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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.”

Monday, October 5, 2015

Solid

     I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called  you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel —which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion  and are trying to pervert  the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you,  let them be under God’s curse!  As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!. 
-Galatians 1:6-9 (NIV)


I got a phone call earlier this week, and I’ve been thinking about it since. It was similar to a lot of phone calls I’ve received at church over the years. Maybe the sheer number of this kind of call has made me a little cynical and jaded about them. Still, something felt “off” about the call, and I think I know what it is.
     The guy on the phone, a brother in Christ, was looking for a church on the south side of Chicago. I sort of assumed at first that he was looking for a church to visit when he came into town, or maybe he was moving to Chicago. I told him that we were on the north side, and asked where he was located. That’s when he told me that he was looking for a church to get in touch with a man in Chicago with whom he had been studying on the phone. That’s when the conversation turned into an interview. 
     “I’m looking for a solid Church of Christ,” he informed me earnestly. “Solid.” He used that word several times. Based on the rest of the conversation, I gathered that “solid” in this context meant a church that 1) doesn’t have women leading in worship, 2) doesn’t use “praise teams” in worship, and 3) isn’t connected with a specific offshoot of Churches of Christ associated with a specific city. “You’re not that kind of church, are you?” he asked, somewhat suspiciously. (Maybe because I didn’t enthusiastically denounce each item as he mentioned them?)
     Remember, he wasn’t even asking because he wanted to visit. He was vetting my qualifications to refer him to another church!
     I informed him that we checked all his boxes (as do the vast majority of Churches of Christ). I gave him the names of a couple of “solid” churches, and that was that. But I’ve been wondering since about his checklist. Why were those the items on his list? And what would define “solid” for me?
    It’s tempting to start coming up with our own lists of what constitutes a “solid” church. Somewhere in there, I think, is a correct impulse. It’s important for the church to be vigilant against heresies and digressions that compromise the gospel — and therefore compromise our identities as people who are formed by the gospel. If our witness is tainted by teaching and lifestyle that run counter to the teaching of Jesus that we’ve received, then it’s an open question as to whether we are still the church at all. Paul was concerned about the real possibility of another gospel that could “pervert” the gospel of Christ, confuse the church, and ultimately cause us to turn away from life in the “grace of Christ.” 
     He seems to think that’s what the gospel does — it gives us a new life lived in the grace that Jesus preached, demonstrated, and embodied on the cross. That may be new to us, to think of the gospel as something active, something that creates, rather than something to be passively understood and believed. And maybe that’s part of the problem. If the gospel is a collection of doctrines to be correctly understood, interpreted, and believed, then we’d better make sure we get it all right. We’d better make sure to check all the boxes on the list. But beyond that, we’d better make sure that the list we have is the right one! 
     But if the gospel is intended to create something in us by the power of God, then getting all our doctrines right, all our boxes checked, is kind of putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it? That’s really what Paul is getting at later in Galatians 1, where he reminds the church that he didn’t have the gospel he preached vetted ahead of time by anyone from the “home office.” And there were plenty of people who would have doubted if Paul’s gospel was “solid.” 
     What changed Paul from persecutor to believer was not a set of doctrines that made more sense than the set he already believed. He wasn’t won over by logic, or convinced that the story of Jesus fulfilled prophecies. He was converted by an encounter with Jesus. And after meeting Jesus, and seeing first-hand the life that God’s grace created for him, everything else sort of fell into place. “Solid” doctrine, for Paul, was whatever seemed to fit inside his new life in Jesus. If it didn’t fit, it wasn’t solid. 
     Church history is full of people with lists, people arguing about what’s “solid,” true, healthy, or right. Some of those arguments seem hopelessly quaint now. (Anyone want to argue about how Jesus is present in Communion? Maybe you’d like to participate in a panel discussion about pre-, post-, or a-millennialism?) The divided state of the church today is largely to be attributed to those lists; people couldn’t see how they could get along with such differing definitions of what is “solid,” so we’re left with a fragmented, compromised witness to the One who said his people’s unity would be their best testimony
     The items on my phone friend’s list are worth talking about. I know “solid” churches on both sides of every one of them. Also worth talking about: why didn’t he ask about caring for the sick? Feeding the hungry? Visiting those in prison? Surely those belong in any discussion of a church’s “solidity.” Funny how limited our checklists can be. But it sounds now like I’m coming up with a list of my own.
     It kind of comes down to this: Jesus comes first. Too often, we have our lists first. We think we’re defending the gospel, when what we’re really doing is advocating for our own understanding of what a life formed by the gospel is supposed to look like. in so doing, we’re preaching a different gospel.
     In case you’re wondering what the difference is, it’s this: you and I are Christians, not because of our lists, but because of the grace of God revealed to us in Jesus. 
     If you sound like Jesus in a given moment, you’re probably right. If not, you’re probably wrong. 
     It really is that simple, because the gospel has little to do with our lists. It has everything to do with creating in us a life filled with, mediated by, and lived out in the power of God’s grace.

     And that’s a solid life.

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