Friday, February 24, 2012

Camping on the Promises

Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
    Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
-Matthew 8:19-20 (NIV)

Corey Brooks says the first thing he’s going to do when he gets home later today is take a hot shower and shave. Then he’s going to see a movie with family and friends.
    The shower and shave make all the sense in the world because Corey, a pastor on Chicago’s south side, has been on the roof of an abandoned hotel in his neighborhood since November. November 22nd, precisely. That’s 94 days of a Chicago winter (admittedly mild by our standards, thankfully) with only a tent for shelter and kerosene and electric heaters for warmth.
    Something tells me that Corey’s shower later today is going to be a long one.
    You might expect that Corey has a reason for spending most of the winter on a rooftop, and you’d be right. He has a good one. He’s been trying to draw attention to the gun violence that is a blight on his neighborhood, and so many others. The abandoned hotel has served for years as a haven for drug users and sellers, but no one wanted to develop the property. Corey wanted to buy the hotel, tear it down, and build a community center, but he didn’t have the funds to do it. So he came up with the idea of camping on the roof until the money came in.
    This morning, Corey was was about $85,000 short of the $450,000 he needed for the purchase. But actor Tyler Perry, being interviewed this morning on the radio about his new movie, promised to donate $98,000, putting Corey over the top. That’s why he’s going to a movie tonight. Tyler Perry’s new movie.
    It’s called “Good Deeds.”
    “When [neighborhood residents] see this community center being built,” Corey says, “they’re going to be reminded that one person can change things. One person can make things better. And hopefully it’s going to inspire people to continue.”
    Corey reminds me a little of the some of the Old Testament prophets, like Ezekiel and Hosea, doing seemingly strange things, symbolic acts, to proclaim the word of the Lord. Hosea married an unfaithful wife. Ezekiel laid on his side and cooked his meals over a fire built with, well, what was left over after a cow’s meal. I can see one of those guys nodding in approval at Corey’s lonely, cold vigil on the top of a building where suffering, violence, and crime concentrate, at him literally rising above all that proclaim the word of the Lord that there is hope - that wherever God’s people are, there’s hope.
    But he also reminds me of Jesus, giving up home and comfort to take up residence in a broken place as a witness to hope and redemption and resurrection. Genuinely following the one who had nowhere to lay his head. The one who left home and family to live as an itinerant preacher among people who didn’t understand him and who would eventually put him to death. The one who left his Father, poured himself out, and took on humanity and servanthood.
    Like Jesus, like the prophets, Corey realized that the word of God didn’t mean much if he wouldn’t live in it, camp on it, follow it out of comfortable places and into uncertainty and even suffering.
    We sometimes sing a song on Sundays around communion, a song about Jesus:
How Beautiful the hands that served
The wine and the bread and the sons of the earth.
How Beautiful the feet that walked
The long dusty roads and the hill to the cross.
How the body of Christ.

     Of course, it’s not only about Jesus:
How Beautiful the feet that bring
The sound of good news and the love of the King
How Beautiful the hands that serve
The wine and the bread and the sons of the earth.
How the body of Christ.

    It’s about us who wear his name, who are called to walk in his footsteps and serve people and offer tangible reminders of his broken body and spilled blood and rush to proclaim the good news that King Jesus loves human beings and has risen above the suffering and despair of a broken world. Was raised up above that suffering and despair, in fact, on a cross, but was raised and lifted up by his Father once, and for all.
    Being the body of Christ in the end, isn’t really about what we do on Sundays. It’s about seeing the hurt and pain and violence and sin in our world with clarity, and yet not being beaten down or jaded or corrupted by it. It’s about living among the twisted, suffering, dying victims of Satan’s carnage without blinking or retreating or insulating ourselves, and proclaiming with our words and actions the hope and good news of the gospel. We don’t move to a safer neighborhood, or barricade ourselves in our expensive houses and church buildings, or give up all hope and long for the good old days. We stand up, and we look Satan in the eye, and we laugh at his posturing and we call on the name of Jesus. And then we follow him in offering ourselves as channels of God’s blessing, agents of his redemption, ministers of reconciliation.
    We have good news that needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops, so let’s not back down from that calling. Let’s pitch our tents on the gospel, find our shelter in his promises. Then let’s follow him out into our world to confront evil and preach hope and proclaim the name of Jesus.
    How beautiful.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Victoria's Secret

May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer—
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be captivated by her love.
Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress?
Why embrace the bosom of another man’s wife?
-Proverbs 5:18-20 (NIV)

Kylie Bisutti was at the top of her game when she retired. At 21, she had reached the pinnacle of success in her field. So it was something of a surprise when she quit last week, especially since she was doing something that very few young women have ever chosen to walk away from.
    Kylie was a lingerie model. And not just any lingerie model - she was a Victoria’s Secret model. She beat out 10,000 other girls in a model search two years ago, and the fame and money she’s walking away from are considerable.
    Even more surprising than her abrupt retirement are her reasons for it. Kylie is a believer, and her faith led her to this decision.
    “Growing in my relationship with the Lord and my faith…,” Kylie explained on Good Morning America, (some lingerie photos in the video) “I just became so convicted about wanting to honor my husband with my body and wanting to be a role model for younger women out there that look up to me.”
    She says she was really convicted when her 8-year-old niece said to her, “I think I want to stop eating so I can look like you.”
    “And it just broke my heart, because she looks up to me,” Kylie explained. “Thousands of girls that think beauty is an outer issue, and really it's a heart issue.”
    It’s about the heart, not the skin. She may have something there.
    The problem, I think, with the level of exposure that has become commonplace in our society - and accessible by anyone - is not skin. If there was something inherently shameful about the human body, God could have created us with pants or dresses or burqas or something. The fact that he didn't, and that human nakedness was only a problem, or even worth noticing, after sin entered the world, says something decisive about the goodness of all creation - including human bodies. The “Christian” tendency toward prudishness sells short on the biblical assertion that God called his creation “good.”
    The problem is that Victoria isn't just selling Secrets. She's selling fantasy. (I know Victoria’s not a real person. Just go with it here.) She, and others like her, are literally banking on the fact that men and women will invest heavily in the fantasy of flawless physical beauty, eternal youth, and the perfect sexual partner. Her models are prophets, acting out visions of this fantasy world, proclaiming that it's within reach.  Just buy the fantasy. Buy it because you want the models. Buy it because you want to be the models. Either way, the fantasy is compelling.
    But that fantasy that’s being sold to us isn’t real life, and in fact it’s toxic to real life. It ruins real relationships because it feeds unrealistic expectations that no one - including a lingerie model - can fulfill. Husbands and wives start to look elsewhere - if not physically, then at least emotionally - when the fantasies they’ve bought into about love, romance, and sex crash on the rocks of reality. And when that fantasy gets sold to younger customers, it almost has to have some effect on the way they see the opposite sex, the assumptions they bring into future relationships, and the way they define beauty.
    Maybe that’s why, in addition to adultery, the Ten Commandments prohibit coveting - and explicitly include “your neighbor’s wife” in the list of what we ought not covet. Or why Jesus likewise says that lust is really not an acceptable alternative to adultery. Apparently, Victoria didn’t invent the fantasy. She just found an attractive way to package it.
    So the wise father of Proverbs embarrasses church-going grandmothers in all times and places by telling his son simply to opt out of the fantasy. (Take a look at Eugene Peterson’s The Message if you really want to make Grandma blush.) His advice is that he should be content with his wife - no, not content, captivated. As he appreciates her for who she is and delights in her - and yes, including in her body - the fantasy will be exposed as the cheap, self-centered imitation of real love that it is.
    In our equal-opportunity world, both men and women need to pay attention to that advice.
    Because one thing we’re not going to be able to do is avoid the fantasy. It’s everywhere, and the church’s main strategy of pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t work anymore. Truth is, it’s never worked.
    That’s because the fantasy plays to something God-created in all of us. Love, the desire for intimacy, sexuality - those, too, are part of God’s good creation. But like everything else God has made, those things can be warped into selfishness, lust, greed, and entitlement. And porn producers, Hollywood studio executives, music producers, car companies - and, yes, lingerie makers - count on that.
    But Victoria’s real Secret - the one she doesn’t want you to know, the one Kylie Bisutti discovered - is that you don’t have to buy the fantasy they’re selling. You can walk away.
    I don’t mean from the product, necessarily. If you have a few of Victoria’s items around your house somewhere, that’s your choice and your business. (And maybe falls under that “delighting” thing from Proverbs...) You can buy the merchandise and not the fantasy.
    But if we can’t avoid the fantasy entirely, let’s be careful how much we let it influence us. Be aware of its presence, and let that awareness inform what we watch, read, listen to, and download when no one else but the Lord knows. And how we interact with what we still choose to consume. Let’s be sure that our attitudes and thoughts - even our secret ones - about the people around us honor their Creator, and them as parts of his good creation.
    Let’s make every effort to make sure that our marriages are places of delight and joy where we confront and discredit the fantasy head on. And let’s teach our children that there is an alternative to the fantasy that they will inevitably be exposed to. It’s just not possible to keep them from it forever. But we can and should encourage them to think about love, sexuality, romance, and appearance in ways that honor the Lord and his creation.
    Kylie chose to walk away from the fantasy. We can too.
    That’s no Secret.

Friday, February 10, 2012


...Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
-Ephesians 5:18-20 (NIV)

For many of us, our first experience of internet access at home was dial-up. Remember the shriek of the modem as dialed your access number? Remember waiting to connect? Remember disabling call waiting so it didn’t kick you off-line when someone called? Remember what happened when someone in the house picked up an extension while you were online? Remember, most of all, how sloooow dial-up internet access was?
    Most of us, at some point in the last few years, probably ditched dial-up internet for DSL or cable. No more modem shriek, no more having to choose between making a phone call and using the internet, no more long waits while music downloaded. Uploading photos and even video became easier. And there’s that always-on connection; with wi-fi, information is at our fingertips whether we’re at our desk, or sitting on the couch, or running on a treadmill. (My wife and I are forever reaching for a laptop or tablet to figure out who that is in the TV show we happen to be watching...)  
    Broadband internet has moved the video industry from brick-and-mortar stores to rentals downloaded at the click of a button. (Wonder what percentage of kids younger than ten have ever even been inside a Blockbuster?) Someone recently mentioned to me video chatting with their daughter, who’s out of state at college; that application hadn’t even occurred to me, but it’s been on my mind since then as a parent who’ll be sending a kid off to college in 5 years or so. That wouldn’t have been practical ten years ago, maybe even five years ago for most people. But now we talk about it as if it’s nothing.
    More than anything, broadband internet access has made information, communication, and entertainment immediate.
    It’s all in the size of the pipes, of course. Well, not literal pipes, but the term “broadband” refers to bandwidth, the “room” in a cable that the bits and bytes of a data stream have to flow from source to receiver. The more room - the higher the bandwidth - the more data can get through. It’s analogous to water in a pipe; the wider the pipe, the higher the water pressure.
    When Paul tells that church in the city of Ephesus to “be filled with the Spirit,” I think he’s talking about something similar to a broadband connection. It’s kind of a strange mandate, to be sure: “be filled.” Might as well tell an empty glass to be filled with water; unless someone, somewhere, is doing some pouring, it doesn’t matter what you say to that glass. It goes without saying, for Paul, that God is doing the pouring. That’s what the gospel is about, after all - God pouring out his Spirit through Jesus.
    The problem is that sometimes Christians, who ought to be spiritual (of the Spirit) people, allow ourselves to get too content with a relationship with the Holy Spirit that’s something like dial-up internet: there when we want it or feel the need for it, but not so much that it can become a real part of our lives. The Spirit is held at arm’s length, his influence limited to the times we set aside for him. There’s little transformation. Little power. No immediacy.
    Sometimes, truth be told, that’s the arrangement we prefer.
    Because the Spirit is disruptive if we allow him to “fill” us. If we open wide channels and expect him to pour into our lives, he does. He changes us: changes the way we do things, the way we think, the way we communicate, the way we live. There’s no arranging him to fit our lives; we’re forced to arrange our lives to fit him.
    That’s the way it’s supposed to be, of course. Paul tells the church in Rome that being in Christ means that they’re also living “in the realm of the Spirit.” He reminds the believers in Corinth that the Spirit is the presence of Jesus in their lives, transforming them into his image. Peter interprets the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, in terms of Old Testament expectations that God would at the end of the ages pour out his Spirit on all of his people. And all of that is to explain and interpret the promise of Jesus that he would not leave his people as “orphans,” but would send an Advocate who would teach them and would share Jesus’ glory with them.
    So it’s always been one of the promises of the gospel that through Jesus the Father would pour out the immediate, immanent, life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit. He will do the filling.
    It’s our job to “be filled.”
    That’s why prayer matters. That’s why hearing the word proclaimed or reading for ourselves makes a difference. That’s why the church needs to worship together, and why we need to serve those who don’t have the blessings we have, and why we need to give generously. That’s why we keep our hearts soft through repentance. Otherwise, our connection to the immediate, life-changing Spirit of God narrows down to a trickle instead of the rushing flood that God would have it be.
    Here’s a troubling tendency: whenever in history the church has gotten more complex, more hierarchical, more preoccupied with political power, affluence, and worldly success, we have lost our connection to the Holy Spirit. He becomes an absentee God to be invoked in the sacraments or debated in the academy, instead of the immediate, powerful, deluge that changes lives. But may we instead open our connections to the Holy Spirit wide and receive all that the Father would pour into our thirsty hearts and minds through Jesus. May we be always connected, and may his presence disrupt our lives in ways that make us shine with the glory of the Lord.
    May our connections be broadband, our pipes wide, our lives filled with the Spirit.

Friday, February 3, 2012


    You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
-1 John 4:4 (NIV)

You’d have to ask Anthony Miranda why he did what he did.
    Maybe things were bad, and he was desperate. Maybe the guy sitting in his car on the southwest side of Chicago that night looked like an easy target. Maybe Anthony was simply acting out a script that’s been imprinted on his heart through years of repetition and example when he walked up to the car and asked the guy for a light. And why he then pulled a gun and demanded the guy’s  valuables.
    Maybe none of those reasons suffice as explanation. You’d have to ask Anthony. What’s clear is that Anthony picked the wrong target.
    The guy in the car handed over his wallet, cash, and valuables. Maybe at that point, Anthony could have gotten away with it. Instead, he told the guy to get out of the car. As he did so, he grabbed for Anthony’s gun. As they struggled, Anthony squeezed off a round, hitting himself in the ankle. They went to the ground, and The Guy Formerly Known As The Guy In The Car got Anthony in a submission hold, where he held him until the police arrived.
    As he turned Anthony over to police, he mentioned that he competes in Ultimate Fighting Championships.
    If only Anthony had known. He was treated and released for his gunshot wound, and held in lieu of $350,000 bail.
    It’s fun when the bad guys get a little justice served to them, isn’t it?
    Life doesn’t always seem to work like that, though. A lot of times, when a victim reaches for a bad guy’s gun, it’s the victim who gets shot. Sometimes the victim doesn’t even have to fight back. Sometimes the victim isn’t the intended victim, and sometimes who the victim is doesn’t even matter to the victimizer.
    For that matter, no every injustice in the world requires a gun, or for the perpetrator to even be aware that there is collateral damage to his selfishness, violence, or entitlement. Sometimes those who are victims don’t know who’s victimizing them. Sometimes, the damage done to us is done by the person in the mirror. And sometimes the victimizer’s not even a person, but illness, want, sin, death.
    And we don’t win those battles. We don’t feel vindicated. We lay on the ground bleeding out, literally or figuratively, our hopes of justice, reparation, restoration fading as quickly as our lives. No way to resist, no one to save us, no one even to blame, sometimes, except ourselves.
    That’s the world in which we exist. It’s a tough one to live in, whether, in the words of Mark Knopfler, you’re at any given moment the Louisville Slugger or the ball, the windshield or the bug.
    In this world, you have to be wary of anyone who claims you can always win, always come out on top. Sometimes believers talk like that, spouting simplistic platitudes about joy and peace and victory and such. Sometimes we even say that the evil in our world isn’t real, that it’s all an illusion. Nobody buys it, maybe not even the people spouting it. It doesn’t take seriously the enormity of the pain, loss, and sorrow that human beings trying to exist in this world have to live and cope and die with.
    But when John reminds his readers that they have overcome the “spirits” who slander the Lord and threaten them, and the people who work with and for and by those spirits, the past tense isn’t accidental, or wishful, or naive. He’s not suggesting that the world isn’t as bad as all that, or that the pain and sorrow and sin human beings have to face on a daily basis isn’t real. It may sound like he’s repeating those tired old triumphalistic platitudes. He’s not, though. The world’s a rough place, and he knows it. He knows who’s in charge of it right now, knows where those spirits that stand against Christ come from. He knows that the human struggle against pain, grief, sickness, sin, and death is really a spiritual one, and that by ourselves we have no hope. We’ll live, and struggle, and die, and that will be that.
    Instead, he says, we have overcome. Not in avoiding all that pain. Not in escaping the suffering and aggression and evil of the world. Not in eluding in death. We have overcome, he says, because Jesus has suffered all those things. He’s lived through the worst the world could hand him, taken the same blows that we’ve taken. He even faced death. But he rose again, and shares his life with us through his Spirit. He’s defeated Satan, the one who rules this world. And he lives in us, who have put our trust in him and call him Lord.
    And so we live hopeful lives, because we believe in the one who is in us. We believe that people can be redeemed, that marriages can be saved, that relationships can be restored, because we believe that the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world. We believe that our own sins don’t tell the full story of who we are, that there’s forgiveness and grace and redemption, because we trust in the one who loves us enough to take up residence with us and transform us “with ever-increasing glory” into his image. We even have the courage to believe that the last words of our own funerals don’t end the story of our lives, because we believe that Jesus our Lord is greater than the temporary lord of this world.
    Never minimize suffering, sin, or death. Never pretend it doesn’t matter, or dismiss it - especially when what you should be doing is sharing in someone’s grief and pain. Jesus didn’t do that. He wept at his friend’s tomb, and he wept at Jerusalem’s impending catastrophe, and he was angered by sin and injustice and indignant enough about sickness that he cured it pretty often.
    But don’t imagine, either, that the struggle between God and Satan is anything like a fair fight, a conflict between equals. The one who is in us, God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, has already conquered the lord of this world. And all who belong to him share in that victory. Even if we don’t see it now, even if it’s sometimes hard to believe.
    UFC skills not required.