Friday, March 23, 2012

Middle Age, Youth, and God

    In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
    Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.
-Daniel 1:1-4 (NIV)

Something happened to me. Something inexplicable, unexpected, unbelievable.
    Oh, in hindsight, I should have expected it. It’s certainly happened to other people. I guess I didn’t really think that it couldn’t happen to me; I just never really thought that much about the fact that it might. That it could. That it would.
    What happened is that I hit middle age.
    Of course, no one really knows what their middle age is until, well, until knowing doesn’t do you any good. But based on average life span and such, I’m in what most everyone acknowledges as middle age. I don’t feel all that different most of the time. But, at three months shy of 44, I’m there.  I’m officially middle-aged.
    And along with some gray hairs, a need for reading glasses, and the fact that cheeseburgers stick with me longer than they used to, something else has happened to me at this point in my life.
    I don’t relate to younger people like I used to.
    I find myself now mentally shaking my head and saying things like, “They’ll understand one day,” as I’m sure people did with me twenty or thirty years ago. I find myself a little shorter on youthful idealism than I used to be. I can officially say that I just don’t get most pop music. Uggs just look like they’d make your feet sweat.
    I’m really starting to realize that I just don’t see the world in exactly the same way as someone who’s half my age does. There are things that I assume, and they don’t. And vice-versa. Some of that has to do with living longer, and going through different experiences in life. (I heard someone once say that a liberal is a conservative who hasn’t had to pay for college...) Some of it has to do with the fact that the world in which I grew up and the world in which younger adults have grown up are very different places. It’s not necessarily that I’m wrong, or they’re wrong. It’s just likely that there are some things we’ll never see alike.
    But even given those differences, I’m not willing to say that the future isn’t in good hands.
    I’ve had the privilege this week of being with a group of 16 college men and women from the campus ministry at Southern Arkansas University who came to Chicago instead of Cancun for Spring Break. They came here to feed the hungry, serve the poor, visit the lonely, and instruct and encourage the church. We had some interesting conversations over the course of the week, and discovered that there were some things we saw differently. But we also bonded together over what we have in common: Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, a Father who calls us his children. How could I fear for the future seeing how these young men and women cared so passionately for the people who are especially close to God’s heart? How could I doubt that he will use them hearing them singing praise to him while they packed potatoes for hungry families?
    I don’t always understand younger people, and yet the teenagers at my church sit still and listen respectfully while I help teach their Sunday morning Bible class. They’re willing to look past the fact that I’m old (to them) and out of touch. And more than sit and listen respectfully, they make insightful comments and ask good questions that show they’re really trying to engage with the word of God and take it seriously. Sometimes they even hang out with me when they don’t have to, and they pray for each other, and for me. And they, too, care about hurting people and want to figure out how to bless them and offer them the hope of the gospel. Often, they teach me more than I teach them. How can I doubt that the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives? How can I doubt that God has big plans for them?
    How could I fear for the future when I know young adults like the ones who are part of my church? When they share with me their ideas and passions for what the church could be and should be, when I see in their lives and hear in their voices how much they truly want to follow the Lord and be his people in more than name? When I see how they serve and care and pray and worship, I have to be optimistic about what their role in the kingdom of God will be in the next few decades.
     Don’t you know that there must have been lots of people in Israel during Daniel’s time who were pessimistic about the future? Conquered by a foreign king, the temple destroyed, the people uprooted from the promised land - how would they survive as God’s people? How would they, in the words of the Psalm, “sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land”? And don’t you imagine that they must have been horrified to hear about good Israelite boys learning the Babylonian language and culture to serve the very king who had destroyed them?
    What the future showed, however, is that Daniel and his friends were just figuring out how to be God’s people in a changing world, in shifting circumstances. As it turned out, they didn’t give up anything of consequence. They were still pious enough to call an idol an idol, even if they used Babylonian words to do so. They were still God’s people, and God used them to proclaim his name to a foreign king.
    What should we take away from Daniel’s story? How about this: To doubt the future generation is to doubt God.
    Who cares if they don’t see things exactly the way we do? I’m not sure my generation has exactly proven itself to be infallible. Who cares if we don’t understand how God will use them? It’s enough to say with faith that he will, and to trust in him enough to work with them in building the future of the church and the world. Or, failing that, to trust him enough to get out of their way.
    I’m optimistic about the future - of the church and of the world - because I see what God is doing among teenagers and young adults right now.
    So maybe, as it happens, I’m not quite over the hill yet.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Living Alone

“It is not good for the man to be alone.”
-Genesis 2:18 (NIV)

    When I was a teenager, it wasn’t uncommon to see some friends and I in a parking lot on a warm Friday night. We’d park our cars in a clump, and whoever had the best sound system would open his doors and turn it up as loud as the cops would allow. Then we’d sit around, talking, joking, and listening to music.
    I don’t see that much anymore. Maybe it’s just the difference between Chicago, where I live now, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I lived then. Now, I see individual teenagers listening to music on iPods or phones. Sharing music, if it’s done at all, seems to happen on Facebook. Like lots of things that used to require a gathering, a community.      
    Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, has recently published a book called Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. As the title suggests, the book examines the trend of adults living alone - a trend that Dr. Klinenberg’s research suggests has been steadily growing over the last 50-60 years.
    Dr. Klinenberg points out that “no society has ever sustained large numbers of people living alone for long periods of time,” but that in the 1950’s and 1960’s that trend in “developed” societies in the world began to change. “Living alone ha[s] become incredibly common,” he says, “and...people do it wherever and whenever they can afford to.” He calls living alone “a luxury,” because of its relative expense, “although we don’t normally think of it that way.”
    The book distinguishes between four categories of “singletons”: young people who have delayed marriage, adults 35-65 who generally have been married and are now divorced, separated, or widowed, poor and often ill men living in SRO’s, and those who are aging alone. The interesting thing in the research is that three of these four groups generally try to “make living alone a very social experience.” Dr. Klinenberg says that his study suggests that those who live alone “are more social than people who are married,” in that they spend more time with friends and neighbors. Strikingly, many of the people in Dr. Klinenberg’s study expressed a clear preference for living alone.
    One of the important themes that the book keeps coming back to is the difference between being alone and being lonely. People who live alone, he suggests, generally find ways to create social opportunities, and surround themselves with other “singletons” who are looking for the same opportunities. Those who have been married and divorced often say that they felt lonelier in their unhappy marriages than they do living alone.
    I find this interesting because the church, at least in its modern, Western incarnation, has seemed to emphasize families. Our programming, from wedding and baby showers, marriage, and marriage counseling to Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and youth groups for teenagers has assumed that our pews would be full of traditional families. We don’t tend to program, budget, or spend for ministry to those in different situations, such as those in Dr. Klinenberg’s book. But if his book is a true reflection of a change in societal trends, then it might be that a significant number of folks in our communities and neighborhoods might have a hard time seeing what the gospel says to them.
    Interestingly, Jesus recognizes that some people might be called to a life of singleness. Paul seems to even favor that lifestyle, because it leaves a person free of marital and parental obligations that might limit his service of the Lord. Ironic, then, that in the church we sometimes treat singleness as less-than-ideal, a condition to be tolerated until an appropriate mate can be found. Some folks in our pews are perfectly content to be single, and we should affirm that choice and help them to find the life and work that God is calling them to.
    Some of the single folks we go to church with aren’t content, however. They not only live alone - they’re lonely. We need to recall that the Psalmist describes God as one who “puts the lonely in families” and “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” God cares deeply about those who are lonely, who come to church on Sundays and who go back home wondering if anyone noticed or cared. Lonely people don’t always say that they’re lonely. In fact, they often won’t. They’ll live with it, carry it around with them, and sooner or later stop even trying to reach out. They’ll fear dying alone, but often won’t voice that fear. They need family. They need the Father who places the lonely in families, the Son who sees a sister or a brother in the face of anyone who obeys God.
    Sometimes, though, God wants to place the lonely in specific families. Of course, the church is a family. But it’s hard to share a meal or a trip or a ball game with the whole church. Sometimes, God wants to use your family or my family as a surrogate for someone who’s lonely. And so we have to be open to that possibility, through offered dinner invitations and invitations to our kids’ games and plays and just hanging out. If you know someone who’s lonely, or maybe even just alone, be open to the possibility that God might want to use your family to do his work of providing a place for that person to belong.
    The fact is, though, that it might be surprising to us who is lonely. Dr. Klinenberg’s study suggests that loneliness may be both a much wider and more hidden problem than we suspect. If all people who are alone are not lonely, then it also stands to reason that all lonely people are not alone. People in troubled relationships might be lonely. Teens in dysfunctional families. Single parents with few adult relationships. Older people caring for sick spouses. Unemployed people. Even people who work too hard for too long. Loneliness comes in many forms.
    I’ve had recent conversations with church leaders, ministers and elders, in which the subject of loneliness has come up. If living on your own doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, then neither does being surrounded by people mean that you’re not.
    It takes knowing people to discover where loneliness lurks. Being willing to share life with them, listen to them when they talk. Being sensitive enough to pick up the hints that folks are feeling forgotten, overlooked, and directionless.
    The Holy Spirit will help us in this work, because it’s God’s work. He knows that it’s never been good for people to face life with no one at our sides, no one to have our backs. Even in paradise, human beings needed other human beings to make God’s love real, experiential, concrete. He places the lonely in families.
    And we don’t even have to sit in a parking lot all night.

Friday, March 9, 2012

As He Is

    Dear friends,  now we are children of God,  and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him,  for we shall see him as he is.
-1 John 3:2 (NIV)

So I’ve been reading about a movement called King’s Way, an informal group of Christian and Muslim leaders who are working for reconciliation between their faiths. The movement takes several different forms. One church has invited the members of a nearby mosque to Christmas dinner, and celebrated with the members of the mosque at the end of Ramadan. It’s also taken the form of a soccer game between leaders of the two faiths on one team and teens on the other.
    Recently, the movement has taken the form of a theological document that highlights the similarities between Christianity and Islam. One premise in the document, in particular, has gotten a lot of press recently, particularly from conservative Christians: that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
    Now, I think that statement probably glosses over some significant differences between Christianity and Islam. I think statements like that are often used to undermine the claims of exclusivity that Christianity makes about Jesus, for instance, or that Islam makes about Muhammad. It’s easy, of course, to make claims like “all religions teach basically the same things” or “all religions really worship the same God” - as long as you don’t care to delve too deeply into the actual differences in those religions. (And many of the folks who make such pronouncements don’t much care to discuss any religion in any depth at all.) As a Christian, for instance, I differ from a Muslim in that I believe that we know and come to God through Jesus Christ. That Muslim would insist that God can only be known through Muhammad’s revelation in the Qur’an. For believers of either faith, the fact that Christianity and Islam value similar moral and ethical behaviors has to be secondary to the way each faith finds knowledge of God.  
    But the whole argument has me thinking about the way we talk about God - particularly Christians who claim to find our authority in the Bible alone. “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” says one Bible-believing church leader. And he’s immediately answered, with equal certainty, by another Bible-believing church leader who’s just sure that such a statement is an out-and-out repudiation of Jesus, the Bible, and picnics on the grounds.
    Such certainty, on the part of the creature, about our Creator.
    Here’s the thing, though; a lot of our fathers in the faith have been decidedly uncertain about God.
    Job thought he knew who God was and how he worked, until in his pain and suffering he was forced to come to terms with how limited his understanding really was. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you,” he said. “Therefore I despise myself and repent  in dust and ashes.”
    Doesn’t exactly sound like a man who’s had his easy theology confirmed, does it?
    Moses wanted to see God, and God told him no. He told Moses he’d show him something of himself - his goodness, his mercy, his compassion. He’d tell Moses his name, and he’d even let Moses get a glimpse of the contrail of his glory as he passed by. But Moses couldn’t see his face.
    Abraham instinctively equated at least one foreign god with Yahweh. Jonah apparently thought God only had jurisdiction inside the Promised Land. Saul just knew that the God revealed in the Old Testament would want him to wipe out the Christian heretics, until he had his sight taken and his eyes opened on the road to Damascus.  
    We come from a long line of folks who were just sure that God was this or that, or wasn’t this or that - and were shown to be completely wrong. Or just incapable of grasping the whole truth.
    When did certainty about God - that our understanding of him is beyond revision and that we speak for him unequivocally - become a Christian virtue?
    I know, you think I’m a heretic. I’m really not, I promise. I believe that Jesus is the one through whom we must come to God, and that through him God has uniquely chosen to reveal himself here in “the last days.” I believe that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and true, and reveals God to us as no other holy text does. I don’t believe that a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever can come to God through the alternative to Jesus of their choice, and I don’t think I witness to my faith properly by saying otherwise.
    I don’t doubt that God has revealed himself uniquely through the Old and New Testaments, and even more uniquely by Jesus.
    What I do doubt is that I’m any more likely to understand that revelation completely and correctly than did Moses, or Abraham, or Jonah, or Saul.
    That’s what bothers me about the whole “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” debate. It rests on the faulty premise that the understanding of God that I have is perfectly consistent and congruent with God’s revelation of himself in Scripture and in Jesus. After 43 years of Sunday School, and nearly 20 years of preaching every Sunday, I can truthfully say I know much less about God now than I thought I knew back when I started.
    Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Well that depends on what we’re thinking about God at a given time. doesn’t it? If we’re thinking about the stories of Abraham and Ishmael that are important in both the Old Testament and the Qur’an, then we might be inclined to say yes. If we’re thinking about the person of Jesus, and his being “in very nature God,” then we’d have to say no.
    Too uncertain for you? Well, here’s what I do feel pretty sure about. There’s only one God, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest to imagine that Muslims might worship him as Allah. In fact, I hope that they do, because I believe that one God who made the heavens and the earth should receive praise and glory and worship from every human being.
    And I believe that God wants us all to know him and come to him, and to that end he has revealed himself uniquely through the Old and New Testaments, and especially through Jesus. If Muslims, or anyone else, are to worship him in spirit and in truth they must do so through faith in Jesus, the One he has sent. Only in him, and in him alone, can any of us hope to find forgiveness, hope, and life.
    I don’t pretend to understand that God completely. I never will this side of Heaven, if even then. I get him wrong with distressing regularity, in fact. But in Jesus, he has come to me on my terms. He offers himself to me through his Spirit. And as I learn to live more by the Spirit, and less under my own steam, I learn to know him a little more and a little better. Not perfectly. Not yet. But a little better.
    That’ll do, until one day, when he returns, I see him as he really is.

Friday, March 2, 2012


For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.
Romans 12:3-6 (NIV)

I’ve been thinking of Bezalel and Oholiab this week. I’m sure you have too.
    Oh, excuse me? What? Am I to understand that you not only have not been thinking this week of Bezalel and Oholiab, but that you have never in any given week of your life ever given Bezalel and Oholiab a single thought?
    I’m shocked.
    OK, I suppose Bezalel and Oholiab are not right up there with Abraham and Moses and Samson as the best-known Sunday School characters of all time. Still, I’ve been thinking about them all week because without them, one of the best-known events in the Bible would never have happened. No, they didn’t find Moses’ staff so that he could part the Red Sea. No, they aren’t two of the Wise Men who came to honor the baby Jesus. Daniel had three friends who were willing to go to the furnace rather than bow down to a false god, not two. And no, they weren’t two of those other apostles whose names you can never remember. They didn’t write books of the Bible, nor are any named after them. To be honest, when I first thought of them this week I actually thought of “those two guys who….”. I didn’t remember their names either, until I tracked them down. All the same, they were important. And it’s their importance, and the reason for it, that has me thinking of them this week.
    You can read about Bezalel and Oholiab, if you’re so inclined, in Exodus 35-39. As far as I can tell, they were just regular guys who happened to be good with their hands. They knew their way around a tool box; they were the kind of guys who would have disappeared for days in a Home Depot. The Bible says that God had filled them with his Spirit and “with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills.” (Exodus 35:31) So they were “spiritual” guys – but not occupants of ivory towers. Their spirituality had little to do with pondering deep mysteries or developing complex theologies. But if you had a door that wouldn’t close right, or needed your back porch rebuilt – well, they were the guys to call. To watch them use their God-given skill was, well, almost a religious experience.
    So God chooses Bezalel and Oholiab, naturally enough, for an important job. God wanted to have a physical place among his people, a place to which they could look and have a visual reminder that he was with them. But his people were wandering, living in tents and breaking camp every few days or weeks or months. So this physical place had to be portable. God needed a tent, a tabernacle. And Bezalel and Oholiab were the guys to build it.
    Everything had to be made from scratch, of course. And this tent needed to be elaborate – not for God, but for the people who worshipped him. It needed to be a royal tent, like a king would live in on a battlefield. It needed to be extravagant and complex enough that there would have to be some thought put into creating it, putting it up, and taking it down and moving it. So God called Bezalel and Oholiab, and they got together all the other “skilled people to whom the LORD had given ability and who [were] willing to come and do the work,” and they wove the fabric and worked the stone and metal and did the carpentry for the tabernacle, all its furnishings, and the clothing for the priests. In the end, Moses inspected all their work, saw it was just as God wanted, and blessed them.
    Isn’t it interesting? You never think Bezalel and Oholiab when you think of the tabernacle. But it was the skill and craftsmanship God gave them that got the work done.
    I’m thinking of them because this past week I’ve watched someone create beautiful woodwork in our church’s worship area. I’ve watched others unload and organize a truck full of food that will go to hungry people this weekend. I’ve been in contact with someone who’s using his musical ability to arrange a song for worship on Sunday. I’ve been in touch with someone else who’s organizing those who’ll lead us in worship this month, and someone else who’s organizing meals for a college Spring Break group that will be with us in a couple of weeks.
    No doubt a lot of the people at our church wouldn’t give much of that a second thought. They’ll show up, worship God, and go home energized and encouraged. Or they’ll receive food in our pantry, or enjoy a meal in the middle of a busy week. They’ll go to the tabernacle, so to speak, and meet with God. And that’s as it should be. No tabernacle should draw attention to itself.
    But as much as anyone who leads a song or preaches, those folks have gifts from God. They are filled with the Spirit, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills. And when we notice the work people like that do, we should pause long enough to bless them.
    “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” The church is God’s newest version of his people, wandering in the desert. We have a tabernacle to raise, a reminder of his presence among us and of our responsibility to keep him at the center of our lives. But it’s only as we use the gifts he gives us that the tabernacle gets built.
    How are you doing? What’s your part, what can you contribute to the tabernacle your church is raising in your town? He has given you skill and ability, of one kind or another. The only question is whether or not you’re “willing to come and do the work.” Are you doing your part, conscious that what God has given you isn’t just for your own benefit and amusement? Your gifts, your knowledge, your wisdom, your skill, can help create a place where others can come into the presence of God. He will approve, and you will be blessed.
    Even if people don’t think to notice.