Thursday, December 23, 2010

Out of Her Poverty

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

Priced a partridge in a pear tree lately? If that's what's on your true love's list this year, you'd better be prepared to shell out a little more than last year. They'll run you about $160 – a twenty percent increase over 2009.

Every Christmas, Pittsburgh-based PNC Wealth Management compiles its annual Christmas Price Index, a whimsical look at the cost of living through the lens of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” For most of its 27 years, the Index has mirrored the Consumer Price Index. This year, though, it grew 9.2 percent over last year. The Consumer Price Index only increased 1.1 percent.

If you're looking to purchase the number of items specified in the song, you can expect to shell out $96,824. High gold prices have pushed five golden rings up 30 percent to $649.95. The cost of hiring entertainers has increased as well, so expect to pay more for drummers drumming ($2,552) and pipers piping ($2,356). And, surprisingly, the cost of birds could, well, “fowl” up your gift-giving budget. Seven swans a-swimming will set you back 6.7 percent more than last year, at $5,600. Two turtle doves will run you 78.6 percent more than last year at $100, and three french hens have ballooned a whopping 233 percent, to $150.

The most expensive item on the list? Nine ladies dancing will make a $6,294.03 dent in your bottom line, up 15 percent over 2009. (Though that might depend on where you hire them from....) The cheapest is the partridge, a bargain at $12 despite a 20 percent price increase. The prices of four calling birds ($599.96), six geese ($150), and eight maids-a-milking ($58) all remained steady at last year's levels. (So, maids, now is not the time to launch a career a-milking....)

Lords a-Leaping (ahem) jumped 8 percent to $4,766 – though PNC does not specify who these lords are, or how one could convince nobles to leap for so little.

While I'm doubting that many of us will have the gifts from the “Twelve Days of Christmas” under our trees this year – a good thing, considering the mess six geese could make – I imagine that most of us will have some gifts under our trees. If you're like me, you'll have a pile that's almost embarrassing. And it's probably safe to say that for the last several weeks, (or months, if you're one of those “Christmas shopping in July” kinds of people) a good deal of your attention and your budget has been taken up with what to give the people on your list. Everyone wants to give the perfect gift – maybe even more than we want to receive it. You want her to break down in tears over the piece of jewelry she's unwrapped. You want him to stare open-mouthed at the car in the driveway. You want the kids to call you the coolest Dad ever.

Understand, I'm all for the giving of Christmas gifts. (I can't imagine a better time of year, or a better reason, to give to others.) I just think that the way we often go about it winds up detracting from the joy of Christmas as much as it adds to it. Somehow, our nation's economic health has come to depend on whether we buy dad the 42-inch flat screen, or the 48. Somehow, we've come to believe that the degree to which we love our family and friends is denoted somewhere in the bar codes on a price tag. Somehow we've gotten the idea that being Bob Cratchett at Christmas can atone for being Scrooge the rest of the year.

We're wrong, though. Jesus knew that the price of a gift mattered much less than its cost, that the generosity behind a gift gave it value and not the price tag on it. That's why he could look at a widow's two pennies in the Temple treasury, and all the expensive gifts of all the wealthy people in Jerusalem, and say with a straight face that the widow gave the more extravagant gift. The wealthy “gave their gifts our of their wealth,” he explains. “But she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

“Out of her poverty.” It occurs to me that most of us budget for Christmas gifts. Those come out of disposable income, or at least after the urgent bills are paid. That's as it should be, but maybe this is a good time to rethink what it means to give a gift. As we sit back and survey the mounds of stuff that we've given and received, and thank God for enough economic security to do so, let's consider some places where we're less wealthy. And let's consider what it would look like to give out of our poverty.

If you're like me, you're time-poor. You always feel pressed for time, always tyrannized by the next deadline. Being time-poor makes us very good at prioritizing and multi-tasking. But it makes us terrible at knowing what's really important – particularly if it's something that doesn't come with an obvious deadline.

So maybe what the people around us really need is some of our time. Our kids, our spouses, our friends, our churches – maybe what they need most from us is for us to unplug, turn off our phones, and connect with them. Our kids need us to play a game with them, go to their recitals, sit around a dinner table with them. Our spouses need us to talk to them, listen to them, laugh with them, hold them. The people in our lives need us to give them some of the resource we think we have so little of: our time. They'll recognize the value of a gift like that.

Let's give from the limited supplies of energy we have. Let's give hospitality. Whatever you think you can't possibly afford, start imagining that just maybe that's what God wants you to give. Imagine the horizons of faith that will open as you trust God enough to give out of your poverty, and see him bless your gift and make it more than you could possibly have imagined.

And you won't have to worry about how to ship a partridge in a pear tree.

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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 14, 2010

Play Misty For Me

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)

This week, on the same day, two families I know said goodbye to parents.

In one of the families, middle-aged siblings gathered with their mother to comfort each other in the sudden death of their father. He was older, and had been experiencing some health problems, but his passing was still a shock for them.

In the other family, there was only one child, a fifteen-year-old daughter. With her father, her grandparents, two aunts, and some friends from school, she mourned the sudden loss of her mother. She was much younger, and there was no warning – in the time it takes a heart to stop, this girl's life changed completely and irrevocably.

Such different situations. While death almost always leaves grief in its wake, one of those losses probably seems to you even a little more tragic than the other. It's one thing to lose a parent in middle age – it's even something we expect. It seems much different to lose a parent as a teenager. There's more to grieve, somehow: not just the loss itself, but the moments and events and time together that's lost as well. Such different situations in so many ways.

So alike in one way. One fundamental way.

Both families were shocked and caught off guard. Death is particularly good at sneaking up and surprising us, and neither family knew it was nearby. I think that's a good thing, actually; I can't imagine that always anticipating the death of the people we love – or our own – would be any way to live. Who'd want to live with an hourglass attached to your forehead, or a countdown clock implanted in your palm? And who'd want to see the sands running out or the minutes counting down on a parent or a spouse or a friend or a child?

The surprise with which death comes can often be a great blessing, I think – as shocking as it may be when it happens. It prevents us from being preoccupied with death, from focusing so disproportionately on life's end that we fail to see the beauty and joy in each day.

But it also means that we're prone to living as if death doesn't exist.

When we live that way, we also fail to appreciate life. But for the opposite reason. To live as if we and the people we love will live forever, to fail to recognize that there is a horizon to our lives, is to devalue the present. When we don't acknowledge our mortality, we imagine life as an endless vista of attainment and achievement. “We'll go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money,” James pictures us as saying. And he rebukes for our foolish assumptions, for the arrogance of believing that our futures will unfold in exactly the way we imagine and plan. We should know better, seeing as how all around us is testimony to our mortality. And yet somehow we don't.

“Mist.” That's what James calls human life. Mist, of course, is already in the process of evaporation. And so are we, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. We appear for a little while – 80 or 50 or 30 years, or whatever – and then we're gone. We don't know how long we have, but we know there's an expiration date.

So how do we live with the knowledge of our own mortality without obsessing over it? James suggests that we live an “if the Lord wills” sort of life. Make your plans, he says – just make sure to leave room for God to cut them short. You can schedule that business trip, but scheduling and making it are two different things, and you're not in control of the variables. Buy your plane tickets, set your wedding date, take care of your health, pay your insurance premiums, plan to dance at your granddaughter's wedding: but just know that you may be with your Father before the flight leaves or your granddaughter walks down the aisle.

I've known people who affixed the words “Lord willing” before nearly everything they said about future plans. Truthfully, I used to think that was a little excessive. I'm not as sure now, though. Now, I think maybe those folks are testifying to the fact that ultimately it's God who's in control of our lives – beginning, middle, and end. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of affirming, out loud, that the plans we make, the futures we imagine, are firmly in his hands.

That's how you live with your “mistiness.” That's how you live with your mortality, and the mortality of the people you love. It's really a great relief to know that our intentions and imaginings aren't the last word. And it's good to remind ourselves – out loud, sometimes – that it's only by God's will that we live and do the things we do.

So while you have today, make it count. Tell the people you love how much they mean to you. Better yet, show them. Do something that will make a positive difference in someone's life. Listen to someone who's hurting, pray with someone who's afraid, help someone who needs it. Look around you and thank God for all the blessings you have, before you rush right in to telling him what you want. When you make plans for tomorrow, ask for God's guidance. And when those plans are “final,” remind yourself that there's really nothing final about them until God says so.

It's OK to be mortal, because God isn't. It's OK to not be certain of our future, because God is. It's even OK when we die, because even then we're not out of his hands or beyond his care. It's even OK when death surprises us, because it's no surprise to God.

And resurrection surprises death even more.

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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, December 5, 2010


Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44)

I can still remember it clearly: sitting on my bed in the darkness, looking through the window into the night sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. My sister was sleeping in the bottom bunk, so I think my grandmother must have been there and sleeping in her room. But she was asleep, either convinced by the song that “he knows when you've been sleeping, he knows when you're awake” or just worn out from the excitement. But I was older, more worldly, at 6 or 7. I didn't think he could possibly keep track....

So there I sat, as Christmas Eve 1974 or 75 turned to Christmas morning. At some point, I'm sure, I gave up and fell asleep. But I kept my vigil as long as I could, hoping to see him. It wasn't a foggy night, so I didn't know if he'd have Rudolph in the lead. We didn't have a chimney, so I didn't know if he'd land on the roof or in the back yard, near the door that Dad promised to leave unlocked. But I knew I'd see him. All I had to do was stay awake. (I guess it didn't occur to me that he might come from one of the three cardinal points of direction that the window I was staring through didn't face. Come on, people. I was 6 or 7....)

In the intervening years, I've gone from staying up late to see Santa, to staying up late to put together toys, to getting up early with a young child who was just as excited as I had been, to trying to figure out what to buy a son who's just on this side of the teen years. I've learned some things about Christmas. One is that you never see Santa coming, no matter how late you stay up. And that if you sneak downstairs and see Mom kissing him, then either Dad has a Santa costume or there's something that he needs to know. I've learned that we're supposed to grow out of our childish preoccupation with new stuff, and that sadly a lot of us never do. I've learned that those of us who do outgrow it usually only replace it with a preoccupation with what we're going to give this year, or depression when we discover that this year won't be the perfect Christmas either. I've learned that the most important things about Christmas have nothing to do with shopping and can't be found at a mall.

And I've learned that I was waiting for the wrong person that night.

Not that there's anything wrong with Santa Claus, the Church Lady notwithstanding. He has the sleigh, and the elves, and he brings the presents. He has a lot going for him. But, at the risk of a lump of coal in my stocking, I have to state the obvious: it's Christmas, not Santamas.

It's true, of course, that the Bible doesn't mention Christmas, and one way to avoid obscuring Jesus with the commercialism and consumerism of the season is simply to declare Santa the winner and enjoy the Holidays for what they are. Or ignore them altogether. But functionally, abandoning Christmas to the retailers robs Christians of an obvious opportunity to witness to the gospel. At a time when the people of the world come from near and far to worship at the House of the Lord and Taylor, the one thing those of us who believe in Jesus should under no circumstances do is mute our voices and march in lock-step through the check-out lines.

Jesus was born at a crossroads of hope and anticipation. He was born when people were waiting, waiting for they knew not what, and arguing and fighting about their different ideas of what that hope looked like. For some, it was renewed personal piety. For others, a strong Roman emperor. Some looked for a renewed Jewish nation led by a rightful king of the House of David. Some waited in the desert for a coming apocalypse that would purify the people of God and leave the righteous in charge. Different visions, but everyone was waiting.

And it's not so different now. Everyone is still waiting, and now, as then, what they're waiting for is Jesus. Even those who don't know it. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” the song rightly says; but it's the church who knows it best. And that's why Jesus left us with the promise of his return and instructions to “keep watch” and “be ready” in the meantime. Because he's coming to finish the work he began, and because he's left the church with the task of witnessing to his work with our words and actions.

He doesn't call us, though, to sit and watch through the windows. Being ready means being busy doing his business with what he gives us. It has a lot to do with whether or not we notice the conditions in which “the least of these” have to exist and do something to alleviate their suffering. Sometimes in church we give the impression that being ready is all about asking Jesus into your heart, or being baptized, or prayer, or communion, or personal holiness. Jesus seems to assume those things; for him, being watchful has to do with speaking the words he would speak and doing the things he would do in the dark and waiting world around us, in order to clarify just what it is they're waiting for.

I like that the church is figuring this out. Whether it's turning Black Friday into Buy Nothing Day, or Advent Conspiracy's efforts to give Christians an alternative to overspending during the Christmas season, or a hundred other efforts in a hundred places, followers of Jesus are learning what it really means to wait expectantly for his coming.

In this time of waiting, may we remember who we're waiting for. And may our lives be watchful, and may we be witnesses to the gift that God gives in Jesus: “so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.”

Don't go to sleep 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.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Power of Gratitude

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4-5)

Black Friday. While I write this in the safety of my office, the mobs are in the streets, filling shopping malls, or doing that slow drive behind other shoppers heading to their cars, hoping to get their parking space. They'll come home with car trunks loaded with presents for family and friends, and maybe a little something for themselves tucked in as well. And then the analysts will tell us what we bought, and if we bought enough, and what all that means for our economy.

Wasn't there a time when our economy depended more on what we produced and less on what we bought?

A lot of the Black Friday shoppers sat at full tables yesterday, letting very few serving platters get by untouched. That's kind of what Thanksgiving is in America, circa 2010: we eat more than we probably ought to, and buy more than we can probably afford. Oh, and watch more football than ought to be humanly possible. Was Tom Brady somehow playing for the Jets last night, or did I just get mixed up?

I'm not saying that's necessarily bad, though. There's something good about celebrating when we have plenty. I don't think it's immoral to overeat while celebrating with friends and family, or overspend on gifts for those we love. I doubt I'm alone in feeling that way, but the church hasn't always shared that opinion.

The church has historically had a mixed opinion at best on overindulgence. In some times, and in some places, Christians have taken a decidedly more ascetic stance toward things like food, money, and entertainment. There's a reason for that, too: overindulgence can bring out the worst in people. We aren't always good at distinguishing “want” from “need” in the best of circumstances, and when we get used to always reaching for a double handful of whatever we want at the moment, there are consequences in terms of relationships, spirituality, and even physical health. Take, for example, the 27-year-old woman from Long Beach, California, who was quoted by the LA Times today as she waited in line at Toys R Us to buy Barbies for her daughters.

“We are in it to win it,” she said. “Go hard or go home.”

For Barbies. I hope I don't get between her and whatever else she might want.

But despite the human inclination to confuse “want” and “need,” I don't think the answer is to avoid every want and deny or delay every need. Contrary to the impression the church may have given at times, Christianity isn't all about the denial or avoidance of human wishes and desires. Oh, there are times when devotion to Jesus will require us to say “no” to ourselves. But there have always been those who take that reality and twist it into a rule that all wishes and desires are always bad, as if “physical” equals “evil.” And that's as dangerous, probably, as the undisciplined fulfillment of every desire.

In reality, the Biblical writers all affirm in one way or another that God's physical creation is good, and that it is a mistake to sharply distinguish “physical” from “spiritual.” God called his creation “good,” and that includes human beings with their needs for food, sex, and companionship. He created the world around us to be enjoyed, its plants and animals to be eaten as food. It's because of him that we can create art and music, or earn money, or dance, or be intimate with our spouses, or appreciate a gourmet entree or a fine wine. And just because all of those things can be twisted and used in ways that he never intended doesn't mean that we should feel compelled to always avoid them.

Part of the fallenness of human beings is that we can find ways to twist and deface the best of God's creation. Part of the glory of God is that he always finds ways to redeem it.

So how do we enjoy the good things of the physical world that God created, without worshipping them or making attaining more and more of them the chief end of our lives? Well, I'm thinking of our dog, Isaiah. Last night, after we finished our Thanksgiving meal, he got a nice treat: one of our turkey's leg bones. He took it out into the yard and had a wonderful time with it.

And then he came back in and whined for more.

No gratitude. He didn't lick my hand to say, “Hey, thanks for the bone. It was great.” He got what he wanted, but as soon as it was gone he was figuring out how to get more.

I expect that from a dog, but human beings have a greater capacity for gratitude.

And that's how we can appreciate the good things God gives us without making them what our lives are all about. It's very simple: we say “thank you.” We show gratitude to the God who gives us so many good things, and we show gratitude to the people through whom he often gives them. “Everything God created is good,” wrote Paul, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5, emphasis mine)

You'll have a hard time living as if you're entitled to the blessings you have if you cultivate the habit of being thankful. You'll be less likely to misuse the good things God has created if you often say “thank you” to him. Get used to being grateful, and you'll be more likely to share what you have with those who don't have. Remember to thank God often, and you'll also remember that your desires and wishes are not God.

And if thanking God for what you're doing or enjoying seems somehow out of place, or makes you uncomfortable, then it's a good bet that what you're doing or enjoying is a misuse of his blessings.

Enjoy what God has given you. Indulge in a little extra, from time to time; there are occasions in which to throw moderation to the wind. But never forget from Whom those blessings come. Remember to be thankful. Remember to worship the Creator of all the good things you've been given.

And, next time you're shopping, be extra careful around the Barbie shelf.

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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.

Friday, November 19, 2010


You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16, TNIV)

Merrie Harris didn't intend to shatter preconceptions. She just wanted to help someone.

Jay Valentine didn't intend to subvert any stereotypes. He just asked for some help.

Both of them, though, probably made a lot of people think differently about a lot of things. Maybe they will you, as well.

When a homeless man approached Merrie, a New York City ad executive, in a SoHo cafe last summer and asked for money, Merrie realized she had no cash to give him. She did, however, have an American Express credit card. And, without any more than momentary hesitation, she handed it over to him and asked that he bring it back when he was finished.

Friends and bystanders told her she was crazy, that she'd never see the card again, that she should cancel it immediately. All Merrie said was, “Are we only supposed to trust people we know?” So she wasn't surprised at all when the homeless man, Jay Valentine, returned the card.

“I didn't have to thank him,” she said. “I trusted him all along.”

Jay also brought her a receipt for the total he charged to her card: deodorant, body wash, water, and cigarettes.

Twenty-five dollars.

When asked if he was tempted to take advantage of Merrie's generosity, Jay, a former real estate agent who has been homeless since he lost his job a few years ago, said no. “I wasn’t tempted at all. She trusted me, and I didn’t want to violate that trust. I would never do that.”

“It sets a good example that people in need – like I am or worse – can and should be trusted.

I wonder how many people a day Jay asks for spare change. And I wonder what most people say, or think, when he asks. We tend to assume the worst, don't we? We tend to think homeless people are homeless through some fault of their own. If we pass them by, it's often because we tend to assume they can't be trusted to use what we give them as we think they should. If we help, it's usually with the nagging thought in the backs of our mind that the spare change we give them will have turned into a bottle of Night Train by the end of the day. Sometimes trust is hard to come by, especially the kind of trust that Merrie showed.

Jay demonstrated, though, that at least sometimes when you trust people – even people in the most difficult of circumstances – they vindicate your trust.

And Merrie – well, Merrie blew up a neat stereotypical category herself. She didn't demonstrate the greed and self-interest that we sometimes associate with successful corporate executives. She showed how generous successful people can be.

OK – a reality check: There are some people who you couldn't trust with your credit card. Thing is, those people aren't always homeless, and in fact they sometimes live in the nicest homes in the nicest neighborhoods. As Jay showed, “poor” doesn't always equal “addict” or “criminal.” And sometimes, the very thing those who are poor need is the one thing it's hardest to get: trust. Sometimes the only thing that might lift someone out of a bad situation and into a better one is for someone to believe in them enough to take a risk and give generously.

When Jesus calls his followers the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” it isn't because he sees us as morally, ethically, spiritually, or intellectually superior to the people around us. It comes at the end of what we know as the Beatitudes, where Jesus calls “blessed” those who will subvert their natural reactions and knee-jerk responses enough to trust in the coming Kingdom of God for things like wealth, comfort, power, joy, justice, and peace. And it comes right before a long section where Jesus tells us to act with uncommon generosity, trustworthiness, and love toward the people around us. Being light and salt, in short, is less about our own personal piety and more about how that personal piety changes the way we act toward the people around us.

What he calls us to, I think, is living lives that anticipate the kind of world that God is busy bringing into existence. And to the degree we do, he says, people might get the chance to see what that world is like and what that God is like and worship him.

Maybe the most valuable currency we can give the people around us is trust – trust that they will receive our generosity and do right with it. And sometimes they will, and sometimes they won't. That's why it's such valuable currency: It costs something to give it. We will never be the salt and light Jesus wants us to be, we will never be able to live lives that anticipate the joy and justice and peace and love of the Kingdom of God, if we aren't willing to open ourselves to being disappointed, taken advantage of, and even hurt. Jay could have taken Merrie's card and caused her all kinds of pain and trouble. And that's exactly the reason her gift meant so much.

We should know, because of course we've received such a gift. God gave us his Son, and Jesus gave us his life, without requiring any guarantees as to what we would do with that gift. Jesus gave all he had to give without protecting himself at all. As recipients of his generosity, we should know how to do that too.

Isn't there someone in your life who needs you to give generously of the most valuable currency you have – your trust? Someone who needs to see in you the anticipation of the Kingdom of God? Maybe it'll require your credit card, but it will certainly require more. It will require that you care, and that you make yourself vulnerable, and that you know going in that it may even hurt.

But don't let the difficulty of it discourage you. Because that kind of thing can change a world.

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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.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fantasy Church

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. (Hebrews 12:22-25)

My son and I have a fantasy football team this season - the Odum Titan Steelers. Maybe you're familiar with fantasy football – it's become something of a phenomenon, with millions of football fans worldwide joining leagues. It's pretty simple to play; you join a league online, draft a team made up of actual NFL players, and then use their game statistics each week to determine your score.

It's nothing like playing football in real life, of course. And it's nothing like actually owning or coaching a team. It's a fun way to make NFL games that you might not otherwise care about more interesting. It gives you something of a rooting interest where maybe you wouldn't have had one. It gives you reason to get more immersed in the statistics of a particular season. Some people get pretty competitive about it, usually because they play in a league where actual money is at stake. But for Josh and me – and most fantasy football players, I think – there's nothing real about it. That's why it's called fantasy football.

You might not know it, though, if you were with us watching a game where one of “our” guys is playing. At any given moment, we might be yelling at the coach to give “our” guy the ball near the goal line. Or we might be bemoaning a dropped touchdown pass, or cringing at an interception that hurts “our” quarterback's stats. Though we have no investment whatsoever in the players and coaches on our TV screen, we sometimes act as if we do. Though it won't really matter much to us one way or the other if our team ultimately wins or loses, for some reason we sit in our living room and criticize coaching decisions and player performances that we'll shrug off five minutes after the game ends. Such is the nature of fantasy football.

It makes me wonder if there might be such a thing as fantasy church.

Stay with me here. I wonder how many Christians are roughly as involved and invested in a church as Josh and I are in the NFL. We’re sort of brainwashed, after all - by history, by habit, by churches, even - to think of church as another organization to join. We keep our church directories in the drawer with our PTA membership lists and the address and phone number sheets from our kids’ soccer teams, and maybe church occupies the same drawer in our minds as PTA’s and soccer teams. That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise us if our usual experience of church is about as close to the reality of church as the Odum Titan Steelers are to a real NFL team.

We sit on the sidelines and watch, instead of actively participating. After all, it’s the leaders, the long-time members, maybe the largest contributors that make the decisions, right? Teaching is best left to the professionals, or at least to those who know the Bible best. Service, ministry - well, we just don’t have that kind of free time. Fellowship, real relationships, really being a part of the lives of other Christians - we already have friends, and don’t have the time, the room, the emotional energy for more.

So we content ourselves with fantasy church. We show up at worship - once in a while. We criticize decisions and take notice when someone messes up. We celebrate from time to time, when there’s reason. But then we shrug off everything that happens and go back to our day-to-day lives, largely unaffected by it all. We have little investment, little connection, and so there’s little reason, honestly, for us to care one way or the other.

Ultimately, what difference does fantasy make? It isn’t real, and life is real. Our problems are real. The decisions we have to make, the priorities we have to set - those are real. Fantasy, well, it’s fun for a while, but in the end it’s just an empty entertainment.

That’s why I love the way the anonymous writer of the book we call “Hebrews” describes church. His potent images are a corrective to fantasy church, a radical rebuttal to the notion that church is to be experienced from the sidelines. He says that church isn’t about coming to a building once a week to listen to a lecture. It’s about living life in God’s city, with celebrating angels, other people who have a place in heaven, and in communion with even the faithful who have gone on before us. For him, church is a parting of the curtain, a glimpse of and participation in the new world that is surely overtaking the old one. It’s a new relationship with God, sealed with the blood of Jesus. It’s the receiving of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” And so, he says, “let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Hebrews 12:28)

No fantasy church there. Which hopefully leads us to realize that, to the degree that our limited experience of church doesn’t look like his and doesn’t lead us to be thankful and worship God with reverence and awe, perhaps something is wrong.

The church is people. Not the building, not the structures of leadership, not the programs. We make the church what it is, not they - whoever we may think “they” are. Which is why the writer of Hebrews draws some shockingly mundane conclusions: Treat each other as family. Show hospitality to strangers. Remember those who are mistreated and forgotten. Value marriage. Imitate the faith of those who have gone before. Profess the name of Jesus. Do good and share. Submit to leaders.

Point is, church isn’t experienced and lived from a couch, watching others. Church is us, together, thankful for the kingdom we are receiving through Jesus, worshipping God, and treating each other like a loving family. Being part of the church demands that we get off the couch and stop being satisfied as spectators with no real investment. It demands that we give up fantasy church once and for all.

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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.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Big Rocks

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.” (Matthew 8:19-20)

At a meeting at my son's school this past week, several of the parents in attendance were complaining about the amount of homework our kids have to do each night. Several of the parents told stories about late bedtimes, stress in the household, and plans cancelled – all due to homework.

Every family with school-aged children could probably tell similar stories, of course. But my attention was particularly grabbed by one parent who told the group that, because of excessive homework, they had skipped church the previous Sunday. Immediately, two or three other parents nodded their heads. One parent later said that they, too, had missed church the previous Sunday.

Josh's principal had been quiet for most of the meeting; I think she felt that it was important to let the parents have their say. But after the comments about missing church, she had something to say. And it wasn't really about homework, but something bigger, and ultimately more important.

She said, “You're the parents, and you decide what is important in your house.”

In some ways, maybe that sounds too easy. I know it didn't solve the debate about how much homework is too much. What the statement did accomplish was to reframe the discussion in terms of priorities: “You decide what's important.” Sometimes, amid the realities of all the things we have to do each day, and with the voices of all the bosses and parents and children and spouses and teachers telling us that this or that is important or urgent ringing in our ears, we forget that we have the responsibility to decide what matters most to us. Not the guy who signs our paychecks. Not the person to whom we're married. Certainly not the people who assign our kids' homework. We decide. And we live accordingly.

I think Jesus was saying something like that to the certainly well-intentioned guy early in the gospel of Matthew who wants to be his disciple. He wants to learn from him. Wants to be with him and live life in his shoes. And it seems like Jesus brushes him off. I think, though, that he was more likely saying something about priorities. He wanted this guy to know that he had the power to decide what mattered most to him.

“The Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” he warned. And rightly so, because you can't have everything. To follow one path is to abandon another. To open one door is to leave another closed. There are just so many hours in a day, and to set one thing as a priority might mean you can't do something else. Or at least not right then. Or not as much. The parents at that meeting were feeling that time crunch. You can't do homework and go to church at the same time. (Well, you can – but neither ministers nor teachers recommend it...)

What the principal reminded those parents of, though, is that it they wanted going to church to be a priority in their house, then they just needed to go to church. They needed to set the priority and fit the homework around it.

Jesus, I think, wanted this man to understand what following him would mean giving up.

Because following him does mean giving up other options, other choices, other priorities. I'm not necessarily talking about going to church vs. doing homework now, because going to church doesn't exactly equal following Jesus.*

But this goes beyond what you do with an hour or two on Sundays. Following Jesus – being a disciple – is mostly about choices. It's a spiritual decision, yes, but our society's current inclination to talk about spiritual things as if they have no connection to the realities of day-to-day life is just foolish. Jesus made no such distinctions. Following him meant taking a serious hit in your standard of living. It meant depending on the kindness of others, maybe sleeping out under the stars some nights. You didn't follow Jesus in those days for status, or wealth, or the approval of others. In fact, following him would probably cost you at least one of those, and quite possibly all three.

And though in the intervening centuries we've developed a Christianity Lite that sort of fits comfortably in among all the other things we want to do with our lives, the real thing is no less disruptive to our priorities today than it was back then.

Following Jesus will cost us, for instance, in time: time spent serving those in need and advocating for those who are marginalized, time spent in prayer, time spent with the Scriptures, time spent speaking about Jesus, time spent with the church.

It will cost us in emotional and physical energy invested in others. It will cost us in spending power, as we make decisions about how to use our money. It may cost us in earning power, as we follow Jesus' leading more than an upward career trajectory. It may even cost us jobs we enjoy if we're forced to compromise the ethics we've learned from our Master.

Sometimes following Jesus will call us to spend more time with our families, to love our children and spouses more. Sometimes following him will call us away from our families. It takes careful listening for his voice to know which. It's not always easy to know what following Jesus means for ourselves. It's nearly impossible for us to be certain about someone else. Again, you decide what's important for you. Sometimes it helps to have another perspective, so accept it graciously and offer it in the same way. But never forget that you have the privilege – and the responsibility – of evaluating what following Jesus will mean for you.

Stephen Covey suggests that, in evaluating priorities, you think of a large, empty jar. Beside it are two other jars the same size. One is filled to the top with big rocks. The other is filled halfway with small pebbles and crushed gravel. Your challenge is to get the rocks in both jars into the empty one.

The answer, as a moment's thought will tell you, is to put the big rocks in first. The gravel and pebbles will fit in the spaces between the large rocks. But you have to put the big rocks in first.

So fit the big rocks into your life first. Follow Jesus. Let him set your priorities. You probably still can't get all the smaller ones in. But at least you'll know that what really matters is there. And I'm convinced that he'll help you work the rest out.

Now, excuse me while I go help my son with some homework.

*Having said that, however, doesn't a commitment to following Jesus include a commitment to fellow disciples as well? What does it say about our priorities if we consistently fail to be at church on Sunday because we had a late night on Saturday? What does it say about our priorities if other activities, appointments, and demands seem to always take precedence? Remember: you decide what's important in your life.

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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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Somewhere Between Uniformity and Compromise

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Romans 15:7)

You might say that Temple Menorah in Chicago is a synagogue with a split personality. Split three ways, in fact.

The synagogue was founded in 1946, a Reform synagogue that was a haven to progressive Jews moving north from Chicago's south side. It thrived for decades, until new population shifts in the eighties saw many Reform Jews leaving the city for the suburbs. As the synagogue's membership waned, they rented out their facility to an all-girls Orthodox day school to make ends meet. Then a year ago, an Orthodox Rabbi approached the leaders of Temple Menorah about sharing the space for Sabbath meetings.

Now, in the way they observe their faith, Reform and Orthodox Jews don't look much alike. But in Temple Menorah's case, the – sorry – unorthodox arrangement seems to be working. And, in fact, when leaders of another synagogue were looking for space to rent for their own services, they approached Temple Menorah and were welcomed.

By the way, they're a Conservative synangoge. Of course. They're part of the third major branch of Judaism, located somewhere between the liberal Reform and Orthodox synagogues on the spectrum.

Imagine Southern Baptists, mainstream Lutherans, and Unitarians sharing a church, and you start to get the picture.

It seems to be working, however. At least for Temple Menorah. But it's taking some accomodation and compromise.

They've added a kosher kitchen to the synagogue, for starters, and have a kosher and non-kosher fridge in the main kitchen. (Reform Jews don't necessarily keep the food laws.) Because they must observe the strict separation of meat and dairy on dishes, the Orthodox members of Temple Menorah eat off paper plates. On the Sabbath, the Reform congregation lights candles after dark and behind closed doors so as not to influence Orthodox children, who are taught Sabbath candles are to be lit at home before sundown. And the Reform members turn off the lights on Friday nights after the Orthodox, who can't use electricity from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, have gone home.

Doug Zelden, the Rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue, explains the unusual arrangement by saying, “I don't believe in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. I believe in Jewish. The Torah … says serve God with joy — joyous Judaism.” These three very different groups are able to get along because they're very clear about what draws them together. They're all Jewish, despite the fact that they have very different ideas about what that means and how they should practice their faith. They are able to co-exist because none of the groups insist that everyone has to do things their way, while at the same time making sure that none of the groups feel that they have to compromise their convictions to remain.

That's tricky, at best. We Christians have certainly made our share of mistakes in both directions: insisting on uniformity and compromising convictions. Frequently, churches with much more in common than these three synagogues find themselves splitting apart over one group or the others' beliefs and/or practices. A partial list of issues my own fellowship of Churches of Christ have split over would likely double the length of this article. And if you don't share a heritage in Churches of Christ with me, well, I bet your own heritage is marked with its share of silly battles.

And that doesn't even take into account, of course, the numerous issues like baptismal or eucharistic theology, or liturgy, or the role of clergy and laity, or the relationship between faith and works, that separate Catholics from Presbyterians from Baptists from Methodists.

One way to handle differences is to pretend they don't matter: to, in the name of tolerance, embrace a least-common-denominator faith that holds nothing as sacred except for what everyone can agree to. Unfortunately, that approach makes an idol out of openness and tolerance. And, besides, it only works until something comes up that people really do care about. Then the decision has to be made: is this to be a part of our collective convictions?

Another way to handle differences is to ruthlessly root them out: to, in the name of faithfulness, exclude and divide until those who are left in the fold pretty much agree on everything. The problem is, that approach makes idols of prevailing opinions. It sanctifies the convictions of whoever calls the shots, and it leaves churches bereft of minority opinions which might otherwise have created a healthy tension and acted as a corrective to an unbalanced majority view. And, besides, its logical outcome is a church of one, since nobody agrees with everybody else about everything.

There has to be another way. And, not surprisingly, to find that other way all we have to do is go back to the Lord every Christian acknowledges and the Scriptures in which all Christians hear God's authoritative voice.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Too simple? The fact that we think so says a lot about whether or not we've ever actually tried it. Jesus says it three times: “love one another.” He says that the way the world will know who we belong to is not by our piety or our theological prowess or our ability to cross every doctrinal T and dot every liturgical I. Our identity will start to become clear when we're seen loving each other the way Jesus loved us.

Though we Christians love to quibble until all our theological boxes are neatly organized, the fact is that Jesus' mandate to love each other leaves Christianity hopelessly messy. It's not always easy to say who's out and who's in, who's right and who's wrong. We'd like to think that just reading the Bible solves all the problems, but Christians have been reading the Bible and dividing over what we think we see since, well, I guess since Thomas doubted the Resurrection.

Paul knew it was messy, and so he just said, “Sometimes, you have to just accept each other as Christ accepted you. Sometimes right and wrong on an issue aren't nearly so important as loving each other. Sometimes you just have to let each other do what you each think best, without judging or dividing, and trust that the others want to please the Lord just as much as you do. Sometimes you have to do some things that you wouldn't normally do, or not do some things you would, for someone else's benefit. Sometimes you have to just shut up and remember that what matters in the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:10-15:7, majorly paraphrased).

That's the way, I'm convinced of it. That's the way believers of all designations can rediscover the joy of finding family in Christ. We don't have to all agree or be excluded, because Jesus has accepted us. And we don't have to give up our convictions, because convictions are a sacred thing in the body of Christ. We can still love each other, and share life with each other, and serve our Lord together, and worship him in spirit and in truth.

Last ones out of the sanctuary can turn off the lights.

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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, October 5, 2010

A Small Man, A Big Day

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)

Most days, he wouldn't have even heard the insults. He had gotten accustomed to them. Hardened. When you had been across a table from as many red faces, clenched fists, and twisted mouths spewing hate and promising vengeance as he had, a few rude whispers don't usually even register. If it was any day but today, he wouldn't have noticed. Or if he had, he would have laughed it off. He would have laughed it off, then gone home to his big house and counted his money and laughed more, this time at the expense of the poor fools to whom his money had once belonged.

It was no surprise that they didn't like him; no one ever likes the person who collects their taxes. So he took more than the Romans demanded; that's just the way it was done. He didn't invent the system, but he was certainly going to profit from it as long as it was up to him. He could stand their insults. He could accept that no one of any reputation in Jericho wanted anyone to do with him. It was the price of success, the cost of having everything he ever wanted. Let them talk, let them hate him, let them exclude him.

Any day but today.

He couldn't explain why, but today was the day he had to see Jesus. He had arrived early at the town gate, waiting for him to come. He was a small guy, and he had picked out a really good spot by the main road, right by the gate, between some of the stalls in the marketplace. But then everyone else started to arrive. Someone moved him out of his original spot with a glare and a whispered threat. Then someone else moved him from the next spot he chose. As the size of the crowd grew, as a good spot from which to see Jesus became more valuable and rare, he was shoved, jostled, and nudged farther and farther from the road. All the while, they whispered. “What nerve he has. Jesus will want nothing to do with him. He's a traitor. He's a sinner.”

By the time the word began to ripple through the crowd that Jesus was near the city, all he could see were the backs of the crowd. They laughed at him as he tried to wriggle to the front. They laughed as he jumped to try to see over the heads of the people in front of him. They shoved him, knocked him down – one or two of the men even spit on him. All he could think was that he was going to miss seeing Jesus. They said he could do miracles. They said he could forgive sin. He wasn't sure what he wanted Jesus to do for him, but he knew he had to meet him. He was in a state of near-panic as a bustle at the gates indicated the rabbi's arrival. He's here, he thought. And I'm going to miss him.

That's when he noticed the tree.

It was about twenty feet tall, but its branches grew up and out over the road. If he could get to the lowest limbs, he'd be suspended over the heads of the frontmost people in the crowd. He'd have a perfect vantage point from which to see Jesus.

So he started climbing. It had been a while, but he awkwardly pulled himself up, feet sliding and scuffling to get some kind of traction on the trunk, arms shaking with effort as he hoisted his body up. The lowest limbs were about eight feet up, and he just barely made it. He picked one that looked thick enough to support him, and holding on with his arms and knees he started to inch out over the heads of the crowd. No one was paying any attention – by now their attention was on the road, and they were cheering. He could see the road well, and could see the group of travelers approaching. Jesus and his followers.

Something compelled him to try to get closer. He slid further out on the limb, arms and legs wrapped tightly around it. The bark pulled at his clothes and scraped his cheek, but he moved out farther toward the end of the branch. The group was close now, and he was just above the front row in the crowd, right at the edge of the road.

And then, he went a little too far, and the branch started to bend.

It didn't break, but it bent, and before he could do anything he was almost on top of the crowd below him. His branch bumped against the head of a man right under him, and the man looked up at him. Several of the crowd in the immediate vicinity turned to look up at him, clinging ridiculously to a bent limb. It occurred to him for the first time how silly he looked. As Jesus' group neared, he lowered his head, hoping now that maybe no one would notice him.

When the crowd got very quiet, he looked up. Less than a foot below him, Jesus was looking up at him. Their eyes locked.

Then Jesus laughed.

“Zacchaeus? What are you doing up there? Get down here – how am I going to eat at your house if you're stuck in a tree?”

The crowd gasped audibly. Zacchaeus wondered if he'd heard correctly. A well-known rabbi, coming to eat with a tax collector? It wasn't done. But Jesus was waiting expectantly, so Zacchaeus backed along the branch until he got to the trunk and was able to climb down. Jesus waited patiently, offering a little advice on where Zacchaeus should put his feet, and within moments Zacchaeus was at the front of the group, leading them to his house. They ate, they talked, they laughed like old friends. And Zacchaeus suddenly knew why he had so wanted to meet Jesus. He was lonely. No one liked him. He didn't even like himself. But somehow he had known that Jesus would love him. Somehow he had known that sitting at a table with him would feel like the most natural, wonderful, right thing in his life.

He didn't plan it, but when the conversation lulled he heard himself speaking. He would give half of his considerable possessions to the poor. He would make restitution to everyone he had cheated; he would pay it back double, as the Law demanded. No, he'd pay it back four times. He didn't do it to make Jesus love him. He did it because he knew that Jesus did love him, would love him whether he did it or not. He did it because being with Jesus made doing what was right seem like the most obvious, natural thing in the world.

“Salvation has come to this house today,” Jesus announced, smiling. “This man, too, is a son of Abraham.” It had been a long time since anyone had associated him with Abraham. It had been a long time since he had remembered that about himself. He shook his head and laughed. He had given up a lot of money and possessions today. But he had gained so much more. In meeting Jesus, he had been given back his identity. He remembered who he really was.

Who would have imagined that all it would take was climbing a tree? he thought.

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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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Like Grass

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

Maybe you've heard of the Mindset List. It's the creation of Beloit College Professor Tom McBride and former Beloit administrator Ron Nief. The Mindset List was originally created to keep faculty members aware of how quickly “contemporary” references in lectures can become dated. Each year, a new list for the entering freshman class is created, and the lists have become something of a yardstick for the passage of time and the changing world we live in. Mostly, it'll just make you feel old. To wit, some excerpts from the Mindset List for the class of 2014....

Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 1992. Few in the class know how to write in cursive (Really?), but one quarter of the class have one immigrant parent.

For students in the class of 2014, Buffy has always been slaying vampires. “Caramel macchiato” and “venti half-caf vanilla latte” have always been street corner lingo. John McEnroe has never played professional tennis, and Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry. Fergie is a pop star, not a princess, and Reggie Jackson has always been in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always been on the Supreme Court, and the Post Office has always been going broke. And as far as they're concerned, there has always been free trade between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Entering freshmen have never twisted the coiled handset wire around their wrists while chatting on the phone, and they've never owned a computer that didn't have a CD-ROM drive. They've never seen a carousel of slides, and Korean cars have always been common on American roads. As long as they've been listening to radio – if they listen to radio – Nirvana has been on the Oldies station. They may not intuitively recognize pointing to one's wrist as a request for the time, and the name Beethoven has always made them think of a big dog. They have never worried about a Soviet missile strike on the United States. They consider e-mail too slow. And they rarely, if ever, actually mail a letter.

You get the point. A decade or two can make a world of difference in your frame of reference. When I was a college freshman, no one imagined Berlin without a wall. It's been a while, but not that long. The fact is that the world changes around us. We're young, and then one day we're not so young anymore. One day we're welcoming a child into the world, and it seems only the next that we're sitting across a table with someone who's getting frighteningly close to adulthood. One day we're talking with friends about who we're dating or what career path we're on, and the next the topics of conversation have changed to mortgage rates and our parents' declining health.

It seems that we instinctively freak out about change and the passage of time. (“Freak out” - I don't think anyone says that anymore, do they?) We don't like it when things change around us. Hang around an office one day when they upgrade the computers and you'll see it. Or a church when they change – well, pretty much anything. As a rule, change makes us uncomfortable. We develop certain little shortcuts in life, certain little routines that revolve around things staying generally the same. It can be downright unsettling when things change and those little shortcuts don't work anymore.

And, of course, the most unsettling changes of all are the changes that we see in the mirror. A few more lines in the face. A few more gray hairs. A little more width around the middle. The inability to hold what you're reading far enough away from your face to get it into focus. All evidence of the one change in the world that affects all of us most deeply: that one day we won't be here anymore.

Our world screams hysterically that we have to resist the passage of time. It sells us creams and dyes and exercise equipment and clothing and surgeries that will make us look – more or less - like the passage of time isn't affecting us. But that's an illusion, of course, as evidenced by the fact that it gets harder and harder to pull off as the years go by. However loudly our culture screams that we must look untouched by age, you can still hear the rush of the river of time.

“People are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,” the prophet reminds us. It's a good thing he does, otherwise we might forget what really matters. We're not built to resist the passage of time, any more than the grass and flowers in a meadow are. We navigate a changing world in dying bodies, and all the hair coloring and pilates in the world won't change that. Oh, in some cases we can improve a little on Job's “three score and ten,” but not by much. “The grass withers and the flowers fall,” the prophet says. “Surely the people are grass.”

Our world calls that depressing, but it isn't. Depressing is people going about their lives like they're going to be anything but a hazy memory a mere century from now. Depressing is not being able to read the writing on the wall. Depressing is living for wealth and influence and control. Depressing is forgetting that we are mortal. And forgetting what does last.

“The word of our God stands forever.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, what God says is true. What he speaks, exists. Isaiah's point in reminding us of our mortality is to remind us of God's glory. “The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it,” he says. “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:5)

And this God never forgets his people. That's our hope – not in holding on to our youth, because “even youths grow tired and weary.” (Isaiah 40:30) “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.” So while our world changes around us, we trust in the God who never does. When our strength fails, we trust in the God who renews our strength. And when our bodies fade and die like a flower dropping its petals, we trust even then in the God who lives. And who gives life.

So bring on your Mindset List, Beloit College. You don't scare me.

I still know how to use a rotary phone, after all.

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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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Putting Away Our Swords

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matthew 26:51-52)

Last Sunday, two teenagers in Chicago went to the Muslim Community Center on Elston Avenue – in my neighborhood – for a prayer service. On their way in, they stumbled across a pile of charred paper on the sidewalk. A burned book. A burned Quran.

Let me reiterate: this wasn't in Florida. It was here in Chicago, in my neighborhood, in front of one of the city's oldest mosques. I've been to that mosque. I've been welcomed at their prayer services. I know people there. People who worship there come to the food pantry at Northwest for assistance. I've stood on the sidewalk – maybe on the spot where those kids found that charred Quran, and talked with Muslims about Jesus and Allah. The conversation has always been civil, and I've learned a lot. God has shown me a lot. And that burned Quran makes me angrier than anything that has happened in our neighborhood in a long time.

I can't help but wonder about the reasons for the anti-Islamic sentiment that seems to suddenly dominate public discourse in our country. Is it the anniversary of 9/11? Maybe, but why is it so evident on this anniversary, as opposed to others? Is it the on-again, off-again publicity stunt of some fringe pastor in Florida? Surely he just tapped into the mood, and didn't cause it. Is it the proposal to build a Muslim center near Ground Zero in Manhattan? Maybe, but that's a local issue for those folks to figure out.

More likely, the sentiment comes from frustration with the condition of the American economy – which seems to be the one thing Americans can be counted on to care deeply about. Someone has to be at fault, and since it certainly can't be blamed on the spending habits of Americans, it must be the immigrants' fault. Particularly the Muslims. Add to that a few political so-called leaders who want to milk distrust of Muslims for all its political value, and it's no wonder that a few already-marginal cases might decide to make a “statement” like the one that was made at the Muslim Community Center last Sunday morning.

I wonder, did the people who decided to burn that Quran go to church last Sunday? Did they sit secure in their pews, feeling that they had done God's will in opposing the false religion of Islam? I hope not. I hope that whoever it was is not so deluded as to think that an intentional insult to Muslims is the will of God, or the way of Christ.

And I hope that the offended Muslims don't judge all Christians by the work of a few who may claim to be. Any more than I judge all Muslims by the actions of a few radicals.

I hoped that the church had hashed all this out several hundred years ago, after the last of the Crusades. But maybe not. After the past few weeks, after Pastor What's-His-Name's abortive “Burn a Quran Day,” after someone in my city apparently took his idea seriously, I wonder. When so many Americans, some who call themselves Christians, behave so un-Christianly toward Muslims in so many places, I have to wonder.

So if you want to send me emails about supposed "true" events regarding Muslims in America – well, just don't. (The ones commonly forwarded today aren't factual, by the way.) If you want to vent your rage about Muslim women wearing hijabs or burqas, take it somewhere else. (Is it better for women to put themselves on display? Look around Chicago on a summer day, and you'd think so.) It is not Christian to be hateful toward Muslims – or any other religion. It just isn't. It's Christian to discuss your faith with someone who differs. It's Christian to “speak the truth in love.” It's even Christian to believe and testify that “there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” or “no one comes to the Father except through” Jesus. But it's never Christian to draw your sword and bare your teeth – metaphorically or otherwise.

To judge all Muslims by the actions of groups like al-Qaeda is comparable to judging all Christians by the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. Jesus warned that when we draw our swords – even to defend him – we've already lost. We've already failed to follow him in the way of the cross – the way of redemptive love that overcomes sin and evil and death, not by resisting or fighting, but by sacrificing self.

I believe Muslims need Jesus. I don't believe they will ever come to know him by his followers setting fire to the pages of the Quran, or defacing community centers, or railing in paranoid campaign speeches about their intentions and motives. It will succeed only in hardening them to the gospel. What might make a difference is if Christians approach Muslims with respect and the love of Christ. If we stand with them in the positive things that they do in our neighborhoods, and share their burdens as our own.

If we put away our swords, treat Muslims as neighbors, and do what Jesus said we should do. Love them as we love ourselves.

Last week, the Massachusetts Bible Society made an interesting announcement that seemed to kind of stay under the media radar. Too bad, because it was actually encouraging. They announced that for every Quran that was burned, they intended to donate two to mosques and community centers around the country.

I don't guess I'd feel exactly comfortable donating Qurans to our neighborhood mosque. Still, given the choice, I'd rather Muslims see Christians donating Qurans than burning them.

But we don't have to do either. We can show love our Muslim neighbors without compromising our faith, and we can witness to the power of the gospel without forgetting that its power is love and sacrifice. So maybe we start with befriending Muslims in our neighborhoods and offices. (I was going to include schools, but have you ever noticed how kids seem to not have much trouble with that?) Maybe we start with small gestures: an invitation to coffee, a conversation at the water cooler, condolences in the loss of a loved one. Maybe we can help Muslim families who are new to our communities find schools, jobs, and so forth. Small things can go a long way.

A burned Quran can speak volumes. But so can a small act of kindness.

It's past time that we put away our swords so our Muslim neighbors can see the cross.

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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, September 13, 2010

The Wedding Ceremony

Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38)

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a neighbor about baptism. I know, it's not usually the kind of thing you talk about with a neighbor while you walk your dogs. It had clearly been on his mind for a long time, though.

He mainly wanted to know if he was truly a Christian, since he hadn't been baptized. Honestly, I kind of felt that the part about whether he was truly a Christian or not was outside of my expertise. (I tend to assume that anyone who is trying to follow Jesus is truly a Christian, and I think I'm in pretty good company there. See the conversation in Mark 9:38-41)

I did think, though, that I might be able to help him understand baptism a little better. And, in case someone else has some of the same question he had, here's a fair approximation of what I said.

Most people who would read this probably know that baptism is a Christian rite (some call it a sacrament) in which either a person is immersed in water, or in which water is sprinkled or poured on him or her. The word is a loan word from Greek: baptizo in Classical Greek meant to immerse or sink. Descriptions of baptism in the Bible as a "burial" (see Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12), coupled with the word's meaning, indicate that baptism as practiced in the Bible was a submersion in water. It is generally done either to mark entry into the Christian community or to signify the forgiveness of sins. (Or perhaps both.)

Well-meaning believers have debated the meaning, practice, and significance of baptism for centuries. One of the particular debates has to do with the relationship of baptism to salvation: When is a person forgiven of sins and saved? Does he only have to declare his faith in Jesus? Pray a prayer? Or is she saved only after she's baptized?

Well, a little over 19 years ago I stood in front of a group of people in a church, wearing a rented tuxedo, and made promises to a woman dressed in a pretty white gown and veil. I promised to do certain things, be certain things (I honestly don't remember what...) until "death do us part" (or something like that). She made the same promises. We exchanged rings, and then a minister said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” (That part I remember, because right after that he said, “You may kiss the bride....”)

Now then. At what point did I go from being single to being married? When the minister pronounced us husband and wife? When we kissed? When we exchanged rings? Legally, we were married the moment everyone had signed the marriage license. So when did my marriage actually happen?

The fact is, you can debate it. You can argue it different ways. But let me tell you a couple of things I know. I know, first of all, that what we did in that church did not of itself mean that we were married. Actors pretend to get married all the time, but no one thinks that TV or movie marriages are actually valid. And, on the other hand, people get married all the time without all the bells and whistles. Gowns, flowers, and rings - even the pronouncement of a minister - don't necessarily mean that a wedding has happened. I know that I did not go from “single” to “married” simply because I showed up at a church and went through the right motions.

The other thing I know is this: I was beyond-a-doubt, for-sure married on June 29th, 1991, at Cardinal Drive Church of Christ in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. That's not because I have faith in the ceremony itself. I know it because I have faith in the promises and intentions that were ratified in that ceremony.

You can see the point, I think. Are we saved at our baptism? Well, in one sense, yes. Acts 2:38 is rather clear that "Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” It's hard to argue with that. Baptism, according to the Bible, is linked to the forgiveness of sins.

On the other hand, Peter writes that baptism, "now saves you by the power of Jesus Christ's is an appeal to God from a clean conscience." (1 Peter 3:21) Yes, he says that baptism saves us. But it saves us "by the power of Jesus Christ's resurrection". It isn't the engine of our salvation. It's the drive shaft that makes the power of salvation real in our lives. It's an appeal to God, who is the one who actually does the saving. It's the moment that an honest, penitent human being can know with absolute certainty that God has washed her soul clean of every sin, past or future.

I make that distinction because we tend to want to make two mistakes with baptism. We want to either ignore it entirely, or elevate it inappropriately. To some, it's a rather outdated ritual only for those without enough faith in the grace of God to trust that they're saved if they'll only “ask Jesus into their heart.” Paul wrote that “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27, NIV) If he saw baptism as the moment at which we unite with Christ, clothe ourselves with Christ, I want to be very wary of dismissing it.

On the other hand, neither do I want to try to make it more than it is. “God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Baptism is important only because it testifies to and puts us in touch with the work and power of God's grace and Jesus' resurrection in our lives. It is God who saves, not the ritual of baptism or even the good intentions of the one being baptized. The forgiveness of sins and the promise of salvation is a gift. In baptism, we accept that gift. Not because we have faith in the ritual itself, but because we have faith in the promises and intentions that were ratified in the ritual.

I have to assume that most people who are reading this consider themselves Christians, or at least seekers. Wherever you fall there, if you haven't been baptized I hope you'll ask yourself why. What would keep you from sealing your faith in Jesus and your commitment to him with a simple ritual? Wouldn't you like to be able to know that you were “beyond-a-doubt, for-sure” saved as you came out of the water?

And if you have been baptized, I hope you haven't focused on what you did at that moment so much that you've forgotten to appreciate what God did at that same moment. His work was by far the harder and by far the more important.

And for those of you who still think that big tank in the front of the church is a hot-tub and are wondering how to make a reservation...well, I'll have to talk to you later. Save me a dry towel.

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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, September 6, 2010

Creation Without God

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:18-23)

God is unnecessary.

At least for Creation, according to Dr. Stephen Hawking. In his newest book, The Grand Design, the world's best-known physicist explains that “it is not necessary to invoke God to...set the universe going.” He claims that the natural laws of physics that govern the universe, like gravity, are sufficient to explain how planets, stars, solar systems, asteroids, and galaxies could just create themselves from nothing.

“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist,” Dr. Hawking tells us.

Hawking claims in his book that the 1992 discovery of another planet orbiting another star deconstructed Isaac Newton's view that the Universe could not have spontaneously arisen out of chaos. He says that the discovery of that planet “makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass, far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”

So there. God is unnecessary.

Well, I'm not going to argue physics with Stephen Hawking. But he's not arguing physics when he says that God is unnecessary to the creation of the universe – he's arguing theology. And, frankly, he's kind of in over his head.

Paul wrote about folks who looked at the world around them and, instead of seeing the Creator, made gods of his creation. Their mistake was evident in the images of their gods that they created – the best they could do was imagine that their gods looked like the people and other creatures that they were able to see around them. “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened,” Paul says. “Although they claimed to be wise...”

With respect to Dr. Hawking's intellect, all he's doing is making idols of Gravity and Thermodynamics and such. Just as people throughout human history have been prone to worshipping creation instead of the Creator.

It's easier, maybe. Gravity doesn't expect much out of you, after all. (Then again, it doesn't give you a whole lot of comfort when someone you love dies.) It probably goes beyond that, though: It's always easier to believe in things that you can observe and replicate and explain. The thing about God is that he doesn't usually submit to lab experiments. You can't quantify him or build an equation to explain him. Most of the time, he seems to prefer to remain outside the realm of human observation. (With notable exceptions.) And so there will always be people who look at what he made and make gods of it.

If it's that planet and star that are bothering Dr. Hawking, then here's a thought that would have occurred to any third-grader in Sunday School: Is there any reason God couldn't have created that star and planet as well? God didn't create the Universe because Earth isn't completely unique? Not only is that abysmal theology, it's abysmal science.

Even Dr. Hawking's central theory, that natural laws like gravity could have spontaneously created the universe from nothing, is flawed. The whole idea that matter can be created out of nothing through natural processes is observable only through mathematical predictions and models. And the tiny particles that may come to exist destroy themselves almost immediately. No one's ever seen a rock – or even an atom of an element – appear out of nothing. Much less a planet. Or a solar system. Or a galaxy. In short, there's about as much observable, repeatable evidence that gravity created the universe as there is that, well, God did.

Speaking of that, to get a universe you still need a catalyst. A Big Bang, if you will. So you have a big void, nothingness – and then a Bang. A catalyst. “Let there be light,” spoken by a God who was in a creative mood, might do, mightn't it? Something – energy, matter – out of nothing.

I'm not going to argue that Dr. Hawking's theory couldn't have happened – I'm certainly no physicist. I just don't think it best explains the available data. I've never heard of anyone dying for gravity. (Because of gravity, yes – but never for.) I've never heard of someone calling gravity his Father, or claiming that he was raised from death by the power of gravity. I've never seen a life transformed by gravity, either. Never even heard of anyone writing a hymn in praise of gravity. And none of that empirically proves anything either, of course. But, as an alternate theory, I think it better fits the data.

Dr. Hawking may be right. Scientifically speaking, it may not be strictly necessary to invoke God as Creator. Of course, there have always been alternate theories of creation. The pagans imagined that rival gods made the various parts of the world they could observe. Physicists like Dr. Hawking say that natural laws made the universe, or multiverse. Call the rival gods what you like, but that's still what they are: rival gods that cause hearts to darken.

And that's inevitably what happens when God is dismissed as unnecessary. Creatures become lost when they divorce themselves from their Creator. Hearts darken. Thinking becomes futile. And people, again in the words of Paul, “become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God–haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” (Romans 1:29-31, TNIV)

So maybe you can have a world without God, scientifically speaking.

You just won't want to live in it.

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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.