Friday, August 19, 2011


    Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
-John 20:21-23 (NIV)

My family leaves for a vacation soon, and this year we’re really getting away from everything. Where we’re going, cell phone coverage will be intermittent, at best. Wi-fi will be pretty much inaccessible. While I’m certainly not as dependent upon technology as a lot of people, I do consider myself pretty connected. I’m pretty comfortable with technology, and, like a lot of people, have integrated it pretty completely into my life. I sync my calendar across a couple of computers and my phone. I’m currently collaborating with several other people on a document stored in the cloud. I post to a blog every week, podcast sermons, and run an online fantasy football league. As I typed that last sentence, my phone chimed to tell me I have an email.
    And that’s all well and good, I suppose. But I have a feeling that, on our vacation, I’m going to re-discover the joy of not being connected. Or, rather, of connecting with the people who are there with me, right in front of me, instead of people I can’t see.
    The results of a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life project reveal that 13 percent of Americans have used a fake cell phone conversation to avoid engaging someone face to face. Among adults ages 18-29, the number jumps to 30 percent. And anecdotal evidence suggests to me that a far larger number of people are interrupting and even ending face to face interaction in order to take real phone calls and even respond to text messages and e-mail. (Or maybe that’s just people who are face to face with me....)
    In any case, I think it’s safe to say that all our instant connectedness with anyone, anywhere in the world isn’t doing much for our connectedness with people who are right here, right now. Ironic, isn’t it? We’ve never been more potentially connected, and yet loneliness and lack of community is as much a problem for people now as it’s ever been. Maybe more so. Many of us can work from our homes entirely, freeing us up to spend more time with family and friends. But many of us find that instead we spend more hours working. And without building the workplace relationships that were common a decade or two ago.
    When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, his first call to his assistant was, “Come here, Watson. I need you.” Now, we use our phones and other technology to send the opposite message.
    I don’t think, though, that for most of us the solution is to cut our wires and turn off our  wireless connections. Like every technology, what we have today has its legitimate uses. While our connectedness can be used to shut us off from others, or even to exploit others for our own pleasure or profit, it can also be used by exploited people to shake off tyranny. It can communicate life-saving information across vast distances in the blink of an eye. It can connect missionaries to their supporters and relief organizations to their sources of funds and material. It can be used to communicate the gospel instantly to more people at one time than Paul or Jesus preached to in their lifetimes. Whatever challenges technology may pose, they almost certainly aren’t inherent in the technology itself. They come, like all human frailty, from the uses to which we put it.
    Jesus was unambiguous; he told his first followers that their mission statement was the same as his. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he sent them just as his Father had sent him to announce the forgiveness of sins. Our model for connectedness, then, is Jesus. This should be no surprise, though I suspect we forget it often enough and fail even more often to adequately grapple with the implications.
    Jesus refused to keep people at arm's length, even when those people wanted him dead and had the power to make it happen. In maybe his best-known reflection on Jesus, Paul reminds us that Jesus prized connection with human beings above even his equality with God. He let go of that glory, and the one through whom everything was created was himself “made in human likeness.” He took the nature of a servant, Paul says, and made himself nothing - emptied himself, literally - to the point of dying on a cross. “Your attitude should be the same,” Paul tells us. Jesus’ death is not just the means of our salvation, but the model for our relationships.
    So what does that have to do with technology? A couple of things, I think. First, if we’re using technology to keep the people around us at arm’s length, then we haven’t gotten that from Jesus. Sometimes our incessant phone calls, texts, and emails can be a convenient camouflage for our reluctance to really engage with people and be involved in their lives. If at any time we find ourselves preferring screens to other human faces, then we really need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Jesus engaged with people even when it killed him. That was his mission, and so it’s ours. As his disciples, we shouldn’t be reluctant to connect with the people whose paths he sends us across.
    But, maybe an even larger point to consider is that no technology human beings have, can, or will create will ever ensure that people will be connected. No wifi or 4G network will accomplish what the power of the Holy Spirit will do in catapulting us out of our self-involved, self-interested, self-contained little worlds and into the worlds of the people around us. Through his Spirit, Jesus will give us the strength and courage to connect with others, even when it costs us something. Even when it forces us to let go of the other things we value.
    I’m not telling you to turn off your phone or unplug your cables or turn off your  wireless connection - necessarily. I’m just telling you to look at the neighborhood in which you live, the office in which you work, the school in which you learn, the church in which you worship, and take note of all the people. People who need love and forgiveness and strength and help and prayer. Take note of the One who emptied himself for people like that, and for me and for you, too.    
    And follow in his footsteps.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lifestyle Vs. Theology?

     Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
-Philippians 4:4-7 (NIV)

I recently read a post by Felicity Dale that offered seven reasons why, in her experience, it is more effective to begin a church with “not-yet-believers” or new believers. Now, I'm very appreciative of Mrs. Dale's apparent track record in planting new churches and helping people come to Christ. She has created Bible study groups with businessmen, her kids' friends, retirement centers, at her workplace, and in housing projects. Clearly, she has a vision for bringing people to Christ that's been all but lost by many more traditional churches.
     I'm also appreciative of her concern for starting churches with non-churched people. There are a lot of good reasons for that; the most compelling to me is Paul's distaste for “building on someone else's foundation.” (Some churches that seem to exist to attract members from other churches would do well to pay attention to that.)
     Because I'm appreciative of Mrs. Dale's work for the kingdom, I'm reluctant to be critical of her. But one of the reasons she gave for preferring to start churches with non-believers or new believers bothered me a little. Mrs. Dale's reason #2 for preferring to start churches with non-churched and newly-churched people is: “Their questions concern lifestyle, not theology.”
     I think I get the priority that Mrs. Dale is expressing. It's certainly more constructive for people to be questioning their habits, addictions, and sins in light of a new, budding, and vibrant faith than engaging in pointless debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and the like. Maybe the difference I have with her is just semantic, but even if it is, words mean something.
     My problem is this: for a believer, lifestyle and theology cannot be separated.
     I'm afraid that many Christians have gotten used to thinking that theology has to do with complicated doctrinal formulations – and the debates that seem to unavoidably follow them – that have nothing to do with “real life.” That is, nothing to do with being more patient with your spouse and kids, or cleaning up your language, or praying more regularly, or being more generous, or overcoming an addiction. Here's the thing, though: everything I listed at the end of that last sentence has to do with theology.
     Micah says it this way: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God never wanted empty ritual, he reminds his people, but always expected their relationship with him to filter out into their lives in justice and mercy offered to others. Lifestyle, yes – but motivated by theology. Or how about what is probably the most basic theological statement in the Bible: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one?” Theology, no doubt. But it has everything to do with real life: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” In other words, the theological statement that God is one – or that there is only one God – leads to a lifestyle statement: you can't be divided or conflicted in your love for this God.
     John 3:16, one of the most well-known statements of the gospel, links theology – “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” – with lifestyle – “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The Sermon on the Mount, one of the main sources of Jesus' ethical teaching, is profoundly theological. His teachings on anger, adultery, divorce, and so on in Matthew 5 come from the theological premise that those who are a part of the Kingdom of God are “blessed,” and that they should be salt and light in the world so that those who don't yet know the Kingdom can recognize God's goodness. His requirement that his followers love their enemies rests on the theological ideal that we are to be “children of [our] Father in heaven” and “ [our] heavenly Father is perfect.”
     And all of the letters in the New Testament link theology with lifestyle. Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit lives in us, and then tells us that he helps us in our weakness and reminds us that it is in the strength of the Holy Spirit that we “put to death the misdeeds of the body.” In another place, he builds an ethical code for people of all walks of life on the theological statement that believers should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In still another place, he connects the theological statement “since you have been raised with Christ” to the lifestyle statement “set your hearts on things above.” (Colossians 3:1) A little later in the same letter, he tells us to “forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
     You get the point. Lifestyle and theology are connected, and the question isn't whether you do one or the other, but whether the one matches and informs the other, or conflicts with it. Good theology always creates the lifestyle God wants. Bad theology never does. Vice versa too, I think. As people who believe in Jesus, we don't get to choose whether or not we'll be theologians. Only whether or not we'll be good theologians.
     Theology divorced from lifestyle is empty, insipid, and hypocritical. It creates Sunday morning Christians whose lives don't match the things they sing, pray, and profess in church. Lifestyle cut off from theology, on the other hand, creates judgmental, sectarian Pharisees who elevate their own personal opinions about right and wrong, good and bad, spiritual and unspiritual over God's. It also creates people who feel cut off from the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
     So here's what I think. I think every church should be a set of relationships in which people are together learning good theology, and its implications for their lives as witnesses to the power of the gospel. Those relationships shouldn't be wasted in pointless wrangling and bickering over doctrinal minutiae that have confounded Christians for centuries. Neither should they be wasted in the proclamation of “a form of godliness but denying its power.”
     Lifestyle and theology have to go hand-in-hand. Otherwise, we come dangerously close to forfeiting our identity as the people of God.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Gift Received, A Gift Given

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who had lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
-Luke 7:36-38 (NIV)

Whispers. Stares. Rolling eyes. Barbed comments behind hands. Respectable people crossed the street if they saw her coming in time, and averted their gaze if they didn’t. She considered it a good day if everyone just ignored her.
    Few of her days were very good.
    Not everyone treated her that way, of course. There were people, men, who didn’t avert  their eyes: men who stared straight at her and didn’t try to hide what they were thinking. They were usually merchants passing through town on business, or farmers selling produce. They usually had families back home. But they paid attention to her, at least, and treated her as if she were good for something, and sometimes with them she actually experienced what passed for happiness in her world. Anyway, she had to eat, and she didn’t exactly have other marketable skills. So she’d return their stares in that way that had earned her the contempt and disgust of the respectable people and pretended not to care what they thought.
    In her unguarded moments, she had to admit that she did care, though. She was lonely. She would have liked having a friend or two, friends she could laugh with and cry with and gossip with. A husband. Children, even. That wasn’t her world, though, and she had long since learned to make the best of it.
    She thought little about it when she heard that the famous rabbi was passing through town.  They said he could do miracles, but miracles weren’t for people like her. Rabbis were always coming through town, it seemed, and she usually avoided them. Not that it was hard; they never came through the part of town where she lived. And she wasn’t exactly on anyone’s A-list. Was there such a thing as a Z-list?
    That’s what she was thinking, and smiling to herself a little, when he came around a corner and almost plowed into her. She dropped her eyes, started to go around, and heard him speak. “Excuse me,” he said, and she realized he was speaking to her. To her. She raised her eyes, tentatively, and saw him looking at her. Not like the others, though. Not like the last piece of meat at a banquet, not like she was put on earth for his amusement. There was respect in his eyes, and kindness, and compassion. They started at each other for just a moment, seconds, really, and she actually felt something like human again.
    One of the men with him leaned close to him. He stared at her with that same look she had seen in the eyes of countless people and spoke softly. She heard, though. “Rabbi, we should go. Simon’s waiting.”
    “Rabbi. What’s he doing on this side of the tracks?” she thought. She started to step away, to let him pass, but he waved off his friend and turned his attention back to her with a laugh. “Don’t mind Rock,” he said to her. “He means well, but sometimes he lives up to his nickname,” he chuckled, pointing to his head. She laughed, too, more from delight at the idea of a rabbi joking with her than at the joke itself.
    Still he looked at her, and his expression changed. The wide smile faded to one that was smaller, and sadder. “They’re wrong, you know,” he said earnestly. “About you. You’re not trash. You’re not worthless. God doesn’t think of you the way they think of you. He’s your Father, and he loves you, and when you’ve had enough hurt and hunger and you’re ready to come home he’s waiting for you with open arms.” He leaned close. “I’ll tell you a secret. The first will be last, and the last will be first. The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of Heaven before some of your ‘righteous’ neighbors.”
    She felt almost breathless. She didn’t quite understand everything he was saying, but she understood two things well enough. He knew something of the life she’d lived up until now, and he believed that God still loved her. And, strangely enough, she was starting to believe it herself, just because he said so with such certainty. How could he possible be so sure about that? She was startled to find tears in her eyes; it had been years since she had cried about anything.
    She shook her head. “I…I’ve done things I’m not proud of…”
    He spoke again. Quietly, so none of his crowd of followers could hear, he told her about those things she wasn’t proud of. His voice was solemn…sad, it seemed…but gentle. There was no trace of condemnation, no hint of the righteous indignation she’d grown used to hearing from people of faith. She felt a sense of guilt that the things she’d done caused him such sadness. But she also felt relief: he knew her, knew all about her, and didn’t consign her to the trash heap.
    And then he did a remarkable thing. He touched her. Not like so many men had; he just put a hand casually on her shoulder. It was a gesture between friends, and it had been such a long time since she had a friend. And then the dam broke, and she was sobbing and almost didn’t hear his next words, when he ducked his head down to look into her eyes.
    “Your sins…are forgiven.”
    She wondered how, how he could say something like that, how he could possibly know that God forgave her sins. Then she realized that he was telling her that he forgave her, and yet it felt to her like the same thing. If he forgave her, then God did. “Now go make some changes in your life,” he told her, a little more sternly but still with that slight smile. And she knew she could. This man Jesus loved her, and her sins were forgiven. God accepted her, and because he did she didn’t need to look for acceptance anymore from an endless succession of strangers.
    She felt something else she hadn’t felt in a long time. It took her a moment to place the feeling. It was love. Funny, she thought, how it only takes one small experience of love to set off a chain reaction. She turned to tell him, and found that he was gone, on down the street.
    That’s right, she remembered. Simon was waiting. Well, she’d just have to go tell him there. The thought made her laugh, and she started off. She needed to go by her house first.
    There was something there that she needed to pick up.