Monday, April 27, 2009


Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10, TNIV)

My college roommate's father wrote an article in The Christian Chronicle a few months ago that I truly appreciated and completely agreed with.

And I really hated that I did.

The article was titled, “No Minister? Look to God and Members Instead.” The author, David May, is a member of a small church in Minnesota. His church doesn't have a “minister” – or a preacher, or a pastor, or whatever appellation for clergy you can think of. They don't have anyone on staff to do “church work” like preaching, evangelizing, hospital visitation, and so on. Don't even have anyone to write bulletin articles. And, no, it doesn't seem like this is a temporary condition from which they're hoping and praying to be soon delivered. They don't seem to be looking for anyone, or trying to find funding for the position. They seem to have chosen, at least for the foreseeable future, to get along without “a minister.”

I know. “How are they surviving?” I asked myself. “How are they getting by without someone who has some knowledge of the Synoptic Problem or the Documentary Hypothesis or the debate about Openness Theology? How can they possibly hope to survive, let alone grow, without someone who knows how to properly construct a sermon?” Believe me, I'm as astonished as you are, but...

Well, they seem to be doing just fine, thank you.

I guess that's because when I say they don't have a minister, I mean that they don't have someone who they pay to be The Minister. It turns out that they actually seem to a whole bunch of ministers, a whole church full of them, in fact. “People step up and do what is necessary when the responsibility is theirs,” he says. “When there is a located preacher the temptation in our busy world is to hope the preacher will get it done.” He goes on:

“[Without a minister], if someone is going to give a devotional talk on Sunday morning, it will be a member. If anyone is to sit with a woman while her husband has surgery, it will be a member. If a visitor is to be invited to lunch and offered an ear and a prayer, it will come from a member. If we are going to reach out to the community around us, the leadership will come from the members.”

Really, Mr. May (that's what I've always called him). You're going to mess up a good thing for me.

To be fair, Mr. May doesn't say that churches who have ministers should get rid of them. In fact, he says that churches should treat their ministers well. (Another thing I like about the article.) And I do think, as non-objective as I am about the matter, that a paid minister who loves the Lord and the church and works hard can be a blessing. Paul seemed to think so, too: he reminded one church that it's right for those who “sow spiritual seed” to “reap a material harvest.” (1 Corinthians 9:7-12) Mr. May's article, though, does make me think about whether the whole idea of a professional clergy as we know it today might just be pretty far from the biblical understanding of who the church is and what it is we're supposed to be doing.

In the Bible, God's grace isn't all about forgiveness of sins. That's part of it, of course, but God gives us much more than just mercy for when we mess up. The Bible speaks of God's grace in terms of the abilities he gives to people, as well. That's something we need to rediscover in the church, I think: as recipients of God's grace we have received not only pardon for our sins, but also abilities and opportunities to share God's love and blessings with the people around us. Some can preach, and Peter reminds the church he writes to that they should do so with words God gives them. Some can provide service and assistance, and he tells them that they should do it with the strength God blesses them with. And some have business acumen, or skill in trades, or culinary skill, or medical knowledge, or IT expertise. These are all expressions of God's grace, given in the form of talent, interest, education, and so on. And the health of the church, like the health of any organism, requires that every part does what it's there to do.

That's the very thing, of course, that the professionalization of ministry can prevent. The minister, or whatever you call him in your tradition, can too easily become the paid ministerial proxy for the rest of the congregation. He does the ministry; the rest of the church shows up on Sunday to worship, then goes back to their busy lives. Sometimes church members like it that way. Sometimes, truth be told, so do the professional ministers. Churches can grow pretty big that way, especially if they can afford to pay salaries for a lot of ministers. But they don't grow very healthy. “We mature much faster by figuring out what needs to be done and doing it than we ever would by hearing it described from the pulpit,” Mr. May writes. “If every member takes responsibility, the church will grow stronger.”

Imagine a church where members who carry a burden for visiting the sick on their hearts are at hospitals weekly or daily. Where those who are skilled administrators keep things running efficiently and smoothly, streamlining the church's ministry. Imagine a church where those skilled at carpentry or plumbing or electrical are caring for the building – and for the homes of other members and those in the church's neighborhood. Imagine a church where people who can work with troubled teenagers are encouraged and empowered to do so, or where people with musical ability can exercise their talents, or where painters and writers and other artists can work for the glory of God with their media. Imagine, even, a church where those who can speak well in public are encouraged to preach.

Imagine a church where professional ministers are no different than everyone else, except that they're freed up to devote more of their time and energy to “church work.” And imagine a church where everyone takes seriously their responsibilities as ministers, empowered by God's grace to do “church work” wherever they find themselves.

I'm not looking for a new line of work. Really. But I am looking for a church like that.

Aren't you?

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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, April 20, 2009


When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:18-22)

Do you Twitter? Would you admit it if you did? Do you have any idea what Twittering is?

What about Ashton Kutcher? Have you heard of him? If you think “Ashton Kutcher” sounds like a British luxury car, then you should know that he’s actually an actor, famous for his roles on That 70’s Show and Punk’d. Ashton is also a user of Twitter, which is an online social networking site that allows subscribers to post frequent 140-character answers (“tweets”) to the question “What are you doing right now?” Other users can sign up to be a “follower” of your tweets – whenever you type, “ My coffee’s cold” or “I feel like I may be coming down with something” or “Someone help me get off this site and get some work done”, it shows up on all of your followers’ Twitter pages.

I bring all this up because this week Ashton Kutcher became the first Twitter user to gain over a million followers. Yes, the guy who starred in The Butterfly Effect and Dude, Where’s My Car? has a million people who just have to know what Ashton is doing right now. It’s especially newsworthy because Ashton’s closest competition in getting to the million-follower mark came from CNN.

Right. More people want to know what Ashton Kutcher is doing than want breaking news from CNN.

What interests me about this story is that word “follower.” It’s used on Twitter to mean, simply enough, someone who follows someone else’s tweets. But the word makes me think of how most of the people who read this (like the one writing it) claim to be followers of Jesus.

Part of following him, of course, is listening to what he says. I’m wondering, now: if Jesus was on Twitter, what would he write? (WWJT: “What Would Jesus Tweet?”) And who would follow him, in the Twitter sense? And who would follow him in the Christian sense? You don’t need me to tell you, of course, that following Jesus isn’t just about keeping tabs on the interesting things he talks about. Following him means trying to allow what he says to determine the norms by which we live.

You see it, don’t you, in that scene Matthew paints? There’s Jesus, in the middle of a crowd. Hundreds, maybe, have shown up because they’ve heard that Jesus heals the sick. They reach out dirty hands, cry out from hoarse throats, turn blind eyes and deaf ears toward him. And – note this well – Jesus doesn’t mind. He drives out evil spirits and heals diseases, conscious that God has always done things like that and knowing that some will recognize in his healing that God’s kingdom has burst in on an unsuspecting world.

But this is “the crowd.” It’s a mob scene, a small-scale riot. And that’s not all Jesus is about.

So, eventually, he calls his followers. These guys are pretty clueless, you understand. They don’t yet know exactly what they’ve blundered into. But Jesus has called them to follow him, to “fish for people,” and despite not having the foggiest notion what that’s going to mean, they follow him. Literally. They put away their livelihood, their jobs, their families, and they quite literally follow Jesus wherever he goes. As they follow, they pay attention. They hear. They ask questions. They make mistakes. They learn.

Jesus and these followers cross the lake to put some distance between themselves and the crowd. The crowd, presumably, disperses. They go back to their homes, back to their lives – no doubt thankful for the way Jesus has touched them, no doubt wondering about him, but not followers. Not really.

A few try, to their credit. “I’ll follow you wherever you go,” says one, and Jesus shoots a hole in his balloon: “I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight – sure you want to get mixed up with me?” Another promises to follow him as soon as his dad’s funeral’s over, and Jesus shockingly shuts him down, too: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” “I’m in the business of new life,” he seems to be saying, “and anyone who wastes any time mucking around in that old life doesn’t yet quite grasp what following me means.”

I don’t know sometimes if we’re any different.

We claim to follow him, but we don’t seem to take him very seriously. (“Sell your possessions and give to the poor”? Anyone?) I wonder if we’re not sometimes a lot like that crowd clustered around him, receiving the grace he gives and genuinely surprised when he starts speaking in terms of real discipleship, lightweight Jesus-groupies who love to hear about him and talk about him and feel good about ourselves, but who haven’t much of a clue what following him really is.

Following him is going out with him to fish for people. It’s ministering to the sick, the poor, the homeless, the HIV-positive, the imprisoned, the sinners. When we follow him, we go where he goes: so when he leads us out of our church buildings, out of our comfortable homes and neighborhoods, and invites us to stretch ourselves past the point where it hurts, we do it. We follow when it means we don’t have a place to lay our heads; we raise our heads from lives crowded with death and decay and we follow in his footsteps, doing by his power and in his name the very things he did, proclaiming as he did that the kingdom of God is near.

Twitter makes following so easy, so convenient. Jesus doesn’t. But once you hear his call you won’t be content doing anything else.

Maybe that’s why you’re discontent, if you are. Maybe you’re feeling intuitively that you can’t follow Jesus from behind a desk, or in the pages of a book, or even from a church pew. You have to separate from the crowd and go across the lake with him, no matter the storms you face on the way. That’s what it is to answer his call. That’s what it is to be a follower.

So...What are you doing right now?

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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, April 13, 2009

Easter Among the Relics

Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:22-24)

Irony of ironies. I spent Good Friday among the relics of societies long dead and buried. Dead, buried, and uncovered, in fact.

I went with Josh, my 11-year-old son, to a Chicago museum that specializes in the Ancient Near East; cultures like the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and so forth. It’s a pretty spectacular museum, really, full of relics dug out of the desert sand: monuments and tablets and jewelry and pottery. And tombs. Lots of tombs. It was the tombs that really struck me, I guess because of the time of year that we’re in. Good Friday, leading up to Easter, tends to make me think a little more about death and life. Mortality and immortality. I guess it’s bad form to collapse Good Friday into Easter Sunday, but it’s not like we don’t know how the story ends, right? So if at one time in my life I might have been guilty of over-emphasizing the cross at the expense of the empty tomb, please forgive me if now I tend toward the opposite extreme.

Actually, I don’t want to overlook either, and so I try to think of them together now. Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of the same event, elements of the same story. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,” as Paul put it (2 Corinthians 5:19). Without resurrection, his death would simply be one more example of the way the powers of the world silence revolutionaries, one more example of a creation too broken to recognize its Creator walking in it. Without his death, it couldn’t be said that Jesus had truly confronted what was wrong with creation in the first place. But in the incarnation, and in Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, God restored a creation enslaved to sin, decay, futility, and death.

Exactly what that enslavement is, the many forms that it takes, comes home in vivid detail in a museum like the one we visited Friday. We could start, I suppose, with the artifacts, like the broken pottery, the jewelry, the weapons and tools used millennia ago by people who are all but forgotten. Oh, and the monuments: gigantic things, some of them. Fifteen, twenty feet tall. The kings who commissioned them, the sculptors who created them – I’m sure they imagined their work would stand forever, their lives or their skill immortalized in stone. But instead of standing majestic watch over unending kingdoms, they were dug out of the sand in pieces to stand behind velvet ropes or acrylic.

Neither, of course, did the kingdoms those monuments commemorated stand forever. (Who can trace their Hittite heritage? Anyone? Who can read Sumerian cuneiform?) History is filled with the rising and falling of empires, empires that at their zeniths ruled the known world. But only until the next empire rises, motivated to conquest by the need to provide for their citizens – or maybe just the will to power. Sin. Decay. Futility. Death.

Most vivid are the tombs, of course. The one that’s really on my mind is an ancient Egyptian burial that dates from before mummification. It’s a circular hole, into which a woman has been dumped. The skeleton lies on its side in a fetal position, testimony to the enslavement of creation. The mummies are no better, of course: the careful embalming, the wrappings, the treasure buried with them in the huge pyramids, all of it is just a pitifully-disguised attempt to deny death. Even those tombs were forgotten until someone coaxed the desert into giving them up.

You go away from a museum like that thinking about what the implements and gadgets we so value are really worth. You go away wondering how long our greatest monuments will last. You wonder when the empires we build will crumble, and what will replace them. And you go away realizing that expensive funerals and beautiful caskets and lovely eulogies will not change the fact that one day all of us will stop living and moving and working and playing in this existence we’ve come to regard as life.

I think we often take the wrong message home from museums. We want to marvel at human achievement, but maybe it’s better if we walk away recognizing its futility.

That’s when were ready to hear Easter proclaimed over the ruins of God’s good creation.

“God raised him from the dead,” Peter proclaimed fearlessly at Pentecost. Human scheming didn’t win out. Human wickedness and violence only seemed to triumph. God snatched his Son from death’s grasp, and in doing so announced a new creation. This one, however, will not be enslaved to sin, decay, futility, or death. Our monuments crumble and disintegrate. But the cross and the empty tomb remain to proclaim that in Jesus there is hope, and life, and joy, and purpose. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

That’s the message of Easter, the message of the gospel: that, in Christ, God has stepped into this world of sin, decay, futility, and death – the world our museums put on display – and right under our noses has begun anew. Sin is forgiven. Decay is transformed into prosperity. Our best efforts to plan and build and accomplish, once rendered futile by sin and death, are given purpose and meaning. And death, the last enemy, becomes life and immortality.

Oh, sure, you could say that’s nothing more than window-dressing either, as transparent as anything the ancient cultures did to make sense of death. You could say that, except for one thing: his tomb was empty. A new day has dawned. New creation is upon us.

And, like God’s creation was always meant to be, it is good.

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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, April 6, 2009

The DNA of a Fall

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned… (Romans 5:12)

A sixteen-year manhunt in the southern German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg finally ended last week.

Police had been searching since 1993 for an unidentified, elusive woman whose DNA had been collected from over forty crime scenes. The crimes were varied, from murder to mugging and everything in between. She apparently worked with numerous partners over a large geographical area: she was connected to crimes in Germany, France, and Austria. But only through her DNA: there were never eyewitnesses, informants, or other clues to identify her. So she remained at large.

But at long last the police announced, somewhat less than proudly, that she had been identified. She was right there in southern Germany all along, but nothing like the criminal mastermind that they assumed she would be. She is, in fact, gainfully employed at a factory. A factory that makes cotton swabs.

Cotton swabs used by police to collect DNA.

When the body of a dead man found at a crime scene produced female DNA – the DNA of this female supercriminal – police thought they had best reconsider their manhunt. They theorize that the woman must have sneezed on a batch of swabs.


CSI and all its variants are hit TV shows, so we all know the importance of keeping a crime scene uncontaminated. As the case in southern Germany illustrates, the presence of just a small amount of foreign DNA can skew a lot of lab results and mess up a lot of cases. Police are usually pretty vigilant about that, so what happened in Germany seems to be the exception and not the rule.

The thing is that through the history of the human race, the same kind of thing has happened with sin and death.

Recall from Sunday school that sin and death were not God’s idea. Apparently, neither was part of the world as God made it. Creation at its inception, the creation that God called “very good,” was pure and pristine – uncontaminated by outside influences. Well, yes, the one tree that people weren’t to eat from was there. The serpent was there. But they were marginalized, isolated, and harmless in and of themselves. They needed something to cause their damage in God’s creation, and what they needed was human disobedience.

“Sin entered the world through one man,” Paul wrote in reflection on the story of the Fall. (He knows, of course, that Eve had something to do with it too, but pointing the finger at Adam alone suits his literary sensibilities better….) Death followed on sin’s heels, of course, because, well, death always follows on sin’s heels. And once it had a foothold in the ecosystem of God’s creation, it gradually took over. Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden. Cain killed his brother and was forced into further exile, and one of his descendants carried the mark of sin and death so deeply that he wrote a song about retribution and vengeance (Genesis 4:23-24). By the time of Noah, “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time,” (Genesis 6:6).

Call it “original sin” or not. Say we’re born with it, or that we’re marked with it the first time we knowingly violate our conscience or God’s law. However you describe the ontological underpinnings, the practical truth is this: sin and death have infiltrated God’s creation, and nothing is left untouched, unmarked, undamaged. All you have to do is pay attention, look around, and you see and hear creation “groaning,” hoping to “be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21) The DNA of sin and death has contaminated everything. Human beings, intended to care for God’s creation, have brought about its devastation.

So that’s the problem, and the best human attempts to solve it and control it are doomed from the beginning because they’re all as broken and skewed as the rest of creation. That’s why there’s always another war simmering, why those who are obscenely wealthy get wealthier and those who are obscenely poor get poorer, why those who topple the dictators so often become dictators themselves. It’s why welfare agencies fail families and schools fail children and churches fail their members. It’s why marriages fall apart and families fragment, and it’s why those who are often the sickest can’t get adequate health care. It’s why government, even government that’s ostensibly “for the people,” so often takes the people for everything they’re worth.

But that’s where God steps in – no, smashes in – to human history. He does so pretty literally, too: in human flesh he comes. And in his coming is the announcement that God is reclaiming his creation. He’s destroying everything that wasn’t supposed to be there, but not with a flood, and not with fire. He’s coming to remove disease and relieve injustice, to give the poor reason for joy and the wealthy reason for grief. He’s coming to welcome those whom the government, the family, and the priests have failed. He’s coming put demons to flight and crush Satan under his heel. And he’s come to send sin’s little pet, death, screaming to his destruction.

“Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all,” Paul wrote, trying to explain what had happened. Jesus’ “righteous act” – his faithfulness in going to the cross and death – overturned what human unfaithfulness had allowed to happen because it ended in his resurrection. The Father said, in effect, “Here’s what one faithful human life can accomplish,” and he raised him from the grave to show that the reign of sin and death over his creation had ended. In Jesus – and so in everyone who follows Jesus – new creation has occurred. Creation is being put to right, and one day Jesus will return to announce that the reclamation project has been completed.

Until then we live as though it already has been, because it’s sure and it’s certain. We watch over ourselves diligently, so that we can turn back the actions of sin and death in our own lives before they can gain significant footholds. And we live out the life of new creation among those still enslaved by sin and death. We offer love, and we offer grace, and we offer forgiveness and acceptance. We work for justice and fairness, to right what is wrong and repair what is damaged.

And we wait in hope and anticipation for the day when Jesus will come and remove everything that has contaminated God’s good creation.

Try to be careful where you sneeze, too.

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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.