Friday, May 18, 2012

Understanding the Time

    And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime... [C]lothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ....
-Romans 13:11-14 (NIV)

Chicago is expecting guests this weekend. We’re hosting a NATO summit, and so we’re expecting several thousand dignitaries, including heads of state, government officials, and an international press corps.
    We’re also expecting an international corps of protesters calling attention to what they see as injustice and inequity, especially in the corporate world. With demonstrators expected to set up shop outside many of Chicago’s corporate offices, and fearing violent confrontations, some offices are encouraging their employees to stay home today and Monday. Others are suggesting that their workers dress casually on those days, and refrain from carrying bags with corporate logos on them, in order to help them “blend in” with the presumed protesters. Tenants in one Loop office building received a memo urging them to “look like a protester” when they arrive for work on the days of the Summit.
    “Blend in.” “Look like a protester.” Good advice, perhaps, in a situation where standing out might be uncomfortable. Shorts and a t-shirt aren’t proper dress for a traditional wedding, any more than a cocktail dress works for a beach party. Sometimes, not blending in might even make you a target.
    It’s all about understanding the times.
     Blending in is perhaps a good idea for a couple of days because, practically speaking, Tuesday will come and the NATO delegates and protesters alike will go home. Life will go back to normal, or what passes for it, and it will be business as usual. Deadlines. Meetings with clients and customers. You know - work stuff. And when life goes back to normal, well, you don’t want to look like a protester then. You want to be dressed for business.
   Sometimes understanding the time means that you have to choose to stand out. You know, for instance, that even if everyone else in your office building is wearing PJs to work, it’s still a bad idea. Pajamas are for bedtime. When the protesters are gone, not one bank in the Loop will want its employees wearing t-shirts, jeans, sandals, and Anonymous masks. At the the office, you have to dress for business. Whether anyone else is or not.
    It’s all about understanding the time.
    Sometimes the church forgets the importance of understanding the time. And when we do, we inevitably make bad fashion choices.
    When Paul told the church in Rome that their “salvation is nearer now than when we first believed,” he was reminding them of the time. “The night is nearly over,” he warned them. “The day is almost here.” He meant that Jesus was coming, that the world as they knew it, with all its values and priorities and rules for success, was winding down to its end. A new era was dawning, in which the kingdom of God would upset the current world order and put his creation right, bringing an end to injustice, evil, grief, and death. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had been the first act of that new era, the lightening of the skies before the sunrise. The sunrise, Paul wrote, was just over the horizon.
    That’s what time it is.
    And with the night ending, and the day coming - well, the smart thing to do is get out of bed, put aside the PJ’s, and get dressed for the day.
    There are things you wear when you’re asleep that aren’t appropriate for your waking hours. Things done in the darkness that wouldn’t be done in the light. To understand the time is to understand what not to wear, what’s not appropriate for people who know that daylight is just over the horizon, waiting to break. We have to “take off” whatever belongs to the night and the darkness, acts and attitudes that betray a connection to the current age. If the current age was the last word, if we were expecting nothing else, then some or all of those things might be appropriate. As things stand, though, those of us who know differently need a wardrobe change.
    That’s why it’s a failure when the church adopts too closely the values of the world in which it exists. It compromises our witness to a dawning new age, kind of as you’d look at a person who was warning of the coming day while wearing a nightshirt and slippers. It just lacks credibility.
    Of course, understanding the time isn’t just about knowing what to take off. (Imagine how that would work in the office....) It’s also about knowing what to put on.
    Or, in our case, who to put on..
    We’re to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” In a sense, we do this at baptism. But, like a lot of following Jesus, it’s left to us to make real through our actions what we do symbolically through our rituals. So when Paul tells the Roman Christians, and us, to put on Christ, he’s talking about the kind of people we should try to be. In short, we’re to be people who look like him, who imitate his actions, copy his attitude, live by his priorities. One of the reasons we choose the clothes we choose, of course, is to make some sort of statement about who we are and what we want others to know about us.
    In putting on Christ, then, we’re saying something about who we are. We belong to him, and our identity is now wrapped up in his. In putting on Christ, we’re saying something about what we want the people who know us to understand about us.
     Putting on Christ, of course, demands a price. It will require that we stand out in a world in which many people live by other codes and understand the time very differently. It will mean sometimes being in uncomfortable situations, and will sometimes even make us targets. But that shouldn’t surprise us, should it? After all, Jesus was a target himself.
    So if you go down to the Loop this weekend, you might want to blend in. You might want to look like a protester. But may we never blend in as we live in our world and walk among its people. May we understand the time - that a new era is coming, is just over the horizon - and may we strip off the acts, attitudes, and values that reflect the era that’s ending. And may we put on Jesus, so that those around can see by what we say and do that we belong to him and to the age to come.
    Now if I could just figure out what color shirt goes best with my hand-lettered “Tax the Rich” sign....

Friday, May 11, 2012

Who Would Jesus "Unfriend"?

    “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
-Luke 19:9-10 (NIV)

So President Obama in an interview this week came out in support of gay marriage. 

Maybe you heard.

    It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising, really. Surveys indicate that a slight majority of Americans now favor giving homosexual couples the right to marry, and the President is, after all,  campaigning for re-election. I know some believers are outraged by his position, and by his quoting of Scripture to partially explain how he came to it. Obviously, this is an issue that awakens strong emotions. You know the arguments; the debate has to do with whether the government has more responsibility to legislate for biblical morality or to ensure equal rights for its citizens under law. I imagine you have your convictions about that, as do I. I don’t think so highly of myself that I imagine I can change your mind. Besides, I don’t think the debate is quite as simple as it seems to be to some on both sides.

    It’s not always easy for me, as a believer, to know how to respond to things like this. That’s not because I don’t know the relevant Bible texts, by the way, or because I don’t believe them. I do, on both counts. The struggle I have has to do with the fact that living as a believer is always about more than reading text on a page. You might recall that Jesus was continually frustrated with religious folks who couldn’t seem to get their noses out of the Good Book long enough to know and care about real people. Remember Zacchaeus? The “good” people were outraged that Jesus would join him at his table, but it wasn’t until he took his seat there that “salvation came to [his] house.”
    I thought of Zacchaeus this week as I scanned my Facebook page in the aftermath of President Obama’s interview with Robin Roberts: lots of talk about “abominations”. Lots of concern for the sanctity of marriage. Lots of Christians with strong opinions not afraid to share them. But something else, too: a short post by a college acquaintance hurt by five of his “friends” - believers, apparently - who had “unfriended” him.  This acquaintance is living in a long-term relationship with another man, and I guess those five former “friends” somehow equated removing him from their lists of friends with making a biblical stand against homosexuality. It certainly didn’t seem to be in response to anything he posted. I can’t speak to what those five people were thinking, of course, or to what’s in their hearts. But I admit I flashed on those folks in Jericho, shaking their heads and clucking over Jesus going to be the guest of a “sinner.”
    Jesus, of course, discovered the “son of Abraham” underneath the sinner. The son of Abraham that no one else in town had apparently ever taken the time to discover.
    Of course, Zacchaeus wasn’t gay, either. He just ripped people off. For some of us, greed is easier to forgive than homosexuality.
    In his book unChristian, David Kinnamon of the Barna Research Group documents the results of a survey his group conducted in which Americans aged 16-29 were asked what word or phrase they most associated with Christianity. A staggering 91% said the word “anti-homosexual” was what first came to mind. Not “Bible”. Not “helping the poor”. Not “love”. Not even “Jesus”. More than nine out of every ten respondents in that age group said “anti-homosexual.”
    I think that at least partially has something to do with that group’s general lack of first-hand experience with the church, coupled with the media’s portrayal of ignorant, hateful, intolerant Christians. One thing that statistic might suggest is that, one way or another, the church is losing a generation. Whatever we may think about homosexuality, whatever the Bible may say about it, the Great Commission does not have to do with going into all the world and making our opposition to homosexuality known to all people. When the church is known by 9/10 of the next generation of Americans more by what we’re against than what we’re for, then I don’t think it’s too pessimistic to think that it might be more than just a public relations problem.
    You wonder if God isn’t about ready to start again with a new generation of people: people who might be able to see clearly enough to follow Jesus, people who really believe that salvation comes to human beings when he sits at their tables.
    People who remember that, for the most, he sits down at tables only when his church does. And if we can’t, or won’t, then how do we think people are supposed to get to know him?
    Of course the Bible has something to say about sexual morality. (Though, by the way, many believers find it harder to live by what the Bible says about sex than we like to admit.) It’s a morality that resists the easy availability of pornography and online affairs. It speaks against adultery, lust, and domestic violence, as well as homosexuality. It affirms sexuality within marriage. It proclaims that God has made us sexual creatures, and it also proclaims that we aren’t at the mercy of our urges, that there’s more to us than our sexuality. Most of all, it’s a morality that is firmly rooted in Jesus. It’s precisely because we’re the body of Christ that we value sexually sober and ethical lives. It’s because there is new creation in him that we’re able to say “no” to sexual immorality at all.
    To be known more for what we’re against than for being the presence of Jesus in the world is to let go of the power of the gospel. It’s to embrace a form of godliness, while denying its power.
    Jesus didn’t “unfriend” people when he saw them living in ways that their Creator didn’t intend. He didn’t walk away from them. He walked toward them, embraced them, called them away from isolation, invited himself to their homes, and brought salvation with him.
    How is it that doing the same sometimes seems so hard for us?
    People like my college acquaintance aren’t looking for us to approve of them or legitimize their existence. They’re looking for what anyone else is looking for: to be treated with respect, to find a place where they fit in, to love and be loved. They’re also looking for God, whether they know it or not, and in the gospel we have been given the good news that in Christ he’s been looking for them, too.
    Our work is not to shun them, or to shame them, or to fix them. It’s to sit at their table, proclaim that gospel in their hearing, live it in their sight.
    That’s what we should be known for.
    Because that’s what our Lord was known for.

Friday, May 4, 2012


He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you,  but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“ ‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’   
-Luke 8:10 (NIV)

If you’re having trouble thinking clearly, don’t worry. It’s probably just your faith getting in the way of your thinking.

    Or so suggests a study published last week the Journal of Science.
    The study, authored by University of British Columbia social psychologist Will Gervais, assumes a theory of human thinking in which the brain processes information using two systems. The first relies on mental shortcuts by using intuitive responses — gut instinct, if you will — to quickly arrive at a conclusion. The other employs reason to arrive at a conclusion. While both systems are useful and can run in parallel, analytic thinking,  when called upon, can override intuition. Since other studies suggest that religious beliefs are rooted in this intuitive processing, Gervais wondered if thinking analytically would undermine religious belief as it overrides intuitive thought?
    In short, Gervais sought to measure to what degree rational thought might undermine faith.
    His methodology would take more space than I have to describe. (This story describes it in some detail, if you’re interested.) It seems like a fairly comprehensive study, however. And the conclusion Gervais and his colleagues came to?
    Well, what they discovered was that people who tend to think more analytically score lower on questions like “In my life I feel the presence of the Divine” or “I just don’t understand religion.” Of course, you might rightly wonder how those people might have scored if the “faith” questions were worded a little more, well, analytically. Someone who’s a really analytic thinker, after all - even an analytic thinker with great faith - might not be all that eloquent in describing whether or not they can feel God’s presence.
    For his part, Gervais doesn’t seem inclined to say that analytic thinking and faith are incompatible; in fact, he says the study is intended to explore the cognitive origins of belief and disbelief with academic rigor. He wants, as he puts it, “to understand religion and why our species has the capacity for religion.”
    What strikes me, though, is that the whole study begs the question of what knowledge and understanding really are.
    Most of us have been heavily influenced by Enlightenment and modernist definitions of knowledge. Knowledge is information: information uncovered, tested rigorously in a lab, and applied practically. Knowledge involves analytical thinking, which is to be strictly held in opposition to intuition. Certain knowledge involves repeatable, observable results in a lab, which is why the presence of the God Particle is considered science and the presence of the Holy Spirit is not, despite there being roughly the same number of sightings of each on record.
    Jesus, of course, didn’t enjoy the benefits of living in a post-Enlightenment world. Maybe that’s why he spoke of knowledge in way more similar to how we’d speak of revelation: as something that can be given by God, and that can’t be had for the price of exploration or study or experimentation or even deep analytic thinking. This kind of knowledge comes as a gift of God, maybe at the level of what we’d call intuition these days.
    Paul goes so far as to say, in the words of Isaiah, that the Holy Spirit reveals things to believers that “no eye has seen... no ear has human mind has conceived”  — the things God has prepared for those who love him. He goes on to say:
“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’
    “But we have the mind of Christ.”
    None of this is to minimize or dismiss what we call knowledge today. The scientific method has given us many blessings. The stakes of medicine, manufacturing, food production, and such for our world are too high to depend on unverified research and gut feelings. Education is a positive thing, and believers have nothing to fear from becoming educated people. (Though academics and academic institutions should never be allowed to create a hegemony of the educated over the uneducated.) The Bible, in affirming a knowledge from God, given by him, about him and his world and his kingdom, isn’t resisting what we call “science.” It’s just pointing out that results that are repeatable and observable in a lab don’t necessarily comprise the sum total of what we human beings need to know. And that the kind of knowledge that is valued by our world can even become destructive when it isn’t held in conjunction with - and even placed under judgment by - the kind of knowledge God gives us through his Spirit, in response to faith.
    So if this comes across as anti-education, or hostile toward science, then I haven’t communicated what I intended to communicate at all. Historically, of course, the church has gotten in the way of  much of the work of science. But it’s also true that much of the work of science in history has been done by people of faith, seeking to fill in the gaps of the knowledge that God hasn’t revealed to us about his world. They didn’t view science and faith as incompatible, or fundamentally at odds, but as two sides of the way God reveals himself to us.
    So as we seek to know, to understand, to learn, through science and through the work of other human beings, let’s don’t neglect to seek the knowledge that God wants to give us. His lab is this world, his experiments the events of our lives, his catalyst the Holy Spirit. While we use the rational minds that our Creator has blessed us with, let’s be sure not to allow our spiritual minds to atrophy through disuse. In Christ, we are new people, being “renewed in knowledge in the image of our Creator.” And so we should live like the new people we are, as the knowledge God gives in Christ reshapes us, redeems us, and renews us.
    In short, maybe we need to be less worried about our faith undermining our ability to think rationally.
    Maybe the deeper concern is that our irrational belief that rational thinking is the only path to knowledge will undermine our faith, render us unable to see or hear what God would show us and tell us through Jesus. And so leave us poorer, with less understanding.