Friday, October 25, 2013

Setting the Lonely in Families

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
    is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families…”
-Psalm  68:5-6 (NIV) 

When Davion Only found out this summer that his mother had died, he was sitting alone in a public library, staring at a computer screen. She was only a name on a birth certificate for Davion. He was born while she was in jail, and he never knew her. But he cried when he saw her obituary online, along with her arrest record and her criminal background that included drug offenses and theft. He had come to find has family, and maybe himself. What he found instead was that the only family he knew anything about  had died just a few weeks earlier. 
     What he found was that he was, as he feared, alone.
     “When I found out she died, I was kind of angry,” Davion later said. He remembers thinking to himself at the time, “This is ridiculous. How did I not know?”
     Davion Only has been in foster care literally all his life. His fifteen years have played out over an endless succession of foster homes. He’s grateful for them, and recognizes that he hasn’t always been an easy kid to live with. But foster care isn’t family, and Davion went in to that library looking for family. When he saw his mother’s death notice he knew that dream was dead too.     
     But Davion also had faith, and while he sat there weeping over his lost family, he also found hope. 
     “I know God hasn't given up and I'm not either.”
     That’s what he told the assembled congregation at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church a couple of Sundays ago. And then he bravely told that church that he was looking for a family. “To love me forever,” he said. 
     “I'll take anyone,” he told the church that day. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don't care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”
     “I just want people to love me for who I am and to grab me and keep me in their house and love me no matter what.”
     Well of course that’s what he wants. How do we so easily lose track of the fact that every human being wants the same things? We all want someone to grab us and love us for who we are and no matter what. Oh, some have buried it deep. They wall it off because they’ve been burned too often before. They do the things they do to replace it or ease the pain of its absence. They try not to think about it, but it comes out in anger and hostility and coldness that just pushes what they want farther away. But, at heart, they’re no different from a 15-year-old boy standing in front of a church begging to be loved.
     Praise God that, somehow, through a foster parent or a friend or a teacher or however, the Holy Spirit has kept Davion’s heart open and searching and ready to to receive love. 
     The psalmist wrote that God is “a father to the fatherless”, that he “sets the lonely in families.” He goes on in that same Psalm to call God “a God who saves,” and I suspect that we believers here the echoes of the gospel in that phrase. “A God who saves.” A God who forgives our sins and overcomes our death and promises us a home with him forever in heaven.
     We think about salvation in those terms because people who more or less have what they need in this life can afford to spiritualize the promises of the gospel and talk about them as if they only have to do with the next life. 
     And then there are people like Davion Only. For people like him, God’s promise to be a father to the fatherless and set the lonely in families isn’t just a metaphor. It doesn’t call to mind the fellowship of the church or human relationships in heaven untouched by sin and death. For Davion, and for a lot of people just like him, there’d be no salvation like a home inhabited by people who know him completely and love him as he is without reservation, qualification, or hedge. 
     At least 30 times, the Bible expresses God’s concern for the parentless. But that’s not just to tell us something interesting about God. It’s to call God’s people to action. Israel’s law demanded care for orphans. They weren’t to be taken advantage of. The community was to provide for them. The prophets often called the people to task for failing in their responsibility for vulnerable members of society like those without families. Because God shows partiality to the parentless, his people are to be partial to the parentless as well. And, in fact, God usually chooses to care for the parentless through his people. Isaiah told his hearers that they were to take up the cause of the fatherless. At the other end of the Bible, James tells his readers that any faith that doesn’t lead us to care for orphans isn’t worth much to God. 
     Davion’s plea generated 10,000 calls, according to his social worker. That’s 10,000 people who have enquired about adopting Davion. He’ll almost certainly find the family he’s looking for, and that’s such good news. But it’s also worth pointing out that if all 10,000 of those families adopted ten children each, there would still be over 1,000 kids looking for a family. And that’s just in America.
     Not everyone can, or should, adopt a child - though it might not be as overwhelming as it seems at first blush. But let’s be sure to be supportive of families in our churches that do choose to adopt. Let’s encourage them, pray with them, and help them in every way we can. 
     Let’s be sure to support organizations that help place orphans with families, or organizations that work with the foster system to try to reunite families, or organizations that try to be a family for orphaned children. Our money, our presence, our love will help to put hands and faces on God’s love for the parentless.
     And let’s not forget that there are plenty of adults who are alone. Their families have pushed them aside. They’re alone in nursing homes, in institutions, in prisons. Some of them are even all alone in nice houses in the suburbs. They would love to believe that they matter to someone, especially to God, but they see no reason to think so. 
     “It's not really cool not to have anybody,” says Davion. He would know. 

     In the name of Jesus, may we help to set the lonely in families.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Scandalous Friendship

    Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.’
    For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine,and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
-Luke 7:31-35 (NIV)

Erin Cox just wanted to help a friend. She didn’t intend to become famous.     
    Two weeks ago, the senior honor student in the Boston suburb of North Andover received a call from a friend at a party. The friend had been drinking, and realized that she was too drunk to drive home. So, after she got off work, Erin drove to the party in a neighboring town to pick up her friend.
    Moments after she arrived, the police showed up.  They arrested a few of the kids there for  underage possession of alcohol, and issued summons to several others. Erin was one of the kids summoned. It’s not all that clear why, as a police officer apparently wrote a statement to Erin’s mom saying that she hadn’t been drinking or in possession of alcohol - a statement she took to court Friday hoping to get Erin’s punishment revoked.
    Right, punishment. Erin’s high school informed her that, by being at the party, she was in violation of the district’s zero tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use. By rule, she was demoted her from her position as captain of the volleyball team and told her she wouldn’t be allowed to play for five games.
    We have a teenager in our house, and don’t want him drinking either. If a friend calls him too drunk to drive home, I hope he’ll tell me, and I’ll go with him to pick up the friend. But, if for whatever reason he chooses not to let me help, I wouldn’t be disappointed if he helped his friend in the same way Erin helped hers.
    Erin is, at least, putting on a brave public face: “I felt like going to get her was the right thing to do,” she says. “Saving her from getting in the car when she was intoxicated and hurt herself or getting in the car with someone else who was drinking.” When asked if, knowing what she knows now, she thinks she made a mistake in going to pick up her friend, she answered that she would do it again. “It was the right thing.”
    At the very least, maybe Erin will learn from this experience that doing the right thing isn’t always easy. It risks misunderstanding and condemnation. It can be subject to criticism. It opens us up to the evaluation of others, others who perhaps don’t care for the light our actions shine on them or on society in general. Doing what’s right can be scandalous, controversial. Ask Erin about that. Ask Jesus.
    Jesus had friendships that scandalized the religious folks of his time. The church crowd sneered at him over their potluck dinners for his associations with the “sinners.”
    “Did you hear that he ate with that tax collector in Jericho?”
    “I heard he let - well, you know, one of those women - interrupt a dinner over at Simon the Pharisee’s. Heard he let her touch him, even.”
    “Who is he to tell us anything? He’s a glutton and a drunk. He’s a friend of sinners.”
    What’s worse, of course, is that Jesus didn’t seem to think that being a friend of sinners was behavior that he needed to defend. “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” he once scolded some of the uber-righteous. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” As Paul would reflect later: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst.”        
    Sounds like he was glad, as we all should be, that Jesus is a friend to sinners.
    So if there are scandalous friendships in your life, then you’re standing just where Jesus stood.
    Unless, of course, you’re under the impression that friendship is synonymous with “live and let live.”
    Jesus saw his mission as comparable to a doctor’s mandate to heal his patients. He went to that little tax collector’s house and enjoyed his hospitality. He was no doubt a gracious guest. But Jesus’ friendship changed the little tax collector’s life. That woman who interrupted the polite church dinner did so because she had been transformed by her friendship with Jesus. Paul said Jesus came to save sinners - not just to hang out with them.  
    Scandalous friendships are often used by God to change lives. But not if they require us to compromise our identity in Jesus.We must make sure that our friends know who we are. If they don’t know us as people who follow Jesus, how is God glorified in those friendships? And how will we help people who might be lost, stranded, and alone come to know him?
    So, please - have scandalous friendships. The kind people whisper about behind your back. The kind that are open to misunderstanding by people who have little imagination for the way God works. You don’t have to defend it, or explain it, or smooth the ruffled feathers of people who don’t get it. The church is not a gated community. Let’s open the gates and be friends with those outside: to love them as they are, believing that Jesus will transform them into who they were meant to be. Let’s love them by standing by them, being there when they call, and speaking and showing the gospel of Jesus to them in the midst of their sometimes messy lives. Let’s love them enough to let them be themselves with us, and to be who we really are with them.
    And if people don’t like it, or don’t understand it, so be it. We’re in good company.

Friday, October 4, 2013


   For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
-John 5:36-40 (NIV)

You might not know Susan Bennett. But you might very well hear her voice every day.
    Susan Bennett is Siri, the digital personal assistant who speaks to you from your iPhone or iPad. Based in Atlanta, Susan has done voice-over work for twenty years, for everyone from Cartoon Network to Home Depot. In 2005, she signed to do work for a software company. They had her enter a recording studio and read various phrases and sentences for hours. Those snippets were then pieced together by computers in a process called concatenation. So, however real Siri may sound, when she tells you the weather or reminds you of a meeting it’s just a recording of Susan Bennett saying random words and phrases stitched together by software.
    I know, it kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?
    Sorry, Siri.
    I probably don’t have to tell you this, but talking to Siri isn’t the same thing as talking to Susan Bennett. Siri might give you a recipe, for instance, that Susan Bennett wouldn’t recommend. If you called Susan right now, she wouldn’t know your schedule for tomorrow. And she would almost certainly not play music for you.
    Through the magic of concatenation, we can hear Susan’s words without actually hearing anything she’s ever really said.
    I hope not, but sometimes I wonder if we make the same mistake in reading the Bible.
    We like to tell ourselves, and one another, that all a person has to do to be a Christian is read the Bible and live out what he or she sees there. We talk like there’s nothing to it, like anyone who can read can do it.1 Of course, the history of the church would suggest that hearing God’s voice isn’t quite as easy as reading a page of text. And living it out is even harder.
    Let me be clear: I don’t think the problem lies with the Bible. I would, like most believers, affirm that the Bible is God’s word. What that might mean, imply, demand - we’ll leave that for another time. Suffice to say for now that the problem isn’t the Bible - it’s the way we use the Bible. A verse here. A phrase there. The process of concatenation comes to mind.
    It’s a problem that’s unique to Bible people. Look at the Bible scholars of Jesus’ day, as a “for instance.” They were convinced that in the Scriptures was the key to eternal life, if only they knew them well enough. Studied them hard enough. Practiced them faithfully enough. So they did; they studied, worried, debated, argued, dissected, analyzed, and categorized the Bible. They were even convinced that, by applying biblical texts to the issues of their day, they could find out what the Bible said about things it never directly addressed.
    Concatenation. They knew God’s word. They would have said they heard his voice. But they never really heard God speak, because instead of letting his word change their hearts and minds, they set about piecing together a phrase here, a word there, to support what they already assumed  God was saying.
    You know this because when the Word made flesh came to live among them and open God’s kingdom to them, they didn’t recognize him. He spoke with a voice they didn’t expect, and so they rejected him and refused to hear him.
    They weren’t ignorant of the Scriptures - far from it. They weren’t intentionally trying to miss God’s work in the world. The problem is that they had a concatenated Bible built of proof-texts and dogmas, and that never really sounds like God. Not any more than Siri sounds like Susan Bennett.
    As Bible people ourselves, may we take a warning from them. In their zeal to be biblical, they weren’t that different from us. And in our tendency to stitch together a Bible that answers our questions and speaks to our needs, we might not be that different from them. If we think God’s word only agrees with our political convictions, we almost certainly have a concatenated Bible. If what we know as God’s word only challenges what other denominations are doing and never asks tough questions of our own fellowship, our Bibles are concatenated. If God’s word never speaks to our own shortcomings, condemns our own sins, calls us to repentance, or opens our eyes to new ways in which we might see God working in his world, then maybe the problem is that we’re hearing a word constructed out of snippets, clips, and sound bites. If we find God agreeing with us most of the time, it might be because we’ve built concatenated Bibles.
    Believers talk sometimes about living in the word. What we mean by that, I think, is being familiar with it, studying it, learning it. And, of course, that’s good. But it’s even better, I think,  to have the word of God living among us and in us. And, of course, in Jesus the Word was made flesh and came to live among us. That means that any reading of Scripture that contradicts his purposes, values, and demands is the wrong one. It may be a fair enough imitation of the word of God, but it isn’t the genuine article. His voice will always expose our concatenated Bibles for what they are.
    The Word made flesh has poured out his Spirit into our lives, and into our community life as the church. And so we ask his guidance in reading the Bible, so that we can hear the voice and see the form of God. Without the Spirit’s guidance, as experienced through the whole church, how can we hope to hear God’s voice in the Bible? Without the Word made flesh, how can we come to him and have life?
    So let’s have the courage to dispose of the “Bibles” we’ve created for ourselves, the ones built out of proof-texts, favorite verses, and private interpretation. The ones that may sound a little like God, but don’t really represent him very well. Let’s read our Bibles with eyes on Jesus, hearts full of the Holy Spirit, and ears attuned to hear our brothers and sisters. And God will speak.
    Though he might not tell you the weather.

1What does it suggest about our understanding of Christianity if it’s only for those who can read?