Friday, July 31, 2015

Lighting the Way Home

     You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 5:14-16

In fairy tales, everyone lives happily ever after. In real life, not all stories have happy endings. Remember that as you read this one.
     Red McElroy was a college junior who loved music. His father was a frustrated army pilot, too old for active combat in World War II. His older brother had been a pilot in the Korean War, and was killed when his damaged plane hit the end of an aircraft carrier.Red's mother died when he was 12, leaving Red and his father alone. During Red's junior year, war broke out in Vietnam. His father wanted a war hero in the family. He encouraged Red to drop out of school and join the service.
     Red loved music. So he compromised. He dropped out and signed up at a recruiting office to join the army band. After his junior year ended, he left for basic training with the recruiter's promise that the band was waiting for him.
     Things didn't work out.
     Red didn't get into the Army band. Instead, they trained him to be a helicopter med-evac medic. After his training, before being shipped off to Vietnam, he came home for a visit.
     One thing Red loved as much as music was his truck. He washed the truck, inside and out. He topped off the gasoline tank and fluids. He backed it into an unused shed behind his father's house and tied a tarp over it. Then he left for Vietnam.
     He wrote home regularly. His letters ranged from excitement, patriotism, and eagerness to fear and frustration. He sounded torn in half by the war, in fact. One part wanted to serve his country. The other part realized there were no winners in war.
     The news came one night that Red was missing. His helicopter was shot down. When the wreckage was found, Red was officially declared dead, though his body wasn't found. The funeral arrangements were made. The memorial service was held. Mr. McElroy could never convince himself to accept that his son was dead. "He can't be dead. He's going to be a hero."
     Several months after the memorial service, Mr. McElroy had a visitor, a friend of Red's from Vietnam. He handed Mr. McElroy an envelope marked "Last Will and Testament". But Mr. McElroy wouldn't open it. He placed it on the mantel of the fireplace in the house he now lived in all alone. He never opened it.
     The next summer, as if to add insult to injury, Red's truck was stolen from its shed. The thief even took the tarp that covered it.
     Mr. McElroy lived alone for 12 years. When he finally died of a stroke, neighbors gathered to clean up the house. While they were cleaning, they came across Red's sealed will, still on the mantle. They looked at each other. Shrugged. One of them opened it. The will was a standard printed form. But on the back of page one was scrawled handwriting.
     Red's writing.
     "I am not dead," it said. "...I must get out. Every time a chopper goes into action, a few of us sign up but don't go. We send dog-tags and boots and uniforms, but we don't go. If the chopper doesn't come back, the extras disappear. 
     "...I do not know if you'll want to see me again after this or not. Because I cannot be the kind of hero you wanted. If I get all the way out, I will somehow come and get my truck. If you want to see me again, leave the light on in my room for a few days after the truck disappears. If not, I won't embarrass you anymore. No matter what -- Dad, I love you."
     Not all stories have happy endings. This one didn't. But you're writing stories. The characters in your stories are the people around you, people who have done disappointing things. And they need to know that there's a Father who still cares for them, however disappointing they've been. They need from you a glimmer of light that says it's not too late to come home. 
     I'm still writing some of my stories. And I'm wondering if someone looking to me hopefully for the light of God's mercy and grace and love is seeing only the darkened, cold windows of my hurt, or selfishness, or indifference. After reading Red's story, I'm wondering about that. Now that you've read his story, it might be a good time for you to wonder about it, too.
     Folks will stand on the outside looking in until they know they’re welcome. No one wants to stumble blindly though the dark, hoping to find their way to someplace warm and bright. We’re called to light the way. The kingdom of God isn’t intended to be a secret society, accessible only by the few who crack the code and find their way in. It’s supposed to be a city on a hill, its lights beckoning to exhausted travelers who need a place to rest. And you and I are the lights.
    May we lift high the light of Jesus in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods. It’s not as hard as we think it is sometimes. Really, it just requires us to follow Jesus, to try in our own imperfect ways to be like him. To shine the light that he’s given us into our worlds.

      Let your light shine. Someone needs it to find their way back home.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Protecting" The Bible

     For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart..
-Hebrews 4:12 (NIV)

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article called Chain, Chest, Curse: Combating Book Theft in Medieval Times. The article was a really fascinating look, as the title suggests, at the various ways the owners of medieval books kept their valuable volumes safe from sticky-fingered book thieves. Books in medieval times were big-ticket items — priceless, for all intents and purposes. They had to be protected, while still being useful. And so the chains, chests, and curses of Erik Kwakkel’s article.
     Books were most commonly just chained into their bookshelves. A few “chained libraries” still exist in the world, but not many. They’re just what they sound like: rows of bookshelves, with thick iron chains running from them to the wooden binding boards of the books stored in them. The chains have enough slack that the books can be removed from the shelves and perused, but they can’t wander away. 
    Then there are book chests. This is really just a variant of the same practice, but in this case the books are chained inside heavy wooden chests. The books couldn’t be stolen individually, and the chests, with their cargo of books and iron links, would have been too heavy to move. Some ancient libraries still contain a book chest or two (like the one at Merton College.)
     But there was a third method of keeping your library safe: curses. Sometimes, owners of books simply wrote a curse in the book itself. They might take a form like this: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.” That church took book theft pretty seriously, apparently.
     All these measures for safeguarding books make a key assumption: that these books needed protecting. Reading the article, I remembered that medieval Bibles were often protected in the same ways: chained to pulpits in churches, locked away in chests, even inscribed with curses. That’s because they were at least as expensive to produce and purchase as other books of the time. It’s easy to understand why people felt that those Bibles needed protecting. 
     Leather and paper and ink aside though, the Word of God has never needed protecting. And yet we still have that impulse. And we need to resist it.
     We have to resist the impulse to bind the Scriptures with the chains of academia  The Bible shouldn't be bound to the shelves of dark libraries, locked away from the world by the scholars who study it, translate it, and interpret it. Understand, I believe scholars have done a great service to the world through their work on Scripture. Because of their work, we have a largely agreed-upon standard edition of both the Old Testament and New Testament. Because of the work of scholars, we know more about the world of the Bible than we ever have. Because of the work of scholars, we can read the Bible in our own language — almost every language on the face of the earth, in fact.
     But the word of God belongs where it has always been found: out in the world, not locked up in University libraries. There has always been a tendency in the church to make the teaching of the Bible exclusively the work of trained academics. Thankfully, it’s easy to break those chains. Just don’t allow the scholars to tell you what the Bible says. You might not have some of the training and tools of the scholar, but you’re an expert in something no scholar is: what happens in your heart and mind when you and Scripture collide. No scholar can tell you what’s supposed to happen in that collision, nor can he arbitrate an interpretation to you after the fact. The good ones won’t want to.
     Neither, however, should Scripture be shut up in stuffy chests of personal interpretation. While you are the expert on your own encounters with the Bible, your own encounters are not the last word. The Bible has always been, and should always be, the property of the church together. Every time someone has misused Scripture to coerce, manipulate, or support a personal agenda, they have done so by making their own personal reading of Scripture into orthodoxy. We need to read together because we need voices other than our own talking about their reading of the Bible. We need people who are different from us telling about their own encounters with the Word. That’s how we check, correct, and confirm our own readings of Scripture. We read it in community, in the community of people who have been and are being formed by the power of the Word of God. We read it in the church. And not just our own little enclaves: we read it with the church through the ages, different communities in different times and places who believed in the power of the Word to create brand new worlds, and longed to let it out of its box to do just that.
      But reading the Bible with the church doesn't mean that we superstitiously cower before the curses that religious tradition places on new, different, or subversive readings of Scripture. Don't imagine that the Word of God has been definitively decoded by the generations that have come before. The history of the church can be told in the forgetting and rediscovery of biblical truth. While the established church may cry “Heretic!” and “Anathema!”, people who take the Bible seriously have always kept the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit blowing through stuffy ecclesiastical halls. 
     Why would we expect any less? The Word of God, of course, has never been just a book. It is his creative and redeeming power, represented (but never completely captured) by the written word on the page. 
     So read it. We have greater access to the Bible today than any previous generation in the history of the world. And we probably read it less than any previous generation has. Don’t be surprised if your church isn’t what it should be, or your family, or your own character, if you don’t read or hear the Bible often. 

     But don’t just read it, like you read a newspaper or a novel or a cookbook: confront it. Encounter it. Wrestle with it. Wrestle with it on your own, and with people you love. Don’t take the “official” interpreters at their word: take God at his Word. Expect it to be alive, expect it to cut deep, and open your heart to its work. We don’t need to protect the Word of God. If anything, we might sometimes want to be protected from it. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

All People

     I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.
-1 Timothy 2:1-6 (NIV)

As I write this on Friday, Muslims around the world are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the traditional end of the holy month of Ramadan. Everywhere but in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
     On Thursday morning, a few hours before the start of Eid at sunset, a young man named Mohammed Youssuf Abdulazeez opened fire on a recruiting office and a Naval Reserve Center in Chattanooga. Marines Thomas Sullivan, Carson Holmquist, David Wyatt, and Skip Wells were killed. Three others were wounded, including a police officer. Abdulazeez also died, apparently in a gunfight with police. The possibility of domestic terrorism is being investigated. 
     This, of course, isn’t the first time an attack like this has happened in our country. It’s nowhere near the most deadly. It isn’t even all that surprising anymore, honestly. But this attack has captured my attention in a way others haven’t. I grew up in Chattanooga.
     In fact, I grew up in the same suburb, Hixson, as Abdulazeez. My mother and father still live there. I had friends who lived in the same neighborhood, Colonial Shores, where the shooter lived and his family still live. I took classes at the same university he graduated from. He went to the same high school my father attended. When I read neighbors’ remembrances of him playing whiffle ball in the street of his subdivision, or driving too fast past their houses, I think of my own childhood. 
     I was thankful to read a New York Times article from yesterday quoting Dr. Azhar S. Sheikh, a founding member of the board of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, the mosque where Abdulazeez and his family worshipped. Dr. Sheikh said that the Center had cancelled its Eid celebration “out of respect and remembrance for our fallen Marines.” (emphasis mine) Dr. Sheikh went on to emphasize that violent interpretations of jihad were not preached at the mosque, and that he was horrified by radicals use of the Internet to recruit young Muslims. “We certainly do not want to be part of that demented ideology. That is not the message we preach here.”
     There is too little impulse in our world for human beings to identify with one another, as Dr. Sheikh did when he called those murdered Marines our fallen Marines. It would be easy, on the basis of religious identity, or shared experience, or whatever, for Dr. Sheikh to identify more closely with the young Muslim, Mr. Abdulazeez. Instead, he took pains to identify with those victims of Mr. Abdulazeez’s feelings of anger or betrayal, or political ideology, or whatever it was that he would say motivated him to fire uncounted rounds of ammunition at living, breathing human beings. What Dr. Sheikh remembered, Mohammed Youssuf Abdulazeez forgot. 
     The politics of identity has turned our world into a roiling cauldron of special-interest groups, religious radicals, political action committees, and so on. We’re a fragmented, broken, disjointed mass of people that tweet or post or debate or pull triggers over every slight or difference of opinion, real or imagined, large or small. It’s Us versus Them, “Us” being those most like me, as long as they stay more or less like me, “Them” being everyone else. It’s made our politics ever more antagonistic, pitted West against East, Islam against America, white against black, immigrant against natural born, gay against straight, and even the church against itself. We forget, again and again, that on the other side of our differences, on the barbs of our words, and on the business ends of our guns, are other human beings. Sure, they’re different from us in some ways. But they’re fundamentally the same. They want to live free, and they want security for themselves and their families, and they love their children.
     Something happened, apparently, to Mohammed Youssuf Abdulazeez. Despite that, if I was 20 years younger or he was 20 years older we could have been friends. I can’t kid myself into thinking he was all that different from me. And that’s good, because if I do forget it I run the risk of making the same mistake he made. 
     There will be those who use this shooting as they use everything else: to benefit themselves, consolidate their own power, carry out their own agendas. They will do this by trying to make “Us” think “We” aren’t safe from “Them.” And, no seeking to find common ground with another person is rarely safe. Focus on what’s different, and you can hate from a distance. But getting close enough to see how another person is more like you than you thought is hard. It gets you caught up in them, and they in you, like those old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials where the chocolate and peanut butter get mixed up. No, it’s not safe. 
     But it’s what we have to do, because it’s what God did. God, in Christ, chose to end his estrangement from human beings and seek out a relationship. Christ gave himself as a ransom for all people. He wants all people to be saved. Not people like me. Not people from a certain part of the world, or who speak a certain language, or have particular political leanings. All people.
     And so, since that was God’s initiative, those of us who have put our faith in Jesus have to do the same. We have to pray and give thanks and make intercession for all people. We have to do good to all people, as we have the chance. And those who consider their differences with us an excuse to hate us, insult us, even attack us? As Jesus did, we meet those attacks, those insults, that hate, with love and sacrifice.
     People who are different from us don’t lose their humanity because of those differences. Mohammed Youssuf Abdulazeez forgot that, or someone convinced him otherwise. May we, as people who know the God who loves all people, never forget that. May we love all people with the reckless love of Jesus Christ. 

     And may next year’s Eid be a happier day for all people in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Meeting Together

    Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence  to enter the Most Holy Place  by the blood of Jesus…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings… Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together,  as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ”
-Hebrews 10:25-26 (NIV)

I eat like a 12-year-old. 
     I hate to admit it, but there you have it. Left to my own devices, I tend to eat like I’m 12. I like burgers and steaks, beef, beef, beef, rah, rah, rah. I like pizza. (Chicago pizza, which, for the non-Chicagoans who will read this, is that sad, flimsy stuff you call pizza on PEDs.) I like to drink Cokes. And the only green foods I really like are lime Jello, green Kool-Aid, and broccoli (with cheese on it, please). 
     There, I’ve confessed. Feel free to judge.
     Unfortunately, I’m at least, say, 20 years beyond 12 (!), and I can’t really eat like I’m 12 anymore. Not all the time, anyway. My weight’s a little up. So’s my blood pressure. I know I need to eat better, and I’m working on that. Laura makes it easier — she cooks good food that’s good for us most nights. But, here’s the thing — it’s hard. It’s hard to change your habits. 
     It takes, say it with me, now — discipline. 
     We know that. We know there’s no shortcut to being healthy. You have to eat better, and you have to exercise. Never mind the fad diets that come and go, the “supplements” that say they’ll burn fat faster, the devices they’ll sell you on TV to carve your abs or strengthen your core or whatever. If  you want to look and feel healthier, it takes discipline. Eat better. Exercise more.       
     If you want to be a novelist, you can’t just sit around hoping one day a novel will appear on your hard drive. You have to write, steadily, for a long time. If you want to be a world-class athlete, you have to work hard, practice, repeat the skills you’ll need over and over until your muscles can perform them without asking your brain how. If you want to excel academically, you have to go to class, study, write papers, for quite a few years. If  you want to be at the top of your field, whatever it is, you have to develop and practice the skills required, regularly, over the long haul. It takes discipline.
     That term “spiritual discipline” doesn’t resonate these days, what with the common belief that spirituality is an ephemeral experience to be received, not pursued. And even the church has come to believe that, more or less. So our church life consists of a lot of waiting around for something to happen, something spiritual, uplifting, transcendent. We want the music to give us that experience, or the preacher, or the liturgy, depending on our perspective. We come to church, when we come, expecting to be encouraged, uplifted, expecting the preacher to give us 5 Easy Steps to whatever we’re wanting today. And a lot of times we don’t bother to come. It’s just not a priority to be there.
     The writer of Hebrews uses a lot of ink to set up Jesus as God’s ultimate revelation of himself. Through Jesus, we can come into God’s presence. Through Jesus, we’ve already come to “the city of the Living God.” It’s exalted language about what God is doing for us in his Son. And yet, the writer doesn’t expect that God’s gifts in Christ can just be passively received. He believes discipline is necessary. He believes that taking hold of and living the life that God shares with us in Jesus requires practicing the skills required regularly, over the long haul, skills like prayer, service, love, repentance, worship, and so on. No one is a natural at those skills. They demand practice. And that’s why “meeting together” is important. The lab where the disciplines of God’s kingdom are practiced best is the church. Or, if you will, it’s the gym where we stretch and build those muscles that Jesus has awakened. And that’s why one of the disciplines of a follower of Jesus is gathering with the church.
     Simply put, you should not expect that you will be spiritually healthy if you consistently ignore the discipline of getting together with the church, no more than you should expect to be physically healthy if every morning you wake up, eat some Little Debbies, and go back to sleep until noon. Discipline isn’t always fun. It’s hard, sometimes. And so will life with the church be. Sometimes it won’t be fun, and sometimes you won’t think you’re getting much out of it, and sometimes you’ll be watching the clock until it’s over. But if you don’t invest yourself in the life of the church, you won’t grow spiritually. It really is that simple.
     I said invest yourself. Sitting on a weight bench sipping a milkshake doesn’t mean you’re working out, and sitting on a pew sipping a latte doesn’t mean you’re invested in the life of the church. Get to know your brothers and sisters at church. Pray with them, and develop the habit of praying for them. Laugh together, and cry together, and worship together, and serve together. 
     Here’s something that ought to be obvious, but too often apparently isn’t: the church doesn’t exist to “uplift” me, or “challenge” me, or “affirm” me, or serve me, or straighten me out. Those things can and should happen in the church, but they only will to the extent that I will invest myself in the life of the church. That means being there, first. And then it means being involved in the life being lived there, the life  of God’s kingdom.
     Didn’t know that’s what was going on at church? Well, maybe that’s because you haven’t been around much lately. Or maybe it’s because you’re hanging on the margins like a junior high kid at a dance. 
     So let’s not give up meeting together. Yes, it matters if you choose not to come to church. It matters if you prioritize everything but being together with God’s people. Have the discipline to be there when the church gathers, and have the discipline to throw yourself into its life.
     I know, time is a precious commodity. None of us have enough of it. But you’ll find the time to do the things you consider important. If being with the church isn’t important enough to be a priority for you, you might ask yourself why not. And then you might want to rethink your priorities.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Wide-Open Spaces

“Never take your word of truth from my mouth,
    for I have put my hope in your laws. 
I will always obey your law,
    for ever and ever.
I will walk about in freedom,
    for I have sought out your precepts..”
-Psalm 119:43-45 (NIV)

For a church in an urban area, we have a pretty good-sized front lawn. So when the weather is good, kids like to play out there. The problem is we have a small, crowded parking lot, and one of the streets at the intersection where the church is located is pretty busy. So the parents tend to set limits for their kids.
     When my son Josh was a kid his limits were the sidewalks and the parking lot. He was allowed to run around all he wanted on the grass. But he was told not to cross the sidewalks onto the parkway that borders the street. And he was told not to go into the parking lot. 
     Now again, the grassy area he was allowed play in is large. There was plenty of space there for him to run in. He could hide behind the sign. He could crawl into the bushes and play in the dirt. It wasn’t like he was tied to a stake in the ground; there was plenty of room for him and all the other kids at church to play any game they could imagine. 
     And the restrictions, of course, were for his own good. He didn’t always believe it, but my only motive in telling him he had to stay between the sidewalks was his safety. He was too little to play any closer to the street. The fact that he might not always have recognized the danger didn’t make the danger any less real.
     All Josh wanted was freedom. Too bad his old man was such a tyrant. As he saw it, I was impinging on his liberty to go where he wanted and do what he wanted. So sometimes he tested the limits. He would run right up to the edge of the sidewalk and look back at me over his shoulder, waiting for my response. Sometimes he’d get daring and put a foot on the concrete. And sometimes he even crossed his boundaries.
     Here’s the thing, though: He was really freer following his father’s rules than breaking them. I  gave him plenty of room. You should have seen him running around happily in the wide-open space I’d given him, without a care in the world. But as soon as he started testing the boundaries, his demeanor changed. Suddenly, he was thinking about where he’s stepping, instead of running around freely. He was looking around warily for me, trying to gauge how much trouble he was going to be in. He’d get increasingly anxious. You could see the tension rising in him. And, whether he knew it or not, he was in danger when he crossed the boundaries.
     Freedom? Hardly. But he just couldn’t seem to understand that his limits were actually giving him more liberty. Wonder why not? Where could he get the idea that freedom means an absence of limitations?
     Where indeed?
     We Americans love our freedom. But, from our country’s birth, we’ve understood freedom to mean the absence of rules. No absentee monarch can take our money as taxes. No person or organization can silence the press. If I object to something, no one can force me to keep my objections to myself. No one can force me to adhere to a particular religion, or any religion.
     And so we’ve pulled around ourselves like warm, cozy pajamas a thousand different individual freedoms -- understood as a thousand different things no one can keep us from doing or make us do. For the average American, freedom means being able to do whatever I want, with whomever I want, whenever I want, with a minimum of interference from legal or moral authorities. And it means that everyone else must not only tolerate it, but also approve of my doing it. For us, freedom has meant clustering at the boundaries God has set, fascinated with the forbidden territory beyond.
     “I will walk about in freedom,” said the psalmist, “for I have sought out your precepts.” The phrase translated “freedom” there is, literally, “wide-open spaces”. Doesn’t that sound strange to American ears: Freedom, not by escaping God’s commands, but by following them? How could that be? Is it really possible to walk in “wide-open spaces” while following the “narrow way”?
     That we would even ask the question indicates how badly we’ve misunderstood freedom. Freedom isn’t the same as carte blanche. Freedom doesn’t mean anything goes. Freedom, for human beings, is complete trust in our Creator. That’s what the psalmist understood. That’s why God’s commandments brought to his mind, not narrow, constricted, rigid laws, but wide-open spaces of true freedom, marked out and protected by God and his laws. 
     To use a different image, those who obey God’s word “are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season without fail. Their leaves never wither, and in all they do, they prosper.” Of course, a tree is rooted in place. It can’t move. It’s stuck in one spot. It’s restricted. Limited. So how do you liberate a tree? Cut it loose? Uproot it, so it can do what it wants? Of course not. A tree is limited, but it’s free. Free to grow, bloom, and bear fruit. Free to live. To cut it loose is to kill it.
     To use our freedoms as license to ignore God is to take an axe to our own roots. Our “enlightened” world has not outgrown the need for God. If you doubt that, look at what we’ve done to ourselves by insisting on individual freedom at the expense of God’s word. We have not fared well when we’ve wandered away from the wide-open spaces our Father has given us the freedom to roam. When we’ve crossed the boundaries, disaster has without fail been the result.
     So thank God for your freedoms as an American. But thank him even more for the wide-open spaces that he has marked out for you with his word. Live in freedom, yes, but don’t delude yourself. True freedom is only found in trusting and obeying your Father. You’ll never outgrow that need. 

     Enjoy the wide-open spaces of God. They’ll take you an eternity to explore.