Friday, May 22, 2009

Stop That Bus!

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23)

The Chicago Transit Authority operates all the buses and trains in Chicago, and they've released new data this week on customer complaints during the first quarter of 2009. First, the good news: customer complaints are down almost across the board relative to the last two quarters of 2008. The bad news? The bad news is what the number one customer complaint actually is.

Over the first three months of the year, 468 customers complained about buses either not stopping at bus stops or for people who flag them down.

Take a moment to think that over. Four hundred and sixty-eight times in three months, CTA buses didn't stop for passengers.

As far as I know, city buses have exactly one purpose, and that's to pick up passengers at Point A and take them to Point B. Unless all those buses that didn't stop were full or had mechanical problems or something, someone seems to be missing the point. It doesn't matter if it has “CTA” painted on it, or if it's a state-of-the-art bus, or if the driver could drive the route with his eyes closed, or if he completes it on schedule and safely every day. If the bus doesn't pick up passengers, is it doing what it's intended to do?

For some reason, as I read about those buses not stopping for passengers this week I found myself thinking about the church. I thought about our comfortable buildings, our slick and professional worship services, our preference for presentation skills over prophetic voice in our preachers. I thought about how easy it is to see the church as an ecclesiastical Wal-Mart where we can conveniently stop on the weekend to get something for the whole family and then head on back to our “real” lives. Because, you know, who wants to live at Wal-Mart?

I started thinking that maybe, like those CTA buses that don't stop for passengers, we're missing the point.

The point, Jesus says, is to do what God wants. Be who God wants us to be. Many churches, many Christians, may well say to him on “that day”, “Lord, Lord, did we not give money in your name, and in your name build buildings and start programs and teach classes and preach sermons?” I hope not, but I wonder if on “that day” I'll find that I've been driving my shiny Christian bus, wearing my nice, clean Christian uniform, following my route, obeying the laws – and missing the point. Missing the people I could have blessed, the sick I could have helped to heal, the poor to whom I could have given, the lost I could have led to Jesus.

As the world most of us live in becomes more and more “post-Christian,” it's imperative that we hear what Jesus is saying here. Much of the world looks at the church, at our rituals and traditions, our buildings and ministries, our morality and ethics, and collectively shrugs. They don't see the point. They see us fortified inside our buildings, practicing our faith from padded pews, and they're frankly not very impressed. Well, why should they be? None of that seems to impress Jesus very much, either.

Honestly, if all we're doing is keeping the doors open and the power on, if all we're doing is following a schedule and reminiscing about the good ol' days when all the children were well-behaved and everyone knew their memory verses and everybody liked the hymns I like – well, we might as well turn off the lights and lock the doors. Jesus will raise up people who will do the will of his Father in heaven. Maybe in the Third World, and then send them proclaim the gospel in America. (He's already doing that, you know.) Maybe among the house churches, who aren't creaking under the weight of buildings, empty traditions, and professional clergy. Maybe among our teenagers and young adults, who haven't yet been shipwrecked on the rocks by the Siren songs of life.

Or, maybe – maybe – some of our churches will listen to Jesus again. Maybe we'll let him make good on his ages-old promise to write his Father's law in our minds and hearts. Then the saying that's written will come true, and we'll all know him – from the least of us to the greatest. And he'll forgive our past sins, and remember no more how for so long we'd missed the point.

Pastors, ministers, priests – let's all become preachers, and unapologetically proclaim the gospel of Jesus to our churches and our communities. Elders, bishops – we need you to be shepherds much more than we need you to be administrators. And may all of us who wear and invoke the name of Jesus listen to what he says, get out of our pews, and get serious about doing what God asks of us.

That means we'll love the people he loves, no matter where they live or what language they speak or how they dress or smell. That means we'll care for those who can't care for themselves: the orphans, the elderly, the sick, the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned. It will have implications for how we use our money, and the decisions we make about what and how much to buy. To do God's will means that we'll be willing to put our own morality and ethics under the microscope. It means we'll try our best to honor him with every word we say and everything we do, and it means that the name of Jesus will be on our tongues as we go about our lives.

It means that we'll live in prayer and worship, but also on the ragged edges of our world, making the love of God, the power of Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit known. And people will see, and they'll hear, and they'll know beyond a doubt that in Jesus is the way to get where they most need to be.

Let's not miss the...bus.

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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, May 16, 2009

Lego Jesus

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)

On Easter, most churches mark the resurrection of Jesus with prayers and singing. Some churches, the ones that use statuary, might unveil their statues during the Easter service. This past Easter, the Oensta Gryta Church in Vaesteras, a town in Sweden, unveiled a new statue, a reproduction of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsens's 19th century work Christus. It's a representation of Jesus at his resurrection, which isn't a surprising choice for Easter. What is a bit surprising is the medium in which the statue's creator worked.

It's made of Lego bricks.

The pastor of the church, Per Wilder, says the parishioners donated over 30,000 Lego bricks for the statue. At 5' 8” tall, Wilder says that the statue is “life-sized.” Wonder how they knew?

Actually, there's something kind of convenient and comforting about a Lego Jesus. The nice thing, really, about any Jesus we create ourselves is that he can be exactly what we want him to be. And here's the important part – he can be nothing more than what we want him to be. Convenient and comforting – that's the way to describe a do-it-yourself Jesus, and of course I don't mean now the kind of do-it-yourself Jesus that you make out of Lego bricks, or stone, or oil on canvas. Those creations may reflect what we think of Jesus, but what's really on my mind now is the way we create Jesuses in our own hearts and minds that do little but mirror our own values and priorities.

The real Jesus, of course, is more likely to question and challenge our values and priorities. So it's no wonder we prefer the do-it-yourself variety.

People have been creating Jesus in their own image, of course – or at least attempting to – since he first started doing miracles and preaching and generally causing and uproar. Think of the Pharisees and teachers who got so upset when he welcomed “sinners,” and even sat around their tables with them. What upset them about Jesus was that he didn't fit their notions of what a religious leader looked like, and he threatened their monopoly on God's favor. By telling people that the gates of God's kingdom were open to all those who wanted to enter, Jesus raised the question of what function the gatekeepers like the Pharisees actually served. And when he wouldn't fall in line, make his disciples fast, stop healing on the Sabbath and please, please, for the love of all that was holy stop eating with “sinnners” – well, they just couldn't allow that.

Or think of Mary and Martha, sisters of his friend Lazarus: “If you had only been here, he wouldn't have died.” There's the rich young ruler, whom Jesus told to sell everything he had to follow him. He went away sad, the text tells us, unable to bear the cost of discipleship. Even his own closest disciples failed to understand him. Eventually one betrayed him, and the rest scattered like cockroaches when the Temple police came to arrest him.

What should give us pause, of course, is that what all those folks have in common is that Jesus was right there in front of them. And if they had a hard time seeing who Jesus really was because of who they expected him to be, well, it's no wonder that we do, too.

And we do. To some, Jesus is a countercultural revolutionary who rails against everything but whatever counterculture they happen to be a part of. To others, he's a defender of the American Dream, free enterprise, and conservative politics. To some of us Jesus is a righteous judge, coming in wrath to destroy the sinners with holy glee. Some use Jesus to support a pro-homosexual agenda, while others use him to support hatred for homosexuals. He's been co-opted to fight at the heads of armies, teach us how to lead corporations, and every now and again some of us even have the gall to stick his name on our church signs, assuming that means that he sanctions everything that goes on inside our buildings.

But as cool as he may look, Lego Jesus has no power. The images we create of him never do. They sit, silent and powerless, in our churches and in our lives.

I think what we need in the church is a large dose of Jesus. “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear,” he once told his disciples. “But when...the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The Holy Spirit, poured out by Jesus on the church, is there to “speak only what he hears” and make known to the church what he receives from Jesus. (see John 16:12-15) So if we're going to see who Jesus really is, and if outsiders are going to see him as he really is, it's going to be through the Holy Spirit in the Bible and in all of us together and in ourselves individually. It's going to demand that we be people who are learning to live by the Spirit, learning to hear his voice and obey his promptings. Jesus promised not to leave his followers as orphans to create and follow our own pitiful little images of him. He's present with us through the Scriptures, and through the church's life together, and even in our own lives, bearing fruit in good works and transformation of who we are.

I don't ever again want to settle for an image of Jesus cobbled together by the little bits and pieces of personal agenda and piety that people bring to the project of crafting a do-it-yourself Jesus. I'd rather have the Jesus, please, in whom Paul said “all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form” and in whom we “have been given fullness.” I'd rather have the Jesus who has “disarmed the powers and authorities” that would otherwise have me trapped in death and despair. I'd like, please, the Jesus by whom and in whom and for whom everything was created, and through whom everything has been reconciled to God.

If that sounds good to you, then I have a suggestion. Topple your images of Jesus. Ask him to show you who he really is. Read anew the stories about him and the words he spoke that don't easily fit your image of him. Let your life with the church inform and change the way you see him. A warning, though: you may be a bit surprised and unsettled by what you find. That's OK. That's what Jesus does – he surprises and unsettles.

So put down the Legos. Playtime's over.

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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, May 4, 2009


Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25-28)

It was just going to cost too much and be far too complicated. That was the bottom line. It was just going to add additional expense to an already-costly project, and it just didn't make sense. So I just said, “Take out as much as you can and bury the rest.”

It was a big concrete slab we were talking about, the foundation for the old sign at our church. We're having a new sign installed, at that meant getting rid of the old one. And that meant getting rid of that slab. But it was easier said than done.

The concrete guys came with a jackhammer and started to break it into pieces, but it wasn't breaking into large chunks. It was coming out in small pieces. The going was slow, and the concrete guys had started to talk about maybe needing to get some heavier machinery. They dug down beside the slab, hoping to get an idea of how deep it went.

At three feet, they hit a pipe.

Water or gas, we weren't sure which. What we could see is that whoever had poured the slab had poured it right over the pipe; it ran directly through the concrete we wanted out of the ground. That meant dealing with with Peoples' Energy or the Chicago Department of Water Management, and I'd rather have a root canal than do either. Not to mention the fact that extracting this slab from the ground was going to suddenly get a whole lot more expensive.

So I told the concrete guys to break out as much of the slab as they could, then bury the rest. “Leave us enough dirt over the slab to grow some grass,” I said. Once we do, once the slab is covered and the grass is growing, nobody will have any idea that the slab was ever there. It'll look fine at the surface, and we won't have to deal with all the problems and complications down below. Everyone's happy.

And that works well enough, I suppose, when you're talking about concrete in a lawn. Once that slab's buried, it won't take long for the grass to cover over any trace of it.

It strikes me, though, that “bury it” is the philosophy that churches and church people too quickly fall back on in living with each other and their Lord.

Pharisee Flu, let's call it, in honor of some of the disease's most widely-known victims. Jesus uses colorful language to refer to them: they were like dishes that are only clean on the outside, like whitewashed tombs with beautiful exteriors that are filled just the same with corruption and death. He says that they have plenty of rules to teach, but not much energy to help people to learn and practice them. They enjoyed fame and notoriety more than God's approval, and practiced religious observance more than they did piety. “They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers,” Jesus accused, no doubt provoking anger from the Pharisees and knowing chuckles from those who knew their ways and saw the inconsistency.

Of course, it's not as if the Pharisees are the only, or even the first, of God's people who prefer to cover over what doesn't belong in their hearts and lives instead of doing the hard, complicated, and costly work of removing it.

Unfortunately, sometimes the church is the very last place people want to tear up a patch of grass, dig down through a couple of inches of topsoil, and own up to what's really lying there just below the surface of our lives. Anger and bitterness. Pride. Lust. Greed. Conceit and self-importance. We yell at our kids and lie to our spouses all the way to Sunday school and back again. We go to church on Sunday and cheat and mistreat each other Monday through Friday, then have a couple of drinks on Saturday and start the whole process over again. From time to time we think about making some changes, but the work seems too difficult, and we fear that it will cost more than we're willing to pay.

So we bury it all, even though we know full well that we're not fooling God at all and only sometimes fooling one another.

It doesn't have to be that way, though. We don't have to live like that, with that hard, heavy, cold thing always just under the surface, always afraid that someone will gouge just a little too deep and find it. The story of God making himself known to us in Jesus is intended to “cut [its hearers] to the heart” (Acts 2:37). It's “living and active” and “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” (Hebrews 4:12) The gospel doesn't stay on the surface; Jesus isn't some smiling lawn jockey, some still and silent decoration that leaves what's beneath the surface in our lives and hearts untouched.

But neither does he tear into us in anger and disregard, unconcerned about what damage he might do in the process. He comes in gentleness and grace and mercy, gently scraping away the facades we so carefully build and exposing what's really underneath. And then he offers us forgiveness, and he offers us understanding, and he offers us hope that through his Spirit we can be free of what we've had buried for so long.

It's complicated, yes, and it's costly, and we'll be tempted to go on thinking that it's just easier to keep some things buried. But then we'd have to live with it, and it turns out that the things we bury don't stay that way.

The Lord doesn't ask that we have a plan for getting rid of all the stuff we've buried. If the resources to get rid of it were in us, we wouldn't need him, would we? He doesn't ask that we come with some sacrifice to appease his anger. He doesn't need our money, or even our promises of good deeds and righteous lives. What he asks for is repentance: a resolve to make some changes and the courage to expose what's buried in our hearts and lives to his power.

So let me challenge you to take stock of what you might have buried in your heart and life. What's there that you know shouldn't be, but that you just haven't wanted to deal with? Take it to the Lord in prayer, and ask for him to take it away. Take it to a brother or sister in Christ who you trust, too – God ordinarily chooses to help us through other people. And then start to think about how you can reorganize your life to work with God in removing whatever it is that needs to come out.

You probably won't even need a jackhammer.

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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.