Friday, February 22, 2013

Your Teenager's Church

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. 
     Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
-Matthew 19:13-14 (NIV)

You know those people that free climb mountains, or jump out of perfectly good airplanes, or shoot down snowy slopes on skis or snowboards? People who wrestle alligators and go deep-sea diving and get bicycles and motorcycles and snowmobiles airborne in the X Games? Adrenaline junkies?
     They’ve got nothing on me.
     Last weekend, I hung out with 13,000 teenagers and their youth ministers and chaperones at Winterfest, a gathering for Christian teens in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 
     In all seriousness, I had a great weekend. I knew I would. But there’s something surprisingly encouraging about being with that many Christian teenagers. I’d challenge anyone who has fears about the future of the church - and there are lots of those folks out there - to go to Winterfest next year and pay attention. Not to the speakers. Not to the style of singing. Not to the way the young men and women are dressed, or their general rowdiness, or to the unsettling way they tweet constantly during the group assemblies, or the fact that they don’t stop what they’re doing and genuflect whenever an “adult” walks by. 
     Instead, pay attention to their sincere love for the Lord. Pay attention to their faces in worship. Pay attention to the girls crying on each others’ shoulders in conviction, to the guys characteristically making jokes to cover the lumps in their throats. Don’t dismiss that emotion as mere teenaged histrionics, because to do so is to miss the fact that at an important time in their lives they’re open to the work God is doing in them. 
     Pay attention to the tens of thousands of dollars raised by two girls there who wanted to do something about feeding hungry children, and the hard-earned money flowing from teenaged hands to their bucket. Pay attention to the way they sat and listened and laughed and clapped for four “old men” who spoke to them - each for a pretty long time. 
     I’ve long noticed the principle that the cool devotional songs that I sang as a teenager have suffered the indignity of being published with musical notation in song books and actually used in worship services. What’s trendy and new to teenagers often becomes a part of the church’s life over twenty years or so. That being the case, I’m thinking that the church ought to start getting used to a few of the changes that are coming over the next couple of decades:

Technology is going to be ubiquitous. We’ve raised a  screen-dependent generation. There were screens everywhere; everyone in the large venue needed sightlines to at least two screens. What the printed page has meant to the church over the last 500 years, screens are going to mean to the church going forward. (The technology failed one of the speakers, and his presentation pretty much ground to a halt for the five minutes or so it took to get it fixed.)
     And not just screens. You know how in some churches we tell people to turn off their cell phones? The Winterfest organizers encouraged the kids to tweet during the assembly. What I might tend to call a potential distraction, they viewed as an opportunity for participation, a way to create a connected community out of an isolated, passive audience. There may be times when believers need to get away from screens and technology, but those times will increasingly be seen as a novelty. Churches need to consider how we’re using technology, and how we can use it better to communicate the gospel and bring our people together.

Authentic relationships will be vital to healthy churches. Our teenagers don’t want superficiality. (Even though sometimes we think that’s all they want.) They want real relationships - and not just with each other. They want older believers to take an interest in them, to be real with them, to share their faith, teach them - and also to learn from them. They want their churches to be about more than ritual, habit, and form. And they value diversity and want to include those who aren’t exactly like them - even if they don’t know how to go about it. We need to think about what it communicates to the teenagers in our churches when we know their names, celebrate their accomplishments, and enjoy their company. And what it communicates when we don’t.

Depth will be valued. Teenagers don’t want someone to tell them what to think. They want to be taught how to think. They value the Bible, but they don’t want someone else to tell them what it means. They want to be challenged, not spoon-fed. They can handle deep sermons and lessons, and they can also detect propaganda and platitudes. They live in a complicated world full of difficult choices, and they don’t trust ready-made answers. They don’t need to be coddled, or to have the gospel packaged for their convenience. But they know in a second when a church’s theology and doctrine is a mile wide and an inch deep. 
     They don’t mind having their convictions shaken and tested, either. And they don’t mind being called on the junk in their lives. They just want it to be by honest, authentic people who seem to be wrestling with the same questions that haunt them. Contrary to our caricatures, they can go deep and handle being challenged. Shallowness, in fact, is what they can’t abide.

The church will find new ways to express the gospel. In twenty years, the church will still sing, and read Scripture, and share in the Lord’s Supper. Good preaching can still inspire and challenge this generation, but it won’t be your grandparents’ preaching. And check out David Bowden, who was one of the contributors to the Winterfest assemblies - slam poetry in church, imagine the possibilities! (Though, as an old fogey, I have to say that the knit cap sort of feels like overreaching for hipster cred...)
     What did Jesus say about new wineskins? While we can’t change the gospel, the way we communicate it is open for experimentation. We know that, but sometimes we don’t consider carefully enough how much we confuse the form with the message. The gospel is the gospel, whether the preacher’s words rhyme or not. 

     In the next twenty years, as today’s teenagers grow to adulthood and places of leadership in the church, the church is sure to change. May we never be disciples who stand in the way of younger generations as they come to Jesus. May we be thankful for the power of the gospel to knit generations together. And may we always be able to recognize and thank God for the devotion and faith of younger generations.
     Even if we don’t much like slam poetry.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Changing Our Questions

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
     “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
     He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
     “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
     But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
-Luke 10:25-29 (NIV)

In a recent piece in The Washington Post, Annie Selak proposes to describe “The church young Catholics want” in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s announced resignation. Selak, a Catholic lay minister and administrator of student affairs at Notre Dame, would seem to have her finger on the pulse of young Catholicism. She suggests that young Catholics are generally dissatisfied with the church. She mentions particularly church teaching on sexuality, the ordination of women, and the relationship of Christianity to other religions. She wishes for “a church that engages struggles and is open to dialogue.” “We want to wrestle, grapple, use our minds, engage our hearts, debate, think and pray,” she says. “And we want our church to do that with us.”
     Well, sure. I think wrestling, grappling, using our minds, engaging our hearts, debating, thinking, and praying is a great job description for the church. Believers should do all those things together. Church leaders should be the people who best facilitate those things, and not those who stand in the way of it.
     There’s a long history in the Bible of questions. Jesus honored honest questions with answers - or sometimes further questions. The Scriptures are chock-full of people asking God questions: sometimes politely, sometimes not. Its pages are filled with people struggling to figure out how to obey God when the world around them makes obedience seem impossible. 
     Take this expert in the law of Moses who questioned Jesus: “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Excellent question, of course, but it’s not the one he’s really asking. He knows what he needs to do. He just really wants to know how deep it needs to go.
     “Who is my neighbor?” That’s the right question. 
     It’s the right question, because now they can get down to what’s really important. It’s one thing to talk about loving your neighbor. It’s another thing to get down to what that really means, who is to be the object of our love. Does the mandate to love outweigh religious duty? Is it more important than the purity of religious identity? Does it supersede ethnic loyalties? And how much does love put me on the hook - financially, emotionally, and in expenditures of time and effort?
     Those are the right questions, but they only get answered because Jesus will listen to our surface questions, the ones we originally ask out of our impulses to justify ourselves, or to distract ourselves, or out of our own anxieties or sins or limited perspectives. Those aren’t the questions that most need answering. But they can be a good place to start.
     It’s difficult for us sometimes to let our questions lead us on to the ones that are perhaps more central and more vital. Annie alludes to this tendency when she says “We want the church to ask the questions we are asking, rather than ones that seem trivial at best and irrelevant at worst.” It’s human nature, of course, to assume that the questions we’re asking are the really important and relevant ones. Naturally enough, other questions do seem trivial and irrelevant. Naturally enough, we feel frustrated when other people are asking other questions. I suspect it’s not only young Christians who want their churches to respond to the questions they’re asking. We all want our questions heard, and want to feel as though people care about us enough to respond to them. 
     But, really - our questions aren’t the only ones. And they’re certainly not always the most important ones. And, in fact, being in Christ, following Jesus, is fundamentally about letting him lead us to the right questions. That can be a difficult process. It can’t be rushed. But that’s what it means to have our hearts, minds, and identities reorganized and redeemed by Jesus.
     But that’s something the church should be able to do for each other. One the one hand, church should be the people who are least afraid of hearing our questions asked. However difficult those questions may be, wherever they come from, whatever sacred cows they may threaten, we should be able to ask our questions in the church. The things we’re wondering about, worrying about, questioning - even when they’re matters of group traditions and seemingly settled biblical interpretation - need to be honored with the church’s attention and concern. To study together, to pray together, to hear each other out - these are holy actions full of meaning , grace, and love. There’s no hurry, because the Lord is at work in the process. 
     On the other hand, church should be the people who won’t let us be satisfied with our surface questions. They should be the people who, by example and exhortation, help us get ourselves out of the way. Help us get to the questions that really matter - the ones that God has given us life in Jesus to answer. This isn’t done by dismissing questions, nor by ignoring, marginalizing, or browbeating questioners. But, at some point, we call each others’ attention to the questions beyond the ones we often find ourselves preoccupied with, the ones that seem so relevant to us. We help each other to see the questions we’re really asking, down deep in our hearts, and help each other start to answer them with the answers the Lord would give us.
     Young or old - church, ask your questions. Ask them, and keep asking until someone joins with you in those questions, turns them into a dialogue. Keep asking until someone helps you to find your way to the even deeper questions. And when you get there, don’t be afraid to dive into those deeper waters, knowing that the Lord is there with you.
     For what it's worth, that’s the church I want. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Natural Habitat

“Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing...They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that -- heaven country. You can see why God was so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them.” 
-Hebrews 11:13-16, The Message

It’s not just Valentine’s Day for human beings next week. Love is in the air for another type of critter as well.
     It’s coyote mating season, though you can be excused for not having it marked on your calendar. The chief significance of this for people is that it might be more likely that we’ll run into one out on the prowl for a mate. That isn’t too big of a problem, as coyotes tend to be  afraid of humans and prefer to steer clear of us. Wildlife experts say that if you encounter a coyote, you should make loud noises and big gestures and make yourself look as large as possible. A coyote shouldn’t give you any big problems.
     Your pets, however, might be another story.
     Coyotes have even found their way into Chicago in recent years. They usually make the news when they do, being pursued by well-intentioned animal control officials who want to trap them and relocate them to a better home in a forest preserve. But try to put yourself in the place of a coyote in an urban (or even suburban) environment. Can you imagine what's going through this coyote's little coyote brain? All he knows is that these big, loud, slow, clumsy, creatures are everywhere, chasing him. They're waving scary-looking devices. Instinctively, he's afraid of them. He's incapable of understanding that they really want to help, so he runs. He can't imagine that they want to take him to a place that's better suited for coyotes. As far as he's concerned, the home he's in is just fine.
     If only he could understand. That's what this coyote needs: some way to picture the home his pursuers want to give him. Field mice and rabbits in abundance. No bright lights to hurt his sensitive eyes, loud noises constantly assaulting his ears, or fumes blocking out familiar smells. No unexpected dangers. Trees, not skyscrapers. Fewer human beings to hide from. If only he had a little more imagination. If only he could trust the animal control officials enough to give up running. 
     But he can't, can he? So he goes on living in this home he's chosen for himself. And if he survives, he'll learn to steer clear of cars and trucks. He'll learn the places he can hide. He'll learn to cope with the dangers and deal with the struggles. He'll learn where he can get food -- at some point he'll probably even learn to scavenge in garbage cans. If he keeps eluding his pursuers he'll learn how to get by. But you can be sure of this: the life he lives will not be the life a coyote is meant to live.
     Of course, he's a coyote. Just a dumb animal, operating on sheer instinct. He can't reflect. He can't evaluate the choices he's made. He can't understand that to finally arrive at a place that's truly home he must let go of what he considers home now. In short, he can't live by faith. Faith's impossible for a coyote.
     What's our excuse?
     Why is it that we find ourselves in the same situation as that coyote in Chicago? Why do we find ourselves trying so hard to make a home in an inhospitable world? Could it be that we have the same problem? Could it be that we, too, lack imagination and faith? Could it be that we can't even start to conceive of the home God has for us and can't believe that he will bring us there? We get too comfortable in this world. We adopt its practices, follow its rules, develop strategies to survive. We chase success as defined by money, power, and admiration. We fight with each other over scraps. We learn which dumpsters contain our favorite treats and dive in every chance we get. We forget our true home, if we ever knew of it. Pretty soon we start to feel at home here. And we get pretty cranky if anyone tries to move us. Even God.
     That's why we fear aging and death. That's why we live in terror of illness. That's why we kill ourselves over a lost job or a lost love. That's why we lie, cheat, and steal to get by. We think this is it. We think this is as good as it gets. We think this is home. Try to tell us otherwise and we bare our teeth and growl. Or we run and hide. We've been hiding from God almost since the beginning, haven't we?
     Yet there have always been a few of us who have been visionaries. They've seen in the distance the home God has for us. They've seen the place, however hazily, where we can be what we were created to be and live the lives that God has intended from the beginning that we live. Abraham, leaving behind what he'd always called home because God told him that there was something better. Moses, leaving behind Pharoah's palace to cast his lot with a ragged bunch of refugees on a fool's errand. Rahab, welcoming the spies as messengers of God's new order. Jesus, accepting a cross. How about a wife who clings to her faith in spite of the ridicule she gets from her husband? The teenager who defies the crowd because the crowd's just wrong? The missionary who leaves home and family for a faraway and hostile place? The executive who has his eye fixed on a distant horizon when those around him can only see as far as the bottom line?
     The big question is this: Can you call yourself a transient when everyone around you wants to tell you that this is home? You and I are no more at home in this world than a coyote is among Chicago’s  skyscrapers. God has a wonderful home in store for those who see themselves as strangers here. At best, you'll only get a glimpse of it here, from a distance, like Moses on the mountain looking into the Promised Land. You'll just see its outline from time to time. But when you do, wave a little greeting in your heart. Let its attraction work its magic. Let your imagination fill in the details. And, most importantly, entrust yourself to God to take you there. That's what living by faith means: living in this world as transients just passing through while God brings you to the home he has for you. You can't make this world into home, no matter how hard you try. But why would you want to? God actually put on humanity and came into this world to give us a glimpse of the home he has for us. Stop running from him, from the realization that you'll never have the life you were meant to have here. Your natural habitat is heaven, and when you arrive you'll wonder why you ever tried to make a home anywhere else.
     Stop running. Stop hiding. Place yourself in God's hands. Let him take you home.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Kissing Through a Screen

   Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
-James 1:22-25 (NIV)

There's no better time than today to read the Bible in English. That's not a value judgment, a religious dogma, or even a matter of opinion. It's a fact. And it’s easily demonstrable. 
    There are probably hundreds of English translations of the Bible in print today. Do a search on Amazon, or go to the Bible section of a large bookstore, if you're a little more old school, and you'll see. And if you're looking for digital copies of the Bible, resources like put 50 or so English translations instantly at your fingertips. We can carry numerous English translations on our phones and tablets, immediately accessible anywhere. There are cowboy Bibles, Bibles for hunters (with camo covers), Bibles for men, Bibles for women, Bibles for teens, Bibles for children. There are Catholic Bibles, Bibles for Charismatics, Bibles for Jewish Christians. Whatever demographic or doctrinal persuasion you might inhabit, there’s a good chance that there’s a Bible in English especially for you.
     John Wycliffe, who about 620 years ago completed the first English translation of the Bible (and was burned at the stake for his trouble), would be amazed. 
     Like everything in else in our society, though, Bible translations have become big business. That's nothing new, of course - Erasmus rushed his Greek edition to press in 1516 in part to beat a competing edition to publication. With so many translations, the rights to which are owned by different publishing houses, competition has gotten correspondingly more fierce. Zondervan wants you to buy an NIV, and Nelson wants you to buy a NKJV, and that means differentiating themselves somehow. They do that by publishing editions geared to specific audiences, or by using distinctive, interesting bindings, but they also do it by trying to position themselves as more accurate and/or more understandable than the others. One may pride itself on being more “literal,” maintaining grammar and word order and adding as few words as possible. Another  may emphasize modern language and sell its “readability.” Some translations target an audience that’s looking for gender-equal language, while others focus on an audience who believes that  gender equality in translation is a compromise of the text.   
     The ones benefitting the most from this state of affairs seem to be the publishers.
     I’ve been thinking about all this recently because I was reminded of something a former professor of mine says regarding translations of the Bible: “Reading the Bible in English is like kissing your wife through a screen. You can't feel the full power of God unless you read the Bible in the original language.”
     I get how academic and elitist that statement sounds. The original languages of the Bible being (ancient) Hebrew and (koine) Greek, it’s probably not all that realistic to expect most believers to learn to read the Bible that way. But there’s some truth in the statement. 
     Author Umberto Eco made famous the Italian play on words, “traduttore, traditore”: “Translator, Traitor.” Later in the same essay, he calls the act of translation “admirable treason.” Eco thought that translation was still a worthy project, but he was getting at its main problem. You can say it like this: no one who has ever tried to translate the Bible has been completely faithful to the text. If it was even possible, doing so would yield a jumble of words and syntax that would leave us all bewildered and frustrated. Which wouldn’t be faithful to a text that intends to be understood.* Even the most “literal” of translations takes some liberties in grammar and syntax, and has to make decisions about which meaning of particular words the author most likely intended. Hence translation of the Bible is like kissing your spouse through a screen: it might be something like a real kiss, it might even be kind of nice if it’s the best you can do, but it’s nothing like doing it without that screen between you. You’d do it if you had to. But you’d rather have full contact.
     Muslims believe that the Qur’an in any language other than Arabic isn’t the Qur’an. It may be interesting and even helpful to read, say, an English translation. If that’s the best a person can do, then they by all means should. But that translation isn’t the Qur’an. Enough is lost in the process of translation that, admirable treason though he may commit, the translator is still a traitor.
     Maybe we’d be all better off if all English Bibles had to be sold with a sticker that said something like,  “Warning: This isn’t actually the Bible. It’s a translation. Reader discretion is advised.”
     I still remember, close to twenty years ago, being soundly scolded in front of other ministers by an older preacher who didn’t like my choice of Bible translations. He explained to me, arms waving and volume rising, how the translation I was using was unfaithful to the text and driven by agendas other than accurately representing the originals. Since he was old enough to have known Paul as a boy, I didn’t really want to get into an argument with him. 
     Now I know he was right - about my translation, at least in part. What he apparently didn’t know was that his was equally suspect, for all the same reasons.
     Here’s the thing: unless you’re going to take some Greek and Hebrew classes, you’ll still want to read your English translations. God’s blessing isn’t promised to those who merely listen to the word, but to those who do what it says. Questions of translation - of how we listen - are secondary to questions of obedience. “What do we do with what we hear?”, this is by far the more important question facing believers.
     So read your Bible in whatever translation you choose. Don’t fight with others about their choice of translation, and don’t get too proud of your own. Every translation of the Bible succeeds or fails at the point of communicating God’s word to human beings. Every human being succeeds or fails at the point of putting God’s word into practice in our lives.
     The Spirit of the God whose words come to us through the pages of the Bible lives in us. May we know him without any kind of screen between us. And may he help us put his word to practice in our lives.

*Is it better to translate, in Matthew 10:22, “because of me” or, more literally, “for my name’s sake”? Is it better to translate in 1 Peter 1:13, “gird up the loins of your mind,” and risk misunderstanding, or to translate by using a more understandable (but technically less accurate) English phrase like “prepare your minds for action”? What you would choose in each case, and why you would choose it, is the real work behind Bible translation.