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Friday, February 25, 2011

Useless

The nations will see your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.
-Isaiah 62:2 (TNIV)


Useless.
    I can’t think of a worse insult than that. It’s way past contemptuous and downright dismissive; dismissive of a person’s worth as a human being, dismissive of his redeeming value. To insult someone’s intelligence, or ability, or even his character is one thing. That kind of insult at least berates a person for something done, or not done, or not done well. To call someone useless and mean it is to say that he or she has no place in society, no function in the world.
    To call someone useless is to imply that he wouldn’t be missed.
    Buried in one of the more obscure books of the Bible is a minor character who knew what it was to be considered useless. If you crack open the book of Philemon – which if you’re like me you haven’t done in a while, if ever – you’ll make his acquaintance. His name is Onesimus, and as a matter of fact he’s the main subject of the book – more accurately, Paul’s letter to a man named Philemon. He’s the reason Paul wrote the letter.
    Since the only source we have to reconstruct Onesimus’ story is this short little letter – 25 verses – it’s hard to say much of anything definitive. But reading between the lines, you can put together a few things. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon’s, maybe because he or his father owed money to Philemon or Philemon’s father. Though Philemon had become a Christian after he met Paul, he continued to own his slaves – not uncommon in those times, apparently – though as a Christian he would have been expected to treat them well. Maybe he didn’t though, because Onesimus ran away. Or maybe Onesimus just understandably got tired of belonging to someone else. In any case, he ran away, probably to Rome, and got lost in the big city. It was illegal for a slave to run away, possibly a capital offense, but cities have always provided a certain amount of anonymity for those who don’t want to be found.
    Only, someone found him. Not his old master, Philemon, but his new one. He met Paul, and Paul introduced him to Jesus, and Onesimus found himself belonging to someone all over again. Only this time, he didn’t mind so much.
    Somewhere along the line he must have told Paul his story. I wonder if he was surprised when Paul told him that he had to go back? It’s a little surprising to me, but apparently Paul felt that if Onesimus stayed away, he was defrauding Philemon. And perhaps as surprising as Paul sending Onesimus back is Onesimus actually going.
    He went, and he took along a letter from Paul, a letter that makes it clear to Philemon that his slave is now his brother in Christ, and that he is dear to Paul. “I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you,” Paul wrote. He insists that Philemon should welcome Onesimus back, and implies that he should consider sending him back to continue helping Paul.
    Somewhere along the line, Paul must have heard something. It sounds like something he might have heard from Onesimus, or even from Philemon himself. See, the name Onesimus means “Useful.” His parents probably gave it to him in a fit of optimism, imagining the contributions their son might make to society. It seems to have become sort of a joke for Philemon; it probably got laughs all around whenever Philemon “accidentally” called his slave “Useless.”
    In any case, buried in this obscure little letter is this sentence: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” I can only imagine how Onesimus must have felt if he read that sentence. That he, a runaway slave, worth only the work that he could do and now not even worth that, could be useful. Hard for him to imagine, I’m sure, but thrilling to hear.
    Isn’t that what the gospel’s about though, when you get right down to it? God making the useless useful? Think of Jesus making useless legs strong enough to support weight and useless eyes able to see, or a useless, cheating tax collector into a philanthropist. Think of him making a woman useless for everything but carrying water and gratifying her partner, thrown away by five husbands, into an evangelist. Or a useless, naked lunatic, possessed by a demon, into a witness for the power of God.
    Somehow, I don’t think human society hasn’t gotten any better at making people feel useful.
    The poor and homeless live on the margins of our society, useless and overlooked except when we see them in our neighborhood, or holding up “Will Work for Food” signs at intersections. Immigrants to our country are often treated as useless by those of us who have been here a few generations – except to do the jobs we don’t want to do, for wages we wouldn’t dream of accepting. And those with mental illness, or with addictions; we relegate them to the background, assuming that they can’t make much of a contribution to the greater good. Useless, for all practical purposes.
    Or check in with many of our schools, and see how classmates and teachers alike treat students who are a little slower, or who learn differently, or who aren’t quite as talented or good-looking as the other kids. The word “useless” might not be spoken, but don’t imagine that those kids don’t get the message loud and clear. Or look at the way we treat our elderly: so impatient with their frailties that we arrange them out of the way, as people who have outlived their usefulness.
    Jesus doesn’t see it that way. If somehow or another you’ve gotten the message that you don’t matter, that you’re not useful, then you need to know that the Lord maintains a dissenting opinion. Beyond the talents and opportunities you have, beyond what you may or may not be able to do, you are useful. Even if no one else sees it, he does. Even if you can’t see it yourself, he can. He loves you deeply and knows that if you can just experience that love for yourself, the real you will emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis. He went to a cross for you, in fact, as proof that however useless you might have been to the people around you, you are useful to him.
    All that’s left is the response. Something in us rightfully resists letting someone else be our master. But when that Master wants nothing more than for you to be what he made you to be, why fight it?
    You’re irreplaceable to him. Go knock on his door and let him welcome you home.
    To him, it won’t be the same without you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Whoever Is Not Against Us...."

    “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
    “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”
-Mark 9:38-40

   
In a recent conversation, a friend of mine mentioned his frustration with the Churches of Christ. He’s been reading authors from outside our churches, and he’s feeling that we’ve been a bit too exclusive in regards to Christians from other fellowships. He’s realizing that though we’ve often been certain we were right and they were wrong, in reality we haven’t always been right, and they haven’t always been wrong.
    Historically, the only way we could be honest with ourselves about our reason for being was to say that we were all about Christian unity in Scripture alone. There was no other valid reason (in our own world view) for us to exist. That was a smokescreen, of course: other fellowships were always going to be found wanting, because we stacked the deck by making our own interpretation of Scripture - and not Scripture alone - the standard. And we  honestly never considered the fact that other fellowships and denominations were trying to find their authority in Scripture as well.
    It’s this historic exclusivity that’s bothering my friend. And maybe that’s nothing that you’ve ever experienced in Churches of Christ. If so, that’s good; in some ways your experience bears out the response I had for him. But I’m sure that some of us know exactly what he’s talking about. We’ve had our own experiences and frustrations with that same exclusivity.
     That impulse toward exclusivity has always been there, I guess, even from the days when Jesus was here on earth. John sounds like one of our own preachers, thundering against someone who dared to drive out a demon using Jesus’ name without being part of the right group. “But don’t worry, Jesus. We told him to stop,” John said. Because, you know, it’s dangerous to have unauthorized believers running around helter-skelter, doing things in Jesus’ name.
    Jesus must have stunned John when he said, “Don’t stop him! He’s on our side, if he’s not against us!” It came down to that, for Jesus. Someone casting out demons in his name was just one more witness to the power of God over the darkness.
    I told my friend that I think things in Churches of Christ are changing. Having been closely acquainted with teenagers and young adults in recent years, it seems to me that  the upcoming generation in our churches has absolutely no interest in fighting the “we’re right, you’re wrong” battles of earlier times. By and large, when they meet a Christian from another fellowship they recognize family. They understand that believers can disagree with one another without having to question one another’s standing before God. It’s not that they don’t think that disagreements matter, or that they don’t know what they believe and why they believe it; it’s that they understand that what we have in common with other Christians in Christ and the Holy Spirit matters more.      
    I’m acquainted with too many current leaders who preach in our churches and teach in our universities to give up hope. So many leaders I know are able to see the good in our movement without feeling the need to demonize other fellowships. A level of scholarship like I’ve never seen, across all disciplines, is getting done at universities and colleges associated with us - universities and colleges that a generation or two ago were disparaged as “Bible schools.”
    Most encouraging to me is that many of our churches have changed their focus. They’ve left behind an attitude of alienation from the world and from other Christian fellowships. That doesn’t mean that they’ve bought in to the values of the world, or compromised any of their  convictions. Instead of focusing on how they’re right, and how other fellowships are wrong, they’re lifting up Jesus in word and action. Instead of swelling by stealing sheep from other pens, they’re growing by connecting with unchurched people and introducing them to Jesus.
    I've never seen such a narrow focus on Jesus in our churches. We read Paul through Jesus and the rest of the Bible now, and not the other way around. As America becomes more "post-Christian," we've become more likely to see other believers as allies, and not enemies. In the last twenty years or so, the Holy Spirit has begun opening our minds. In the process, we haven’t lost anything that’s central to the gospel. In fact, we’ve been freed up to emphasize the gospel.
    To be sure, the exclusivist mindset that frustrates my friend endures here and there among us. But those who preserve it are now a minority - a vocal one, but a minority all the same. Their voices, once the mainstream, are now marginalized. The flattening of doctrine that made every issue, every opinion, every interpretation of every text as central to the faith as the resurrection of Jesus is slowly draining away. Our people are leaving it behind even now. It will be gone within the next generation.
    It's not a liberal or conservative thing; those words mean nothing, or more precisely they mean whatever we want them to mean. They only serve to divide, to create alliances and  conflicts out of thin air. It's not about whether we should accept every innovation or new direction, or reject everything older than 5 years ago. (Or vice-versa.) It’s a change that runs much deeper than that, a sea change that goes even to what we mean when we say that the Bible is our authority.
    I told my friend that I have a lot of hope for the future of Churches of Christ. I believe that many of the teachings and practices that have characterized us will remain, because they’re good, biblical teachings and practices. I believe that many things will change, as well, as we learn to prioritize maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and recognize that disagreement, either internally or with Christians from other fellowships, doesn’t have to mean outright division. The church my son inherits may not look a lot like what I grew up with, but I'm optimistic that it will be more attuned to joining in the work of God in the world.
    I, for one, am looking forward to it.




Friday, February 11, 2011

Warnings

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:6-12)



Last week, on February 1st, Chicago endured one of the worst snowstorms on record. Over 20 inches of snow fell in less than 24 hours. Winds gusted at 50 miles per hour or more. Buildings collapsed under the weight of accumulated snow.

The blizzard hit in the early afternoon, just as the forecasters said it would. Of course, this meant that people who were working downtown when the snow started all decided to head home early. Traffic was snarled to start with, and the weather of course made things worse. And then traffic on Lake Shore Drive stopped completely.

If you're not from Chicago, Lake Shore Drive is a section of US Highway 41 that runs from Hollywood Avenue on the north side of Chicago to Marquette Drive on the south side. As the name suggests, it runs for about 20 miles along the shore of Lake Michigan. On most days, it's a beautiful drive, with the Lake to the east and the downtown skyline to the west. On February 1st, it was not a beautiful drive.

The weather forecasters had been warning that the strong gusts of winds would likely kick up 25-foot waves on Lake Michigan, which could break onto Lake Shore. They warned about the lack of visibility in the howling wind and snow. But, understandably enough, people wanted to get home and felt sure they could make it. So, when traffic on Lake Shore stopped completely, somewhere between 900 and 1500 cars got stuck. Some drivers were stuck for twelve hours, as emergency workers on rented snowmobiles tried to get to them. All told, when the storm subsided the city had to tow hundreds of abandoned, snow-bound cars off Lake Shore. It was closed for nearly two days while they cleaned up the mess.

Fortunately, the stranded drivers eventually got to safety. But, while most people seemed to think the city of Chicago did a pretty good job coping with all that snow, some of the drivers stuck on Lake Shore were pretty critical. They felt that the city maybe should have closed the Drive earlier, before things got so bad. If I was stuck that long, I would probably be critical too.

But, I have to say – they warned us. The weather forecasters, city officials, they all said Lake Shore might be particularly difficult to navigate during the storm. And all those drivers still chose to get on the Drive at that time, in those conditions.

I know why. I really do get it. Some just didn't hear the warnings. Some heard them, and then didn't give them a second thought. Some, probably most, heard them and chose to take the risk. After all, you can't just take a full day off from work every time the weather's bad. And you have to get home. And, really, what are the odds of getting stuck?

Truth be told, most of us aren't that good with warnings, are we? Sometimes we just don't hear. We're too busy, too consumed with getting from Point A to Point B that it just doesn't register when someone hoists a warning flag. It's hard to hear the warnings that you're losing your family when you're so caught up in work. It's hard to hear the warnings that your spiritual life is dying when you're busy with other things. Sometimes when the warnings come, we just aren't paying attention.

Sometimes we hear the warnings, but we don't think they apply to us. Other people lose everything to an addiction, but I can handle it. Other people destroy their marriages with flirtations, but not me. Other people's shady business dealings get exposed, but not mine. Other people torpedo their futures with heavy debt, but I won't. Sometimes we think the warnings apply to everyone but us.

And then, maybe most often, we just choose to take the risk. We know what we're doing is dangerous, the line we're walking is thin. We know we're out on the edge. We know what's at stake: our marriages, our spiritual lives, our kids, our jobs, our reputations, our health. But the potential payoff is just too good. We hear the warnings, we know what's at stake, and we roll the dice anyway.

Eventually, though, the odds catch up with us.

One of the most interesting things about the Lake Shore Drive debacle is that this isn't the first time it's happened. In 1967, a similar blizzard stranded hundreds of cars on the Drive. Amazingly enough, the Chicago Tribune ran pictures of those stuck vehicles just a day or two before the February 1st blizzard hit. The pictures they ran the day after the storm, except for the changes in automobile styling, looked identical.

We aren't good with warnings. But God loves us too much to leave us unwarned. Throughout the Bible, throughout the stories of his relationship with human beings, God warns us. The catastrophes that earlier generations endured are supposed to act as a warning for us. When we see the snapshots of Israel's wandering in the desert, or David's disaster with Bathsheeba, or Peter's denial of Christ, we're supposed to see ourselves. We're supposed to recognize the warnings and take steps to avoid making the same mistakes.

There might be some warnings you need to listen to: the fearful look in your child's eyes after your last temper tantrum, the cold silence of your spouse, the fading of your prayer life, the collection notices, the more frequent trips to liquor stores and taverns. You know what could happen. You need to listen to the warnings, because it could happen to you. And when it does, you will not think that what you gained was worth the price you paid.

Listen to the warnings of a loving God. In Christ, “the fulfillment of the ages has come.” God warns us because he cares, not because he wants to write us off. He warns us so that we'll turn back to him, and away from danger. He warns us so that we'll come to him for grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

So we can be whiter than...well, you know.

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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.

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