Friday, July 26, 2013


     Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
-Hebrews 12:1-3 

In retrospect, Stephen Amaral probably should have known from the beginning that something was amiss.
     Might have, too, if he hadn’t been paying close attention to...well...a miss.
     Stephen, from Crossville, Tennessee, was minding his business a couple of weeks ago when a woman who lived nearby approached him and asked if she could swim in his pool. Stephen, a little surprised, said yes. He was even more surprised when he saw that the woman was not dressed in the traditional way for swimming.
     Nor was she dressed at all, for that matter.
     After she splashed around for a while, she asked Stephen if he would mind helping her towel off. He was unselfishly willing to do so, and even went the second mile to help her again after she decided to go back in for another dip.
     All told, Stephen sat by the pool supervising his neighbor’s natatorial escapades for about 20 minutes. 
     Which was plenty of time for her boyfriend to enter Stephen’s house and steal about $1200 worth of his stuff.
     Reports are that Mr. Amaral is working with a sketch artist to find the thieves. So far he’s been able to tell the artist that he’s pretty sure the woman had a face...
     The media have been having a pretty good time with this story, at Mr. Amaral’s expense. But it’s not entirely fair to laugh at him unless you’ve never found yourself distracted. You can laugh if you’ve never turned your eyes away from something valuable for the sake of something pretty or exciting or interesting in the short term. It’s how people lose families for a quick fling, or careers for momentary, illicit gain, or friendships over one selfish act. It’s how people compromise principles and values and lose reputations. 
     It’s how people let their faith slip away.
     It’s the story of the human race, a theme that runs through our history. It certainly runs through Scripture:
    Judas betrays Jesus for a handful of silver.
     Jonah runs from God’s calling and mission for a quiet life of safety and ease.
     David sacrifices his friend Uriah - and potentially God’s favor - for Bathsheeba.
     Esau trades his inheritance to quiet a rumbling stomach.
     It runs all the way back to our origins. It’s why Adam and Eve would trade the food with which God would have sustained them forever for a piece of fruit that looked better, somehow, in the moment. 
     They got distracted. They lost sight of what mattered. They believed the lie that they could have what they wanted right then and the good gifts God wanted to give them at the same time.
     Recall, for a moment, Peter’s experience in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Wind and waves raging around him, unable to get to safety on land. When he sees Jesus walking toward them - on the water - he can’t wait for him to get to the boat. He asks for Jesus to tell him to come out on the water, believing that if Jesus says he can, he can.
     It’s not that we consciously choose to give up something valuable. Often we just get scared, or tired, or excited, or sad. We find something that offers comfort, security, or happiness. And we fail to imagine the potential cost.
     “You of little faith:” that’s how Jesus rebuked Peter for his moment of doubt, and that rebuke should sting us, too, every time we fail to trust God enough to take his hand and walk where he tells us we can walk. Every time we fail to believe in Jesus and stay in the boat, or try to walk on the water without keeping our eyes on him.
     The writer of Hebrews changes the metaphor to running a race, but the same realities apply. As we run the race through life that God has marked out for us, there will be things that hamper and entangle us. They’ll distract us. They’ll slow us down. While we’re paying attention to them, while our attention is diverted, our lives will be pillaged of everything that is really good, really valuable, really important. The only option is to throw those things off, to shed them like - well, like Stephen Amaral’s neighbor shed her clothes. But that’s exactly the problem: if human nature tells us anything, it’s that the things that threaten us most are sometimes the very things that most easily distract us.
     So it can’t be just us, with white knuckles, gritted teeth, and our own will power. Our faith is about much more than our own vigilance, our own ability to lock into what really matters with laser-like focus, ignoring the distractions. We don’t have the wisdom to figure out what’s really valuable, nor do we have the ability to shut out the distractions. So it boils down to a person: One who has run the race already, and who was able to avoid the distractions and be faithful to what matters. 
     Jesus’ faithful life, unmarred by wrong turns and attention lapses, unwavering even in his own death, is credited to those of us who put our trust in him. So it’s no wonder that the writer tells us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus...”
     Fixing our eyes on Jesus. Not on all those pretty, interesting, exciting things that might distract us. Not on holding all those things at arm’s length. Our problem, probably, is that our minds and hearts aren’t focused enough on Jesus. We don’t dwell on his words, his actions, or his faithfulness. So it’s no wonder that we’re so easily distracted.  
     To me, the best thing about Stephen Amaral’s story is what happened after his guest finished swimming. Mr. Amaral told police he invited her to church.
     I doubt Mr. Amaral watched her swim for 20 minutes, waiting for a chance to invite her to church. But, at some point, it seems that maybe he remembered who he was. Or who he wanted to be. At some point, it seems that he remembered Jesus. 
     Maybe our attention has already been diverted, and that’s the best we can do right now, too. But that’s enough. Remember Jesus, put the eyes of your heart back on him, throw off what’s entangling you, and run with perseverance from here on. 
     And look with suspicion on neighbors who come to swim in your pool, sans suit.

     On second thought, maybe “look” is a poor choice of words there....

Friday, July 19, 2013


     But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel...
     At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
     Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
-Hebrews 12:22-29

I remember the tabernacle model in Sunday School.
     It was a scale (?) model of the Israelite tabernacle from the Old Testament that fit on a large table. It was made of popsicle sticks, plywood, cloth, modeling clay, and so forth. Everything was there: the altar, the basin, the table of shewbread, even the Ark of Covenant in the Most Holy Place. Tiny priests and Levites were bustling around the courtyard. The teacher could reach in and take something out of the model, pass it around, and let us hold, say, the Ark of the Covenant while she told us about it.
     Now, there’s a life-sized Tabernacle model that you can have brought to your church. You can actually help set it up and then walk around in it. I would have geeked out over that back in Sunday School.
     What I didn’t understand so well back then was the purpose of the tabernacle. A tent for God to live in? Why does God need a place to live at all? And if he’s going to have a place to live, shouldn’t it be nicer than a tent? Should we be carrying tents for the Almighty to bivouac in everywhere we go?
     That’s probably where my Sunday School teacher would ask someone else if they had a question.    
     We were taught that God, in fact, doesn’t need a tent to live in. I know now that the tabernacle was set up as it was, with God cut off from everyone but the high priest, to remind the people that, though their God by his grace lived and traveled with them, he wasn’t to be trifled with. If you came into his presence, it had better be with the right clearances and sacrifices. God remained separate, apart, and other, hidden by a heavy veil and smoke. The tabernacle made it clear that, despite his grace and compassion, God and human beings were very different, and very separate. 
     There’s a whole book of the New Testament, Hebrews, that’s all about how in Jesus things are different. It shows how Jesus came to endure what human beings have to endure, that he was made “fully human” in order to help us deal with the temptations we face. It goes on to say that Jesus is our high priest, but that he has “gone through the heavens” instead of into the Most Holy Place of a physical tabernacle. He “serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.” Instead of serving in a tabernacle that is “a copy and shadow” of heaven, Jesus “entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.”
     The point is the same as the point made by the tabernacle and its sacrifices in the Old Testament: God wants to live with his people, but either he needs to be separated in some way, or the people need to be made holy. Through Jesus, we’re made holy. We can “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”   
     All that being the case, I think too much of church life might be taken up with building a tabernacle, so to speak.
    I wonder sometimes, in our concern to create moving worship experiences that help people to feel close to God, if we haven't fallen victim to the temptation to build new tabernacles. They're different, to be sure: no altars or shewbread or high priests in ornate clothing for us. The tabernacles we've built are characterized by good lighting, professional video and sound, and music that pushes the right buttons. Polished preachers and worship leaders are our high priests, their office-casual wardrobes replacing ephods, turbans, and robes. 
     We've decided, somehow, that it's up to the architects of our Christian tabernacles and their priestly staff to bring us into the presence of God. Some do it with elaborately-choreographed liturgies. Others do it with just the right style of music, or with well-produced drama, or with eloquent preaching. Others do it by looking for biblical proof-texts for every act of worship, expecting that in so doing they’ll also find God’s approval. The point is always the same: to bring participants closer to God in some way.
    The writer of Hebrews reminds his readers of one of Israel's extra-tabernacle worship experiences, when they assembled as a nation before God at Mt. Sinai at the beginning of the Exodus. Then he says that, for us, life is like that. Except more. We're assembled with the angels. We've come, because of Jesus, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the city of God himself. We live in the Most Holy Place, in the presence of God himself. We’re in fellowship with those whose names are written in heaven. We’re part of a kingdom that’s eternal, immovable, and no tabernacle human beings can build has anything to do with God’s presence with us. Because of Jesus, God lives with us. He’s near. And we can come before him with boldness and expectation. 
     That’s the problem with the tabernacles we build: they leave the impression that we need them in order to get close to God. And in doing so they cheapen the work of Jesus. They also can suggest to us that the part of life that’s really important - the spiritual part, where worship takes place - is at those human-made tabernacles when we “feel close to God.” And that, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.
     To live in the Most Holy Place is to live in the presence of God. To walk the streets of his city. It’s to know that, whatever our feelings at any particular time say, we can come before God and find grace and help. It’s to know that whatever we say and do is done and said in front of him. 
     And, knowing that, we should be thankful people. And that’s why and how we worship.
     I’m thankful for time to gather with my church. But I don’t need them to come near to God. All I need is Jesus. 
     He’s all the tabernacle we’ll ever need.


Friday, July 12, 2013

No Place

     All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
-Hebrews 11:13-16

Ilya Kovalchuk will almost certainly never make more money than he’s making right now. 
     But he’s giving it up for something that means more to him.
     Kovalchuk is one of the most dominant offensive hockey players in the NHL right now. He still has 12 years and $77 million dollars left on his contract with the New Jersey devils. If Kovalchuk doesn’t play out that contract, his salary drops to the guaranteed amount of $250,000 per year - admittedly not bad, but about 4% of his current salary.
     Yet, yesterday Ilya Kovalchuk stunned the hockey world by retiring from the NHL at the ripe old age of 30. 
     His reason is novel in the big-money, big-business, high-stakes world of professional sports. But it resonates for anyone who’s ever been a foreigner and an alien in the world.
     Ilya Kovalchuk wants to go home.
     During last season’s NHL lockout, Kovalchuk returned to his native Russia for the first time since he was a teenager to live and play for a pro team in St. Petersburg. Being at home reminded him of how much he missed home. He returned when the lockout ended, and played the rest of the season with New Jersey, but home stayed in his heart. And when the season was over, he knew that he had decided what he wanted to do: “Though I decided to return this past season, [New Jersey General Manager] Lou [Lamoriello] was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.”
     Make no mistake - Ilya Kovalchuk will be just fine. He’ll likely rejoin SKA St. Petersburg, the team he played with during the lockout. He may even be more famous there than here in the US, where hockey players aren’t generally as well-known as football or basketball players. He’ll be a wealthy man there. But he likely won’t enjoy $6.5 million a year there. He made more money the last couple of seasons than he ever will again, but he’s choosing to let it go. Give it up.
     Home is that important to him.
     Joseph asked that his bones be buried in the Promised Land. David longed for a cup of cold water from the well in Bethlehem, his hometown - never mind that it was behind enemy lines. Dorothy discovered that (tap your heels together as you say it with me) “There’s no place like home.” Maybe you can relate. Maybe you’ve lived where you live for years, decades - and yet it’s not home. Maybe you find that home is elusive.
     I do. I’ve lived in Chicago for over twenty years, but I still think of Chattanooga, Tennessee as “home.” Funny, because I didn’t live there as long as I’ve lived in Chicago. Besides, it’s less “home” than it used to be. My parents still live there, but not in the house where I grew up. A lot of my family is gone now. Some of my friends from school still live there, but I rarely see any of them. Even the church where I grew up has moved into a new building, and while some of the people there remember me, a lot don’t. And I’m not the same person they remember.
      And, to be honest, when I’m there I sometimes find myself thinking of the people here in Chicago. 
     The point is, I think, that home is hard for human beings to find. We attach memories to places. People we love are there. But all of that is subject to change. Spend your life longing to get back to a place you remember as “home,” and you’ll discover that home isn’t what you thought it was. It isn’t what you remember, maybe because you remember it wrong, maybe because it’s changed. 
     The writer of Hebrews pictures God’s people as “aliens and strangers” in the world - people who have no home in the world as it is. They have no home because they’re “longing for a better country.” He goes on to picture these folks being content living in appalling conditions because “the world wasn’t worthy of them.” In short, there wasn’t a place they could call home because there’s nothing in this world as it is that’s good enough that God’s people can be truly at home.
     People who feel like “foreigners and strangers” feel that way, Hebrews reminds us, because that’s exactly what we are. We’re looking for somewhere that will truly be home - our own country, a home in a city built for us by God. In Genesis, Eden was a garden. In Hebrews, it’s a city. The point’s the same, however - either way you think of it, it’s home. It’s home because God is its architect.
     Those of us who believe in Jesus know, of course, that our place in that city, the home we’re really searching for, is there because of him. His death and resurrection means we can go home, means that we’re already on our way. It’s like The Matrix; Jesus wakes us up to the fact that everything in this world as it is that we thought made it home is an illusion. We can never be anything but foreigners and strangers here.
     Too bad we so often try to pull the scraps and rags of this world together and call it home. Too bad we can’t see home clearly enough to renounce the temporary comforts and wealth this world entices us with. Too bad so many of us so easily lose sight of the home God has prepared for us in Jesus.
     Let’s think of ourselves as foreigners. Strangers. Oh, enjoy this world, as you can. See the beauty that God gave it. Love the people around you. Serve them and laugh with them. But let’s not imagine we’re home, or that we can ever be in this life. Let’s not be distracted by accumulating or experiencing. Home is God. Home is Jesus. Your place is with them, and it’s already built for you, and it’s better than you can ever imagine. Walk with Jesus through this life, and sometimes you’ll get a nice glimpse.
     Then, one day, this world as it is will be changed. Radically transformed. It will be recreated once and for all, through Jesus, as it was always intended to be. And then you’ll recognize it. Your eyes will light up. You’ll recognize the landscape, the sounds, the scents. You’ll see his face, and you’ll know. You’ll know, finally, that you’re home.


Friday, July 5, 2013


“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
- Jesus, Mark 1:15 (NIV)

An ex-professor of mine had a problem with the Pledge of Allegiance. Specifically, he had a problem with his kids reciting it along with the rest of their class in school each morning. 
     His kids, though, understandably didn’t want inordinate attention drawn to them. They didn’t necessarily want to have to explain over and over again why they didn’t say the Pledge like everyone else. So he had a novel suggestion. He told them that while everyone else was reciting the Pledge, they should should recite the Apostles’ Creed. (Try it. It takes about the same amount of time, if you recite the creed pretty quickly.)
    Honestly, I kind of thought my professor’s attitude was kind of extreme. I never told my son he shouldn’t say the pledge, and since he’s grown up in a non-creedal church, I doubt he knows the Apostles’ Creed. But I do understand, I think, what he was trying to teach his kids in the process. He was trying to teach them that their highest allegiance shouldn’t be to any flag, or to the country it represents. He wanted them to remember that their allegiance was to the kingdom of God. (Even if I suspect that his extreme attitude came more from his politics than his theology.)
     There’s never been a time in the church’s history that we haven’t had to struggle with dual citizenship. Every believer in Jesus has been a citizen of some nation or kingdom or realm on earth, as well as a citizen of God’s kingdom. And every believer has had to deal with the conflict that those allegiances bring. Acclaim Caesar as lord, or Christ? Serve in a nation’s army, and be called on to kill in the name of defending that nation? Support a government that utilizes the suppression of human rights and even genocide to remain in power? Vote for a candidate that advocates harsh policies toward immigrants, or one that supports gay marriage? 
     And even if we navigate those black and white questions in a way that we can live with, the question of allegiance keeps coming up. When the national debate on immigration, for example, turns on zero-sum arguments about keeping American prosperity “for Americans”, what does an American who believes in   the unlimited prosperity of God’s kingdom say in response? When national health care sharply divides us, what do those of us who believe in the primacy of a kingdom where the sick are healed and preference is shown to the poor say? When corporations are the engine of our economy, and the way to a healthy fiscal future seems to lie in policies that favor the corporations, what of those of us who believe in a kingdom where “the last will be first and the first will be last”?
     We’ve been all over the map in responding to these questions. Some believers have risen in rebellion against governments that didn’t, in their view, adequately express the priorities of God’s kingdom, to create other governments that operated on their understanding of the kingdom. (Often, ironically enough, persecuting fellow believers who saw things differently.) Others have assumed that, since God raises up secular governments, the most Christian position relative to government is always submission. Somewhere between those two extremes is where most of us live and work out our questions of allegiance. 
     Here in America, we can practice our faith - or lack thereof - with relative freedom. Our system works hard to keep church and state separate, and my own opinion is that’s for the best. (It’s never been good for the church to be too cozy with the powers-that-be.) With some exceptions related to taxation of churches as corporations, faith doesn’t occupy a privileged position in our country. Neither is our government hostile toward faith; in fact, our government tends to recognize that faith is an important part of the lives of many Americans. Our government is simply structured in a way that keeps faith in the private sphere - that part of our lives into which the government tries to intrude as little as possible. 
     The downside of that arrangement is that it’s pretty easy, as American Christians - or Christian Americans - to keep our political opinions and assumptions from having much contact with our faith. And so sometimes we wind up with political and nationalistic allegiances that ought to be mutually exclusive with faith in Jesus - yet we fail to see the conflict. 
     So, just some random thoughts on Independence Day:

I’m thankful that I’m an American. That’s not because I think that Americans are somehow superior to other people. It’s not because I don’t recognize the problems that we have. (We have some big ones.) It’s not because I’m under the illusion that America is the only country that cares about freedom and human rights, or that I think we have a spotless record regarding either of those. But I am thankful that our nation has, in word and very often in action, been particularly concerned with securing “the blessings of liberty” to all of its citizens. I consider that liberty a gift of God, and I’m thankful that I live in a country in which safeguarding it is a priority.
I’m thankful for people who have fought for that liberty, and often died for it. I don’t know how I would reconcile Jesus’ teaching and example with aiming a gun at another human being who is my enemy  only because of the uniform he wears, but because others have, I haven’t had to. I think it’s always right to recognize and appreciate the sacrifices of those who have fought for liberty against tyranny.
I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of the debates that fracture our nation right now have to do, not with the rightness or wrongness of particular actions or ways of life, but with how to best make sure that God-given liberty is available equally to every American citizen. Changing the terms of the debate about immigration, or gay marriage, or a host of other issues from “What’s right?” (For whom? According to whom?) to “What’s just, fair, and equitable for all?” might make a lot of things clearer. Wouldn’t a totalitarian state that only enforced the moral code of the Bible still be a totalitarian state?
Maybe most central is this: “the kingdom of God” is not the same thing as going to heaven when I die. The kingdom of God sits in judgment and finally subverts all the kingdoms of the world. In Jesus, I am a citizen of that kingdom, and that is my highest allegiance. That means that my priorities and values have to be the priorities and values of God’s kingdom, not America. I’m grateful when they line up. But when they don’t, my allegiance must be unambiguous. If living as a citizen of the kingdom of God sits too easily with living as a citizen of any nation on earth, then I need to take a long look at my faith. 

     I pledge allegiance.