Friday, April 25, 2014

Diversity: Aspiration and Reality

As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 
     The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”    On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,   while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Corinthians 12:20-26)

Everyone wants diversity. 
     It’s a shared value in our world. Unquestionably admirable. No one has to specify positive diversity, or good diversity, or desirable diversity. Just diversity. Every organization tries to display it. Every company touts it in their hiring practices and leadership structure. Every school, every university, sells itself with diversity. 
     You can tell it’s regarded as a positive thing in our culture because few dare to question it out loud. You can tell it’s a good thing in that, where it’s missing, folks try to cover up its lack. Everyone wants diversity. Churches included.
     Maybe especially churches. 
     For churches, it’s different. For other organizations, diversity is often good business, or good public relations. It can be for churches as well, of course, but that’s not the only reason for it. For churches, it’s more than that. It’s gospel. The gospel calls us to diversity. Whatever makes human beings different, we’re the same in that God created us, Jesus died for us, and through him the Holy Spirit lives in us. For believers in Jesus, differences take on a milder hue in light of the gospel. Believers are members of one body - Jesus’ body. Distinctions between us are made secondary to the work of God in the world, and to our places within that work.
     Those differences between us don’t disappear, though. That’s the flip side of diversity. Everyone wants it - but it’s hard. Everyone wants it, but there are a lot of factors working against it. Whatever lip service our culture might give to diversity, there are lots of realities that squash it and kill it. Even in the church.
     It might be debatable whether or not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pronouncement of  “11:00 on Sunday morning” as “the most segregated hour of this nation” still holds true, but the fact is that churches still find diversity hard. A recent study by Nashville, Tennessee - based LifeWay Research bears this out. The study asked church leaders if they believed that every church should strive for racial diversity. Not surprisingly, 85% of Protestant church leaders said yes. Asked the same question, 78% of Americans agreed.
     Asked whether their church has more than one predominant racial or ethnic group, only 13% of the church leaders said yes. Asked whether they would be most comfortable visiting a church where multiple races or ethnicities were represented, 51% of Americans said yes. 
     Diversity is great as an aspiration. It seems harder to work out in reality.
     Admittedly, diversity isn’t just a race/ethnicity thing. It can be about economics, or age, or gender. The bottom line, though, is that the gospel brings people who are different together. And if that’s not happening in church, then it’s probably because there are some unhealthy practices and attitudes that have made their way into the life of the church, and they can probably be grouped together under the heading, “favoritism.”
     The truth is that we human beings tend to show favoritism to those most like us, or to those we most admire and want to be like. That means, usually, that we favor the majority race or ethnicity (whatever it may be). It means, usually, that we favor the wealthy, because we like their lifestyle and like to associate with them. It means that, all things being equal, we favor those who have power over those who don’t, those at the center over those at the margins, those most like us over those least like us.
     Trouble is, God turns that on its head. And the gospel invites - even demands - that we do the same.
    The gospel doesn’t just tell us why we should be diverse. It teaches us to treat those who are different in ways that bring us together. In Paul’s body analogy, he points out that the parts of that are “unpresentable” are treated with “special modesty,” and that the parts that are less honorable receive special honor. He points out, on the other hand, that there are some parts of the body that don’t need much special treatment.
     You get the point. While our tendency might be to show favoritism to those most like us, to the admirable, to the powerful, to the important, the gospel demands that we show favoritism to those different from us, to the less admirable, to the weak, to the insignificant, and to the marginalized. It’s not enough to be “fair.” To be the kind of diverse body the gospel calls us to be, we have to show special honor to the parts that might lack it. 
     That might mean we honor other cultures in our churches beside the dominant one with our choices in worship songs or language. It will mean that we’ll give special thought and prayer about elevating members of those minority cultures to positions of leadership and decision-making. 
     It will mean covering those among us struggling publicly with sin, offering them the clothing of grace to hide their vulnerability. It will mean helping those who need help with dignity and sensitivity. It will mean that there is a responsibility that goes long with power and privilege in the church: the responsibility to protect, love, and serve with humility.
     It will mean that “haves” will share with “have-nots,” that we’ll show hospitality. It will mean that those who have special privileges by virtue of their wealth, or reputations, or citizenship will share with those who don’t.
     It will mean that we’ll celebrate with those who celebrate, and weep with those who weep, instead of using privilege as an insulator. It will mean that we’ll find ways to stand with those who need a friend, speak for those who have no voice, and affirm that we’re together because God wants us together.              
     Diversity in the church doesn’t just happen with the right hires or strategies. It happens because believers take the gospel seriously, and do the hard work of living it out by reach out in love to the marginalized, as Jesus did.

     Then maybe, finally, diversity will be more than an aspiration.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"If You Had Been Here...."

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." (John 11:20-22)

Mary and Martha just knew Jesus would come.

     Their brother didn't have much time, that was certain. They could see the life draining out of him with every labored breath. The doctors had done all they could; time was running out on him. But they knew how much Jesus loved their brother. So they sent word to him: "The one you love is sick." They didn't need to spell out what they wanted; they knew Jesus would hear the plea in those words. All they had to do was wait and implore Lazarus to hang on. Jesus would come.
     They would spend days waiting. If you've sat in a hospital waiting room while doctors worked to save someone you love, you understand what they went through. If you've ever held the hand of a dying loved one and prayed frantically that God would heal her, or spare her further suffering -- or weren't sure what to pray -- you've sat in their seat. If someone you care about has ever been put on a last-ditch course of treatment, you know what it's like to watch helplessly and wait to see whether salvation is coming. They spent days waiting, their eyes flickering between Lazarus and the door. I wonder how many times they got to their feet when a shadow darkened the doorway, only to slump back down in despair when once again it wasn't Jesus. Days -- waiting, hoping, praying, fuming, wondering. "Where is he? Doesn't he care? Don't our pain and grief matter?" 
     And then Lazarus took a ragged breath, exhaled....and that was that.
     And with that exhalation, all the air had whooshed out of Martha's and Mary's lungs too. They spent the next few days in a fog, sleepwalking through the embalming and burial. Prayers were prayed, words were spoken, comfort was given. The hope of a resurrection for the righteous was no doubt invoked. But Lazarus' place in the house was empty, his voice was silent, his laughter would be heard in the little home no more. Martha and Mary were alone. No prayers, no words or deeds of comfort, and no religious dogma could change that.
     It's amazing that they talked to Jesus at all when he finally arrived. They probably wouldn't have if they'd known that he had intentionally delayed his trip to Bethany. Martha rushed to meet him as he entered the town. Her rebuke is veiled, but not too much: "Where have you been? If you'd come when I called you Lazarus would still be alive!" 
     I've been to my share of funerals, and at every one the very same question is on the air. Oh, people aren't always as bold as Martha was in asking it. (If Martha had understood better who Jesus was, I doubt she would have been either...) But the question's always there. It's as much a part of funeral homes as flowers and hearses and caskets. Funeral homes are places where we process our grief. They're places where we perform the last acts of love and respect for our dead that we can. They're places where friends gather to share sorrow and comfort. But there are no answers offered with the deluxe vault. There are only services and atmosphere for sale there; no solutions. Funeral homes are the places where we try to strike a peaceful bargain with death, knowing full well that he doesn't bargain. And that's why the question hangs in the air, unmasked by the fragrance of flowers, roaring above the soft words of comfort. "Where were you, God? Why'd you let her get sick? Why'd you take him away? Why allow him to suffer and then let him die? If you had been here, Lord, the one I love wouldn't have died."
     Martha mistook Jesus' answer to her question, "Your brother will rise again," as just more overused sentiment: "he's in a better place" or "God needed another flower in his garden" or "he looks good". But that's most definitely not what Jesus' answer is. Martha quotes the dogma she's always believed but never trusted and it offers little comfort. A resurrection in the last day has nothing to do with her grief and loneliness on THIS day. But Jesus' words push her out away from the thick branches of dogma and onto the thin limb of hope and conviction.
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."
     Resurrection isn't just a hope for the future. Jesus IS resurrection, and he's more. He's God's answer to that question our elaborate, expensive funeral arrangements can't touch. Where was God? Well, he was here among us. And he struggled with the fear of death. And he attended funerals. Including his own. When he stood in front of Lazarus' tomb he must have thought of the one that would soon hold his own body. And when Lazarus walked out in response to his voice, he must have looked ahead to the day his Father would call him out.
     "You were dead in your transgressions and sins," Paul once wrote to some believers in Ephesus. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ...and God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus..." Jesus looked Martha in the eye and promised her that resurrection was more than a pipe dream, more than a comforting lie we tell ourselves. He promised her that he embodies resurrection, and that those who put their faith in him are immediately raised from the dead. "Do you believe this?" he asked her. She must have, because it wasn't long after that she was hugging Lazarus again. 
     But it isn't Lazarus' resurrection that's so important in this story. It's the promise that all who believe share in that resurrection. You're supposed to hear your name on Jesus' lips, see yourself shuffling out of that dark tomb. Not one day. Now. If you're a believer in Jesus you share in his life. And as a part of sharing in his life, you share in his resurrection. It isn't just a hope to believe at a funeral. It's reality to put your faith in right now. If you're in Christ, your life is not ended or even interrupted by death. You are raised with him, today, out of a life rendered futile by death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. 

     Do you believe this? 

Friday, April 4, 2014


     The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.. 
Genesis 6:5-8 (NIV)

I haven’t seen the new movie Noah yet. I’ve read the book, though, and I know how it ends. It’s sort of like Titanic that way, you know? Well, except the ark doesn’t sink. But you know what I mean.
     I haven’t seen it, but lots of people apparently have. The movie’s generated a lot of buzz, a lot of discussion. It even led some students in Leicester to research whether or not the ark could have held the necessary number of animals and still float. (Their verdict? Yes. Though, to be a little picky, they didn’t seem to take into account that Noah took seven pairs of clean animals.) It’s getting moderate reviews. Some Christians (and Jews and Muslims) really seem to dislike the movie on the grounds of biblical accuracy. (When did Hollywood ever adapt a book faithfully? Three films out of The Hobbit? Give me a break.) Others point to statistics that show a large spike in the number of people reading the Bible’s account of the flood as evidence that at least the film has driven interest in Bible reading.
     Like I said, I haven’t seen it. I’ve read some reviews, though, and some reflections by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim writers on the film. Sounds to me like it’s a pretty entertaining movie, as long as you don’t expect it to be the biblical story of Noah. 
     In a strange sort of way, the biblical story of Noah (in contrast to the film) is really about God’s grace and mercy. That’s a point that’s easy to lose, even in the biblical story, because we’re told in the Bible that Noah was saved because he was righteous and faithful. Of course, God was under no obligation to save even a righteous, faithful guy like him. The animals that didn’t get on the ark did nothing wrong, and yet God wiped them out. The Bible isn’t clear as to why the animals are wiped out, in fact, but it probably has to do with the fact that people were created to mind and care for God’s creation. When people became so inclined toward evil that they couldn’t care for Creation as God had intended, it all went south. God’s creation was “good,” but it was seamless. When one part went bad, the whole cloth was ruined. 
     The movie, apparently, operates on the assumption that nature is good and people are bad. I suspect a zebra being chased by a lion might have a slightly different take on that, if he could tell you. The biblical flood story assumes a creation that is woven so tightly together that to remove one part is to destroy it all. Noah in the movie is apparently not even sure that he and his family are supposed to survive, and contemplates killing his grandchildren when they are born. But the Bible is clear that saving the human race is the point of having Noah build the ark.
     But the biblical flood story tells us that God didn’t give up on his creation. He preserves Noah and his family on the ark, not because Noah was perfect, but because he was a man with whom God could reboot. Sure, God could have simply repeated the Creation. That’s exactly what a God with no compassion for what he’d created would do, exactly what a God with no attachment would do. But that’s not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible has compassion for what he’s made. He shows mercy, and that mercy takes the form of ark blueprints. 
     That may not be the kind of mercy that we have a taste for, but when it started raining I bet it sounded pretty appetizing to Noah.
     According to reviews, the movie’s more like some of the ancient near east flood stories, in which a hero saves himself, and so the human race, from the capricious gods who want to cleanse the earth of the nasty little creatures. The biblical story, on the other hand, emphasizes that God’s mercy is the catalyst for the whole series of events. Absent his mercy, he might have left the world to tear itself apart. But by adding grace to the mix, God literally brings about a new world. It must have been horrendous, painful, and catastrophic. It was the end of the world, after all. But it made something new and better possible.
     When God offers grace, that’s what happens. Corruption, wickedness, violence, and selfishness convulse. The heavens split open, and the fountains of the deep burst forth. Some of the old order is swept away by the deluge, to be sure. But in the wet soil of the old lie seeds of hope for the new.
     The New Testament doesn’t give a lot of space to the story of Noah. But one of the New Testament writers who does mention the flood, Peter, puts that spin on the story. It’s a story of God’s patience, he points out, God’s refusal to give up while hope still remains, even on those who are disobedient. It’s a story of God’s salvation, a story of new life, a story of resurrection.
     It’s a story, in short, that reminds us of the story. It reminds us, as many stories of new life do, of the gospel of Jesus, the good news that through his resurrection a world enslaved to sin and death is liberated, renewed, and redeemed. The God who told Noah to build the ark is the God who sent his Son to die for the sins of the world, with the same outcome in mind in both cases: salvation.
     May we who have received that salvation never fail to show the mercy and compassion we have received in our treatment of the people around us and the world he has given us. 
    Even to people who make inaccurate movies about Bible stories.