Friday, November 23, 2012


Give thanks  to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Cry out, “Save us, God our Savior;
gather us and deliver us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
and glory in your praise.”
Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
     Then all the people said “Amen” and “Praise the LORD.”
    David left Asaph and his associates before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister there regularly....
    David left Zadok  the priest and his fellow priests before the tabernacle of the LORD at the high place in Gibeon to present burnt offerings to the LORD on the altar of burnt offering regularly, morning and evening, in accordance with everything written in the Law  of the LORD, which he had given Israel. With them were Heman and Jeduthun and the rest of those chosen and designated by name to give thanks to the LORD, “for his love endures forever.”
-1 Chronicles 16:34-41 (NIV)

“Chosen.” The word screams privilege. Pride of place.
    The Chosen are the winners, the last ones standing.
    The Chosen are the acclaimed, the preferred, the admired.
   The Chosen are nominated for office. They win the elections. The chosen are picked for the teams. They’re invited to lunch with the In Crowd. They’re the ones everyone wants to be.
    The Chosen receive the honors and awards. They address the largest crowds. Star in the leading roles. Their names are known and celebrated, their accomplishments recounted, rehashed, and renowned.
    Although I guess that kind of depends on what you’re chosen for.
    You probably wouldn’t have known the names of Heman (no, He-Man is a different guy) or Jeduthun, for instance. Not exactly household names. For all we know, though, in ancient Israel they may have been the Justin Biebers or Taylor Swifts of their day. They were apparently musicians and singers. And they were chosen. Hand-picked by King David himself.
    So why don’t we know much about them?
    Because they were chosen to “give thanks to the LORD.” Seriously, if you want to make a name for yourself, it seems that being chosen to give thanks to God is a dead-end career path.  
    When David brought the Ark of the Covenant into the royal city of Jerusalem, he relocated several of the worship leaders from the old Tabernacle in Gibeah to Jerusalem as well. But since there was still an altar at Gibeah, he wanted to make sure worship kept happening there, as well. And so he assigned Heman and Jeduthun the task of “giv[ing] thanks to the LORD” there at the old site. The text says he chose them “by name,” in fact. He knew them, or knew of them. He knew something about them. And he thought they would be the perfect guys to use their musical skills to lead God’s people in worship at Gibeah.    
    They didn’t get to go to Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant to lead worship at the new, exciting site. They were stuck at Gibeah, in the old Tabernacle that would soon be phased out in favor of the temple in David’s city. (Asaph and some others got that gig...) They were Chosen. But not to gain honor for themselves. They were chosen to give honor and praise and thanks to God.
    Thinking about Heman and Jeduthun, I’m sorry, but I have to think of worship in the church today - or, rather, what passes for worship. We seem unable to think of worship in any terms other than that of our own preferences in music and style. It’s a “good” worship service if it suits our musical sensibilities, or if the preacher is the right mixture of eloquent, down-to-earth, and brief. It’s a “good” worship service if it makes us feel the way we think we should feel after worship. And, if not...well, we “just didn’t get anything out of it this week.”
    As if the burning question is what we got out of it.
    Churches actually split today over what style of worship is “better” or “more biblical” or whatever adjective forms the basis of evaluation. As if the trendiest styles won’t be completely different in five years’ time. As if “Here I Am to Worship” won’t sound as dated to my son as “I’ll Be a Friend to Jesus” sounds to me.
    The fact is that you and I have been chosen and designated by name to give thanks to the LORD. Our musical preferences are secondary to that. What we get out of it is secondary to that. Our experience has conditioned us to treat most everything as a performance for our evaluation. But, in worship, if there are performers, then we’re among them. And if there’s an evaluation, then it’s God’s to give. Every bit as much as Heman and Jeduthun, you and I have been given the responsibility of praising God and encouraging others to do the same.
    That’s Paul’s point in his amazing opening to the book of Ephesians. In verses 11 and 12, he reminds us that we’ve been chosen in Jesus, and that we’ve been chosen for a purpose - “for the praise of his glory.” We aren’t chosen just so that we’ll feel a certain way. We aren’t chosen for our own individual benefit and blessing. We aren’t even chosen just because Jesus loves us and wants to be with us forever, as sometimes we like to say. We’re chosen to give God the glory and honor and gratitude that he is due.
    We’re chosen “for the praise of his glory,” so that the world can hear the name of God and the name of Jesus ringing with thanksgiving and honor and glory.
    Our worship services should encourage us, yes. But our preferences, our feelings, our self-expression aren’t the point. The point is that God is praised and thanked, that the name of Jesus is lifted up and glorified. If we don’t do it, who will? If the world doesn’t hear God’s name glorified and praised among us, where will they hear it?
    Of course, they won’t hear it if it only happens when we’re behind closed doors, in our own isolated communities. If God’s new tabernacle is Jesus, present in the lives of his people through the Holy Spirit, then our responsibility to give thanks to him and worship him doesn’t end with the last “Amen” as we head out to lunch on Sundays. It’s for every day of our lives, every part of our lives. We’re always on call as those chosen and designated by name - through Jesus Christ - to give thanks to the Lord.
    We are among the Chosen. May we be found faithful to our calling.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Red States, Blue States, and the Kingdom of God

    “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.”
-Daniel 2:44 (NIV)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
-Jesus, Matthew 4:17 (NIV)

Early Wednesday morning, right about midnight in Chicago, Mitt Romney officially ended the 2012 Presidential election by (graciously) conceding to President Obama.
    It was, by my count, the twelfth time in my life that the United States has peacefully elected a President.
    I’m always amazed when it happens. Even a couple of elections ago, when it was weeks before we knew who won, there were no tanks in the streets. No civil war. Even when we elect a new President, the transfer of power is always orderly. In a world where peaceful transfers of power can’t be taken for granted, that’s something to appreciate, even if we sometimes forget to appreciate it.
    This was a hotly-contested election. Many commentators have talked about “two Americas,” and maybe they’re not far off. Those who disagree with the President are loud, and sometimes angry, and of course they have that right. As the President himself pointed out in his victory speech Wednesday morning, that’s not likely to change anytime soon:

    “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.
   “ ….These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that as we speak people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”

    The words of a President who will have to build consensus to secure a legacy in history, yes. But they also happen to be true.
    The church, historically, has always had a tumultuous relationship with civil government. Sometimes, the church has tried to be the civil government - and that’s rarely been good for either the church or the state. Sometimes the church has lived in opposition to civil government. In many places, we still do.
    The American church has had a somewhat unique situation with regard to our representative government. We’re Christians, but also Americans. Voters, but primarily citizens of God’s kingdom. Like all Americans, we have concerns about the economy, or foreign policy, or jobs going overseas, or social issues. We have opinions, and our opinions translate into votes for this party or that, this politician or the other one. And yet we know that ultimately our hope is in Jesus, not in politics.
    Some Christians feel called to run for office. Others to work for particular parties or candidates. In most churches, in fact, Republicans and Democrats sit side by side. Some Christians, on the other hand, feel compelled to ignore the political process, to choose to not even exercise their right to vote lest they compromise their loyalty to God’s kingdom.
    The Christian Chronicle, a newspaper for Churches of Christ (the fellowship of churches of which I’m a part), included an entry in their blog this week entitled “Are Churches of Christ in the U.S. a Red State Movement?”. Three of four people in Churches of Christ, according to the blog, voted for Mitt Romney in this election, and roughly the same fraction live in a “red state”. So it would seem the answer might be “yes - Churches of Christ in the U.S. are a red state movement.”
    I wonder, though, as a resident of a “blue state”, if those numbers are an accurate representation of my Hispanic or African-American brothers and sisters? (My experience would suggest that they are not.) I wonder if they accurately represent the political leanings of many believers I know who live in urban communities, as opposed to suburban or rural. (Again, my experience would suggest that they do not.)
     All that’s to say that we’d best be careful - careful that we don’t assume that our opinions about “the issues,” our political leanings, are the Christian opinions or political leanings. Is someone more or less a Christian if she leans more “blue” or “red”? I would hope we wouldn’t think so, but I wonder.
    I wonder especially because of a post-election Facebook experience.  A “friend” of mine (I don’t really know him, we’re Facebook friends because of a mutual acquaintance), posted Wednesday morning that he would block anyone who posted something positive regarding the election. (Blocking is basically cutting off contact with the person you’ve blocked.) This is a Christian, a brother who’s willing to be quite vocal about both his faith and his politics - and yet he’s willing to cut off people who are vocal about their own different politics - or even positive about an election he’s not happy with.
    Here’s what I can’t help but wonder - when Jesus returns and all that’s left is God’s kingdom, will anyone still remember the election of 2012? Will “red” or “blue” matter in the least?
    And will my Facebook friend have his own little neighborhood where only people who once agreed with his politics live?
    If the answer to those questions is no - and I think it is - then let’s be careful not to confuse political parties with the kingdom of God, as though any party platform is wide enough or strong enough to support the gospel of Jesus. The political debates we might have are OK. It’s no problem to feel strongly about issues. As our President reminded us, those are the marks of our liberty. We should be thankful to our God for the freedom of political discourse.
    But don’t let that discourse alienate you from a brother or sister with whom you’ll share eternity in the kingdom of God. When your argument ends, shake their hand and kiss their cheek and remember that you share a higher citizenship than any earthly nation, a higher affiliation than any political party.
    Remember that there are no red states or blue states in the kingdom of God.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Voting for Good News

    He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me
         to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
         to set the oppressed free,
         to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
    Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
-Luke 4:16-21 (NIV)

A lot of long-time Chicagoans probably remember the name Dantrell Davis.
    It’s hard to believe that he’d be 27 years old today. If he had made it, that is, past 7.
    I had barely been in the city a year before Dantrell Davis died. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it only takes one idiot with a gun on a rooftop to kill one as he walks to school. That’s what happened to Dantrell on October 13th, 1992, one moment walking beside his mom on his way to school at Jenner Elementary, the next moment bleeding out on the sidewalk. He wasn’t the target, of course - kids that young rarely are in gang shootings. But bullets are stupid, and that day they went without objection where the shooter on the rooftop of one the buildings at the Cabrini-Green housing project sent them.
    Dantrell’s death made an impact, at least for a while, on the city of Chicago. For one thing, it brought the violence that had become part of life in the Cabrini-Green to the attention of Chicagoans whose kids didn’t have to walk between armed gangs to get to school. Someone finally decided that quarantining hundreds or thousands of people who had the same problems and struggles together into concrete towers served no purpose other than to make other folks feel better. Cabrini-Green, and the projects like them, were razed, replaced with mixed-income housing - though not as much as the city promised.
    Dantrell’s death even brought about a three-year truce between the gangs at Cabrini-Green. At the request of his mother.
    Today, most kids at Jenner don’t know the significance of the name on the honorary street sign outside their school. The school’s different now. Most of the teachers there weren’t there when Dantrell was killed. The neighborhood in which it’s located has gentrified in twenty years, and people with kids don’t send them to Jenner. Cabrini-Green is all but gone. Time marches on, and it has a way of erasing even the most painful memories. But it can also cause to forget the things we ought to remember.  
    In a few days, Americans get to exercise that unique privilege of democracy and choose those who will lead us for the next four years. Some pundits will tell us that this is the most important election in a generation, or even in history. Well, seems like they say that nearly every year. You’ll hear people say that the most important issues in this election are the economy, or national security, or foreign policy, or health care. Those are all important issues, of course, but they’re most important to those of us with the most to lose.
    Just because Cabrini-Green is gone, don’t imagine that there aren’t thousands of kids in Chicago who every day travel through gang-infested territory to learn. Don’t imagine that there aren’t schools in which the kids are just as familiar with what to do in the event of heavy gunfire as they are if a fire breaks out or a tornado is sighted. Don’t imagine that there aren’t families who house and educate their children in neighborhoods just like the one Dantrell Davis lived and died in twenty years ago. And don’t imagine they’re there because they want to be. They’re there because they go where the jobs are, and where they can afford a roof over their kids’ heads, and heat in the winter.
    I would argue that the upcoming election - all of them, really - are about those people. Because if “we, the people” fail folks like that, then I’m not sure we’re fit to govern ourselves.
    Jesus came into a world where poverty crushed human beings into the dirt and children died too young and faraway rulers did little to stop it. He came with the words of Isaiah on his lips - and the Spirit of God behind them - and announced good news. Good news to the poor. Freedom for the prisoners. Recovery of sight for the blind. Liberation for the oppressed. He came to announce that God had finally acted on his promises and had come to deliver his people from their poverty, bondage, blindness, and oppression. Isaiah intended those words as a glimpse of restoration in the promised land. Jesus appropriated them as a promise that God’s renewal and redemption of a broken creation had commenced in his coming.
    The fact that wealthy, comfortable Americans have sometimes appropriated Jesus’ promises to protect our own wealth and comfort - and legitimate our own self-interest - doesn’t change the fact that they’re promises especially for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed. And we invite the Lord’s judgment when, through ignorance and selfishness, we align ourselves with those who perpetuate the status quo.  
    If you’re so inclined, vote on Tuesday. But vote like a citizen of the kingdom of God whose security is in Jesus and not in the things that politicians use to pander. Vote like someone who has no reason to be afraid of the horrors that politicians leverage to win votes. Vote like someone who follows the Lord in his desire to proclaim good news to neighborhoods - and cities - like the one that made Dantrell Davis’ death possible. But then don’t imagine that the proclamation of good news can be left to the politicians. As followers of Jesus, we still have to raise our voices. And we still have to act, and by our actions create a glimpse of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed among those most impoverished and imprisoned, blinded and oppressed, by the power brokers of our world.
    Maybe you’d rather not vote, rather not participate in a process so far removed from the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. That’s a valid choice too. But don’t imagine that the good news Jesus proclaimed is only about some heavenly place far away. He proclaimed it in the here and now, and his people are its incarnation.
    In a New York Times piece on Dantrell Davis’ death published the week he died, one of the kids at his school, 11-year-old Deon Crosby, eloquently summed up the issues that matter in this election. “I can't go to school without rolling under cars and dodging bullets,” he wrote in an essay. "I'm scared because it could be any of us.” And then he concluded, “I don't care about no Christmas presents. I thank God for waking up.”
     That’s a kid who needs good news. May we be equal to the task of sharing it.