Friday, January 27, 2012


    But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
    Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
-Luke 19:8-9 (NIV)

    Police in the village of Bidingen, Germany, got more of a result than they probably expected when they published an appeal in a newspaper asking anyone who may have witnessed a bicycle theft to come forward.
    After the theft, police took out the ad asking for anyone who might have seen anything or known anything to step up and help the investigation. They identified the bike and the location from which it was stolen, and they mentioned that the bike was worth 400 euros, or about $500. Apparently the police got little direct response. But the victim got a letter.
    A letter from the thief.
    The thief didn’t identify himself in any way, but he wrote that he was very sorry for stealing the bike. He said that he would like to return it, but that he couldn’t remember where he had left it. But he did the next best thing.
    Inside the envelope, with the letter, the victim found 400 euros.
    After the letter came to the victim, Police spokesperson Gerhard Kreis commented that the thief “may just have been a thoroughly honest person who saw the error of his ways.” And he added, “You still get them you know.” He’s right, of course; there are – and always have been, and always will be – people in the world with moral compasses reliable enough that they can tell when they’re off course. But it has to be a somewhat unusual experience for police anywhere to come across one who will write a letter of apology to a victim – especially when they haven’t been caught. And it has to be even less common for a thief who no one has been able to identify to pay someone back for what he’s taken.
    Though it’s not a word we use much, what that thief did is called restitution. To make restitution is to make amends for a wrong done to another person, to take responsibility for the unjust action and to make up for it as much as possible. It’s not a word – or an idea – that many of us are very familiar with, though, because it’s not something our culture or our judicial system reinforces. Take stealing as an example. In our world, if you steal you’ve broken a law. If you’re caught you’re prosecuted by the state in the name of the people, and if you’re convicted you’ll do some time in jail and/or pay a fine to the state. Once you’ve served your sentence, you’re said to have “paid your debt to society.” Insurance companies replace the possessions you’ve taken from the victim, and the matter is closed. The state’s laws have been broken, the offender has been punished, and justice has been done.
    Except that the thief has not had the opportunity to look his victim in the eye, express his remorse for what he has done, and make restitution. There is no need for that, we think, because the prosecutor has done his job and the judge has done his and the insurance company theirs. The problem with that is that it fails to take into account that a crime such as stealing is not only an offense against “the people”, but also an offense against a specific person.
    Not surprisingly, we tend to take that view when it comes to sin as well. When we do wrong, we tend to see it as a violation of God’s law. Of course, we can’t do enough time to make up for our sin, so we’re very thankful that Jesus died for us. And when we receive God’s forgiveness in the name of Jesus, by his grace the debt is paid. It’s like that sin was never committed, we are often told – and often tell ourselves.
     Now I believe that, and I’m thankful for it. It’s true that God in his grace “forgives” sins through the work of Jesus on the cross. That’s important, because I need to know that I don’t carry a debt in my relationship with God. But it overlooks the fact that most, if not all, of the sins we commit are not only sins against God. They involve others.
    Remember Zacchaeus? Crooked tax collector who financed his big house and opulent lifestyle by taking more taxes from his countrymen than he had to pay to Rome? But then he met Jesus, and Jesus went and ate with him and sometime between the soup course and dessert Zacchaeus found his plate piled high with forgiveness and grace. It turns out that God loves cheaters too. And who wouldn’t be glad?
     Well, if you were one of those Zacchaeus cheated, you wouldn’t be glad. You’d remember, maybe, that because of him you’d lost your house. Or maybe you had an empty pantry. Or maybe your infant child had died of malnutrition. You wouldn’t be glad, you’d be angry, because while your stomach growled and your children cried, Zacchaeus would still be sitting in his big house, enjoying the grace of God.
    But before Jesus can even announce the forgiveness that has come to his house, Zacchaeus is making restitution. He gives half of what he has to the poor – victims of the inequity he’s helped to create. He gives back money he’s unjustly taken, with 400% interest. A lot of financial situations in Jericho changed that day because Zacchaeus understood what sin is and what grace demands.
    Let me be the first to remind you that, if you’ve put your trust in Jesus, salvation has come to your house, too. By God’s grace, and God’s grace alone, you are included in the promises that God has made to his people for millennia. Don’t doubt that; take hold of it and take joy in it!
    But don’t forget that sin – even sin forgiven by God – still hurts people. In every one of our lives is someone against whom we’ve sinned, someone we’ve injured in our more selfish moments. Maybe it’s your husband or wife. Maybe it’s your parents, or your children. A good friend, a colleague, a neighbor?
    Ask God to open your eyes to those folks, and to help you find ways to make restitution. It won’t always be money – in fact, it might rarely be money. But there are ways you can give back what you never should have taken, repair what you should never have damaged, heal scars you never should have created. The grace you’ve received from God demands nothing less. True repentance, true remorse, always involves some kind of restitution.
    If nothing else, maybe you could start by writing a letter….

Friday, January 20, 2012

You Lost Me

     Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.
- Deuteronomy 6:4-9

David Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, a California-based market research firm that specializes in the religious beliefs and behaviors of Americans. Kinnaman’s new book, titled You Lost Me, focuses on a problem that the church has always known it’s had, but hasn’t always had the ability to address or even to articulate - namely, the loss of its young adults.
    Barna research suggests that more than 60 percent of young people in the U.S. who went to church as teens drop out after high school. This is across the board: Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics. In the book, Kinnaman identifies three groups of young Christians aged 16-29 who leave the church — nomads, prodigals and exiles. Nomads leave the church, but still think of themselves as Christians. Prodigals no longer have faith nor connection with the church. Exiles still are connected but are torn between contemporary culture and the church.
    In response to the problem that Kinnaman points out, the church has effectively cordoned off children and teens in Sunday school classes and youth groups. We tend to rate our effectiveness at ministering to younger people by how many attend Bible classes and youth activities regularly. But Kinnaman’s book suggests that a young person’s involvement in church activities as a child or teenager doesn’t guarantee that she’ll stay involved. Now, I believe Sunday schools and teen events can also help a kid grow in the faith. But it may be that our main strategy for keeping young people in the church, and the metric we’ve largely used to measure its effectiveness, might not mean all we think they mean.
    Kids probably don’t need a whole lot more activities crammed into their schedules: they’re already probably busier than any generation before them. Kinnaman suggests that what they need more is “help sorting through the noise of culture and the noise of busyness so they can become more connected to what the Lord is asking them to do.” The answer, surprisingly, perhaps, is not more and better youth activities. It’s not cloistering them in youth programs, away from the rest of the church.
    In fact, the rest of the church might be the church’s best resource in keeping our kids in the faith.
    The Barna group’s research suggests that the best way for the church to keep our teens and young adults is for the whole church to become youth ministers. Kinnaman writes:
“Be there for young people as a friend. We’re too interested in being a mentor, and they may not want a mentor. They may just want a friend. All of us as older leaders are probably more connected with the young than we realize. They may be our children, grandchildren, students or other young people who are in our church. We need to have more genuine interest in them and recognize the role that we play in their lives.
    “Sometimes we’re hesitant as older leaders because we feel like we’re not as cool or as relevant or interesting to young people. Yet we need greater trust in the fact that they’re listening, the fact that they want to be heard and that they don’t always just want to be talked at.”
    God has always intended that his people create an intergenerational community. The Israelites were to talk about the Law with their children, while they worked or travelled or started to wind down for the evening. In that way, kids learned that the Law of their God wasn’t just about what they did at a certain time or place every week. They learned that it was about how they were to live every day of their lives, and watching and listening to their parents and other adults as they went about their day helped them to see how to put the Law into practice in their own lives as well.
    Like all families, the church should be an intergenerational community. Why do we think kids should only have relationships in the church with other kids? We don’t make that assumption about any other of the demographic groups of our congregations. As it stands, in the church most kids only hear adults other than their parents talking about their faith. They need to see us living it out in front of them as well. And not just our biological kids: other kids too, with their parents’ permission and awareness, and within their boundaries, of course.
    So volunteer to serve in a food pantry or at a nursing home, and ask a couple of teenagers from church to join you. Offer to give a single parent at your church a break by taking her kids to a movie or out to lunch. Attend some of the games or plays that kids at your church are involved in. Send a card to remember their birthdays. What you do with these kids doesn’t matter nearly as much as the relationships you create with them.
    And when you’re with these kids, don’t feel pressured to have all the answers. Kids have plenty of people talking at them, telling them what to do, instructing them. What they’re probably in short supply of are adults to whom they can talk, and most importantly who’ll listen to them, and care, and pray. Once they see that you care about them, and that you hear what they’re saying, and that they can trust you, then you’ll be able to witness to them of the love and faithfulness of God in their own lives and help them see what God is doing in theirs.  
    I know, in our culture that can be a little strange. You might have to go out of your way to demonstrate your trustworthiness. You’ll probably want to be with groups of kids, not one-on-one, and you’ll definitely want to make sure to avoid any hint of anything questionable. But the effort you make will pay dividends.
    While there’s a place for Bible classes and events and activities aimed right at kids, some of the church’s best work in helping its kids to grow in faith has always been done in these kinds of relationships. In prayer, why don’t you see what place you have in that kind of ministry in your church? While our kids are still here. Before we lose them.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Like a River

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
   Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
   Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
   But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
-Amos 5:21-24

This weekend, my son will take the test for Select Enrollment high schools. These are Chicago public high schools that rank among the best schools, public or private, in the state of Illinois. As you can imagine, competition to get a spot in these schools is tough. Seats go to the students who score the highest in their seventh grade GPA, their seventh grade state school assessment tests, and this exam that Josh will take this weekend. It’s quite an accomplishment that Josh has even qualified to take the test. (Fortunately, he inherited his mom’s brains, along with her looks. He got a cowlick from me. You’re welcome, kid.)
    Of course, it’s not exactly true that the highest scores get the seats. The school system tweaks the qualification criteria each year to try to make sure that kids from more disadvantaged family situations have equal access to these great schools. This year, that means that the scores needed to get in will vary somewhat depending on what “tier” a student’s neighborhood is in. And we’re in the one that requires Josh to score the highest.
    All that raises conflicting feelings in me, honestly. Ordinarily, I’m all for initiatives that recognize that some kids come from more challenging circumstances than others, and that allowing and enabling inequities to continue to exist is neither right nor constructive. Sorry, it’s just not necessarily true in America that everyone has an equal opportunity to better their circumstances, or equal access to the kind of education that makes that possible. As they enter high school, kids can get easily derailed by a poor educational environment.
    So, ordinarily, I’m for that.
    Of course, it’s not ordinarily my kid who stands to lose a seat in the high school he wants to attend.
    While I still think that somehow trying to ensure that kids from disadvantaged circumstances have access to the best public schools, I guess I’m a little less enthusiastic about that right now.
    If we’re reminded of anything a few days before we recognize the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s that justice is sometimes costly, and that the costs of it can be very personal. King, of course, paid for his convictions with his life, which kind of puts my concerns this weekend in perspective. A just society requires sacrifices, certainly by those who are victimized by injustice, but also by those who stand to gain the most from injustice. Justice almost always demands that those who have most of the power give some of it to those who have the least. It requires us to be honest about the ways realities like wealth, race, gender, and education are tied to power and opportunity - or the lack thereof. It mandates that those in a society who could choose to hoard power and opportunity instead give access to it away.
    The Old Testament prophets knew that Israel couldn’t truly be the people of God until they understood justice and were willing to pay its cost. Amos reminded the people that religious assemblies, feasts, music, and observance could not fill the hunger God has for seeing justice done. The American church - especially in those places where it’s mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly educated - might need to hear his message anew: God doesn’t care much for church services when they’re only cover for us to sidestep the sacrifices that justice demands while holding on with both hands to our comfortable standards of living.
    King cited Amos in his famous 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial. He also cited Isaiah 40:4-5:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

    The consistent witness of Scripture is that human beings will only see the glory of the Lord if we see it together, and that his people best be known for being committed to the justice that so clearly and inarguably matters deeply to him.
    Even when it costs us.
    Especially when it costs us.      
    It cost our Lord everything, after all. The One who by right had all the power of deity gave it all up to be born poor among a conquered people, and he gave up still more and still more, until he was arrested, tried, and executed. He did it to free human beings from bondage, sin, and death, and to give us the blessings of a new life.
    May we endure our own tests, carry our own crosses, and give up our own lives to do the same. Out of love for people, and love for righteousness, and - even more - love for him.

Friday, January 6, 2012

"I Just Want to Be a Christian"

     That's the title of a book written back in the mid-80's by Rubel Shelley that helped some of us in Churches of Christ to re-think our faith, our history, and our relationship to the church at large. It also expresses some things I've been thinking about recently as I've considered how to help our church's kids, teenagers, and new believers without much connection to the history of the Churches of Christ understand our plea for the restoration of New Testament Christianity and the unity of the church.
     That double plea hasn't always fit together well, as Rick Atchley from The Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth illustrates below:

     "I Just Want to Be a Christian" is also the title of a sermon series I'll be working on for the next few weeks, exploring the plea of the restoration of the New Testament faith and the unity of all believers in Jesus Christ. I'm doing this series for two reasons:
  1. Historically, when we haven't given attention to this we've tended to forget unity, and have allowed the restoration of New Testament Christianity to devolve into a rigid, legalistic view of the Bible that allows no diversity of opinion and marginalizes divergent opinions.
  2. I want my son, the other teenagers and young adults, and the new believers in our congregation to carry this historic plea - one that I think is as valid today as it ever was - forward into the next generation.
     I'll post audio files of the sermons here, in case someone's interested in commenting.