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Friday, May 27, 2011

Oprah's World

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
    ….Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
-2 Corinthians 5:14-15,17-21

This week in Chicago, an era ended.
    We have a new mayor for the first time since 1989, but that wasn’t nearly as significant. The Bulls  lost the Eastern Conference Championship, but that was a minor ripple. No, the era that ended this week with a celebrity-filled gala at the United Center - bumping the Bulls out of their home, in the process - was of epic proportions.
    After 25 years on the air, Oprah Winfrey recorded her last show.
    If you don’t think TV matters, then you haven’t been paying attention to what the Wall Street Journal called  “the Oprah-fication of America.” Realizing that Americans don’t read like we used to, she started her Book Club and created best-sellers single-handedly. Viewers believed her and her guests when they dispensed medical advice - even when the advice was sometimes less than medically sound. Her audience tuned in to learn how to fix their relationships, lose weight, and parent their children more effectively. Celebrity appearances saved and wrecked careers. And, of course, she gave stuff away. She’s likely the most influential person in America; one-part guru, one-part best buddy, one-part spiritual leader.
    Honestly, I’ve never been a fan. But so many people were - so many tuned in, well, religiously. Or at  least took what she said as, well, gospel. (See? It’s hard not to use religious language when you talk about her.) As her show ends this week, I’ve been wondering why. And I think I have an idea.
    Oprah created a world people wanted to live in.
    It’s as simple as that. Oprah told her audience that they mattered. That there was nothing wrong with them that a better attitude, more nutritious food, a new medical theory, or a nicer wardrobe couldn’t cure. She didn’t just dispense information; her words, recommendations, the advice of her guests - they all came together to create a new reality. And in this new reality, her audience could be the people they wanted to be, knew all along that they were supposed to be. Oprah was - and still is - in the business of worldview - creating. And her disciples watched because they wanted to believe that the world she created, in which everyone was good and everything was beautiful, was real.  She knew what she was doing, too. Back in January, Oprah said this to Piers Morgan:
“I am the messenger to deliver the message of redemption, of hope, of forgiveness, of gratitude,
of evolving people to the best of themselves.”
    N.T. Wright, in his book The New Testament and the People of God, says that every world view answers four questions: 1) “Who are we?” 2) “Where are we?” 3) “What is wrong?” and 4) “What is the solution?” For 25 years, Oprah has answered those questions for people. As a Christian, I believe her answers are inadequate. It might be interesting sometime to interact with her worldview, using Wright’s criteria. But my point here is really just to point out that Oprah became a media mogul simply by offering answers. They didn’t have to be right, or even all that compelling. It was enough that they were attractive, and that she offered them.
    In doing so, Oprah filled a gap that was, at one time in history, filled by the church. But the  world started to perceive the church as a place where information was disseminated, but the questions of worldview weren’t getting answered coherently. They didn’t understand, often because church leaders didn’t understand, that the information being parceled out at church was supposed to describe a reality, not just a set of doctrines. And they stopped paying attention to the gospel, and started looking elsewhere to answer the questions of who they were, and what kind of world they inhabited, and what was wrong with it, and how it could be fixed.
    Oprah had room because the church has stopped wrestling with the big worldview questions.  We’ve stopped proclaiming that all people, everywhere, whoever they are, have value as God’s creation -  and also responsibilities to fill. We’ve failed to say that we live in a world full of beauty and promise, also created by the same God that created us. We’ve been reluctant to say that everything that’s wrong with this world is because human beings have forgotten our Creator, forgotten our value to him, forgotten that we should matter to each other. And we haven’t said with conviction that this same Creator, through Jesus and through his Spirit, has intervened to restore human beings and the rest of creation to what he always intended us to be.
    But the proclamation of the gospel is intended, not just to answer a series of questions, but to create a new world. People flocked to hear Oprah because she showed them how they fit in this world she built for them. It didn’t matter to them that the world she built was created with smoke and mirrors, TV lights and pseudo-science and a multi-million-dollar budget. People believed her, and not the ministers who prayed with them through grief, because she told them who they were, and about the world in which they lived, and what was wrong with them and how to make it right.
    So I propose that we Christians get back into the world-creation business. We’ve sat it out for too long, watching people like Oprah mislead our world about what is true and good and right. Maybe one of our problems is that we’ve kind of bought into their worldviews ourselves. So let’s recover the world created by the gospel. Let’s create that world with our words and actions, because the way we answer those four basic questions should determine what we value, how we treat the people around us, how we live with our husbands and wives and children, and how we do our work and live our lives.      
    The world we create will have God at its center.  People will have great value, but our own immediate happiness won’t be our highest goal. Instead, in this world we will go forward in Jesus’ name, reclaiming the lost, healing the broken, redeeming the fallen. And we will look forward to the day when he comes to make everything right again. We will, literally, bring into being the world Jesus was creating when he proclaimed, “the kingdom of God is near.”
    Not even giving away a car can beat that.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"Come, Our Lord"

    “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only  the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
    “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
-Matthew 24:36-42 (NIV)

This might be the last thing I ever write.
    According to one radio evangelist, the Rapture - the day when some Christians believe that the righteous are taken up into heaven to meet Jesus - will occur this Saturday. So, if it’s true and come Saturday you don’t hear from me, then you know where I am. And if it’s true and I don’t go anywhere - well, I probably should rethink my chosen line of work anyway.
    All this has me wandering: does not believing in the Rapture disqualify me from it?
    In the wake of this announcement, government agencies and private companies are offering to help us get ready. The Centers for Disease Control has put on its website a guide for surviving a zombie apocalypse. (OK, I grant you that the Bible says nothing about zombies having anything to do with  the end of the world, but you never know.) And, from the “anything-can-be-monetized” file, at least two companies are offering pet care for pet owners who are raptured. (I’m going to pass; there’s at least a pretty decent chance that one or two of my friends will be left to adopt my dog.) I’m glad there are two companies; I think competition in the post-rapture pet care industry can only increase innovation and drive down prices.
    OK, so I remain unconvinced, in case you couldn’t tell. This radio preacher’s theology and methodology are suspect, at best - all mathematics and numerology. All kidding aside, while predictions like his come up from time to time, and may seem well-intentioned enough, the fact is that people believe them. Believers in such predictions sometimes sell or give away everything they own. They abandon families, jobs, friends, and churches. Intentionally or not, people who gain attention by making such predictions manipulate those who believe them and uproot their lives. And when the predicted end of the world doesn’t occur, they claim a miscalculation, or that God has chosen to offer grace. But those who believe them - well, here’s what a follower of William Miller, who predicted the return of Christ in 1843 and 1844, had to say when the dates came and went:
“Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came
over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends
could have been no comparison. We wept and wept, till the day dawn.”

    So I don’t think predictions like this one are harmless, even when they seem to be well-intentioned.
    It seems so obvious to point out that Jesus himself claimed ignorance of the time of his return. He doesn’t picture anyone waiting, with their eyes toward heaven, proud of the fact that they and their followers picked the right date. Nor does he seem to think anyone should be trying to predict the date. He said that people will be going on about their business when he comes. He compared it to the time of Noah, when life was going on pretty much as usual “until the flood came and took them all away.”  He said that two people working side by side might have vastly different experiences: one will be “taken” and one “left.” (This isn’t the rapture, by the way. The flood “took” those who didn’t find safety in the ark. Being “taken” here most naturally refers to judgment, not salvation.)
    I do think that the church might lean too far in the other direction these days, though.
    God’s people have always expected his direct intervention in the  world. The prophets called  for the “day of the LORD,” when he would bring justice, destroy the enemies of his people, and create a “new heaven and a new earth.” The apostles interpreted these promises in the light of the gospel, proclaiming that Jesus was the one who would come to fulfill them. The early church used the Aramaic phrase “marana tha” as a greeting - it means, “Come, our Lord.” The church fathers from the late first century on believed in and reminded the church of Jesus’ return. It’s been a consistent aspect of our faith from the beginning.
    The fact is that Jesus told us to expect that “your Lord will come.” Not knowing when isn’t supposed to stop us from looking for him. It’s to make us that much more expectant. But everything about our busy, crowded, segmented lives feeds the impulse to forget it. We have our work lives, our home lives, our church lives. So we easily forget Jesus’ marching orders: “keep watch.” “You must be ready,” he says. Then he tells a story to illustrate what he means.
    The story involves a servant who is left in charge of his household. His duty is to be  responsible for the other servants. He’s to make sure they get their food - to care for them. If he’s “faithful and wise” in carrying out his responsibilities, he’ll be rewarded. But if he’s “wicked” and starts to get self-centered and abusive during his master’s long absence, he’ll be disciplined when the master does finally return.
    The story is not exactly subtle or hard to understand. We, believers in Jesus, are the servants, left with specific responsibilities to act in the name of the master. But we’re to act generously, selflessly. People need to be fed, taught, prayed with, helped, healed. They need to know the master. They need us to act like the master, in his name. And history has found us, at times, acting faithfully and wisely to carry out that responsibility. May we continue to do so, and look forward to our reward when he comes.
    But just as often, perhaps, history has shown us to be wicked. We’ve abused the people we’ve been entrusted with caring for. We’ve wasted what the master has given us. He’s been so long in coming we sometimes forget who we are and what we’re supposed to do. We’ve spent our time seeking power, pleasure, and profit. May we repent, so we don’t have to receive his censure and endure his punishment.
    If the Lord comes Saturday, it won’t be because someone worked a few equations. And he won’t be asking who predicted the date correctly. He’ll be coming to reward faithful and wise servants who spent their time fulfilling the responsibilities he gave them.
    This might be the last thing I ever write. And it might be the last thing you ever read.
    Keep watch.
    And if you see any zombies, do me a favor and give me a heads-up, will you?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

All About the Weekend

    Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
    Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
-Colossians 3:12-17

    In a recent issue of the Journal Preaching, a preacher by the name of Ed Young, Jr., says:

    "At [our church], our favorite saying is, 'It's all about the weekend.' Why? Because throughout Scripture, the value of corporate worship is hammered home again and again—that's huge. Also, the weekend is the biggest port of entry into your church. That's where most of the guests and visitors show up. So, to make an indelible impression on the most people, you've got to have the weekend hitting on all cylinders.

     Ed goes on to write about three ways his church makes “all about the weekend” their mantra. He says that he makes preparation for the weekend worship services his top priority each day of the week. (“If I don't jump on that in the morning, I won't have the energy I need to do it justice,” he explains.) He also says that they make the weekend services a priority in their budget, claiming, “If you are spending more money on stuff that has nothing to do with the weekend, then you're off balance, and you're not focused on what's most important.” Finally, he says that his church prioritizes the weekend during staff meetings: they talk about what went right and wrong last weekend, they compare numbers, and they strategize toward making the next weekend's services “better.”
    Clearly, he isn't kidding when he says that, at his church, “it's all about the weekend.” Just as clearly, something about Ed's approach works: his church was named “the third most influential in America” in a 2007 survey.
I've been thinking about the article for a couple of days now, and I get what Ed is saying. I do. For a variety of reasons, it isn't surprising that church leaders and church members would act as though they consider the Sunday worship services the most important thing in a church's life. Everyone's there, after all. Often, church leaders' success and effectiveness are rated almost completely by how many people show up on Sunday. Obviously, when visitors show up we do want to make a good impression. And, as Ed rightly points out, good things can happen when a church is together to worship and hear the word of God proclaimed.
    But.
    I don't know Ed, and don't want to judge him by one article he's written, but I'm honestly a little horrified by the whole “it's all about the weekend” idea. I particularly reject the idea that “spending money on stuff that has nothing to do with the weekend” means that a church is “off balance” and “not focused on what's most important.” Really? Is a church whose budget is heavily weighted toward missions, for instance, off balance? Is a church that invests heavily in helping the poor not focused on what's most important? While I would hope that every church leader would pray for the worship services, and that everyone who presumes to stand before the church to preach or teach would work hard at preparing, aren't there times – a lot of times – when it's probably more urgent in the moment to pray with someone who's hurting or sit beside someone and help them come to Christ?
    I'm not sure the idea of corporate worship as we understand it is really “hammered” so hard in Scripture. When the New Testament writers do talk about the church assembled together, they seem to stress things like the Lord's Supper, prayer, preaching and teaching. When music is mentioned, it's singing that's emphasized – and certainly not stage shows that rival U2's. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says outsiders will be convicted and come to worship God through the Holy Spirit's work in the whole church. Not because all of a church's energy and resources are channelled into worship services that will impress them.
    Here's my main concern with the “it's all about the weekend” approach: I fear it downplays and marginalizes the church's life together during the rest of the week. Jesus isn't only a Sunday Lord. Following him is not a weekend hobby. The church is not primarily a phenomenon of time and place, and our commitment to life together doesn't end after the final “amen” or the preacher's benediction or whatever. The church is just as much the church on Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 or Thursday night at 11:00 as they are on Sunday morning at 10:00. And what our world needs most are believers who will be the church in their offices, neighborhoods, schools, and homes.
    That being the case, I don't believe that any church's “biggest port of entry” should be its Sunday worship service. Jesus said that people would come to believe in him when they see his followers loving each other. He called us “light of the world,” “salt of the earth,” “fishers for people.” He commissioned us to go into the whole world, proclaiming the good news to everyone. The church's biggest port of entry, if we have to use that phrase, should be believers who take their faith seriously enough to live it out in the world – live it out faithfully and fearlessly among people who aren't yet to the point where they can get anywhere near the door of a church building. If those people see Christ in us, maybe they'll be won to him, and not to “influential” churches.
    I know. I sound like a grumpy old man. But it seems to me that many people in our world hunger for lives of spiritual significance lived in real, genuine community. That's what the gospel of Jesus offers, and it's the proclamation of that gospel that should capture our attention and use up the lion's share of our resources. Let our churches' “weekends” remind us of the gospel, and remind us of our identities as gospel-created people, and equip us and inspire us to be its witnesses in our world. Let them be an opportunity for us to lift our voices in worship and prayer with other believers. But let us not begin to imagine that our lives together are “all about the weekend.” The weekend doesn't even scratch the surface.
    “It's all about Monday morning.” I think I like that better.

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