Friday, February 28, 2014

Salt and Light, America, 2014

    You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
    “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV)

    This past week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill - SB 1062/HB 2153 - that would have allowed business owners with religious objections to homosexuality to refuse to serve homosexual customers. While the bill was much more broadly worded than that (and its broadness was one of the factors its opponents used against it), the bill came about to shore up existing state law after a New Mexico case in which courts found against a photographer who refused to take pictures at a homosexual wedding. The bill was largely an attempt to prevent business owners or employees from being forced by government to compromise religious principles in the course of their work unless the government had “compelling interest” to do so.
    As observers pointed out, however, if passed the bill would have also had the effect of allowing a Muslim taxi driver to refuse service to a woman traveling alone.
    Predictably, the political fallout from the veto is loud and chaotic. Those on the left tend to see it as a victory for justice and equality, while those on the right tend to see it as yet another governmental restriction on personal liberty. Which is, you know, exactly the same struggle that the United States - along with democracies all around the world - has dealt with since our forefathers threw the first crate of tea into Boston Harbor: is it the role of  government to protect personal liberty, or legislate for the greater good of society at large?
    Those of us who claim biblical values have to be careful here, because biblical values can also cut against us. The prophets called Israel’s leaders to justice and righteousness; note, for example, Ezekiel’s shepherd parable, where Israel’s “shepherds” are especially to be concerned about the weak, sick, injured, and straying sheep. They aren’t to simply sit back and let the strong overwhelm the weak in some Darwinian, Lord of the Flies free-for-all. There’s an entire flock to be concerned about, says Ezekiel, and it’s the responsibility of Israel’s shepherds to ensure that the well-being of the flock isn’t sacrificed to fatten a few individual sheep.
    We’re not Israel, but if that parable says anything about God’s priorities for government, we’d do well to listen.
    But I suspect that in this case, some Christians would see themselves as the weaker sheep in the flock, sheep who need the shepherds to step in and protect them.
    I suspect that’s because, over the last several decades, we Christians have seen some of our values and priorities fall out of favor with the world around us. We’re increasingly seeing ourselves as a bit out of step with a society that used to affirm our faith. At one time, there was a “civil religion” in American society that assumed some of our world view and made it easy for us to practice our faith. When, rarely, someone would suggest that maybe this constituted favoritism for Christians, we could usually count on the courts or the legislature to squash the objection.
    Some of that’s changed over the last few decades, and it’s caused some of us to be kind of disoriented, and defensive, and sometimes - let’s admit it, OK? - to lash out in fear and anger at those who raise other perspectives. That’s why some of us want a constitutional amendment to define marriage, or to pass bills like SB1062/HB2153. We’re afraid that, in the constant clash in American society between individual liberty and the good of the society at large, our government might continue to lean in favor of points of view that differ from ours, and (in our eyes) make the practice of our faith more difficult.
    But do we have it that bad? Talk to a Christian in a country run by fundamentalist Muslims, and you might see our struggles in a whole new light. Talk to a believer who lived through Stalin’s pogroms, or tried to practice her faith in the Soviet Union, or under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and you’d likely start to think that being on the minority in public debate might not be what they’d call persecution. That’s not intended to minimize the struggle of a person who finds his faith and his public life don’t coexist peacefully sometimes; we’ve all been there, and know how hard that can be. It’s to perhaps provide a bit of perspective; there’s still a pretty long way to go from a governor failing to protect the (dubious?) right of a business owner to discriminate between customers based on sexual orientation to a government rounding up practicing Christians.    
    Let me be clear: I’m a Christian who believes the Bible has something to say about sexual relationships being confined to marriage between a man and woman. But I also know that there are a lot of people in the world who choose not to live that way, and that even some of us in the church, so I hear, struggle now and then with sexual temptation of various kinds. Those folks are not my enemies, because they weren’t Jesus’ enemies. They are, like all of us, in need of grace, looking for love, and deserving of respect and dignity as human beings.
    Therein lies the problem, I think. Some of us - Christians, I mean - seem interested in making our churches and our homes into metaphorical gated communities, safe from the evil “out there.” We want to huddle behind the battlements, untouched by the bad stuff. We want to build a shining city on a hill, but lock its gates to all but those few who know the password. We say we want our lights to shine, but we run for cover when someone complains that we’re about to set the drapes on fire. We know we’re supposed to be salt in the world, but sometimes think that’s the same thing as rubbing salt into the wounds of those who, like us, bear the marks of life in a fallen world.
    But Jesus was clear, wasn’t he, about what it means to be salt and light? He didn’t say it had anything to do with getting legislation passed, or winning court cases, or electing officials that check all the right boxes. Maybe there’s some value in that, from time to time. But it can also be a way to sidestep our personal responsibilities to those who are lost, hurting, injured, and forgotten - as lost, hurting, injured, and forgotten as we would be without Jesus. “Good deeds,” he said; “let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
    Let legislatures and governors and courts decide what they will. Let politicians consolidate power around issues - issues that they use to ensure their own reelections.  Our faith isn’t about the issue du jour, whatever that might be. Evil isn’t just “out there.” And the only way for us to be salt and light is to allow Jesus to live in us and shine out of us; to comfort us in our brokenness, challenge us in our pride, and then burst out of us in words and actions that lift up God to the world. None of that changed this week because a governor vetoed a bill. We still follow the one who made God’s love for the world concrete by living among us, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, comforting the mourning, encouraging the poor, and preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.          
    May our lives look more and more like his.

Friday, February 21, 2014


    I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
    We know that the whole creation has been groaning  as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.   Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,  groan  inwardly as we wait eagerly  for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved…. But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
-Romans 8:18-25 (NIV)

Watching the Olympics, I’ve come to believe, is a theological exercise. Bear with me; I’ll explain.
Kerri Strug. Derrick Redmond. If you’re a fan of the Olympics, you might already know the names, or at least remember the stories. Kerri nailed a one-footed landing on a vault to give the US Women’s Gynastics team a gold medal in 1996 - despite having torn two ligaments in her ankle on the previous vault. Derrick finished his 400 m semifinal race in 1992 - with a little help from his dad - despite having torn his hamstring. And, of course, if I ask if “you believe in miracles,” you’ll probably think of a certain hockey game in Lake Placid, New York in the winter of 1980, long before NHL players were allowed in the Olympics.
    This year, it might be Sarah Burke’s name that stands out most. She worked tirelessly to get her sport, Women’s Free Skiing, into this year’s Olympics, but was killed in a training accident less than a year after the IOC voted to include it. Her last conversation with fellow skier Marie Martinod, of France, was to convince her to end her retirement from the sport to ski in the Olympics.
    Martinod won silver.
    At least part of what we like in the Olympics are the stories like that - stories of redemption. Recovery from injury. Underdogs winning against all odds. Veterans with so-so careers pulling it all together for one final medal run. Newcomers shaking up a sport by performing far above their age and experience. Family and friends banding together to support an athlete. Never mind that there are plenty of stories at every Olympics that don’t exactly go that way. We watch to see athletes do things that we never could, to be sure. But the stories we love most are the stories where pain is overcome, injustice is vanquished, fear is defeated, and quitting is denied. Stories of redemption.
    I think human beings are drawn to stories of redemption because redemption is something we’re all searching for. The first time we tell a playmate that something they did isn’t fair, the first time we see evil and injustice for what it is and say, “that’s not right,” our innocence is lost a little. We notice for the first time that the world we live in isn’t quite right. Its equilibrium is off. The weak are pushed into the dirt by the strong. The poor too often remain poor, while those who could help most accumulate more for themselves. We see influential people feathering their own nests, leaders who should be mindful of those they lead interested only in what they can squeeze out of them. We see disease and catastrophe take random victims. We find out that some parents abuse their children, and that some children neglect their parents. Things aren’t right. And that desire for things to be right comes out most clearly in our love for stories of redemption.
    That’s why, in Hollywood, the good guy always wins. Even if he dies, his death has a purpose. People stay away from movies and TV shows in droves if they don’t get their redemption fix.
    We want to believe that somehow, somewhere, sometime, things will make sense. What’s not right will get fixed. We want to believe in redemption.
    We groan for it, says Paul: especially, he says, those who “have the first fruits of the Spirit.” He means that Christians, people who have put their faith in Jesus, have a sharpened sense of how things ought to be because the Spirit of the Creator of “things” lives in us. If human beings naturally seem to ache for redemption, for Christians that desire is a knife in the gut, twisting. In another place, he calls the Holy Spirit a “down payment” on the redemption that’s coming when Christ returns. It’s a taste, but it doesn’t satisfy completely. It’s a preview, but it’s not the main event. It’s a trailer, but the premiere is still down the road a click or two. And that’s why we “groan.”
    We groan because it hurts to know what’s coming but see it so delayed. It hurts to see people die knowing that one day death will be a relic of the past. It hurts to see people hurt each other knowing that one day injustice will be dealt with definitively. It hurts to see the marks of evil and sin and death in our lives and in the lives of those we love, knowing that one day that will all be sorted out. It hurts to know redemption is coming, and to see that is isn’t coming just yet.
    So we groan, and we hear the groans of the creation around us. Things aren’t right in creation at large because things aren’t right with us, the people who God put in charge of it. So, as much as us, the world around waits for redemption. It waits because when we’re no longer slaves to what binds us, then creation won’t be either.
    Some Christians in their groaning have withdrawn from the world around them. They huddle in enclaves and turn a disdaining eye on the rest of the world, where things aren’t right. And they try to create little terrariums where things are right.
    Other Christians in their groaning have turned their guns on the world around them. They angrily denounce the world for not being right, even though lots of people who fall under their glare feel that lack of rightness too. They yell at the world to join them or burn, and some do, but most don’t, and don’t even take their message seriously.
    Paul says we should “wait patiently.” Wait, by not giving up on the hope of redemption in Jesus, but wait patiently, by not withdrawing from the world. Wait for the redemption that’s coming, and never be content with the sad substitutes that so easily capture our attention. But wait patiently, by remembering that people ultimately chase those substitutes because they feel the same need that we do. Wait, by proclaiming the very good news that in Jesus creation is being redeemed, and that one day soon enough he’ll set things right again. But wait patiently, by trying to live out what it will look like in that redeemed creation when love is the lingua franca and the strong care for the weak and selfishness, terror, evil, and death will no longer have a place.
    May we never stop groaning for redemption - and may we never stop trying to create stories of our own where redemption is happening - until we see the Lord return. And may we never stop saying, with the church through all the ages, Marana tha!

    Come, Lord.

Friday, February 7, 2014


“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
-Luke 7:24-27 (NIV)

I have two diametrically opposed points of view about snow.
     One is the view I learned growing up in the South, in a town with lots of hills and twisty roads. We didn’t have snowplows. When it snowed, which thankfully was rarely, the department of public works would dump sand on the roads, not salt. It might be noted that sand does not melt snow and ice. As a matter of fact, it offers almost no advantage over driving on just snow. 
     I think the theory was that if we couldn’t see the snow, we’d all think we were at the beach.
     What I learned from these experiences is that snow meant a day off. If the weather guy even whispered the word “snow,” the schools closed and Chattanoogans rushed to the grocery stores to stock up in milk and bread. (I never understood the stocking up. Whatever snow fell rarely stayed around longer than 12 hours. How long did we think we we’re going to be snowed in?) All the kids would bundle up, find our sleds, if we had them, and run out to play. No one tried to go anywhere. The city just came to a halt.
     In fact, just last week Chattanooga was paralyzed by the same “storm” that did almost as much damage to Atlanta as the zombie apocalypse in Season 1 of The Walking Dead. Note that in some of the photos of cars scattered all over the road, people milling around, and so forth, you can actually see grass. Chattanooga, you’re my people and I love you. But if you can still see grass, it’s not a snowstorm.
     I know that because, 22 years ago or so, I moved to Chicago. 
     I haven’t seen a blade of grass in my city since early December. We assume it’s still there, but we can’t say for sure, as it’s buried under a good foot of snow. Schools have been closed four days this year, but it’s been because of wind chills of -30, -40 degrees, and a lot of our kids walk to school. 
     They can, because the sidewalks are more or less cleared. Those who ride in buses or cars to school can get there, because the roads are plowed and salted. Snow doesn’t normally paralyze Chicago. That’s not because we’re a better city than Atlanta or Chattanooga or wherever. It’s because, up here, snow happens. And even when a lot of snow happens, and when it hangs around for a long time, like this winter, we can manage. We might complain. We might not have the best attitudes. But we can carry on. We go to school in the snow. We go to work. We have plows, and salt, and we expect it. So we’re prepared for it.
     Ask any Boy Scout, and he’ll tell you that being prepared matters. Ask a good student. Ask an athlete. Ask an ad executive going into an important client meeting, or a mom going out with a baby, or a reporter about to go on the air. If you’re prepared, the odds are better that you won’t get surprised and that you’ll have what you need to succeed. 
     That said, there are some eventualities in life for which it’s difficult to be prepared. They tend to occur with no warning, or to be so catastrophic as to make preparation impossible: a serious disease, a lost job, a financial reversal, the death of a loved one, a broken relationship. They come out of nowhere and they strike at the very things that give you a sense of security, peace, and joy. They churn up a tsunami of fear, sadness, anger, and despair and tear away at the foundations on which you’ve built your life. Rarely do we see them coming, and when they do rarely do we bounce back easily.
     And yet, it seems that we can be prepared, even for those life events for which there seems to be no preparation. It’s counterintuitive, though, because we don’t prepare for catastrophe or tragedy or even a major rearrangement by working at prevention or becoming adept at avoidance. We prepare for life’s big storms by doing something that sounds deceptively simple. We listen. We listen to Jesus. And then what we hear, we put into practice.
     Doesn’t matter how extravagant a beach house is, or lovely the view from the porch, if it’s just built on a level place on the sand it’s not going survive a storm. The foundations need to go down to bedrock. It’s foolish to try to build without foundations; when the rain comes down and the flood waters start to rise, that kind of house is coming down. But a house with a foundation will survive.
     To extend the metaphor a little: no house avoids all the storms. Some day the wind will blow and the rain will splatter against yours, too. A foundation is the difference between surviving with everything intact and a pile of debris being washed out to sea. 
     What gives our lives foundation is hearing and doing what Jesus says. You won’t always know how, but the discipline of listening to him and obeying him - even when it’s hard, even when it goes against our particular view of ourselves and the world - will help you trust him during difficult times. It will set you up for endurance. Listening and obeying him is the unwavering support for a life that isn’t paralyzed, even though the wind blows and snow piles up and the groundhog says six more weeks of winter.
     Jesus’ words have been published and re-published in every language on earth. They’re all over the internet. His words are in Hollywood scripts, best-selling books, and popular TV shows. It likely wouldn’t take you very long to find his words, in one form or another, in your house right now.
     Finding someone who’ll listen to Jesus? To really build a life on what he says? That’s a little more difficult.
     Jesus may be the world’s most ignored man. Even in the church, we lift up his words, read them in solemn tones, carve them on our communion tables and project them on big screens. And we do all that so we feel better about the fact that when it comes right down to it, we don’t actually live by his words.
     So when death comes, we don’t know what to do. When our standard of living is threatened, we panic. When faced with a  debilitating disease, we lose our minds. When we don’t know what to do with our kids, we come to a screeching halt. The storms expose that we’ve been living lives with no foundation. We’re paralyzed.
     So, may I presume to tell you to consider Jesus’ words. All of them, the unpopular ones as well as the popular ones, the harsh ones as well as the warm fuzzy ones, the ones that go down easy and the ones that disrupt the life you've built for yourself. Consider his words, and then live by them. Put them into practice. Do what he says. And just see if you won’t be better prepared for the storms that lurk just over the horizon.

     If you’ll excuse me, I need to go make sure there’s gas in my snow blower.