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.