Friday, October 28, 2011

A Kiss Of God's Grace

    No one looked on you with pity or had compassion ... Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, "Live!"
-Ezekiel 16:5-6 (NIV)

You might know his name. It's more likely that you know his nickname. John Merrick was a 19th-century oddity, a freak-show headliner who was made famous by a book and a movie about his life. Merrick was horribly deformed from birth, treated cruelly as a freak by those few who didn't turn away from him in disgust and fear. "The Elelphant Man," they called him. In one of the film's most wrenching scenes, Merrick is cornered in a train station restroom by a mob, surrounded by pointing, gaping, laughing people who shout insults and obscenities. Exhausted, shamed, he sinks to the dirty floor. "I am not an animal," he insists. "I am a human being." True, yes. But sadly, treated more like an animal in his lifetime.
    The exception to that rule is Doctor Frederick Treves. Treves, who is initially interested in him as a medical case, helps to uncover and grows to love the sensitive, compassionate, kind, intelligent, articulate human being under the animal exterior. Through Treves, Merrick gets to live the last part of his life in relative comfort among London's wealthy elite. At one point, the beautiful actress Mrs. Kendall visits Merrick. They exchange some lines from "Romeo and Juliet," she reading Juliet and Merrick reading Romeo. As the lines conclude, Mrs. Kendall smiles gently and maybe a little sadly. "Oh, Mr. Merrick," she whispers breathlessly. "You're not an Elephant Man at all!"
    "Oh, no?" he responds, afraid to agree, afraid not to.
    "You're Romeo!" she says, sincerely and sweetly. Then she leans close and kisses his ugly cheek.
    Shortly before his untimely death, Merrick has an opportunity to thank his friend Dr. Treves. "Do not worry about me, my friend. I am happy every hour of the day. My life is full because I know I am loved. I have gained myself." Then he smiles, as much as he can smile. "I could not have said that if it were not for you."
    "My life is full because I know I am loved. I have gained myself." Amazing words, coming from the grotesque mouth of a man who was treated like a freak, like an animal, most of his short life. Amazing words, and they give us a glimpse of the power of the gospel. So very, very many of the people you will talk to today, work with, sit next to, brush past -- so very many could not honestly say what John Merrick said to his friend. So very many -- maybe even you -- do not know what it means to be loved. You've been admired for your success, or wanted for your looks, or liked because of your personality, or valued for your talent. But you've never been loved. You've never let anyone see your flaws, your sin, your hidden secrets because you've never known anyone who would love you in spite of them. You've never had anyone lean in close to your ugliness and plant a kiss on your cheek.
     We are all Elephant Men and Women, friends. We hide it, to varying degrees. Interestingly, the people we're least comfortable around are those who hide their ugliness badly, or not at all. But we are all ugly, and we all fear from time to time the mocking, pointing, taunting mobs of other freaks. We all fear that they just might be right, that there's something fundamentally wrong with us that makes us less than human.

    And that, fellow freaks, is where the gospel speaks.
    Jesus, amazingly, came in all his beauty to our world. He was not put off by our ugliness, or fooled by our attempts to cover it up. He came and gave his life, his blood, his body to us. He came to make us believe that we aren't twisted, broken wretches. He came to make us believe that there is beauty and value inside us, that the image of God in us is not lost under our deformities. He came to give us full life, a kiss of God's grace on our ugly cheeks.
    That's the way the gospel transforms us. Through the love of God given to us through  the crucified Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit, we rise above our sin, our pettiness, our ugliness. We become who we were meant to be. We gain ourselves. We are not defined by our past ugliness. We are not animals. We are human beings, created in God's image and loved deeply by him.
    Maybe you didn't know that. Or maybe you just need to believe it. Listen to another freak who discovered himself in God's love: "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:7-8) I know, it's hard to believe. We're so familiar with the world's watered-down brand of love that we have trouble accepting God's brand. We have trouble believing that anyone could love us through our ugliness. But if you can believe it, if you can accept God's love the way John Merrick accepted Mrs. Kendall's kiss and Dr. Treves' friendship, you will discover the same thing that the "Elephant Man" discovered. Yourself.
    You are not a sideshow freak. You are not too broken to be loved. You are not an accident. You are not an animal.
    You are a human being.
    And you are a child of God.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bent Out of Shape

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
-Luke 13:10-13 (NIV)

She was bent out of shape.
    Eighteen years she had been crippled, nearly two decades of shuffling through life, head down, looking at peoples’ shoes. We’d call it osteoporosis, maybe, or arthritis? Luke gets to the level of spiritual reality when he blames the woman’s affliction on a “spirit.”
    Having seen my grandmother stoop more and more as the years went by, and knowing the pain she was often in, I guess I sympathize with this unnamed woman. I wonder if she was bitter and angry at the hand her body had dealt her, or if, like my grandmother, she somehow managed to remain joyful and optimistic. Either way, sometimes she’d have to think with longing, wouldn’t she, about a time long ago before pain and deformity had shackled her -- about a time when she was younger and taller and straighter, when she walked with step light and head high?
    He was bent out of shape, too. With him it was just a little less noticeable.
    He was a synagogue ruler, so on the outside at least he must have looked good enough and respectable enough for the elders to put him in charge of operations for their village synagogue. He would have been responsible for the upkeep of the building itself, as well as for the services that went on inside. Maybe he was well-known, or wealthy, or influential. Maybe he was particularly pious. Whatever the reason, if it happened in, around, or to the synagogue, he was responsible for it.
    But he was just as bent out of shape as the crippled woman who was a part of his synagogue. His particular deformity was of heart and mind, though no less real than the woman’s spinal stenosis. Its cause was a lack of theological imagination. His was a condition that made it possible for him to stand right in the middle of God’s glory and power and think only about whether the order of worship was being followed.
    The two, spine-twisted woman and heart-twisted synagogue ruler, met one Sabbath. Or maybe they didn’t. Whether they met each other or not, they both met Jesus. And it’s probably not overstating the case to say that it was a meeting neither forgot as long as they lived.
    As a visiting Rabbi, Jesus was asked to teach on that Sabbath – almost certainly by the synagogue ruler himself. The teaching normally would have consisted of the Rabbi commenting on the texts assigned for that day with traditions, parables, and instruction. It was all done in a certain way, with a certain spirit, and the synagogue ruler would not have suffered lightly any action that might possibly have been seen as a disruption.
    Given that, maybe you can understand his discomfort when Jesus calls this woman – a woman –to stand before the assembled congregation. “You’re free from your infirmity,” he says. And at his touch she is. She stands straight for the first time in eighteen years.
    And that’s when we see how bent out of shape the synagogue ruler really is. “Indignant” – that’s the word Luke uses to describe him. To put it more colorfully, he freaks. Blows up. Has a conniption. A hissy fit. With great gravity and dignity, no doubt, he stands up and in his best “Shhh…We’re in the synagogue” voice informs the congregation that the healing they’ve just seen doesn’t count, because it was done on the Sabbath. “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
    Well, that’s just laughable, of course. Ridiculous on its face, because clearly God has placed his stamp of approval over the whole proceeding by healing the woman in the first place. And so Jesus sticks a pin in this puffed-up, self-important religious policy wonk. “You phony,” he says – with a smile on his face, I think, because this is funny stuff – “Don’t you untie your ox or donkey and lead him out to get a drink on the Sabbath? That’s all I did – I untied this woman so she could finally be free from the bonds Satan had put on her. Isn’t it especially appropriate that be done on the Sabbath – the day of rest?”
    Well, I don’t know if the woman appreciated being compared to livestock or not, though something tells me she didn’t mind so much. What we know is that the people of the synagogue get it, even if their leader doesn’t it. They’re delighted, Luke tells us. They’re delighted at what they see God doing through Jesus. It might not fit in the order of worship or have Jerusalem’s imprimatur, but they know an act of God when they see it.
    I said before that I relate to that woman. But I relate to the synagogue leader, too, maybe more than I want to admit. I know the value of a well-planned worship service. I know the importance of good exegesis in our Bible reading. I know that not everyone should teach a Bible class or preach a sermon or stand before the congregation, and I know that things in church are to be done “in a fitting and orderly way.” So I get Mr. Synagogue Leader, I really do. I get what he was trying to do.
    But along the way he lost something. He lost his sense of wonder and joy at God’s power and grace and love and unpredictability. Somewhere along the line he shackled his heart to set of rules and traditions and to a processed, plastic, mechanical God who does exactly what his people expect him to. And no more. Somehow he made a vocation of defending the dead weight to which he had bound himself. And it was being shackled to that dead weight that had him bent out of shape.
    And I hope that if that ever happens to me, someone will have the sense to stick a pin in my pomposity. Or at least tell me to get out of God’s way. The fact is that often it’s the very people who are well-versed in Scripture and leaders in churches who get bent out of shape when things don’t go according to plan. A new Bible translation. A different order of worship. A new ministry. A different class of people coming through the doors. A fresh take on an old tradition. Never mind what God might be doing; all we can see is our narrow view of God being trespassed upon.
    I’m just saying that if you’re feeling bent out of shape about something or the other, then  maybe the problem is that you need to go back to Jesus. Maybe you need him to unshackle you from the burdens that weigh you down and restore the freedom and joy of your first encounter with him. Nothing would make him happier. Nothing would make you happier. And nothing would make the people around you happier.
    After all, they need a God who sets twisted, broken people free.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Poverty, By the Numbers

    Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
-Luke 12:33-34

About a month ago, the US Census Bureau reported on poverty in America. Among the sobering statistics:
  • The number of Americans living in poverty last year surged to 46.2 million - the most in the 52 years statistics have been kept.
  • A million more people went without health insurance than did last year.
  • The poverty rate rose for Americans last year, from 13.3 to 15.1 percent. That’s higher than it’s been since 1993.
  • Adjusted for inflation, median household income fell 2.3 percent last year. It was down 7 percent from 2000.
  • Last fiscal year, the Greater Chicago Food Depository served 5.1 million individuals at their member food pantries. That’s up from 3.2 million three years ago.
  • Over the past ten years, the child poverty rate in America has grown by 18 percent, and poverty levels for families with children increased by 38 percent. Nearly 15 million children in the U.S. live in poverty.

    The Census Bureau report from which these numbers come is based on a new federal definition of poverty that takes factors like geographic location, medical care, transportation costs, child care, and other expenses into account. While most experts expected to see the numbers rise, they’re still startling. They point out that even in a nation as prosperous as America, the biblical promise that “there will always be poor people in the land” still resonates. So does the mandate for God’s people to “give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart.” While we can always seem to find justification for ignoring the poor, or sometimes even for taking advantage of them, the fact is that being “hardhearted and tightfisted” and withholding help from the poor makes us guilty of sin. (See Deuteronomy 15:7-11.)
    The thing about America is that, unless you’re poor yourself, you can choose to avoid  the ugliness of poverty. We can stay away from certain neighborhoods in our cities, or choose the more affluent suburbs over the blighted ones. We can tell ourselves stories about why the panhandlers on the street corners and in the intersections are there, and even convince ourselves that that’s the way they want to spend their days. But maybe the choices we can make to keep the poor at arm’s length should remind us that choices are exactly what poverty takes away: the choice to live where you prefer, to eat what you want, when you want, to send your child to a better school, to get adequate medical care for your family.
    The numbers in that Census Bureau report point to people and families who don’t have the choice to avoid the ugliness of poverty.
    Give some time to a food pantry or soup kitchen sometime, and you’ll meet some of the people behind those numbers. (If you’re in Chicago, you can find a place to volunteer here. Or just call or come by the church and we’ll put you to work in our pantry! If you’re outside Chicago, try here.) You’ll meet people like a woman I spoke to recently who pretty regularly has a can of Pepsi for dinner so her kids can eat whatever food is in the house. Or the senior who can’t always find enough food to eat so that he doesn’t have to take his medications on an empty stomach. Or the guy whose housepainting business has tanked and who has to swallow his pride and come ask for help. These aren’t people who prefer to sleep on the subway, or who’d rather beg or drink or smoke than work. They’re people who, for various reasons often not of their own making, can’t feed themselves, their spouses, or the kids they’d gladly die for it if would help to fill their stomachs.
    Jesus probably said nothing more clearly than when he told his followers to trade ownership for generosity, possession for sharing. He doesn’t give us the luxury of avoiding the problem of poverty. Neither does he allow us to shift the responsibility: either to the poor, or to government agencies or social service organizations. He proclaimed that one of the signs of God’s kingdom breaking into the world was good news preached to the poor. He gave his people the responsibility of translating that good news into real acts of love, mercy, and service on behalf of people whose daily lives are haunted by the specter of need. We’re never more like him, or more faithful to his gospel, than when we share our food, our clothing, our time, our money, and our lives with the poor.
    They aren’t hard to find. In fact, you probably already know them. They clean your office  or your school, make your coffee, bring your food. They live down the street from you in run-down houses that they paid off years or decades ago when they were regular wage-earners.They’re struggling alone to raise children whose fathers are in prison, or to care for ailing spouses or parents while medical expenses eat up their income. They’re young families upside-down on bad mortgages. They sit alone, day after day, while disabilities eat up their self-esteem along with their prime earning years.
    They sit in the pews behind us or in front of us, in their Sunday best, trying not to think about where they’ll have lunch until after the service.
    May God give us eyes to see their struggles and come near to help. I know that the problem can seem overwhelming. But the good news of the kingdom of God is that he loves the poor. And that he loves them mostly through his people.
    So we must not abdicate our responsibility. Yes, it’s true, the most important need every person has, including the poor, is the need for Jesus. But for at least 46.2 million of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, that’s not the most urgent need. The most urgent, the ones they’re feeling most sharply, are the basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. So we can’t delude ourselves by distinguishing between their physical needs and their spiritual needs, as though the poor are able to consider them separately. The Bible, I think, would call the kind of faith that allows those in need to go away unfilled by one word - “dead”.
    So look around. Find the people to whom God is calling you, the poor who need to hear the good news of the kingdom of God in your words and actions of mercy. Volunteer, serve, give, pray.
    Caring for the poor begins by caring about the poor.

Friday, October 7, 2011


So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while,
“He who is coming will come and will not delay.
But my righteous one will live by faith.  
-Hebrews 10:35-37 (NIV)

Here’s a good sports trivia question for the next time you want to stump your friends. Just ask them which President hosted the 1985 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears at the White House.
    If your friend knows anything at all about United States Presidents, he’ll likely say  something like, “1985? Well, that would be Ronald Reagan.” And, of course, your friend would be right that Ronald Reagan was in office in 1985. He might even think for a moment, just to reassure himself that 1986, when the Super Bowl the Bears won was actually played, wasn’t an election year. Your friend would be absolutely sure: Ronald Reagan was the President who hosted the ‘85 Bears at the White House.
    And, of course, your friend would be absolutely wrong.
    The President that hosted the Bears at the White House was actually Barack Obama. On  October 7th, 2011.
    Two days after the Bears beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, on January  28th, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded just over a minute after launch. It wasn’t a time for celebration, and the White House cancelled the Bears’ trip. No one, apparently, ever got around to rescheduling the traditional trip.
    But when President Obama was elected, someone in the NFL decided that with a resident of Chicago in office, the time was right to see that the Bears got their trip. They called, and the President was eager to oblige. So, 25 years after the Bears’ win, 100 players, coaches, and staff from that team finally got to meet the President at the White House. With the Marine Band playing “Bear Down, Chicago Bears,” Players Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Richard Dent, Shaun Gayle, Otis Wilson, defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, head coach Mike Ditka, and most everyone else connected to that team met with President Obama on the South Lawn. Obama said the ‘85 Bears were the “greatest team in NFL history,” and that they “changed the laws of football.”
    “This is as much fun as I will have as president of the United States,” Obama said. “This is one of the perks of the job, right here.”
    I wonder if any of those players or coaches held out any hope all these years that they’d get to make their visit to the White House. I wonder if they felt a small pang of sadness when they saw other Super Bowl champions honored. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they had just stopped thinking about it, had written it off as one of those things that happened so long ago that it didn’t really matter anymore. Certainly, all these players and coaches went on with their lives, retired from football and turned to other careers, other pursuits.
    And I wonder how many believers have done the same thing. Sometimes, the moment of glory that we look forward to, the moment Christ returns and everything we hope for is fulfilled, seems unlikely, doesn’t it? The world turns on, and sin, injustice, and corruption seem to carry the day. Wicked people take advantage of the powerless, the poor, and the weak. Righteous people are persecuted for their faith. War, famine, and disease decimate whole nations.
    It’s easy to see, in such a world, how even the most hopeful could lose hope, the most innocent be turned hard and cynical. When hope is deferred for as long as the Christian hope has been deferred - well, it can be hard to keep hoping.
    And, yet, that’s really what faith is.
    “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” said the author of the New Testament epistle we call Hebrews. Paul wrote, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” The implication is obvious, isn’t it? There’s something about the hope we have in Jesus that has to be deferred. And so faith always carries an element of expectation. In fact, as soon as we place our hope too much in this world, we find our faith weakening and our hope shrinking.
    The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s the absence of expectation.
    To lose our faith is to stop believing in a God that will act, a God who’s too good to tolerate injustice, violence, sin, wickedness, death, and corruption forever. It’s to stop believing that he loves his people and will vindicate them. It’s to stop believing in resurrection, in eternal life, in new creation, and it’s to stop believing that God will topple Satan and the power structures we human beings invest so much time, money, and effort in maintaining.
    To lose our faith is to stop expecting.
    The writer of Hebrews calls this expectation “confidence, boldness.” There’s some irony in  that, since he’s writing to believers who were marginalized, disenfranchised, and persecuted in their society. “Whatever you do, don’t throw away your boldness,” he warns. Raise your head. Puff out your chest. Dare the world to do its worst, and tell them why. Tell them that you expect your God to act.
    Some of the ‘85 Bears couldn’t make the long-awaited trip to the White House. Walter Payton died of cancer several years ago. Dave Duerson took his own life earlier this year. William Perry, “The Refrigerator,” has an illness that makes it difficult to travel. President Obama noted their absence.
    When our expectation is fulfilled, of course, there will be no need for such a note. That’s because even death doesn’t blunt the edge of our hope. Maybe that’s why you hear believers speaking so expectantly about their hope at funerals: faith makes the most sense in the face of something like death.
    Four-year-old Donna Hornik died, of cancer, just about two years ago. Like a lot of other people, I’ve gotten to know Donna a little through her mother, who has written a series of articles  on her blog, Mary Tyler Mom, about their experience of losing a child. In one of her posts, “Choosing Hope,” she writes about running across a quote from Martin Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” The reason Luther could say that, of course, was because of his expectation that God would act, finally and ultimately, in Jesus to vindicate the hope of his people.
    So may we live hopefully and expectantly. May we plant apple trees, no matter which direction the winds may be blowing, no matter that the world seems to be collapsing upon us. Because that world needs our expectation, our confidence, our boldness, our faith. Our hope.
    Even if you never get to meet the President, one day you’ll meet the Lord.