Friday, September 11, 2015

The Immovable Ladder

    “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me..
-John 17:20-23

When pilgrims visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, they are no doubt overwhelmed by the site’s history and significance. The church encloses what are claimed to be the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and his tomb. It must be quite an experience to stand at those sites and reflect on the death and resurrection of our Savior. So you’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice the ladder.
    It’s a nondescript wooden ladder, about 7 feet tall, made out of cedar, propped under a window just above the facade of the church. It looks very old, and it is. It’s been standing there since at least 1757.
    The first mention of it is in an edict issued by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid I. An engraving of the church from 1728 seems to show it. In any case, it’s been there almost continuously for over 250 years, at the very least. It’s called, obviously enough, the Immovable Ladder.
    Less obvious is why it’s there, and therein, as you might imagine, lies a story.
    Sites like The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy Land are, by law, under the control of six Christian orders or denominations: the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox churches. This arrangement is known as status quo, and among other things it requires that the six Christian orders in charge of the site have to unanimously approve any movement, rearrangement, or alteration of anything at the site.
    So you can imagine how difficult it must be for all six groups to decided whether or not the ladder should be moved, and to where. And so there it sits.
    In a move that seems, in retrospect, sort of counterproductive, in 1964 Pope Paul VI decreed that the ladder should not be moved until there is unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In short, he codified by Papal law a visible sign of the division among Christians in order to, yes, draw attention to the problem of division among Christians.
   If you take Jesus seriously, though, you can’t possibly believe that he’d be happy with the status quo of division in his church. With the cross already casting its shadow over his heart and mind, Jesus gathered his first disciples together and prayed that they and their converts would be one. He prayed that, by being “in” and sharing in the unity that he shared with the Father, his hand-picked disciples and those who would believe in him through their testimony would be united.
    Jesus apparently believed that the glory that he modeled and to which he testified should be enough to bring those who were committed to following him together. He envisioned people putting aside their differences to come together because they were so dazzled by Jesus and his vision of the life he wanted to share with them. He believed that, when people saw God’s love in him, they would turn to each other in love as well. He believed that his followers could be united by that love, knit together by the unity that comes from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “That they may be one as we are one” —  that was his prayer.
    Maybe he should have prayed a little harder for that?
    Or maybe the problem is that we convince ourselves that our own little crusades are much more important than Jesus’ dying wishes for his church, that which walls our doctrinal ladders rest against is of much greater concern than sharing in the unity of Father and Son. Maybe the problem is that we’ve really come to believe that no one who disagrees with my conclusions about church teaching and practice is actually a follower of Jesus at all. I think maybe that’s it: we rationalize the church’s state of division by trying to say with a straight face that those who would prop the ladder against a different wall, or a different ladder against the same wall, isn’t really a Christian at all.
    I belong to a segment of the church that thinks of itself as a unity movement. And yet, in just about 200 years we’ve fragmented into enough flavors of “us” to open a Baskin-Robbins. And that’s just us. One tiny segment of a divided Christianity that has destroyed its witness to the love of God by our disdain for one another.
    Look, Christians will sometimes not agree, and we sometimes won’t agree about things that are very important. There are times when division is necessary, but if I read my New Testament correctly, those times are only when the sufficiency of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the basis for salvation is at stake. Anything short of that, and no matter how much I might disagree with someone, we are family.
    And we should treat each other as such. I doubt the day is coming soon when all the denominations merge into one giant church, and I don’t even think that would be advisable if we could. But we don’t have to be divided. We should give each other the benefit of the doubt. Speak well of each other. We should study issues of disagreement together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not to prove each other wrong but to understand each other. We should work together when the occasion calls for it. We should pray together, and encourage each other.
    In an increasingly secularized world, if you meet a believer in Jesus, you’re meeting a brother or sister. You don’t have to agree about what happens at Communion, or how churches should be organized, or even mode of baptism to acknowledge that, and treat them as such.
    One day, our descendants might see the divisions that mean so much to us in the same way that most of us see that immovable ladder. They might wonder how in the world we couldn’t just agree to get them out of the way. And, if not them, the world might wonder how we can talk about love when we can’t love each other.
    And, if not then, one day the Lord who prayed and died for our unity might wonder. And I don't want to have to explain to him why those same ladders are still leaning against those same walls.

Friday, September 4, 2015

"Good Job"

    My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.
     When all this comes true—and it surely will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.
-Ezekiel 33:31-32

I read somewhere recently that “good job” is the most destructive phrase in the English language. I’m suspicious of that statement, and I think I can imagine some much more destructive phrases, but I get the point. “Good job” can be a participation trophy, a “thanks for playing” that encourages people to revel in mediocrity. Sometimes saying “good job” is really just shorthand for “whatever you just did was not outstanding in any way, but I have neither the time or energy to give you an honest critique.” (I know, also, that sometimes “good job” simply means “I think you did a good job with that. Congratulations.” But sometimes you can’t tell which meaning is intended, and I guess therein lies the point.)
     I experience “good job” moments most every Sunday, as people walk by me at the door of the church. “Good sermon” is actually what I hear most often. People rarely complain to my face right there. Some shake my hand or give me a hug and say nothing. Every once in a while, someone wants to discuss something they heard, or ask me a question. But, by and large, what I hear most is “Good sermon.”
     Sometimes it means something like “that sermon really connected with me,” or “you really addressed something that I’ve been thinking about lately.” Sometimes it no doubt means “I think you were correct in the things you said, though I don’t really see the relevance.” Sometimes it probably means “you seem to have worked really hard on that, and so I feel like I should say something nice.” I can’t always tell. I usually can’t, in fact.
     The thing is, I really like hearing “good sermon.” 
     It feels like a win, doesn’t it? When someone compliments something you’ve done, something you’ve worked hard on and care about, it’s a success. It almost doesn’t matter why. If someone approves, you were successful. Their approval validates your efforts. 
     We grow up with that, looking for the approval of others, measuring success by the number of “good jobs” that we hear. I wonder why that is? Some Sundays, not many, I preach a sermon that I think is really good. But if I don’t hear many “good sermons” that week, I start to question it. Maybe it wasn’t as good as I thought. And, conversely, if I preach one that’s I feel is a clunker and get lots of approval, well, it must have been better than I though. 
     Ever feel like that at your job? At school? In your home? In your marriage? Do you ever try to measure success by the approval of others?
     Ezekiel was a prophet who lived more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus. God gave him the difficult job of bringing a message from him to “a rebellious people.” God doesn’t give him a lot of hope from the outset that his work will change a lot of hearts. He doesn’t give Ezekiel reason to think that his service to the people of God will forestall the judgment that is coming. But Ezekiel’s work isn’t to win the approval of his countrymen. His work is to testify to the power and the coming judgment of God, so that the people “will know that a prophet has been among them.” “One day,” God says, “they’ll look back and say to themselves, ‘Ezekiel was trying to tell us, and he was right.’” And that, for Ezekiel, would be success.
     It just can’t be right, can it, that the approval of others is the marker of success? What if, for example, the neighbors around your church take offense to your church’s efforts to feed hungry people? What if they complain about the class of people that your church’s ministry attracts? Is it success to end the ministry and enjoy your neighbors’ approval? Or is it success to continue caring for those in need?
     Are you successful if your teacher likes your plagiarized paper? Are  you successful if your boss gives you a bonus on the basis of numbers you reached by intimidating and bullying the people who work for you? Can you call yourself a success if  you achieve your career goals while abdicating your responsibility to your children?
     Ezekiel needed to change is definition of success. God even says that Ezekiel will have his share of “good job” moments, when his countrymen tell him what a great sermon he just preached. But he isn’t to be taken in by those moments, nor is he to worry about creating them. His job isn’t to cater to those who listen to sermons like they listen to singers sing love songs, or like they listen to gifted musicians. He is called, instead, to witness to the power and presence of God. To make it possible for people, even in hindsight, to say “a prophet was among us,” and so to know that the Lord has been among them all along,  too.
     That, in case you haven’t made the connection yet, is your job too. Your calling. It matters remarkably little if the people around you understand or appreciate that. Listen, please your boss whenever you can. Make the best grades you can. Work hard to preach the best sermons you can, if that’s what you do. But don’t begin to imagine that the approval of people means you’ve succeeded, or that their disapproval means you’ve failed. Your calling, always, is to witness to the power and presence of God. Do what God has called you to do, whatever it is: manage an office, drive a truck, operate on a patient, write an ad, care for your children, teach a class, take a class, have coffee with a friend, play golf with a co-worker. But don’t do it for a “good job” from other people. Do it so that those people will get a glimpse of God in the face of Jesus.
     His approval is what ultimately matters. And he is not difficult to please. So do everything you do less to please the people around you, and more to help them to know him.