Friday, April 24, 2015


Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.  
-Acts 11:25-26 (NIV) 

A couple of weeks ago, someone called my attention to a tweet by a man named Erick Erickson, the editor of a publication called In the tweet, Erickson questions President Obama’s faith. “I don’t think Barack Obama is a Christian,” he tweets. “He certainly is not one in any meaningful way.”
     I don’t know President Obama, of course. (He doesn’t return my calls.) I know he claims to be a believer in Jesus, and I know that Ericsson’s statement was likely more politically motivated than theologically. I think it must be difficult for a Christian President to always do what many would term the “Christian” thing when, say, negotiating with foreign nations or dealing with powerful special-interest groups at home who may not wear the “Christian” label. I also know that former Presidents who Erickson would likely embrace as brothers in Christ didn’t show half the interest in the poor, or in immigrants, or in those without adequate health care as President Obama has, and I suppose that should enter the picture as well.
     In short, I don’t think I have enough insight into who he really is to judge whether or not he’s a Christian in a “meaningful” way. It might also be argued that Erick Erickson doesn’t either. I think that’s OK, though, because it really isn’t my call — or Erick’s — is it?
     But since I saw the tweet, I’ve been thinking about that idea of being a Christian in a “meaningful” way.
     Mark Love points out that we often use that word “Christian” in a sense almost exactly opposite from the way the New Testament uses it. As the church spread into the Gentile world, someone applied that term for the first time to the believers. The disciples crossed that cultural barrier, and suddenly a word was needed to describe them (because “Jews” wouldn’t cover it anymore). It was used to widen the circle, to encompass people who the old words weren’t able to include. 
     Now, we use the word “Christian” to draw boundaries, to exclude. “Christian” becomes code for “people like me.” There is Christian music, Christian publishing, Christian schools — all to include folks like us and tell others, “This isn’t really for you.” 
     And then you bump up against someone who doesn’t fit your categories, even though they wear the name of Jesus too, and suddenly you have to qualify the term: “Christian in a meaningful way.”
     The Bible doesn’t really speak like that, does it? Paul doesn’t ever crank out a bullet-point list titled “Ten Ways to Know You’re a Christian in a Meaningful Way.” I mean, most of the New Testament writers include somewhere in their documents lists of characteristics that the new life we live in Jesus should be creating in our lives. Most of them list some things that shouldn’t be a part of those new lives. But the fact that they include those lists — in documents intended to be heard by people who were Christians — suggests that some degree of self-evaluation was needed, and that some of those original hearers were still doing things they shouldn’t have been, and not doing things they should have been.
     So, were they Christians in a meaningful way?
     More to the point, when I make a mistake, or choose to do the wrong thing, does that mean I’m no longer a Christian in a meaningful way? Do I lurch from Christian to non-Christian, or at least probationary Christian, depending on how I’m doing controlling my temper or watching my language or interpreting the Bible in the right way?
     Surely that way madness lies. 
     Ask 100 Christians, “How can you tell that someone is a Christian in a meaningful way?” and I’m guessing you’d get about 100 different answers. That ought to be enough, right there, to suggest that we should leave that question alone. No one asks it of someone they care about, someone they love, someone they want to include. We only ask it of those who we already consider not one of us.
     You might be surprised to learn that, outside of that use of “Christian” in Acts 11, the word is only used two other times in the Bible. The second time is in Acts 26:28, where Paul is trying to persuade King Agrippa to become a Christian. Again, he’s trying to widen the circle. Not narrow it.
     The only other time is 1 Peter 4:16, where Peter tells Christians suffering persecution to “praise God that they bear that name.” And maybe that’s the most interesting usage, for our purposes. Peter doesn’t congratulate those believers for passing some sort of persecution test. He doesn’t give them credit for knowing their Bibles, or checking all the right morality boxes, or having perfect attendance in Sunday School. He tells them to praise God that they bear the name of Jesus, and to not be surprised that the same things Jesus suffered at the hands of the world were now coming to them as well. 
     So maybe we find out if our Christianity is meaningful or not in the way our faith holds up under persecution and suffering. And maybe, if our Christianity does turn out to be meaningful, it’s not something we get the credit for. It’s because of God’s grace and the suffering of Jesus that any of us can call ourselves “Christian.” It’s not because we live up to anyone else’s definition, or fit anyone else’s categories. I can and should learn and grow from those who follow Jesus before me and with me. But, in the end, they don’t determine whether or not my Christianity is “meaningful.” That judgment is God’s, and he has already, in Christ, offered me grace. 
     To be very clear: I am a Christian because I have put my faith in Jesus. My life in Christ may not look much like yours. You may raise your eyebrows at me, and I at you. You may shake your head and tsk and doubt my sincerity and worry about my theology. You may not even want me in your church. But my Christianity does not require your stamp of approval. Nor does yours require mine. We wear the name of Jesus because he has placed that name on us. We wear it because he gave it to us in his death and resurrection. 
     Am I a good enough Christian? Some days I think maybe I am. Some days not. But part of being a Christian is believing that salvation is ultimately Christ’s work, not mine. And that he will not lose those who are his.

     That, I think, is meaningful enough.

Friday, April 17, 2015


     “In the last days,” God says,
   “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.” 
-Acts 2:17-18 (NIV)

I’m looking forward, in just a couple of weeks, to attending the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. Before you say that a bunch of people talking about the Bible for 4 ½ days doesn’t sound like much fun, keep in mind that Pepperdine University is located in Malibu, CA, just across Pacific Coast Highway from the Pacific Ocean. The scenery’s beautiful, the weather’s nice, and the food at a little shack called Malibu Seafood tastes like it jumped right out of the ocean and onto your plate.
     Oh, and the speakers and classes should be pretty good, too.
     Actually, it’s one of the speakers particularly that I’m looking forward to. Her name is Sara Barton, and I was in college with her. After graduation, Sara and her husband John were part of a mission team to Uganda. After that, they both came to Rochester College, near Detroit, as part of the faculty. Now they’re at Pepperdine, where John teaches in the Religion department and Sara is University Chaplain. 
     At the Lectures this year, Sara will become the first woman to deliver one of the keynote addresses.
     I know that, in 2015, “first woman to…” do pretty much anything sounds a little strange, at best. But the Churches of Christ, with which Pepperdine is associated, like many churches, has historically struggled with the public role that women are encouraged to take on in the church. A lot of this difficulty, in our case, is due to biblical texts like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14, which seem to limit women to roles in which they are not called upon to teach men. Some of it is likely due to traditional understandings of gender roles that have perhaps been allowed for too long to influence the discussion. A small percentage, very small, is probably due to lingering misogyny. 
     Few of our churches, including the one I serve, give women the opportunity to preach. A few more, but still not many, give women the opportunity to lead classes that include men. Some give women the opportunity to address classes on a case-by-case basis, and to address the church gathered for worship to ask for prayers or otherwise share what’s happening in their own lives. (My congregation more or less falls in here.) Some give women the opportunity to lead in other areas of worship, but not in preaching or teaching. 
     Most every congregation, though, gives women the freedom to speak in discussion-based Bible classes, which suggests perhaps that we know that when Paul says women are to be “silent,” he didn’t necessarily mean all the time, in every situation. In fact, in the same letter in which he says that women should “remain silent in the churches,” he also envisions situations in which women will be praying and giving prophecy.
     A woman is called a “diakanon” in Romans 16, the same word that we translate “deacon” in other texts and apply to a position of church leadership. A few verses later, a woman might be mentioned as an “apostle.” There are women who give prophecy and teach in the book of Acts. And Acts begins, on the day Peter first proclaimed Jesus to a throng of people in Jerusalem, with the ringing claim that in Christ the day the prophet Joel promised had finally come: that the Spirit of God was being poured out on everyone, young and old, men and women alike. 
     So the biblical witness itself sometimes seems divided. On the one hand, it can’t possibly be denied that, in Jesus, God has announced a new day, the coming of a new kingdom where old hierarchies and power structures are wiped away. The story of Jesus is the good news that the social distinctions that mean so much to us, including those between men and women, and the inequalities that are a part of those distinctions, are overturned. Honestly, there is no reason theologically for us to believe that there should be anything but equality of opportunity for women in the church to serve and minister in every way men do.
      Except that, in other places, the Bible seems to place those limits on them. And we don’t want to risk being wrong, even with the best of intentions. And so sometimes, in the name of biblical fidelity, we end up perpetuating stereotypes and inequalities that we’ve inherited from those who have come before us. So, in many churches, the work of the gospel to wipe away through the Holy Spirit the distinctions that human beings make between ourselves seems very much a work in progress — if it’s in progress at all.
     Yet, now and then someone says, “Hey, maybe the Holy Spirit is leading us toward something here. Let’s follow along and see what it is.” I’m thankful that there are folks like Mike Cope, the director of the Bible Lectures, among the little group of believers I love so much. I’m thankful that Sara is willing to place herself a little bit in the firing line, too. And I think it’s the least I can do, in the small way that I can, to affirm this effort to think in biblical, gospel ways and move all of us to consider the kind of church that we think the good news of Jesus creates.
     I don’t know all the answers. I do know, however, that there are women like Sara among us, called and gifted by God for ministry in ways that have traditionally been closed to women. I know that there are girls growing up among us who one day soon will wonder where they can put their God-given talents and gifts to work in the Kingdom. And I know that, as the church, we need to have a word of blessing, wisdom, and love for them. 
     I’ll say this: our children won’t put up with slipshod theology here. They won’t put up with rehashed interpretations of the text. If we ask them to resist the pressures of our world toward inclusivity in this area, we’d better have very good reasons for asking them to — reasons that we’ve studied and prayed about for ourselves, as communities of faith. If we don’t, they’re going to find it difficult to believe that the gospel we proclaim is authentic at all.

     May we be found faithful.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Cheering Section

    When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
-Luke 19:5-6 (NIV)

A lot of the kids at Gainesville (Texas) Juvenile Correction Facility are there because they don’t have anyone in their corner, no one cheering for them. When you come to believe you’re all alone, and on your own, you’ll do some things that society won’t tolerate, too. And you’ll wind up, if you’re not yet an adult, in a place like Gainesville.
    Let’s face it: call it a “juvenile correction facility” all you want, it’s still a prison. And life there is as limited as life in pretty much any other prison. One of those limits, of course, is that you don’t get to leave. For the term of your incarceration, all you know is the life of an inmate. And that kind of life, I’m guessing, doesn’t do much to change your belief that you’re on your own in the world. That no one is rooting for you.
    The kids at Gainesville, however, do get to leave for basketball games. Just the players do, I mean. No spectators. They get to leave to play games against private schools nearby — or, at least, the schools that allow them to come onto their campuses. It’s a privilege earned by good behavior, and any small infraction can cause a player to miss a game.
    I wonder how the players are treated at most of the schools where they play. Schools can be tough, kids can be cruel sometimes, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the players from Gainesville are often treated with a mixture of suspicion, fear, and hostility on the campuses of the private schools who are willing to host them. And, of course, Gainesville is always the visiting team.
    So, back in February, Gainesville was set to play a school in Waco called Vanguard College Prep. Shortly before the game, two Vanguard players, Hudson Bradley and Ben Martinson, went to their head coach and school officials with some concerns. Not concerns about the safety of their team and the other Vanguard students, as you might expect. No, their concerns were about the Gainesville team.
    Specifically, they were concerned about what it would be like for Gainesville to have no one in the stands rooting for them. Even the visiting team in a high school basketball game usually has some students and parents who make the trip with them. But Gainesville would have no one to yell when they scored, to cheer them on. And so Hudson and Ben had a plan: ask some of their own fans to form a cheering section for Gainesville.
    Once the idea took hold, it sort of snowballed. Some students made signs for Gainesville. Half the gym’s seating was reserved for Gainesville’s cheering section. Some Vanguard girls even decided to form a Gainesville cheerleading squad.
    So when the Gainesville team came out of the locker room for the game, it was into a gym half-full of kids and parents and teachers screaming for them. As they warmed up, and as the game started, they heard applause, probably for the first time ever. Every time they scored or made a good defensive play, their fans rose to their feet and screamed approval. That changed, of course, as the game went on.
    By the end, there was nothing but Gainesville fans in the gym. Because when a few people believe in someone, that belief can be contagious.
    “When I’m an old man, I’ll still be thinking about this,” said one of the Gainesville players.
    Because when someone believes in you, you don’t forget it.
    We tend to think people will change if we push them, force them, will them to be better. We tend to think that they’ll change if we just tell them what to do, hit them with a stick, withhold love and support until they earn it by behaving as we want them to. Maybe we learn behavior from the way others have treated us. We certainly don’t learn it from Jesus, though.
    Jesus went to people, people like Zacchaeus the tax collector, and showed them the love and acceptance they had been denied. No one respectable, I guarantee you, had asked Zacchaeus to his house for a meal in a long time. Much less had anyone respectable been willing to set foot in Zacchaeus’  house. Just look at the way the respectable people respond, and you get a glimpse of the can of worms Jesus opens. Never mind that Zacchaeus had brought some of the treatment he had received on himself. Never mind that he might have even rubbed his disrepute in the faces of Jericho’s Moral Majority. Down deep, he wanted to believe that someone like Jesus could like him, maybe even love him, maybe even accept him as he was. And by inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ place, Jesus told him that he did. “I must stay at your house today,” he said, and in that one sentence said that Zacchaeus mattered as much to him as did any of the good people in Jericho with whom Jesus might have stayed.
    Never forget that we’re as much Zacchaeus as we are the good folks, shocked that Jesus could eat with him. There are, after all, places in our hearts and lives that are just as ugly as Zacchaeus’. If the Lord could treat us with love and grace and kindness, then there’s no one beyond his reach. It’s our job, then, to take the love and acceptance we’ve received from the Lord and share it, not just by talking about it, but by loving and accepting the people whose paths we cross. We’re not called to fix anyone. We’re not called to convict them of sin and hold the wrath of God over their heads and manipulate them into some sort of mourner’s bench moment. We’re called to love them and receive them in the name of God, and trust that doing so might just open their hearts to God’s Spirit.
    It certainly did for Zacchaeus. “Salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says. “This man is also a descendent of Abraham, truly one of the people of God.” But we never see Jesus tell Zacchaeus what he should do, or berate him for shady financial dealings, or threaten him with eternal damnation if he doesn’t give back any ill-gotten profits. Apparently, he just eats with him and accepts him as he is. And Zacchaeus starts to get the idea that God might just love him after all, and that he just might be able to be the person God wants him to be.

    I bet there are some folks like that in your life, folks who need to know God loves them and that they can change. And they may not ever come to that realization if you can’t find it in your heart to show them that you love them and that you’re on their side. So, in the grace of God, put away the stick for a while. Start a cheering section. Shower love on someone who’s had nothing but judgment, and see if salvation doesn’t come to their house too.