Friday, October 26, 2012

In God We Trust

    But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
-Philippians 3:20-21 (NIV)

In an email forwarded to me this week, I learned about the federal government’s plan to release new dollar coins with a pretty drastic change. Nowhere on the coins, neither obverse or reverse, would the official motto of the United States, “In God We Trust,” appear.
    The email warned that this was “another way of phasing God out of America,” and encouraged believers to refuse the new dollar coins at banks, stores, post offices, or what have you, in order to send a message and force the coins out of circulation.
    I was surprised that a change like this would be made, and surprised that I hadn’t heard about it, so I did a little poking around out in the interwebs. I discovered that the email was correct about a drastic change in the design of our dollar coins, just mistaken about what that change was.
    First, the “new” coins the email described were the Presidential coins that started going into circulation, four new ones each year, in 2007.
    Second, “In God We Trust” doesn’t appear on the obverse or the reverse of the “new” dollar coins.
    It’s on the edge.
    Apparently, in order to make room for “larger and more dramatic” artwork, “E PLURIBUS UNUM” the coin’s mint mark, and the official motto of the United States have been moved off to the edge. Clearly, it’s less obvious, hence the mistaken idea that the motto was left off. But it’s still there. Money in America - where the consumer-driven American Dream of material prosperity rules - still proclaims that we trust in God.
    So, you know, not to worry. We’re still a Christian nation. We must be - our money says we are.
    As my cousin Tom - one of the wisest people I know - pointed out, Jesus had something to say about coins and what’s inscribed on them. He said something like “Let Caesar have his money - and make sure God gets the things that belong to  him, too.” For Jesus, the image of Caesar stamped on the coins of his day said all a believer needed to know about what kingdom those coins belonged to.
    With typical American ingenuity, we’ve stamped God’s name onto our currency. And then offered to hold on to it for him.
    Next on the agenda: getting a camel through the eye of a needle.
    Of course, it’s not so much the slogan itself. “In God We Trust” has become a shibboleth, a secret password that lets us stamp God’s name on our politics and demonize the politics of the other side. “In God We Trust,” along with the Ten Commandments and prayer in schools and the definition of marriage and even how we treat immigrants, are markers. They’re ways of keeping track of the political capital Christians have. Hold on to that capital, that influence, and we hold on to our way of life. We mean our religion when we say that, but more than that we mean our mainstream status, our control over jobs and wealth and government; we mean our state religion. We want our money to say “In God We Trust,” but isn’t that really because what we really trust in is our ability to keep people from taking away the things we have convinced ourselves are ours by divine right?
    Ironically, though, that slogan, if it’s to ever be more than just a slogan for us, ever to be more than just words stamped on metal or paper, should make us suspicious of government - whatever government, of whatever party. No party platform is wide enough or sturdy enough to support the demands of the gospel, and the right answers to a few hot-button issues won’t change that. Those issues become slogans, too, shibboleths that signify whether you’re on God’s side of the political battles.
    But if we mean that slogan, “In God We Trust,” then we ought to hold ourselves to it. Maybe we should take his name off our money, if only to remind ourselves that money, and many of the other things in our lives that we lean on and depend on, can so easily become rival gods. Stamping the motto on our money doesn’t mean that we trust God more. It just lets us more easily convince ourselves that we do.
    Believers pray these words sometimes: “Your kingdom come / your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” We’ve sometimes mistakenly thought that prayer has already been answered in the coming of the Holy Spirit, or the Bible, or the church, or one political philosophy or the other. But it’s dangerous to think that. It’s dangerous because it makes us forget about the good portion of the world - and our own lives - in which God’s will is most certainly not done, in which things on Earth are definitively not as they are in Heaven. It’s dangerous because it makes us too willing to accept the oppression of the powerless by the powerful, or too willing to spend our money and resources as though there aren’t children starving in our own city, or too willing to ignore the ethical and moral demands the gospel makes on us.  
    As long as the money we hoard assures us that we trust in God, maybe it’s too easy to believe.
    Maybe...maybe it would be better if we did strip “In God We Trust” off our currency, better if you could swing a bald eagle in a government building without hitting something had that slogan carved, stamped, inscribed, or otherwise emblazoned across it. Maybe it would help us to remember that we’re citizens of God’s kingdom - and (with apologies to my son’s English Lit teacher) that this ain’t it. Maybe it would help us to keep our identities straight if believers were a little less mainstream, a little more marginalized, if following Jesus meant that we had to meet him “outside the city gates” every now and again, and bear the shame he bore.
    Maybe then “In God We Trust” would really be a way of life, and not just a marker of how much political power believers in American exercise.
    Oh. In 2009, the design of the Presidential dollar coin was changed once again, this time to incorporate “In God We Trust,” to the obverse of the coin, under the President’s image. So things are back to normal.
        Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

Friday, October 19, 2012


He said: “Son of man, I am sending a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.  
    “Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’  And whether they listen or fail to listen —for they are a rebellious people —they will know that a prophet has been among them....”  
-Ezekiel 2:3-5 (NIV)

    Two friends of mine, who live in Chicago for no reason other than to try to bring people to Jesus by serving the people around them in love and testifying to their faith, are wondering about their work. Has it been fruitful, despite measurable conversion being scant? Are the many, many people who have been touched by their kindness, the many new friends they’ve made in a city that isolates with its crowdedness and busyness and toughness, enough for them? Enough for the people who help support them? Enough for the Lord? Is it sufficient that they are telling the story of Jesus while living the way he did - sharing real life with the lost and hurting people around them?
    About the same time, public school teachers in Chicago have been on strike. One of the sticking points in the contract negotiations is how teachers are to be evaluated? Should they be evaluated on their students’ test scores - and if so, how much - when so much of what influences those scores is out of their hands? When some of their students come to school from homes that are dysfunctional, when some spent a fitful night before the test with empty stomachs growling in anticipation of the school breakfast they’ll get the next day, when some were awakened by fighting or gunfire, when some will run home through dangerous neighborhoods that afternoon - when so much is out of the teacher’s control, how much of his or her evaluation should ride on those standardized test scores? But, if not that, then how should teachers be evaluated?
    The same question lies behind both of those situations, doesn’t it? How is success to be measured?
    Chances are you bump up against the question at your own work. You have a job description, probably. Goals. Incentives. Hours to bill, sales to make, quotas to produce, patients to treat, projects to complete, deadlines to meet. And you have a boss, to whom you have to answer for your success or failure.
    It’s the question of the election season: has the guy in office been successful? Will the guy who’s challenging him? And whose definition of success is the more authentic?
    We ask it here every time the Bears play. Win or lose? Success or failure? And who gets the blame or credit?
    We even ask it of ourselves as parents, don’t we? How successful have we been, and how much blame do we shoulder for our childrens’ failures?
    It seems like success and failure, and how you know, has come up a lot for me recently. I’ve talked about it with friends who are leaders in other churches, and I’ve talked about it with members and leaders of my own church. How do we define words like success in a “church” context? Is it sheer numbers? A particular stance on particular biblical texts? Is it attracting a particular demographic? Stirring sermons? Exciting music? Is a young, growing church successful while an older, more stagnant church a failure? And who says so?
     God told Ezekiel what success would look like for him: “No one will listen to you, but they’ll know that they’ve had a prophet living among them.” Not a real encouraging way to send Ezekiel off, but it made his standard for success clear. Be a prophet. Speak the message God gives you. People will have to take responsibility for themselves as to whether or not they’ve listened. As another Jewish prophet put it a few centuries later: small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
    Similarly, Jesus pulled no punches with his disciples. “If they hated me, they’ll hate you,” he promised, shortly before “they” showed just how much they hated him by hanging him on a cross.  It stands to reason: where Jesus fell short of the world’s success metrics, those who sound and live like him will too. Success for a disciple of Jesus might not involve being well-liked, appreciated, acclaimed, or even understood. Success might simply be following him faithfully, doing what he did, saying what he said, loving who he loved, hating what he hated, and proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom he proclaimed.
    For believers, success - at whatever we try to do - has a different definition. That’s not to give us biblical cover for laziness, or selfishness, or irresponsibility, or misconduct. The Bible does certainly seem to say that, to one degree or another, God will grant success to those who love him. Still, we may have to alter our understanding of success. If it’s always about financial reward, or peer respect, or numbers, or test scores, or even baptisms, then it doesn’t much look like the way God defines success.
    Given the world’s definition of success, then, our calling is to be faithful and not successful. If failure is speaking God’s word so that the people in our lives will know that a prophet has been among them, then may we fail. Spectacularly. If failure is being so like Jesus that we infuriate those in our world who are threatened by the kingdom of God, then may we fail. If failure is being made vulnerable to abuse and insult and scorn by our love for the people around us, then may we fail.
    Maybe Paul gives us the most workable definition of success in the Bible: “Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance.” That applies to everything we do - we’re to do our best, from our hearts. But it also reminds us that the final evaluation of our success or failure belongs to God, not to those with whose evaluations we’re often more concerned.
    Ultimately, of course, the One we most have to please is the one who became a curse for us so that we could receive God’s promises. He isn’t a harsh taskmaster. Even when we’re unsuccessful - because of our own failure and frailty - at being his people, he gives us success. He overlooks our failures, forgives our sins, and strengthens us for what’s to come.
    In him, how can we fail?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Wheat and Baseball

     Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
-John 12:23-26 (NIV)

After Miami Marlins pinch-hitter Adam Greenberg struck out on three pitches in the seventh inning against Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey ten days ago, the crowd of over 29,000 Marlins fans gave him a standing ovation.
    Every one of his teammates high-fived him as he came back to the dugout.
    Manager Ozzie Guillen reminded him that Dickey struck out over 220 hitters this year.
    Even Greenberg himself said, “It was could just feel the genuine support. It was awesome.”
    Normally, of course, striking out on three pitches is nothing for a baseball player at any level to celebrate, not matter how overpowering the pitcher. There are few ways to fail more spectacularly on a baseball diamond, in fact. But nothing was normal about Adam Greenberg’s at-bat, because nothing has been normal about his career - from his very first major-league at-bat.
    His first, and, until ten days ago, his last.
    In 2005, Adam Greenberg was an up-and-coming prospect with the Cubs. On July 9th of that year, he got his first plate appearance in the majors - against the Marlins (then called the Florida Marlins). The pitcher, Valerio de los Santos, hit Greenberg in the head with the very first pitch the young player had seen at the major league level. The crack echoed around the stadium, quieting the crowd. Greenberg’s helmet flew off and he went down, his arms wrapped around his head because, as he put it, “I felt like my head was coming apart.” His head started to swell immediately. His eyes rolled uncontrollably. He was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion.
    “Severe” doesn’t cover it. For years, Adam suffered from positional vertigo. He would roll over in bed, and his eyes would roll uncontrollably. He would bend over to tie his shoes and lose his balance. He had headaches for hours on end. He went on playing baseball for parts of four seasons at different levels, but never back in the major leagues.
    Not until this season, when Adam signed a one-day contract with the Marlins worth $2,623.
    The money will be donated to the Sports Legacy Institute for research into brain trauma in athletes.
    In the movies, of course, Adam would hit a game-winning home run, maybe in the World Series, in his return to the plate. That’s what success looks like in Hollywood. But, in real life, sometimes success looks a little different. And sometimes, you have to be willing to change your own definition of success.
    “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus once said, and then immediately began talking about kernels of wheat dropping to the ground and dying in order to produce “many seeds.” There seems to be a disconnect, doesn’t there? Little is less glorious than kernels of wheat dropping to the ground and dying.
    Well, there is crucifixion.
    Incredibly, Jesus saw his own painful, shameful end as glorification. While his friends and enemies alike could be forgiven for seeing his broken, bleeding body hanging on a cross as the worst kind of failure possible, the end of everything he had proclaimed and promised, the abortion of the kingdom he dared claim to inaugurate in the world, he knew differently. Though his “soul [was] troubled,” he knew that “it was for this very reason [he] came to this hour,” and that his Father would be glorified through what he would accomplish through the death of his Son.
    He knew that God turns abject failure into unqualified success.
    That’s why, through his tears and prayers in Gethsemane, he could still pray “your will be done.” That’s why he could envision seeing his friends again, and the unstoppable world-changing force they would become. That’s why he could imagine gathering with them around the table in the kingdom of God.
    That’s why knew that he wouldn’t occupy Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb long enough to be an inconvenience.
    And we’re all right on board with that, aren’t we? We’re thankful for his resurrection, and for the forgiveness of sins and promise of life that we have because of it. We understand why his death wasn’t a failure, why even though it cuts against and calls into judgment what the rest of the world calls “success”, it was in the end a victory. We know what God did with that cross and that tomb.
    Rightly, we worship because of it.
   And we might miss something pretty important.     
   “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”
    That little parable about the kernel of wheat wasn’t just Jesus making himself feel better about what he was to suffer. That was for us, for those of us who wear his name. It’s a reminder that the life Jesus lived is to be a model for our own, right down to the giving up of our own lives, right down to giving up on the world’s definitions of success. Where he is, we are to be. And he’s never found in self-glorification, single-minded pursuit of prosperity, or laser focus on our own agendas.
    He’s found, instead, at the intersections of life where kernels of wheat fall to the ground and die and give rise to new hopes, promises, and realities.
    Where we minister in love to our growing children or our aging parents, we’re where he is.
    Where we care for those who have so little of what we’ve been given so much of, we’re where he is.
    Where we visit the sick, not to heal them, but simply to be with them, we’re where he is.
    When we faithfully teach students in ill-equipped classrooms in tattered buildings, we’re where he is.
    When we treat our co-workers and employees, clients and customers, with love, respect, and generosity, we’re where he is.
    When we risk being misunderstood, ridiculed, and hated to speak the truth of the gospel in the love of the gospel, we’re where he is. We’re giving our lives, letting go of our desires, putting aside our comfort, spending our resources - and for no other reason than that’s what he did.
    When is a strikeout a success?
    When is there hope and promise in death?
    When we go where Jesus goes.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Drive for Contentment

    But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
-1 Timothy 6:6-10(NIV)

“Pelican Danger or Insurance Fraud?”
    That’s the arresting headline ABC News put on its coverage of Andy House’s 2009 car accident near Galveston, Texas. House says in his insurance claim that he took his eyes off the road for a moment to retrieve his dropped cell phone. When he looked up again, he realized he was bearing down on a pelican. He swerved to avoid the bird, and drove into a lagoon in his...
    ...In his Bugatti Veyron. One of only 300 in the world.
    Now, let me completely up front here. I’m having a difficult time being objective. See, I own a red and black Bugatti Veyron. The Super Sport version of the car is the fastest street-legal production car ever made, with a top speed of nearly 270 miles per hour. At that speed, it’s said, the tires will come apart in 15 minutes. That’s OK, though, because the gas tank will be empty in 12 minutes.
    I wouldn’t know. I’ve never driven mine nearly that fast. Of course, I’ve never driven mine into a lagoon, either. Truthfully, I’ve never driven mine anywhere, partially because I don’t want to get it scratched and dinged up, but mostly because it’s six inches long and sits in a clear acrylic case on my desk.
    But Andy House did drive his Veyron into a lagoon three years ago, though the insurance company, Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company, disputes his version of the story. They got suspicious because Andy took out a $2.2 million policy on the car three weeks before the accident, which sounds like either fraud or incredible foresight. They also have an informant who will reportedly testify that Andy offered him money to steal the car and set it on fire.
    And they have video. Unfortunately for Andy, a Veyron attracts attention - in this case from a car aficionado in a vehicle driving beside Andy as his Bugatti veers off into the drink. On the video: the swerve and the huge splash.
    Not on the video: a pelican. Not even one.
    I wouldn’t want to judge Andy House prematurely, though if he is guilty of fraud I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the car. (If I’m willing to dry it out, can I have it?) Maybe there’s someone out there - a bird-watcher, maybe - who has video of the Phantom Pelican. But if he did intentionally drive that $2 million dollar car into the lagoon, there’s only one reason.
    It’s that he valued the cash more than the car.
    And a car’s just a car. That’s true, though in this case, I admit, a little tougher to believe. But, while it’s rarely so starkly and obviously visible, people make trades like Andy House may have made all the time. We trade what we have for what we think we want, relationships for security, family for finances, love for liquidity.
    And when we do, we always leave what we once loved and wanted wrecked and broken.
    “The rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us,” scoffs Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, and a few years ago I might have agreed. But when all those bad mortgages written by brokers sufficiently obsessed with profit that they skirted regulations came back to haunt the financial industry, and then the rest of us, suddenly people who had been pretty well-off started having some of the same problems as the rest of the world. More Americans than ever before have had to learn what it’s like to live without the cushion and safety net that relative wealth provides. We’ve had to learn what we always should have known, but maybe never really believed: that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Sadly, to hear some politicians talk incessantly about preserving the wealth of those who still have some at the expense of those who don’t, one might come to the conclusion that we haven’t learned the lessons from all of this that we should be learning.
    “Godliness with contentment,” that’s the lesson, and it may be up to believers to model it. We have something still to say to people who have had the American Dream ripped away from them. We still have a story to tell to those who have wrecked the good things that they already had in search of a few dollars more. But we can’t tell it if we’re reeling from our own smashed families, crushed friendships, lost faith, and compromised values. We can’t tell it if we’ve offered up the good things God has given us on the altar of Wealth and Prosperity.
    “Contentment” is almost a negative word in our vocabulary. The stories of our heroes’ successes almost always include that they weren’t content with the situations they were in, and that they worked hard and sacrificed much to lift themselves out of those circumstances. Through the lenses of those stories, contentment is the same as settling. In those stories, it would have been a tragic failure if our heroes hadn’t become wealthy, powerful, successful people.
    Of course, billions of people every day don’t become wealthy or powerful. That doesn’t mean they aren’t successful.
    I don’t mean to suggest that poverty doesn’t bring its share of problems, too, or that people shouldn’t work to improve their circumstances. I’m saying that, as those who trust in the God who cares for the birds and the flowers, our lives should be marked by godliness and contentment no matter what circumstances we’re in. If we can’t be people who choose poverty over destroying ourselves and those around us by chasing after money, then we have nothing to say to the world.
    Contentment, like most things that are important, has to be learned. Usually we learn it by experiencing some adversity, by discovering through experience that life doesn’t end if all our wants aren’t immediately fulfilled. The secret to learning it, Paul writes, is knowing what you do have in those moments of want, adversity, and fear: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
    Believe that, really believe it, and it’ll change your definition of success on a fundamental level. And it will free you to focus your attention and effort on the things that do matter: God, his work in the world, and the people he gives you to love and be loved by. And it’ll keep you from wrecking your life in endless pursuit of more of what it turns out you don’t need anyway.