Friday, May 29, 2015


     “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” 
-Luke 19:9-10 (NIV)

People don't much get lost anymore.
     When I first moved to Chicago twenty-something years ago, I quickly learned not to go anywhere I had never been before without directions clearly written out. Sometimes I'd even write out directions for the trip back, since I learned not to trust myself to be able to reverse the directions in my head. I had a thick, detailed Chicagoland atlas in the car so, if worst came to worst, I could pull over and figure out where I was. 
     And, despite my best efforts, I still got turned around now and then.
     I don't remember the last time I was lost. I haven't kept one of those atlases in my car for years now. I rarely write down directions anymore. But I don't get lost, not really. You know why, of course.
     Last time I found myself unsure of where I was, I just said, "How do I get home?" My phone took over from there. Didn't even have to say my address. Never even had to look at it, and it gave me turn by turn directions.
     One of these days, someone's going to have to come up with a better name than "phone" for these devices.
     Smart phone ubiquity notwithstanding, though, people in our world still manage to get lost.
     Lost people figured prominently in Jesus' thoughts and priorities. He said he came to seek and save the lost. Lost-ness was a major theme in his preaching and a primary focus of his activity. He pictured his work as a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, and indicated he had no doubts about leaving all the sheep who were safe in the fold to go find the straggler. He said heaven rejoices when someone lost is found, and challenged his followers to share in that joy. He didn't come to celebrate the saved. He came to find the lost.
     Jesus thought the lost were worth seeking. He didn't regard the lost as other or alien. He understood that he had been sent to the "lost sheep of Israel," and apparently didn't consider them any less Israel for being lost. His followers have too often held ourselves apart from the lost. We've used that word as a label to classify, as a fence to keep the saved safely segregated from potential corruption. Most of us don't know very many lost people, at least not well enough to feel and care about their lost-ness. Sometimes we enjoy feeling just the slightest bit superior to them. We didn't learn that from Jesus.
     Jesus didn't think being lost was primarily a problem to be solved by passing on information. He seemed to think it was solved through presence. So he was with lost people. He taught them, definitely, but by being with them he testified to the authenticity of what he taught. He showed up at their tables, at their sickbeds, and at their funerals. He rubbed up against them. He knew about their sins and didn't turn up his nose or turn away in disgust. His followers, though, have convinced ourselves that a classroom can replace a dining room, that a sermon can replace service, that a lesson plan can replace love, that a harangue can replace a hug. We didn't learn that from Jesus either.
     Jesus didn't hold the lost solely to blame for their lost-ness. He shared the outrage of Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the "shepherds" who were responsible for leading people to safe pasture too often made a meal out of them. He recognized that sometimes people get lost because the deck is stacked against them from the top down. They get lost because the powerful use them, benefit from them, and then cast them aside. Too often, though, his followers fail to see the inequalities that let people slip through the cracks in society and get lost. Too often, we benefit from those inequalities. We certainly didn't learn that from Jesus.
     Jesus didn't imagine that being lost was only a “spiritual” problem. He saw diseases and infirmities, and recognized them as symptoms of a world that was lost. He heard crushed hopes and dreams, and knew that they are the first things to go when a person is lost. Jesus never tried to treat lost-ness as a problem separate from sickness, death, poverty, hunger, and prejudice. He didn’t require that the blind listen to a sermon before he gave them sight. He didn’t seem to consider preaching more important than healing. Unlike some of his followers, he knew that human beings can’t — and shouldn’t have to — keep their spiritual lives distinct from their physical, mental, and emotional lives. The idea that a person can be brought back home to God without doing something to ease his physical distress, loneliness, or fear is most definitely not one that we got from Jesus.
     I ran into a woman as I was walking my dog yesterday that helped drive this home for me. Obviously drunk, or high, she told me that he (her boyfriend) was about to kick her out of their apartment. She wondered if I had any money, and then started thinking out loud about how much she’d need to buy a quart bottle of beer. That, folks, is what lost looks like: relationships disrupted, about to be homeless, and still wondering about how to get a drink.   She’s probably been told and treated like she’s worthless, probably thinks she’s nothing without a man or a bottle, probably failed by most of the people she’s ever trusted. But, behind and under all that, God doesn’t see her as an addict, or whatever other names she’s been called (and called herself). She’s his, she belongs at home with him, and she’s lost. And she’ll only be found when someone comes alongside her and is willing to live with the stuff lost people do to survive long enough to show her the way to the One who can bring her home.
     Of course, there are lost people in the church pews that I’ll sit in Sunday, too. Their lost-ness might look a little different. Their drug of choice might be gossip, or food, or work, or pornography. Their relationships might be disrupted in other ways, their survival tactics might be less obvious, and they might be dressed better. Still, they feel like they’re worthless, that they’re nothing without their chosen addictions, and they’ve been failed by everyone they’ve ever trusted. They’re lost. And they need someone to help them get to the One who can bring them home.
     You know lost people too. They’re lost in sickness, they’re lost in arrogance, they’re lost in work, they’re lost in depression — in any case, they’re lost. And they probably won’t find their way to the God who loves them and calls for them just because you lob a few Bible verses at them. They need you to do what Jesus did: put yourself aside, love them, and do what you can to ease their pain and show them how to believe again that God loves them. 
      That’s what it takes to seek and save the lost. 

     And there’s no app for that.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Hating Religion

     If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.  
-James 1:26-27 (NIV)

On his Facebook page, a friend of mine posted this after getting a phone call critical of his position on a particular issue:

As a minister and preacher I am SO over religious bigotry and hatred in every form. Just another reason I hate religion. I'm sure I'm in the wrong profession.

     I get what he’s saying, I really do. “Religion,” as a concept is sort of universally deplored in our culture. Belief in God is OK. Spirituality is fine. Even going to a church is OK, as long as that church is, well, as non-religious as possible. But “religion” — as an idea — seems to account for all the problems in the world. Terrorism, bigotry, greed, corruption — everything bad in the world, it seems, can be traced back to this bugaboo, “religion.”
     Well, maybe I’m just being contrary, I don’t know. But I’d like to take a crack at rehabilitating this word “religion.”
     It might surprise you to know that the word only occurs a few times in English Bibles. The word most usually translated “religious” includes the idea of ceremony — a “religious” person is one who is demonstrative and pious in worship. You can see why our word “religion” seems like a good translation; the way we most often use it, it’s also synonymous with organized worship. Religion is what goes on in church, and a religious person is one who is deeply involved in what’s going on in church.
      By the way, this is one of the reasons why the idea of religion has such negative connotations in our world. Religion is thought to offer little to the world, outside of ironclad rules that only encourage people to be hypocrites outside of their Sunday services, or insufferable bigots, or violent radicals. That’s why our world thinks religion is to be kept private, segregated from our public lives.
     So the New Testament does use this word a few times, a word that Christians and non-Christians in the New Testament world would have understood to be saying something about formal, organized worship services. But, at least in a couple of its occurrences, New Testament authors redefine the word. And they redefine it in a way that, I think, has a lot to say to my friend, and to others who, like him, find themselves at odds with formal religion.
     In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Paul tells his young apprentice that he should be teaching the adult believers in his church to care for their aging parents. The church should help those elderly widows who have no other means of support, but if there is family, he says they should “put their religion into practice” by caring for their parents or grandparents. He goes on to say that God is pleased by this kind of practical faith. So religion isn’t something that begins and ends in the stained-glass confines of a church service. If you see someone who’s all about that, then that’s not religion. Call it hypocrisy, if you want. But don’t call it religion.
     James, the brother of Jesus, agrees. He would, of course, because Jesus had no misunderstandings about religion. If the gospels are any indication, Jesus thought religion had to do with serving, healing, welcoming, loving. Jesus practiced religion in the synagogue, sure — but at a clip of at least 20 to 1, he practiced religion at dinner tables, or traveling down the road, or healing the sick, or raising the dead. His congregation was the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind, the sinners — the marginalized. The people who might not be in the “religious” service.
     So James sees religion kind of like his older brother. It’s not about the ceremony. God isn't impressed with the script, with the singing or the sermon, or the liturgy or the icons, or the robes and candles or the Dockers and PowerPoint. Religion, he says, is best exercised by controlling your tongue. Religion is best practiced where Jesus did — among the orphans and widows. It’s best lived out, not by barricading ourselves in a cathedral for an hour or two a week, but by keeping ourselves from being unduly influenced by the world around us.
     See, when people say they hate religion, what we mean is that we hate pretend religion. Fake religion. We hate pale imitations of religion that are really just camouflage for our own agendas and priorities, or replacements for the kind of faith that changes us and changes our worlds, or a wider, easier path than the narrow way Jesus asks us to walk with him. We hate it when we see it in others, and those of us who consider ourselves religious hate it even more when we see it in ourselves. It’s the easiest thing in the world to turn up our noses at what others try to pass off as religion. It’s harder to come to terms with the fact that sometimes we can’t honestly say that our religion is the kind that gets outside the church walls and helps the people in our lives to experience the kingdom of God.
     The danger is to think that the problem is with “religion.” It’s really a human problem, though, a problem of the heart. And we can’t control the hearts of others. All we can do is be honest about our own religion, look hard in the mirror and ask tough questions about whether or not the religion we practice is the kind that pleases God, the kind that he considers “pure and faultless.” Does it energize us to care for the hurting and disenfranchised around us? Does it catalyze a more faithful love for our families? Does it lead us into the world like Jesus: fully engaged, but not corrupted, fully involved, but not taken in.
     And if we answer “no” to any of those tough questions,  then may we have the grace and strength to practice our religion differently. May we seek out those to whom our religion should take us, and may we practice it in our neighborhoods, in our homes, at our tables, in our offices — in addition to in church.  
     That won’t make people hate what they think is religion less. But it will offer them an alternative to it. Not everyone will respond well to the kind of religion that pleases God — just ask Jesus — but it will still please him all the same. And that’s enough.

     You don’t hate religion, you just think you do. So practice the kind of religion you love.

Friday, May 15, 2015


“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
    Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
    Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
    Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
   Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
    Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 
-Matthew 5:3-12 (NIV)

What makes you happy? If you’re like the respondents in a recent study, it’s not the same things that made your grandfather or great-grandfather happy.
     In 1938, a British newspaper in Bolton, The Evening News, asked readers to respond to the question, "What is happiness?" Each reader was asked to order 10 factors according to their importance to his or her happiness. The top three answers, in order, were security, knowledge, and religion.
     Last year, psychologist Sandie McHugh decided to follow up on the original study by asking today’s Bolton Evening News readers to respond to the same question. And, if the 489 people who responded were any indicator, happiness — or, at least, what we think will make us happy — looks a bit different than it did 76 years ago. Religion dropped from third to tenth place on the list. Security is the only answer from the original study that remained in the top 3. And the other two highest rated happiness factors this time were “leisure” and “good humor.” (The survey defined “good humor” as “more smiling and laughter for myself and those around me.”) 
     One other interesting difference: In the original study, a majority of respondents said they were happiest in their town. The 2014 redo of the study showed that 63% of respondents reported being happier away from Bolton.
     If you can draw any conclusions from such a limited study, it might be that happiness is a little tougher to come by — or at least a little more fleeting — in our world. Seventy-six years ago, people found happiness in faith — assurance that a Higher Power was in charge of their lives. They found happiness in knowledge. And, if the study’s any indication, in our day we seem to have replaced those two things with — what?  — leisure time and laughing more. The suggestion is that we’re saying to ourselves, “Who needs to learn, and who needs God? Give me some time off and tell some good jokes, and I’m happy.”
     Fact is, happiness for most of us is probably more or less a matter of perception. If we feel like things are going pretty well for us, when someone asks we’ll say we’re happy. Happiness in our lexicon depends entirely on context, and we have trouble in our day imagining that happiness could be independent of circumstances. And yet, over and over the Bible holds out the tantalizing possibility of a happiness that can be experienced even in difficult, harsh, or deprived circumstances. 
     In maybe his best-known sermon, Jesus talks about this kind of happiness. “You’re blessed,” he says, even if you’re poor, even if your poverty is so complete it leaves you destitute of spirit.” He names as “blessed” — same word that in other places signifies “happy” — folks who are in mourning, who are bullied, who have a gnawing hunger and a burning thirst to see justice done. He claims that happiness is found in low-margin pursuits like purity of heart and peacemaking. And he makes the startling promise that we can even be happy when we’re persecuted, insulted, and falsely accused.
     Jesus’ original hearers — you and me, as well — might be forgiven for wondering if Jesus is a little confused about the definition of happiness. After all, in our order of things, wealth makes us happier than poverty. Joy is synonymous with happiness, while mourning is its opposite. In our world, the meek get pushed around while the assertive inherit the earth. In the world we’ve created for ourselves, happiness never comes while we wait for justice. The way life as we know it works, the pure in heart won’t compromise enough to be happy, and those who try to make peace are usually the ones who experience the most conflict. And, really, Jesus? Happiness when we’re mistreated and misrepresented?
     And where has that world we’ve created for ourselves gotten us? To a place where people can happily celebrate frivolities, dishonesty, and outright horror.
     Jesus is simply saying to people who don’t have it all together — people like us — that we can find joy in the darnedest places if we just know where to look. He came proclaiming a kingdom in which the poor, the grieving, the sufferers of injustice and persecution, the bullied, can find happiness in the knowledge that God is not blind to their suffering. He promises that those with too much integrity to take shortcuts to happiness will experience the joy of God with their own eyes, and that those who imitate their Father in making peace will enjoy the happiness reserved for his true children. All this, he says is what the Kingdom of Heaven — God’s reign over the heavens and the earth — is about. 
      What makes us happy, in short, is God’s grace, love, and faithfulness. Whatever our circumstances, he can be trusted to bless us with his presence, love, and life.  

     In any era, that’s reason enough to call ourselves happy.