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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bethlehem

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler 
who will shepherd my people Israel.. 
-Micah 5:2, 4, quoted in Matthew 2:6 (NIV)


We know where to find the rich, the powerful, the movers and shakers, the VIPs, don’t we? The opinion leaders, the world shapers, they live and work in very specific places. 
     You find them in Washington, D.C. In London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Beijing. You find them moving in the rarefied air of world capitals, in impressive government office buildings and chambers. You find them making policy, writing bills, passing laws, making deals.
     You find them in Hollywood, churning out the movies and TV shows we’ll be watching talking about next year, determining by the designers they wear and styles they favor what the rest of us will wear. You find them lending their voices to causes and projects, influencing what the rest of us will care about. 
     Or you find them in corporate office suites and boardrooms, creating the products and services we’ll buy. You find them making deals and wooing investors and convincing stockholders. 
     You find them in the financial centers of the world, making transactions that trickle down to affect the interest rates we pay and receive, the value of our homes, the cost of college, the price of a gallon of gas. You find them at universities around the world, teaching the next generation, doing research that affects our health or our understanding of the world. You find them in advertising offices developing strategies that will influence what we buy. You find them in military headquarters, planning operations that can affect even the borders on our maps. 
     Two thousand years ago, if you wanted to find the rich and powerful, the movers and shakers, the VIPs, you’d have looked in the same kinds of places. You’d have gone to Rome. Alexandria. Antioch. Ephesus. Athens. A little farther down the list, you’d have found Caesarea, and probably a little farther still Jerusalem. In those places, you’d have found the same sorts of people doing the same sorts of things merit a place on the VIP lists of today.
     You know where you wouldn’t have gone? Bethlehem. It was a hole in the wall on the way to Jerusalem, known only for who had once lived there, a thousand years earlier. We don’t have cities in America that old, but imagine that we were still calling London the City of Harold I. That was Bethlehem — nothing of significance had happened there since David was alive. If you were looking for the rich, the powerful, the movers and shakers, the VIPs, you’d have gone somewhere else. Anywhere else.
     So it shouldn’t surprise us that no one was looking that night for the birth of a King.
     Oh, when the movers and shakers heard something about a king being born, they consulted together and decided that the prophecies indicated Bethlehem as a likely birthplace. City of David, after all. But that was after the fact. No one was looking for a King in Bethlehem that night. And, if they were, they would have looked first in the biggest, nicest house in town. It would have taken them a while, even in a town as small as Bethlehem, to find the young, tired couple bedded down with the animals out behind what was likely an average home overflowing with visitors. It would have taken them a while to find a baby wrapped in whatever rags they could find, asleep in a feed trough.
     That’s why everybody missed it. We don’t know where in Bethlehem Jesus was born, exactly. Oh, people say we know, but that was long after the fact. We don’t even know the day; December 25th was just a convenient date, though some Christians were celebrating Jesus’ birth on January 6th before that. 
     In short, we don’t know where or when he was born. That’s because there wasn’t anyone of importance around the mark the date and place. Why would they have been? The important people were elsewhere, doing their important things.
     But someone needed to pay attention. Someone needed to mark the event. If the important people had known, they would have had a festival. They would have had a choir in lavish costumes singing praises to the gods and to the newborn king. His subjects would have come to bow before him. His armies would have assembled before him. And so God marked the birth of his Son with a choir of his own, since the VIPs didn’t notice. The ranks of heaven’s armies assembled. But the only people in the whole world that noticed were a group of shepherds in the fields with their flocks.
     They were the first to tell the story of Jesus, the first to share the news that the King had been born. 
      “The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…But I am among you as one who serves,” Jesus once said. Our world says it’s preferable to be a mover and shaker, but Jesus was content to be among us as one who serves. And so we who follow him should aspire to the same kind of greatness — the greatness of service.    
     The VIPs of the world have never been very good at worshipping Jesus. Their solutions never include him. So may this Christmas be a time for us to give up once and for all our need to be VIPs. May we leave behind our compulsions to matter, to be important, to be known and admired, and instead go and bow before him. May we give up chasing dollars and things and security and happiness, and may we leave behind the illusion that the right politicians will solve our problems, and may we stop looking to  celebrities and corporations to tell us how to live the good life. 
     Go back to Bethlehem. Go back to the fields and hear with the shepherds the proclamation of “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Go to that manger, pick your way past the animals, and kneel there before the King.

     That’s where the important things are happening. That’s where they’ve always happened. If only we could see.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Consolation

     Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout.  He was waiting for the consolation of Israel,  and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God…
-Luke 2:25-28 (NIV)


Do you remember, like I do, laying awake Christmas Eve? You seemed to lie there forever, too excited to be still, to close your eyes, much less go to sleep. The poem says “not a creature was stirring,” but you were certainly stirring, probably not with visions of sugarplums but Barbie or G.I. Joe or a new bike  or “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time” dancing in your head. Whatever you were waiting for, sleeping was out of the question. All you could do was lay there and wait. (For, like, 45 minutes, and then you were asleep. But it seemed like the whole night.)
     That’s what anticipation does to you, doesn’t it? It’s a wormhole that slows down time. 
     I bought movie tickets weeks ago. I don’t ever do that; with the same movie showing on 75 different screens, why bother? But the movie I bought tickets for isn’t just any movie — it’s Star Wars, Episode VII. I hoped it would happen, even though there didn’t seem much reason to think so. And then when George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, I started to think it might happen. And then they announced it, and then the trailers started appearing. And now it’s almost here. The week’s going to crawl by.
     One of the things that happens as you grow up is that you lose your sense of anticipation. Take Christmas, again, as an example. Now, if we lay awake before Christmas is because we’re making a list of all the things we still have to do. Wonder is replaced with dread. Joy gives way to fatigue. There are gifts to buy at malls full of people who are as stressed as we are. Decorations to put up, food to prepare, travel plans to make. At some point the problem with Christmas isn’t that it takes forever to get here. It’s that it doesn’t take long enough. 
     Simeon is one of the background characters of the Bible. He’s a part of the scenery. But when we meet him in the Gospel of Luke, we’re reminded that even the background characters in our lives have stories. Simeon’s story, says Luke, is that he’s been waiting. Maybe better, anticipating. He’s looking forward in hope for what Luke calls “the consolation of Israel.”
     That’s an Old Testament thing. It’s a promise for those who pursue righteousness and seek God that the day is coming when he will wipe away the tears of his people, take them in his arms, and comfort them. The memories of their hardships will fade and be replaced by joy, gladness, and thanksgiving. 
     Sometimes we lose sight of that hope. We think that if we don’t console ourselves, no one else will. And so we lose our sense of anticipation over what God will do while we rush around trying to make life work on our own terms. In the process, we can easily run roughshod over others and add to the pain and sorrow in the world around us. 
     Simeon didn’t forget. He had probably lived a long life, long enough to see a lot of ugliness and experience a lot of grief. But he hadn’t lost his anticipation for God’s promised consolation. He had laid awake at night thinking about it. He had bought into it long ago. And so when the Holy Spirit nudged him that day to go the temple, he went. Maybe he wandered around for a while, not knowing what he was supposed to be looking for. But then he saw this young couple with a baby, and he knew. 

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace. 
For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
which you have prepared in the sight of all people”

     In some impossible way, this child would be God’s salvation. He would bring comfort and consolation to God’s people. Simeon didn’t have to be alive for it — he had seen it. He knew that God’s plans sometimes take more than one lifetime to come to completion. But he had seen it all the same, staring into that baby boy’s eyes and feeling his fist around his finger.
     Maybe it’s no surprise that Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Comforter, the Consoler. Jesus has sent him to us to stoke the fires of anticipation, to remind us that Simeon wasn’t wrong. Jesus is still the consolation of God’s people. He’s the one through whom millennia of anticipation are fulfilled. We’ve seen his salvation in Jesus, and we’ll see it in fullness when he comes again. And until then he lives with us and in us to remind us not to lose our hope.
     So please don’t. Don’t sleepwalk through life, blind and deaf and dead to the signs of hope that Jesus will awake in you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that consolation is something we can do for ourselves. Don’t lose your sense of joy and wonder in God’s salvation. And if you find yourself forgetting this Christmas, then go back to the beginning of the story, before the gifts and parties and what we’ve made of Christmas. Go back to a baby boy, and see in his face the consolation of God’s people. The end of death and grief and pain and hatred and violence. Your consolation. 

     It’s coming, because it’s already come.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Ashamed of Prayer?

       …[T]he prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective..
-James 5:15-16 (NIV)


In the aftermath of the murders this of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, social media have been alive with the usual debates over how to stop mass shootings going forward. Predictably, a lot of the back and forth has been centered on the issue of gun control. Well and good, except why does that debate only seem to take center stage when families are grieving such tragic losses? It seems like the victims get lost, don’t they, obscured by the ramblings of politicians from both sides of the aisle currying favor with their voters and constituents? 
     One might, I suppose, make the same accusations about ministers writing on blogs.
     This week, though, has seen the inclusion of  a new issue du jour: prayer-shaming.
     That’s what Atlantic contributor Emma Green called the trend, anyway. She was pointing to the reactions by some to the usual outpouring (again, largely by politicians) of “thoughts and prayers” messages. “Think and pray about passing sensible gun reforms,” says one. “Stop thinking. Stop praying. Start acting on gun violence prevention measures,” says another. One writer re-tweeted the “thoughts and prayers” messages of several prominent politicians, along with the amount of money they have taken from the NRA. The implication of responses like that is that prayer can be a hedge against the need to actually do anything. (And that “anything” is stricter gun control legislation.)
     The New York Daily News captured the feeling with their headline: GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS
     Though it might shock some who have no idea what Christians believe beyond what media tell them that we believe, Christians differ over gun control. For the purposes of my credibility in writing this, let me say that I don’t think there is any reason for the average person to own many of the weapons and high-capacity magazines that the San Bernardino shooters apparently had in their possession. I think that’s more common sense than liberalism, by the way. So what I’m about to say has nothing to do with whether or not I think tighter restrictions on gun ownership is a good idea — I think it is. 
     It has everything to do with the fact that I think prayer is a good idea.
     Those of us who are believers can and should pray for the families of the victims, that God will comfort them, and that they will find healing and hope in the promises of the gospel.
     We can pray for justice. We can pray that people who believe that their hurt and anger is justification for murderous intent will be found and stopped before their intentions can be realized.
     We can pray for forgiveness, asking ourselves if we may have had any part in creating a society where mass murder is so easy. We can pray for forgiveness when we stereotype entire cultures and races based on the actions of a few.
     Maybe most challenging: we can pray for our enemies, as Jesus commands us and models for us. We can pray for the repentance of those who persecute us, their conversion, their salvation. We can pray for the healing of their broken minds and hearts that have led them to such a terrible place. We can even pray for their forgiveness, secure in the knowledge that God’s justice will be done, and that vengeance and retribution belong to him.
     The foundation of our faith, after all, is that God acts, that he is at work in the world, and that sometimes he acts in response to the prayers of people of faith. He doesn’t always. There’s no rule that says he must. We don’t control him or manipulate him with our prayers, and sometimes for his own reasons he doesn’t answer the prayers of the community of faith as we’d like him to. But we don’t stop praying, because to stop praying is to give in to the conceit that the only way to change anything is through legislation or power or aggression or wealth. People of faith believe that it’s foolish to trust in human resources to the exclusion of God. That’s why we pray.
     Not to avoid actually doing anything. 
     That’s because when people of faith pray, it changes our outlook on the world. There will always, of course, be those in our world who wear faith like a costume. Jesus called them out for what they were doing: play-acting. They haven’t disappeared from our world, and it’s probably true that some of them have successful political careers going. But when believers pray, it sharpens our concern for the world around us. It doesn’t dull it. Think of Mother Teresa in Calcutta: she prayed for the poor, but she didn’t stop there. Her prayer led to her being among them. When the community of faith prays about the grief and violence in our world, it raises our eyes toward the horizon and leads us out into our world to be the hands through which the Lord does his work. 
     So, begging the pardon of those who doubt its efficacy, or who have political points of their own to score, when tragedies like the one in San Bernardino occur, I’ll pray. I’ll pray for comfort for the victims, and that the perpetrators will be stopped, and that further incidents will be prevented. The Holy Spirit helping me, I’ll even pray for the repentance and forgiveness of those who do such things. I’ll pray because God can do so much more than I can, and because he knows what do to when I don’t.
     I’ll pray for wisdom and guidance to see what has to be done, and strength to do it.

     I’m not going to be ashamed of that.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Called, Even When It's One Hour Outbound To The Junction

       Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.
-1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)


I always suspected this. Now I know my suspicions are correct. The traffic where I live is worse than anywhere else in America.
     According to a study released last week, the worst traffic bottleneck in the nation is on the Kennedy Expressway (Interstate 90/94) from Nagle Avenue to the Jane Byrne Interchange. 
     That’s, like, a mile from where I live.
     So, if you’re wondering why I haven’t solved the problems of the world by now, or invented something revolutionary, you have your answer. I’ve been sitting in traffic.
     Greg Cohen, the CEO of the group that did the study, visited Chicago recently. He tried going from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago via the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line train, but said that it “took forever,” so he decided to go back to the airport when it was time by taxi. “That was a nightmare too,“ he says. “I don’t know how Chicagoans deal with it.”
     How do we deal with it, Greg? I’m glad you asked. How do we deal with any of the inconveniences and struggles that life brings us? How do we deal with canceled flights? Impending deadlines? Misunderstood intentions? How do we deal with the fact that, nearly every day, some of the details of life don’t go exactly as we’d like them to?
     There’s the problem, those last five words: as we’d like them to. No one wants, for instance, to sit in traffic. We all feel like our time is too important to waste that way, that we’re too in demand, too necessary to the people around us, too indispensable to the events of our lives. We have to much on our to-do-lists and schedules, and more to the point we have too many ideas about the way our lives should go to tolerate realities like backed-up traffic. And so we build little worlds for ourselves in our own heads, worlds in which such indignities and inconveniences are not supposed to exist. And so we publish traffic studies that purport to equate sitting in  bottlenecks with lost money — money being the best way in our world to assign value to anything. 
     As it turns out, I’m just far too valuable to the world to be reduced to sitting in traffic. I mean, I’ve been saying…
     So when things don’t go for us as we’d like them to, does that mean nothing of consequence is happening? I’m thinking of sitting in traffic or waiting in line at the DMV or waiting to check out at the supermarket, but also I’m thinking of waiting for a better job, or any job, to come along. I’m thinking of the sometimes long journey between diagnosis and cure. I’m thinking of times when we’re struggling through family conflict, or when we’re waiting and hoping for the right person to come along at all. I’m thinking of lean economic times, and I’m thinking of cities stewing in racial tension, and I’m thinking of terrorism, and I’m asking: can it be that something good or productive or even holy might be possibly be happening in our lives while we wait for our preferred outcome? And is it possible that we might miss it if we don’t keep our hearts and minds open to that possibility?
      One of the issues that Christians throughout the ages have wished the Bible spoke more directly to is the issue of slavery. Most of us feel a sense of repugnance at the notion that a human being could ever be treated as the property of another human being. History says that there’s an ethic taught in the Gospel and in the Bible that dismantles the institution of slavery. And yet, when the Bible speaks directly to the idea of slavery, it doesn’t dismantle it. It says that Christian slave owners should treat their slaves well, as family in Christ, and it says that Christian slaves should work hard, as though they’re working for the Lord and not their human masters. You’d like the Bible to read more like The Emancipation Proclamation, and instead you get Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s transformation, to be sure, but not revolution.
     The root of that, though, is the belief that God is still God and that his work is going on in our lives, even when our lives don’t match our ideals. Put another way, we don’t have to wait until everything works out in our lives as we’d like them to for God to act for us and in us and through us. That’s how traffic jams are like slavery is like a dead-end job: in all of them, God is at work and we’re called to be a part of his work.
     “If you’re a slave and freedom is a possibility, then by all means, get free,” says Paul. But his bigger point is that God has chosen us, whatever our circumstances are, and that it’s a waste of time to miss what he’s doing right now where we are while we wait for things to get better or brighter. The lives we have right now are the lives we’ve been given, and God will transform and use these lives, the ones we have right now, for his glory in the world. 
     So you can fret and worry and stew and smolder and complain about traffic. Or you can be in prayer (eyes open, please), or you can be on the phone (hands-free, please) with someone the Lord might bless through you right there. You can dwell on how much you hate your job, and how much you’ll do for the Lord when you finally get the decent job you deserve, but if you do you’ll miss what God wants to be doing through you and in you right now, in that dead-end job you have. You can spend your whole life dwelling on how you could have mattered if only this or that — and you will have completely missed how, in the Lord, you could have mattered exactly where you were, doing exactly what you were doing. 
     Live as a believer where you are, doing what you do, and God will do wonderful things. To waste your life wishing for something else is to doubt him. To trust him is to believe that he has invited you right where you are to be a part of his work in the world, and to learn to expect him to work in unusual ways and unexpected places.

     Maybe even in a car stuck on the Kennedy at 5:30 in the afternoon.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick to Listen

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…
-James 1:19 (NIV)


At a Des Moines high school recently, President Obama was asked by a student about a Presidential candidate’s proposal to defund universities that display political bias. Obama responded that the idea “runs contrary to everything we believe about education.” Then he said:

I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either.
  
   I have a son who’ll be starting college next year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the people he’ll meet and what he’ll hear from them. My wife and I have not tried to shelter him from points of view other than our own. We want him to know what we believe, and why we believe it, but by and large I think we’ve resisted the urge to shield him from other, even competing, beliefs. When I’ve been tempted to, I’ve tried to talk myself out of it by reminding myself that the world doesn’t work that way. I agree with President Obama, I think: differing points of view are not obstacles to learning and growth, but prerequisites for it. We learn best, not by hearing points of view that we already share rehashed and recapitulated, but by allowing our own belief systems to collide with others. 
     When that happens, as President Obama says, we can have an argument. We can discuss and debate. We can try to convince each other. Best of all, we can start to understand where those other points of view come  from, and, even if we never find ourselves sharing them, at least come to know why others do. That always makes us better, more well-rounded people. 
     Christians haven’t always been known for this. Fairly or not (and it isn’t always), we’ve kind of been known for holding a black and white view of the world that tolerates no dissent. There have been times, admittedly, when we’ve tried to stifle other points of view. While it’s admirable for believers to hold firmly to their faith and to obey God as radically as they can, we’ve crossed the line wherever and whenever we’ve tried to force others to do the same by censoring other points of view and belief systems.
      I don’t see that as a uniquely Christian problem, though. In fact, I think the church may be better positioned than most to see the problem and contribute to its solution.
     Our society claims to value tolerance, and on the surface we do. But, like most cultural values, this notion of tolerating diversity only runs so deep. We don’t really want tolerance of our views. We want agreement and approval. And if we can’t have agreement and approval, then we don’t want to discuss it anymore. In the face of non-agreement, we expect silence and resort to censorship.
     Tolerance requires that we hear from those who disagree with us, and allow them the same room to express their views that we expect for our own.
     We don’t do debate well anymore. 
     The Scriptures, interestingly, are full of the mandate to love each other. To bear with each other. James says we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. The fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives includes such traits as peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. And we still follow, don’t we, a Lord who responded to the misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and mistreatment of others, not with censorship or demands to be heard or violence or legal action, but by giving himself in love?
     Which, as always, is the only real way to overcome evil. 
     Wherever Christians go, we should bring with us the ability and willingness to hear from people who don’t see the world the way we do. Why should we expect the world views of people of other faiths, or no faith, to align with ours? God give us the grace to hear from folks whose experiences are different than ours, and to hear with the love and grace that Jesus has brought to life in us.
     In the church, too — maybe especially in the church — may we listen carefully and lovingly when someone’s opinions about this or that or the other thing differ from our own. Unity in the church is created by the Holy Spirit, not by agreement on particular issues. May we resist our culture’s impulse to stifle dissent and gloss over disagreement by some mindless appeal to “tolerance.” 
     Have arguments with the people around you sometimes. Love others enough to ask questions when someone has a different point of view. Don’t disengage from disagreement on the one extreme, and don’t stifle it on the other. Wade in, stand up for what you believe, and really try to hear and understand what the other person is saying. And that is another person on the other end of that issue. A child of God.

     We don’t stand, as believers, for the mistreatment of others, whether those doing the mistreating share our point of view or not. We don’t allow evil actions to go unchallenged. But we’re not so fragile that we can’t hear other points of view, not so flabby in our faith, surely, that we find it challenged by a different belief system. We follow One who proclaimed that the Kingdom of God overcame the world, and then he showed how by giving himself. Surely we can do the same by listening, understanding, and then proclaiming him in a way that shows his love and grace.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Conversion

  I want you to know, brothers and sisters,  that the gospel I preached  is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man,  nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation  from Jesus Christ. 
     …[W]hen God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb  and called me  by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles,  my immediate response was not to consult any human being.
-Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16 (NIV)


     OK, I'm a a little embarrassed that I knew that line by heart. Then again, maybe you do too, or at least recognize it. The line is from a little movie from several decades ago, delivered with a sardonic smirk by a self-proclaimed "scoundrel" played by Harrison Ford, a rogue named Han Solo who discovers his heroism by the end of the film.
     Apparently, that's not all he discovered.
     That line flashed through my mind a couple of weeks ago when I saw the newest trailer for the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, the first time we'll see Han Solo on the big screen in over 30 years. A lot's happened in his life in that time, apparently. He was a skeptic in the first film, telling a naive farm boy named Luke Skywalker that belief in a "mystical energy field" that controls human destiny is foolish, ridiculous, and even dangerous. 
     Somewhere, though, Han Solo changed his mind.
     In the trailer for the new film, a new character, Daisy Ridley's Rey, asks Solo about the events of the first films, events that apparently passed into legend before she was born. "There are stories about what happened," she says, half in hope, half doubting that anything so amazing and wonderful and frightening could possibly be true. And, once the skeptic, Solo smiles and confesses his faith: "It's true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They're real."
     I know. They're not real, of course. And maybe none of that has the resonance with you that it does with me. But you know about conversion, don't you? You know something about what it's like to change your mind and see the world in an entirely different light, the light of something that you couldn't imagine was possible before but that changes everything.
     Saul had a moment like that. The new light in which he saw the world came from a risen Jesus, a man who he thought was dead. That new light was so bright it took away his own vision for a little while - just long enough for him to realize that his own limited vision was just holding him back. That's what conversion is, isn't it: seeing the world with new eyes?
     And Saul does. He sees himself anew, someone who needs the grace of God instead of deciding who’s worthy of it. He sees that he needs to “call on the name of Lord,” and it’s through that risen Lord, Jesus, that what’s wrong in him and in the world around him will be put right. He sees that the power to transform his world isn’t in his hands, and in fact it’s been going on around him all the time, through these Christians energized by God’s Spirit. 
     Conversion is hard, because it demands that we give up any view of the universe that doesn’t have God at its center. Sometimes we think that conversion is about information transfer, but the only information Saul learned on that road was that Jesus, who he knew was killed, was alive again. The rest came later — and Saul, who took the name Paul after his conversion — developed at least the basis of most of the best-known doctrines of Christianity. But his conversion came first, and only then did he sit down to think through the implications of a new world view in which the risen Lord Jesus is alive and active in the world, and is bringing it toward an obvious resolution.
     Conversion is hard. It’s no easier for us. We usually think of conversion as a once-for-all event, in which we “see the light” and everything changes for us. That seeing the light happens often enough, of course, but even then it’s not usually once-for-all. Conversion is more often a recurring theme in our lives, as in many different ways we’re forced to come to the conclusion that we aren’t at the center of our worlds at all. It’s a moment of conversion to realize that your church attendance doesn’t make you a believer, and that you need to change your way of seeing the world every bit as much as the addict who mistakes meth for God. It’s a moment of conversion to realize that your belittling of your spouse has to do with your need for control, and that if you don’t give up control to God you’re going to destroy your marriage. It’s a moment of conversion to let go of your ideas of the perfect family, or the perfect career arc, or the perfect retirement, and instead bow in submission to the perfect will of God. 
     For a long time now, the church has been best at information transfer. It’s a reflection of the values of the world around us that knowledge and information are power. We conquer the forces of nature, or the open market, or the atom, or whatever, through knowledge. And the church has often adapted this strategy. “Tell people how to be good Christians, and they will be,” we’ve said.
     But we’ve neglected conversion. 
     Here’s something all the knowledge in the world won’t help you with: the world doesn’t bend to your will, and it never, ever will. Evil, disease, and death claim the most powerful, the most intelligent, the most visionary among us. Forces more powerful than we are push time and history along. Hope for our own redemption, and the redemption of the world around us, is out of our hands.
     And so we need to be converted, every one of us. We need to come to the point in our lives when we’re blinded by the light of a risen Lord and make room for him at the center of our lives. By his grace, God wants to reveal him in us. It’s revelation — God’s doing, not our own. It calls us to action, no doubt; but first, it calls us to get ourselves out of the way and let God have his way. It’s true. All of it. The gospel of Jesus, that he has been raised from the dead by the power of God and is putting right what has gone wrong — it’s true. 

     May we live in such a way that its truth can be made known in us.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Truth?

You are a king, then!” said Pilate. 
     Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
     “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.
-John 18:37-38 (NIV)


Quite a question from someone sitting on a judgment saying, trying to ascertain the guilt or innocence of a man accused of capital crimes. “What is truth?” What is that, to suggest that truth is this elusive, slippery thing, that knowing it is something like trying to hold on to a wet bar of soap in the shower? Truth is clear, obvious, undebatable. Isn’t it?
     Well, except when it’s not. What’s the truth about the guy begging for change at the intersection near my house? What’s the truth about the women putting themselves on display at the theater down the avenue? What’s the truth about the kids in my city who see zero chance, zero, of a life other than the one they’ve inherited from their parents and grandparents? 
     What’s the truth about the guy who’s attracted to other men, didn’t ask for it, doesn’t want it, but there it is anyway? What’s the truth about the colleague who’s hurt you, spoken evil of you, and without cause?
     While we’re asking, what’s the truth about your own character? Saint, or sinner? 
     Sometimes truth is easy, of the 2+2=4 variety. There are a lot of those truths, so self-evident that we just take them for granted. We should appreciate those more. Hold them up and look at them, investigate them, enjoy them, enjoy the certainty. 
     Because sometimes truth is decidedly not easy.
     I don’t really mean that it’s the malleable thing, squishy like wet clay, that the postmodern fascination with your truth and my truth suggests. Truth doesn’t need pronouns. What I mean is that I don’t have a lot of confidence that I have a handle on truth, even most of the time. And, you’ll forgive me, I don’t have much more confidence that you do, either. That lack of confidence comes from experience, both with my own misappropriation of truth and with what happens when society at large thinks that they’ve got truth firmly in hand. It usually isn’t pretty, and not pretty in direct proportion to the certainty with which we silly, ridiculous, fallible human beings wield what we call truth.
      The Third Reich was sure, you know? So were the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center. So were the Crusaders who marched on Jerusalem and the police who turned fire hoses on the marchers in Selma, Alabama, so were they all sure, all certain that they were acting out of truth. And all wrong.
          Very often the most misguided are those who shout the loudest and longest. There’s something about that certainty that can be seductive, draw people in. It provides a framework for seeing the world that provides structure, support, something to grab hold of. Certainty and conviction can serve as convincing dopplegangers for truth.
     The church often gravitates to those who speak in the starkest, most black and white terms. We confuse intolerance for moral outrage, certainty for doctrinal correctness. We like it in politics, too. We like it because it cuts easily through complicated issues and demonizes those who don’t share our point of view. 
     But if we’re serious about truth, then we have to understand that volume and certainty aren’t its equivalent.
     “Anyone on the side of truth comes to his conclusions, sticks to them, and shouts down those who would dare to disagree.” No, that’s not what Jesus said about truth. Fact is, Jesus seems to have believed two things about truth, no, three, with equal certainty:
     You and I have little chance of grasping it clearly.
     He is all about truth. Came to testify to it. Embodies it.
     And so the third thing: If you care about truth, you’ll talk less and listen to him more.
     “The truth will set you free,” we sometimes say, and run around trying to set as many people free as we can by shouting at them the most obscene perversions of truth. As though truth depends on us to pronounce it. We prize being right over compassion, grace, mercy, and love. Jesus did say that the truth liberates. But he also said that we know the truth by holding to his teaching
     In short, we’re not fit to be prattling on about truth until we’re walking in Jesus’ footsteps and loving people as he did. 
     Truth is relational, not informational. It comes to us from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s mediated to us in the context of living with Jesus, walking with him, and treating others as he teaches us. And it’s discovered best in community with other people. 
     Truth is independent of us. It isn’t to be domesticated for our own use. It doesn't exist to make us feel secure or certain, and its purpose isn’t to win arguments for us. Truth comes from God, and it’s bigger than we can imagine. And, by the way, if what you call truth doesn’t lead you to love and compassion and grace, as it did our Lord, then it isn’t truth at all.
     One other thing Jesus teaches us about truth: sometimes it gets you crucified. It isn’t to be thought of as a tool that you use to win approval, and it may not get you your own way. Just as likely it gets you chewed up and spit out by the people who should know it when they hear it and love it best. 
     And when that happens, then truth demands that you pray for the forgiveness of the people who have sinned against you.
     This thing truth, it isn’t easy. Pilate was right. If we’re on our own in the business of discerning and grasping truth, we might as well throw up our hands and say, “Why bother?” But we’re not, of course. And when Pilate’s question bubbles up from the depths of our own hearts, we can look to the One who has given himself to show us truth.

     May we be found faithful.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Known

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance  that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
-Isaiah 53:2-3 (NIV)

One day soon, Kris Bryant will be recognized most everywhere he goes, particularly in Chicago. He’s not quite there yet, though.
     Last month, the rookie third baseman for the Chicago Cubs, who is likely to win the National League Rookie of the Year award, participated in the Undercover Lyft series as a celebrity driver for the ride sharing service. You’d think that Chicagoans would recognize him, but you’d be wrong. Not one person knew who he was. (One rider thinks maybe he’s ridden with him before, but that’s as close as anyone gets.)
     Bryant takes several of his passengers past Wrigley Field, pointing out that they don’t have photos on the stadium of his “favorite player.” One passenger reminds him that Bryant is “new-ish,” and tells him to give it time.
     One guy, when Bryant asked him what he thinks of baseball players as athletes, says he thinks they’re more like chess players. “Yeah, chess players,” muses Bryant. “They just kind of stand there.”
     Another passenger talks about his skill as a volleyball player. “I play baseball,” Bryant says. “I’m pretty good.” 
     “Why aren’t you in the pros, then?” the guy comes back. “Not to make you feel bad about it.”
     Seems to me that Bryant showed a lot of restraint. He does eventually reveal himself to his passengers, but I’d have probably done it a lot sooner. Maybe taken some pleasure in making them feel a little silly. Making them eat their words. I might have challenged the guy who equated baseball players with chess players to a push-up contest. I would have wanted to show the volleyball player what a professional athlete is. I would have been looking for a chance to sign some autographs, or to hear someone tell me how much they enjoyed watching me play. I would have wanted to be recognized.
     I think that’s a human impulse, to be recognized. To be known. Not to be mobbed in public, maybe, or to be famous in the usual sense of that word, but to be known for something. What we want, I think — and maybe what the drive for at least 15 minutes of fame that many in our world seem to have comes from — is to be appreciated for something we’ve accomplished, some talent we bring to the table, something that we offer to the world. In fact, it seems as if we almost evaluate our accomplishments based on how many people know about them, the ripples they make in the world around us. 
          I don’t think there’s anything innately wrong with that. The trouble arises when we start to judge ourselves and others by the appreciation and recognition we receive. That’s why pro athletes seem to be about the money and the SportsCenter highlights, and why young athletes want to go to the schools that will give them the most exposure. It’s why professors want tenure, why lawyers like high-profile cases, why ministers seem to find that they’re “called” to progressively larger churches. It’s why we like awards, honors, notices, promotions. Why we all want the people we love to notice what we do for them. We want to be appreciated.
     Jesus identified with Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant.” Though he went through his time of popularity, in the end the world around him moved on. By the end, he didn’t look good enough, wasn’t packaged impressively enough, didn’t command enough influence. He was “like one from whom people hide their faces”: despised, rejected, and all too familiar with suffering and pain. There was nothing in him that would attract us to him.
     Certainly not by the end, when they hung him up on a cross. As far as the world was concerned, he was best forgotten there with the other nameless criminals who died with him.
     Paul's take on it, though, is that the cross was far from Jesus’ great failure. It was the place of his greatest success, where he emptied himself of the need to be known, appreciated, and vindicated and obeyed God instead. He didn’t use equality with God to his own advantage, and instead “poured himself out” and “took the nature of a servant.” Though in union with God, “he humbled himself.” 
     The danger with our need for appreciation, you see, is that it so often leads us to give up on obeying God to serve our own agendas. Or, maybe even worse, to convince ourselves that our agendas and God’s will are the same thing. They’re not, almost never. Invariably, taking seriously what God wants of us will at some point force us to give up our own agendas and satisfy ourselves with his.
     Professionally, success by God’s definition isn’t measured by how much money you make, how well-known you are, and how many people report to you. It isn’t measured by the number of times you’re mentioned in industry journals, or the size of the office with your name on the door. Ministers, God may want you in that small church you’re serving. Teachers, he may need you in that struggling, poor, inner-city school. He may want you to give up (for now) a fast-track career path to stay home with your kids, or stay in that church you’re blessing, or be with those friends who need your presence. 
     You may not be appreciated for your faith, your kindness, your gentleness, your righteousness. Millions have walked that path before you. Choosing God’s path may very well lead you away from the adulation of the masses. It may lead you into suffering and even death. When it does, just remember that we have an example, Someone who has gone before us and made the same choice. Remember that God lifted him up. And trust that he will do the same for you, in his time.

     So the world may not know your name. That’s OK; there are plenty of names the world has never known that God knows. His approval is what matters, and one day he’ll say your name, loudly and with a smile. And, who knows, maybe angels will applaud. And the One you’ve followed, the Suffering Servant in whose footsteps you’ve walked, will acknowledge you: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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