of gas for the flame had been factored into the agreement all along. Some city officials said they didn't think anyone actually realized that they'd have to pay the gas bill.

I don't know – “Occasional Flame”? It just doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?

How easy it is for human beings not to follow through. We make grand pronouncements, develop ambitious plans, dream big dreams, commit to important causes. We get married, change jobs, start diet and exercise regimens, and take up hobbies. We sign up to be part of the PTA, or serve at a soup kitchen, or support a child in a third-world country. And all these things we do sound like good ideas at the time. No one commits to something intending not to follow through.

It just happens.

Not always, but often enough, that's what has failed in a failed marriage. Not love, but commitment. We think commitment ends when we don't feel love anymore, but in Jesus God showed us that it works the other way around. Commitment is to love what oxygen is to fire. Feed a marriage commitment, and love will provide life, heat and warmth eternally. But if even one partner fails to live up to his or her responsibilities – well, love will wind up a lot like an eternal flame in Bullhead City.

We so easily get discouraged, tired, burned out, or distracted. Our loyalties get shifted to newer, more novel commitments. The old commitments lose their luster. Maybe we get tired of the obstacles in our paths. Sometimes it's disillusionment, or depression, or even just distance that does it. For whatever reason, we often find it easier to just bail out on the plans, commitments, and promises we've made.

Jesus knows that about us, and that's why he talks about tower architects and kings going to war. He was speaking to “large crowds” that the Bible said had been travelling with him. They thought they were his followers; after all, they followed him.

But Jesus warned them. “Who's going to start building a tower without budgeting first?” (Several developers in Chicago, it appears.) “What king would go to war against an opposing army without running the numbers and calculating win and lose scenarios?” The answer the question expects is “no one.” No king, no architect, would make such commitments without being sure they could finish what they begin.

“In the same way,” Jesus warns, “any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Understand, Jesus doesn't want to discourage anyone from following hm. But he wants his followers to be clear about the cost: if you aren't ready to “give up everything you have,” you might not quite yet be ready to follow him. He isn't trying to make us doubt our devotion. He wants us to reaffirm our commitment to him. To be willing to give up our lives.

Bullhead City has decided to redesign the flame. It will use less gas and be protected fron strong winds. They re-lit the flame in October and will leave it on for a month to monitor it. I hope it can stay lit.

I hope the same for you: that your flame will stay lit. I can tell you, though, almost certainly that it won't if you don't often re-affirm your decision to follow Jesus. It'll become an occasional flame, at best: only lit at certain times and places for people to appreciate, and quickly extinguished when it's time to go back to “real life.” It certainly won't survive when the cost seems high and the challenges difficult.

Maintaining an eternal flame for Jesus in your heart will demand patience. It will require prayer and discipline. It will be oxygenated by thanksgiving and praise, and will burn best when fanned by others who have the same fire burning in their hearts. And it won't be a one-time decision, of course: more a series of choices to keep the flame lit or let it be extinguished. There will be days when it will seem to burn low, but on those days you huddle in prayer and listen to his word and call on others and then trust in his Spirit to keep it alive. And then you'll hear a song, or a sermon, or bend low to serve, or receive service from someone else, and it will roar to life again. And then others will be able to get warm.

How's the flame? Eternal, or occasional? You know, don't you, which one burns for you in the Lord's heart?

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Good Without God

You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24, NIV)


Earlier this week, an organization called The Chicago Coalition of Reason put up a billboard at the corner of Grand and LaSalle avenues in downtown Chicago that’s generated some discussion and debate. The CoR is an atheist organization that promotes the idea that “humanists, agnostics and atheists are as normal as anyone else. We’re your friends, neighbors and family members. We care about our communities and are true to our values.”

Their billboard, which CoR members say is to “break the stereotype that atheists are evil and end the subtle discrimination that unfolds as a result.” It reads: “Are you good without God? Millions are.”

Well, frankly, I long ago gave up the notion that people who believe in God are necessarily nicer or better or more virtuous or more ethical than people who don’t. People are good – or not – for a whole slew of reasons that may or may not have to do with faith in God. The question I have about atheists and morality is this: “Who tells us what ‘good’ is?” Is it enough to be true to our values if our values are mixed up?

Actually, though, that’s a good question to ask folks who claim belief in God, too.

Are you good without God?

I think the billboard has a double meaning, and I want to look at both meanings. Are you good without God – as in, “Are you OK without God? Do you need him to make your choices and live your life?” Christians, of course, would generally make the right noise about needing him. If you pinned a thousand self-identified Christians down, you might get five who’d say, “Actually, I can generally get by just fine without God, yes.” We’re conditioned to talk about faith and trust and depending on God’s grace, and most of us can hit all the right notes.

But sometimes I think we live as though we’re actually pretty good – pretty OK – without God. When we make our decisions based on what “seems OK” or “feels right,” we’re living as if God has nothing we need. When we know what’s right and still choose to do what’s wrong, we conduct ourselves as if our own conscience and value system are the true measures of character, integrity, and virtue. When we lean on our own talents, resources, and schemes to get what we think we want, we deny that there’s any area of our lives in which we need his grace, wisdom, and strength. When we make our plans and carry them out without prayer and advice from other believers, we walk as if there’s no one to lead us. When we live torn by doubt, worry, and fear, we choose to live as if we don’t know the gracious Father in heaven who provides for our needs.

Paul reminds the church in Ephesus of what their live had been like, so he can remind them of who they claim to be now. Their predicament was darkened understanding, hard hearts, separation from God, and an intensifying desire to do evil inversely proportionate to their declining sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. “Futility” is the word Paul uses to describe their lives.

“You, however, didn’t come to know Christ that way,” he reminds them. That’s a good thing to say to ourselves sometimes, when our lives haven’t been reflecting “the truth that is in Jesus.” What we’ve come to faith in isn’t a set of laws. We’ve come to believe in a person: a person who says that there are parts of our lives that have been soiled by sin and need to be taken off like a dirty shirt. A person who makes it possible for us to be renewed and put on a new life that more accurately reflects the righteousness and holiness of our God.

So that billboard provides me with a chance to look in the metaphorical mirror and ask myself if I’m carrying on as if I’m good without God. Or does my life reflect that I need him? Do I try to obey him, even when it’s inconvenient? Does the amount of time I spend in prayer and with the Bible and with the church show that I’m living in dependence on him? Does my hope rest on earning potential or net worth or my particular set of talents or my work ethic, or in God and his generous providence?

“There is no one righteous, not even one,” the Bible reminds us. So, no, none of us can be good without God. That’s true for all of us, atheists and believers alike. The first lie the devil told human beings was, “You’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” It is a lie, though, on two fronts. We usually can’t see much beyond out own immediate benefit or disadvantage when trying to determine what’s right and wrong. And on those rare occasions when we do come up with the right answer, it’s at best even money if we’ll follow through and actually do what we recognized as right.

And so God, in Christ, stepped in. In being faithful to death, he lived what was right. In his death and resurrection, he brought about redemption and forgiveness from our sins and victory over sin and death. And he poured out his Spirit, God present in us, to give us the wisdom to know right from wrong and the strength to live it.

So, no. I’m not good without God. I’m not in any way OK without him, and I can’t be a person of integrity and virtue without his grace, wisdom, and guidance. We can all do some good deeds, make some good choices, be nice or generous or peace-loving, but in the end it will all come down to this: What we need is to be new. What we need is to be renewed, redeemed, reclaimed, rebuilt, refitted. What we need is what only God can give us, and has given us in Jesus.

Good without God? I’m barely tolerable with him.

Maybe I should put that on a billboard.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

A Place to Kneel

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet… (John 13:3-5)


Thamail Morgan takes over football fields in Arkansas. The senior at Cave Springs High School has the kind of talent that big-time colleges look for and offer scholarships for. They were looking at Thamail last year. This season, things are less certain.

This past January, Thamail violated a team rule that left him ineligible for athletics at Newport High School, where he was then enrolled, for a year. Thamail would miss his senior football season, and college scholarship offers would dry up. So Thamail made the decision to transfer to Cave Springs, where head football coach Jon Bradley was willing to give him a shot. There were conditions, though; Thamail is required to attend after-school activities at a nearby church and meet with a pastor for counseling.

“Before I [messed] up and got myself into trouble, Thamail says, “I had some schools like Arkansas, Florida State, Ole Miss, and some other big schools looking at me Now they are not looking at me, but I have no one to blame but myself for that.” It’s got to be hard for a kid who had the world at his feet last year to suddenly find himself in such humble circumstances. But Thamail is handling it well. “So far, he has accomplished, and continues to do everything he has been asked to do, and then some,” his current coach says. “He has transitioned well and the kids here have accepted him. He is doing well in class, and is a leader on the football field and is a great athlete. We feel fortunate to have him.” Thamail has had to learn some difficult lessons, though. The kid who controls football games had to learn that there are times when he has to humble himself, listen, obey, and submit.

Cave Springs had a game a couple of weeks ago against Yelleville-Summit, a co-op football team made up of players from two small rural high schools in northern Arkansas. Yelleville-Summit’s game with Cave Springs was their first after enduring the death of one of their players and injuries to four others in a car accident. Players on both teams wore a “72” decal on their helmets – the number of the player killed, Kymball Duffy. Cave Springs head coach Bradley said he wasn’t sure how to feel when his team went up 21-0 in the first quarter. His team started telling their coach that they didn’t want to run up the score at the expense of the grieving team, so Bradley started substituting his reserves for his starters. The score was 28-8 at halftime, then 34-8 at the end of the third quarter. “Everyone was glad that they were out there playing, getting some sort of return to normalcy,” Bradley said later. “But everyone was going to be glad when it was over.”

Yelleville-Summit scored with just a little time left to make the score 34-16. Everyone lined up for the kickoff, with Bradley intending just to run out the clock. The line-drive kick bounced to Thamail Morgan. “We only have one return team,” Bradley explained. Morgan turned up field, ran past, around, and through a couple of tackles, and was at midfield before anyone knew what had happened. There was open field in front of him, and no one who could catch him behind him. But Thamail has learned some things, and of all the things he’s learned maybe the most important is this: being able to dominate a situation doesn’t mean that you have to. Redemption only happens when you learn to humble yourself, submit, listen, and obey.

At the two yard line, Thamail stopped, took a couple of steps back, and just knelt down.

It was a small thing, on a football field in Arkansas. It isn’t going to change the world. But two teams of young men will remember it and talk about it for probably a lifetime. For one team, the image of Thamail Morgan kneeling at the five yard line will in some way help them heal, maybe restore their faith in a world that took their friend. For the other team, Thamail kneeling there will remind them that there are more important things than being able to run with a football. And maybe years later, in an office or a home or on a street somewhere, they’ll remember Thamail and choose to kneel down themselves: to serve, or ask forgiveness, or forgive.

I don’t know what, if anything, Thamail’s act of kneeling on the football field will accomplish in the way of scholarship offers. Sadly, big-time college football programs don’t seem to know how to rate kindness, or care for others, or integrity. I know, though, that when Thamail knelt down he in his own way helped to bring redemption to the Yelleville-Summit tragedy. And at the very least, he showed that his own story is far from complete yet. He’s not just another jock who messed up. God’s at work in his life, and the One who gave him the talent to run into the end zone is also creating in him the character to kneel before he gets there.

May he do the same for me. May he give me the character to kneel down: to serve others, to comfort the broken, to raise someone who’s fallen, or to ask for forgiveness. We need that, don’t we: eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to feel and minds to know when the important thing isn’t what we’re able to do in and of ourselves, but what God is able to do through us when we humble ourselves, submit, listen, and obey.

You have no idea what God might do when you kneel down. He does that sort of thing. He brings people together, or brings people into situations, and then does transformative, redemptive things through them. Sometimes you won’t know what it is that he’s trying to do. But it’s always a good habit to humble yourself, to repent, to serve, to comfort, to touch, to pray. To submit, listen, and obey.

You’re always close to God’s heart when you find a place to kneel.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ignoble Awards

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
-2 Corinthians 4:6-7 (TNIV)



You might have heard the winners of the Nobel prizes mentioned this week, but there were a series of awards given out last week that you probably missed. The Ig Nobel Awards, given by a publication called, improbably enough, the Annals of Improbable Research, honor the best of the year's research that cannot or should not be repeated.

At this year's awards in Boston, “Iggys” were given in economics to Icelandic bank executives “for showing how tiny banks can become huge banks, and then become tiny banks again.” The peace prize went to researchers from the University of Bern for a paper entitled, “Are full or empty beer bottles sturdier and does their fracture- threshold suffice to break the human skull?” (Turns out that full or empty bottles will crack your noggin.) Other researchers were honored (?) for determining that cows who are called by name give more milk, for discovering that giant panda poop helps break down organic kitchen waste, for identifying the anatomical factors that prevent pregnant women from tipping over, and for developing a bra that converts into a gas mask. Well, two gas masks, actually.

Ignoble? Well, maybe. Unless you suddenly find yourself in need of a gas mask. Somebody has to study the “ignoble” stuff, right?

Judging from the Bible, God seems to be a big fan of the ignoble. A champion of the common. Lord of the lowborn.

It's a redneck shepherd boy, after all, who stands up to Goliath – and with a sling, not armor and sword. When God wants to send his Son into the world, he comes as a helpless baby, with a feeding trough in a stable in a backwater town as his crib. His message speaks to the common people, and often alienates the VIP's. And when he rescues the people he loves, it isn't by raising an army or taking a throne. It's by giving his life as a despised and rejected criminal.

Moses parted the sea with a staff. A donkey chastised Balaam. Jesus fed 5,000 people with a little boy's picnic. You get the picture. God has a history of unexpected and unprecedented acts done with undistinguished people and seemingly insignificant things.

Seems that God can use regular people who seem to have little to commend them to do amazing things. A peasant couple in Nazareth receive an angelic visitation and, nine months later, a baby boy who is God With Us. Uneducated fishermen, an ethically questionable tax collector, a revolutionary, and assorted women make up his closest followers. But those followers go on to proclaim the good news and demonstrate the power of God's kingdom to officials, rulers, and kings all over the world. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13) That's the response of some of those officials and rulers to the ordinary guys who spoke the name of Jesus to them. And, unwittingly, they stumbled on the reason. What makes ordinary people able to do extraordinary things? What transforms unremarkable circumstances into remarkable acts of God? What gives nobility to what the world considers ignoble?

“They...took note that these men had been with Jesus.”

Paul calls himself and his co-workers “jars of clay;” pots so literally earthy and common that archaeologists today find thousands of shards of them scattered over every dig from Asia to the Middle East to Africa to Europe. Clay jars were to Paul what plastic and styrofoam containers are to us: functional and unremarkable.

But God had hidden a treasure inside Paul and his clay-jar colleagues. He had shown them his face through Jesus, revealed to them who he is. His light shone in their hearts, and so they carried around in themselves the treasure of the gospel of Jesus. They were still clay jars: weak, fragile, yes, even ignoble. They could be cracked, broken, and even destroyed. No one would look at them and be impressed or awestruck. But because they were clay jars, God did remarkable things through them.

You might have expected that I'd say “in spite of the fact that they were clay jars,” or something like that. But Paul doesn't say that. Paul reminds us that the ordinary-ness of the messengers witnesses to the extraordinary-ness of the message. In using the ignoble, Paul points out, God demonstrates incontrovertibly that the power of the gospel is in him. It's not in the persuasiveness or faith or piety or courage of the container. It's in the glory and power and grace of God as poured out in Jesus Christ.

I wouldn't be surprised if you were a pretty ordinary person living a pretty ordinary life. Oh, I'm sure you have your moments, but I imagine that a fair amount of the time you worry about your weaknesses and stress over your shortcomings. I'm guessing that you see yourself as pretty average, and your life as unremarkable at best and mundane at worst. And I'm pretty sure that, given the choice, you'd say that you consider yourself more ignoble than noble.

Congratulations. You're in good company. People like you are just the kind of people God loves to use to do his work in the world. Really, when an ordinary person confounds the world's values and assumptions by showing extraordinary faith or courage, or sacrificing to show love to someone else, or speaking unexpected words of good news at just the right time, then God is glorified. It's clear that he's at work in that ordinary life.

Stay with Jesus. Stay close to him, follow him, do what he does, and listen to what he says. His Spirit lives in you, and the treasure of the gospel glitters through the cracks that every clay jar has in it. He'll do remarkable things with you, but that's his business, and he'll do it in his own time and in his own ways. As you take care of your family, or do your job, or shop for groceries, or go to school, or serve in your community, or worship in your church, he'll do his work. Your business is staying close, doing the things he did and speaking the words he spoke.

People will still notice.

And God will be glorified.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

When Failure Can't Be Forgotten

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34)



My city has spent the last four years working on a project: to be the host city for the 2016 Olympics. The banners and signs are everywhere, draped or painted on everything imaginable. City buses and trains carry the logo. Even our famous Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza downtown got in on the act, with a gigantic inflatable Olympic medal draped around his (or her) neck(?).

CHICAGO 2016. Everywhere you look.

I suspect that the signs are going to start coming down very soon. We were the first of the four finalist cities eliminated in the voting on Friday.

Ouch. It hurts to fail. It especially hurts to fail publicly and spectacularly: “Thanks, Chicago. We aren't sure who we want to host the Olympics yet, but we know for a fact that we don't want you.” And it's not like we didn't try. We spent something like $50 million. We had the President and First Lady there shaking hands and lobbying for us. And Oprah, for goodness' sake. If the Obamas and Oprah couldn't do it for us, wow – the International Olympic Committee really didn't like us.

Maybe I'm a little bitter, but Rio instead of Chicago? In the summer?

So the “CHICAGO 2016” signs will come down, or be painted over. For a while, the media will be buzzing about the reasons we were rejected. Mayor Daley may take a little heat. Pretty soon, though, the postmortem will end and everyone will move on to other things. In a few years, no one will talk about it much anymore. That's the way it is with failure. It stings at first, but eventually the pain goes away and everyone goes on to think about something else.

Except when it doesn't, and when they don't.

I'm thinking about people now, not cities. People who can't easily obscure or erase the signs of their failure. Some of them wear those signs, literally, as numbers on the back of a prison uniform. Some hold them at intersections, here in a city that just spent $50 million trying to impress the IOC: Will Work for Food. Some are reminded of their failures by the high school diploma they didn't manage to get, or the sign on the office door that they always wanted but never really had a chance at.

Then there are those for whom the signs of failure are less literal, but no less real: the man who sees his kids a few times a year because his marriage disintegrated, the woman who's losing her fight with pills or a bottle, the former church leader whose moral failings have him wondering what to do on Sunday mornings. Not to even mention the many smaller failures that everyone has to live with and sometimes bear the consequences of for a lifetime: relational failures, ethical failures, mistakes made in youth that can mark the rest of a life. The signs of those failures sometimes don't disappear. They can't be taken down or painted over. They're not easily forgotten with the passing of time.

Peter had a failure like that. We still remember it, in fact. Still talk about it. Out of four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus, well, four mention Peter's failure. If you know anything at all about Peter, you probably know that he denied being associated with Jesus on the night of his arrest.

And it could have easily been that we remembered Peter for nothing else. Except that Jesus wouldn't have it that way. He punctured Peter's bravado like someone might pop a balloon with a pin, that's true. He knew about Peter's denial before it happened, knew enough to call him by his given name, Simon. “You won't be a Rock tonight, Simon. Satan will beat you down. When you have the chance tonight to stand up for me, you'll back off.”

We might consider that a little cruel, except that Jesus clearly isn't being cruel. He knows what Peter's up against. It isn't just the threat of prison or a cross. It isn't the power of Rome. Jesus understands that Peter's fighting a spiritual battle, and that no human being wins every one of those. He knows that Peter's denial doesn't come from a lack of courage, or a lack of love for him. It comes from Peter's spiritual weakness and the deception of the devil.

It's also obvious that Jesus is on Peter's side. “I've prayed for you...that your faith may not fail.” Knowing that Peter was about to go through an ordeal that mirrored his own, Jesus had already prayed for him. Jesus wasn't going to stand by and watch clinically to see if one of his people was going to survive the battle. He intervened, interceded. He joined the battle on the side of his disciple, even though he knew that the disciple might lose a skirmish.

Oh, and one other thing: Peter's failure isn't permanent. “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Encouraging, isn't it? “Yes, Peter, you're going to blow it tonight. But that doesn't mean your life is over. Recover from your failure, learn from it, and then bless your brothers and sisters by helping them fight their own battles and recover from their own failures.”

That's why we don't know Peter only for his failures. Jesus wouldn't have it.

Same with you. I know how failures can seem devastating and all-consuming. And if it was completely up to us, they would be irredeemable. But we follow the same Lord as Peter, and he still knows what his disciples are up against. He knows it first-hand, because he fought the same battles we do. He's still on our side, praying for us that our faith may not fail – even when our resolve, courage, and best intentions do. And he still believes in us and the service we can offer – despite and even because of our failures. He won't have you defined by the failures in your life. Even the spectacular ones.

He offers us forgiveness, renewal, and redemption. And maybe you're especially in need of that today because you're especially feeling your failures. Yours are no worse than Peter's were, and they don't have to sink you any more than his did. Your Lord still loves you, still prays and fights for you, and still has a place for you that no one else can fill. Receive the forgiveness and redemption he offers, then find someone else who needs it and offer it in his name.

By the way, I can probably set you up with some CHICAGO 2016 t-shirts. Cheap.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Church in the Cloud

To the church of God...to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:2-3)



Unless you happen to know something about information technology and computer systems, you might not be familiar with the phrase “cloud computing.” Apparently, it has nothing at all to do with using a computer while high in the air. It's not a way of describing a lack of visibility at your desk. Cloud computing has to do with making use of online business applications and other services, and storing the information created on servers that are also accessed through the internet.

In the near future, so we're told, businesses and enterprises will move more or less completely from using software physically placed on every employee's computer to applications and services accessed through a web browser. Similarly, as reliability and security improve, they will move from storing information on servers inside their physical buildings, to storing it on off-premies servers also accessed online. The whole thing's very technical and, frankly, quite a bit beyond me. But I get the gist of it; the point for businesses is that cloud computing is theoretically more cost-effective, more flexible and adaptable, and more scalable – that is, it's able to handle growing amounts of work efficiently. Instead of employees being tied to their desktop computers, they can work with available hardware wherever they have an internet connection.

I know very little about the advantages and disadvantages of such a model for business. It occurs to me, though, that the cloud metaphor works for the church, as well.

What would it look like to “do” church “in the cloud?”

As is true with many ideas, this one might be better understood by comparison with the way most of us currently think about and “do” church. For most of us, church has to do with a place (the place where our church services or assemblies or meetings or whatever we call them happen) and a time (the day(s) and hour(s) of those services, assemblies, and meetings). Oh, we can talk about not going to church but being the church. Some of us can say that we belong to churches that meet in buildings that they don't own. Still, if someone asks you about your church it probably won't take long before you're thinking of a building and the worship service going on inside it.

We come by that honestly. We've been conditioned since at least the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion and turned over buildings and property to the church, to associate church with time and place. So the next time you're yelling at your kids to get dressed because “it's time for church,” try to remember that there's a Roman emperor to thank for that.

As if, for Christians, it's ever not time for church.

That's why the more I think about it, the more I like the metaphor of the church in the cloud. It's truer to our nature to break the connections we've assumed for a millennium and a half between church and a particular address and time. It's truer to the nature of the One whose name we wear.

Some of the first disciples discovered that from the moment they met Jesus. “Where are you staying?” they asked, and Jesus shot back, “Come, and you will see.” He warned another prospective disciple that he had “no place to lay his head.” And if Jesus didn't imagine that he could do his work boxed up inside a building or a worship service, why do we imagine that we can do his work that way?

When Paul wrote his letters to churches, he didn't even bother to try to put street addresses on them. They were addressed to “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his saints.” To “the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia.” To “the churches in Galatia” and to “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” Those Christians met in houses and public halls and who knows where, and they had enough to do with each other that when Paul wrote them a letter, you'd better believe it got passed around.

What do you think might happen if the church adopted this “cloud” thing and consciously broke the connections that tie us to a physical location?

What would it look like, for instance, if we learned to do community in the cloud? For one thing, we'd figure out how to be in each other's lives all the time, not just on Sundays when we all showed up at the same place. We'd find ways to be together, to pray together, to worship together, and to share each other's struggles. Our community would come from our being connected to each other through the work of God, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, and not attendance at the same event.

Or what might ministry look like in the cloud? For starters, it would bubble up from the interface between the Holy Spirit and the talents, passions, and priorities that each of us have. It wouldn't be necessary to waste time and energy persuading people to be a part of this or that ministry. Instead, the church as a whole would be asking itself how to support, encourage, and resource one another in the ministries to which we were called by the Lord.

And leadership in the cloud? It would have less to do with institutional maintenance, and more to do with spiritual formation, preparing God's people for ministry, building up the church in faith and knowledge, and helping them to maturity in Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-16) Leaders would facilitate the connections between the church and the Lord, and between one another. They wouldn't need to be decision-makers and permission-givers, but could fulfill their God-given responsibilities as teachers, mentors, and protectors.

Our “cloud,” of course, is the work of God, the person of Jesus, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Wherever we are, whatever we're doing, if we're connected with the Father, Son, and Spirit we are the church, along with all those everywhere who call on his name. Our identity doesn't depend on a time and meeting place; it has to do with what Jesus has done for us and the presence of the Spirit in us and among us. A building is a convenience, a tool. A scheduled worship service is the same. But let's begin thinking and praying about how we can leave those conveniences behind when it better suits the work we've been given to do, and get back to the essentials of who we are: God's people, connected to the Lord and to one another.

The Church in the Cloud.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gratitude That Costs Us Something

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17)



Earlier this month, 22 people got off a train at London's Liverpool Street station. The only unusual thing you'd have noticed about the group was its age: all of them were in their 70's and 80's, looking like they were on a retirement home field trip. And in fact it was a field trip, of a sort. But not a pleasure trip, not really. More like a pilgrimage.

The last time they made the trip – from Prague – was seventy years earlier. Back then they had been Jewish children, 669 of them, whose parents had lost jobs and homes to the Nazis. Their parents had packed them off to new homes in London, hoping to join them later. None did, though. The concentration camps saw to that.

But those children got the chance to survive. They grew up and had children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of their own. But they never forgot what could have been, or that they had been saved from their parents' fate. Seventy years later, 22 of those 669 made the trip again to remember.

More than to just remember, though. The man who met them on the platform at Liverpool Street this time was the same one who met them seventy years ago. His name is Sir Nicholas Winston, although seventy years ago he wasn't Sir Nicholas. He was a stockbroker in London in 1939, when a friend in Prague told him about the Nazi occupiers taking away the jobs and homes of Jews in the city. Nicholas began to raise money, begged the British government for visas, forged papers, and found British families willing to adopt children. Then, when he had everything in order, he chartered the trains that saved those 669 children from being murdered in the camps. He met them the day they arrived. And he met them again, seventy years later. He's a hundred years old now, but he leaned on his cane and shook hands with each of those 22 grateful people and received their thanks.

They told him about their children and grandchildren. There are, they say, 7,000 descendants of the children Nicholas Winston saved all over the world. Seven thousand people who know the story of how a London stockbroker saved their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents.

With typically English reserve, Nicholas seemed to enjoy being there. “The trouble 70 years ago was getting them together with the people who were going to look after them,” he said. “I've got no responsibility this time.”

No, those 22 people were there because they had a responsibility. They were there because they felt the need to give their thanks to the man who had saved them.

There's something fundamental about gratitude. Something basic. That's why we teach our kids to say “thank you” and make them write thank-you notes when someone gives them a gift. It's hardwired into us, I think, that it's only right to be grateful when someone does something for us. But just because it's hardwired into us doesn't mean that we always remember. Though God may have created us with the capacity for being grateful, the damage sin does in us includes turning us inward. The consequence is a self-centeredness that tends to notice only what we don't have while forgetting the blessings we've been given. The result is that we become unable to be grateful.

That's why gratitude is a theme that the Bible returns to again and again. “Be thankful,” Paul tells the church in Colosse, and then two verses later says, “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

There are basic spiritual sicknesses for which gratitude is really the only existing remedy. Selfishness. Bitterness. Hate. Greed. Lust. All of these have a common cause: obsession with ourselves and what we perceive to be lacking in our lives. Gratitude, however, calls our attention to what we have, and to how much of it has been given to us by God for no other reason than that he loves us. When we're thankful, our attention is on him and what he has blessed us with.

Sometimes, though, gratitude is a lot of trouble. Twenty-two people taking a train across Europe? Wouldn't it have been more efficient for everyone to write a note? Send a gift? Well of course it would have been. But then, efficiency isn't the point, is it? The point is gratitude. And unless gratitude costs you something – a little inconvenience, at the very least – well, it's just not much, is it? You can talk about how thankful you are, but gratitude is one of those inward attitudes – like love and faith and hope – that aren't real unless they bring about a difference in the way we live and the things we value.

That's why God told the Israelites to give thank offerings – not because he needed their cattle and goats, but because they needed to express gratitude that cost them something. And you don't think, do you, that just because we're not Israelites we're somehow exempt from gratitude that costs us something? You don't really think, do you, that we who have heard the good news of Jesus, who have been saved from death by his sacrifice, have only to nod and wink and say, “Thanks, God?”

That's what worship is, of course: gratitude that costs us something. It's an indicator of how far we've drifted that to us “worship” is to be evaluated by how it makes us feel. “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” That, Paul told the Christians in Rome, is “true worship.” (Romans 12: 1) Our calling is to offer ourselves – our energy, our priorities, our possessions, our passions – as a thank offering to the God who has shown such mercy to us.

What do you think our children and grandchildren will remember about us? My prayer is that my son, and his children, will remember me as someone who was saved by God's grace through Jesus and who lived a life of thanksgiving. I want them to remember me as someone who had gratitude in his heart, and who did everything he did as an expression of thanks to God. Not so they'll speak well of me, but so they'll remember the God whose grace I was so thankful for.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It's Not About Me

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
    In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had... (Philippians 2:1-5)



In July of 1945, there were events happening in our world that were far more significant than a ball game at Yankee Stadium. Soldiers were returning home as World War II came to an end, and one of those recently - returned soldiers was at the game with his four-year-old son, who happened to share his name. The father had a little time before he returned to his job, and he just wanted a chance to get to know his son again.

They were in the stands, enjoying the game, when someone sitting nearby noticed them and recognized the father. He waved, then passed the word. Pretty soon, the stadium was buzzing with the news of who was in the mezzanine. The game on the field was momentarily forgotten, and the buzz began to turn into a chant: a name, over and over, the name of a Yankee legend.

Four years before, he had set a record that has yet to be broken. The Streak, they called it, and still do. He had put his career on hold to serve his country in the war, and he had come to the park that day just to watch. But he was who he was, and the fans knew him and chanted his name.

“Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe DiMaggio!”

DiMaggio waved to the crowd. Then he looked down to see if his son had noticed the attention the crowd was paying to his dad. His shining eyes and big smile told Joe that he had definitely noticed. But before he could say anything, four-year-old Joe DiMaggio, Jr. rained on his parade.

“See, Dad?” he said. “Everyone knows me!”

Cute story, isn't it? But only because Joe, Jr. was a child at the time. Because they have no other reference point, young children tend to think that the world revolves around them. It's an understandable mistake that we all make as kids. But we learn. We see our parents giving affection and attention to siblings, and it starts to dawn on us. We start school, and we begin to get it. There are other people in the world, and they have needs and wants and opinions and perspectives that are often at least as valid as our own. We learn that the world, in actuality, does not revolve around us. We stop assuming that all applause is for us, and we stop needing it to be.

Except for when we don't.

Or when we forget.

Or when we don't care.

I could tell you some stories, stories about people who didn't learn, or forgot, or didn't care, that the world didn't revolve around them. I could tell you some stories about people who who thought and behaved as if everyone in their lives was put there for their benefit, every whim needed to be satisfied, every impulse was to be followed, and every accolade was theirs by right. I can tell you stories, and in every case they're sad stories. Tragedies, even. There's a reason for that.

I could tell you about the friend who decided that the other woman was exactly what he needed. He explained it away by how unhappy he was in his marriage, and how this woman made him feel. He's on to someone else now – he's probably been through more than one “someone else” – because it will never be enough with him. Not until he learns that it's not all about him.

He comes by it honestly enough, though. Near as I can tell, he learned that attitude from his parents, who also seem to have been burdened with the illusion that it was all about them. Scary how it can be passed down from parents to children, like a mutated gene.

I could tell you about people who couldn't find a way to stop spending, or drinking, or gambling, or lying, because down in their heart of hearts they really thought the most important thing in the world at any given time was how they felt.

I could tell you about people who have brought discord, bitterness, and division to church after church, largely because they honestly believe that their opinions about X or Y issue, or their understanding about one text or the other, or their love or hatred for a particular tradition, is more important than what God might be doing in those churches.

As near as I can tell, the Bible only mentions one person who could have ever said, “It's all about me” and been right. About him, Paul wrote “...by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:17-18) Whatever else that might mean, it means that the world really does revolve around him.

Of course, we know that Jesus chose not to say that, or even act as though it were true. He “made himself nothing” and took “the very nature of a servant.” He “humbled himself” and was obedient to God even though it led to his death – “death on a cross.” He chose not to insist that the world stand and applaud him. Instead, he gave himself in service and as a sacrifice to the broken people who couldn't recognize him because we were too immersed in ourselves.

Now we know, though. And because we know the self-sacrificing grace of the One who could have said it was all about him, we're called to “have the same attitude of mind.” If Jesus can value us over himself, then surely we can value others over ourselves. If Jesus could look to our interests at his own expense, then shouldn't we follow him in putting our own interests aside to care for those around us? If Jesus could foreswear ambition, then what's stopping us?

You don't have to look far. Start with one relationship, and resolve to have the attitude of Christ with that person. Make choices that show that person how much you value and love them, and that their well-being is more important to you than your own. Start with an easy one – a child, or a spouse, or a good friend, if you like. But then choose another relationship, and another. Reach out. Stretch. God will do amazing things in our relationships if we will do our best to step off our pedestals long enough to serve, give, and love.

And one day, when you're finally with your Father forever, I think, just for a moment, that it will be about you. As worshippers bow down and sing his praises, you included, I think he might turn to you. “Well done,” he'll say. And he'll lead the applause for you. Why not? We'll have eternity – as long as we need for all of us to have our moment. And even if it's just a moment, it will be all we ever really needed.

It will be all we ever needed to know that, for God, it really is all about us.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Faces in the Crowd

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?"
"You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?'
But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." (Mark 5:24-34)



I'd love to know more about this women, wouldn't you – this woman who was so desperate to be healthy that she was willing to try social conventions and religious laws? For twelve years, she had lived with the bleeding. If it's the kind of bleeding it seems to be, then she had lived as well with the pronouncement of the Law that she was “unclean.” (Leviticus 15:25-27) After so long, surely she had resigned herself to never being well, never joining in the joyful processions to the Temple for the festivals, never being a fully-participating part of the community. And, depending on how scrupulous her husband, family, and friends might have been, she might have resigned herself to missing much more than that. For at least some of the people around her, I imagine, any physical contact would have been out of the question.

So it's a true indicator of her desperation – and I think of her alienation from people around her – that she slips through the crowd to try and touch Jesus unnoticed. There's no raising of the voice from her, like the leper or the blind man who cried out to Jesus for healing. She doesn't even come and kneel respectfully, like the synagogue leader who got to Jesus just before she did. “If I can just touch his cloak, I'll be healed,” she reasons.

She's quiet. Easy to overlook. She's OK with that, because that's just the way she wants it. If she can just “accidentally” brush against him in the crowd, then no one's the wiser. There will be no embarrassing confrontation, where she has to say publicly what's wrong with her and receive the censure and self-righteousness of her peers. If she can just brush against him in the press of the mob, she can go away well and no one will ever have to know why.

I wonder how many people in our world are like her. Sick, but quiet and overlooked. Unable to bear the cost of getting well, but unwilling to let anyone know. I wonder how many can relate to the words of Mark: She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. Seniors who have to choose which prescriptions to refill, if any. Kids whose parents can't get them treatment for common childhood ailments that most of us never have to think about. Parents and grandparents who won't see their kids or grandkids grow up because they can't be screened for colon cancer or heart disease or high blood pressure. Young adults whose life span is shortened because they can't afford treatment for health problems that will only worsen over time.

Health care, of course, is the political issue of the moment, and however you paint it, it comes down to this one issue: What does a society that thinks of itself as moral and ethical do with people like that woman in that crowd? What do we do when there are people among us who are sick, but quiet and overlooked? Whatever you think of the President's plan, whatever you might think about the government's role in health care, we can't lose sight of the real issue. It's not about which political party looks better. It's not about your personal opinion of our President. It's about what we do as a people with folks who are lost in the crowd and left without access to the kind of care many of us take for granted.

Whatever our opinions and positions in the current health care debate, there's one opinion, one position, that is untenable for people who claim to follow Jesus. It's never correct for the church to say, implicitly or explicitly, “I've got mine – let them figure out a way to get theirs.” As a Christian, if you don't want the government involved in health care, then your next statement has to be, “What can I do, what can the church do, for people who are lost in the crowd, unable to care for themselves and unable to make their voices heard?”

I'm so certain about that – and you should be, too – because we know what happened when that poor, sick, desperate woman reached out a hand in that crowd and touched Jesus. She found healing. And Jesus, not willing to let her remain anonymous, commended her faith and sent her away in peace. It seems like those closest to him never noticed her. Jesus could have ignored her, too. He could have suggested that she needed to work harder so that she could afford better health care. He could have questioned whether she even belonged in the country. But he healed her. He commended her faith. And he sent her away in peace.

And so I believe that his church should be the champions of those, like that woman, who reach out their hands in desperation and hope and faith, believing that God will take notice and heal them and their families. If not through supporting legislative reform of the existing system, then through individual efforts to facilitate access to existing resources. Only Jesus heals. But his people can help to make sure that reaching hands can come in contact with the hem of his garment.

I know – that doesn't seem like the church's work. But it is. Jesus didn't require that woman to be baptized first. He didn't make her listen to a sermon or volunteer in his ministry or straighten out her life. He didn't have to. When she reached out her hand in faith and found healing – oh, she would have followed him anywhere.

People still will, when they reach out and find Jesus' people there to help. They'll follow him anywhere.

Whatever you think about the health care debate, don't ignore those reaching hands.

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