Friday, November 27, 2015

Called, Even When It's One Hour Outbound To The Junction

       Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.
-1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)

I always suspected this. Now I know my suspicions are correct. The traffic where I live is worse than anywhere else in America.
     According to a study released last week, the worst traffic bottleneck in the nation is on the Kennedy Expressway (Interstate 90/94) from Nagle Avenue to the Jane Byrne Interchange. 
     That’s, like, a mile from where I live.
     So, if you’re wondering why I haven’t solved the problems of the world by now, or invented something revolutionary, you have your answer. I’ve been sitting in traffic.
     Greg Cohen, the CEO of the group that did the study, visited Chicago recently. He tried going from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago via the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line train, but said that it “took forever,” so he decided to go back to the airport when it was time by taxi. “That was a nightmare too,“ he says. “I don’t know how Chicagoans deal with it.”
     How do we deal with it, Greg? I’m glad you asked. How do we deal with any of the inconveniences and struggles that life brings us? How do we deal with canceled flights? Impending deadlines? Misunderstood intentions? How do we deal with the fact that, nearly every day, some of the details of life don’t go exactly as we’d like them to?
     There’s the problem, those last five words: as we’d like them to. No one wants, for instance, to sit in traffic. We all feel like our time is too important to waste that way, that we’re too in demand, too necessary to the people around us, too indispensable to the events of our lives. We have to much on our to-do-lists and schedules, and more to the point we have too many ideas about the way our lives should go to tolerate realities like backed-up traffic. And so we build little worlds for ourselves in our own heads, worlds in which such indignities and inconveniences are not supposed to exist. And so we publish traffic studies that purport to equate sitting in  bottlenecks with lost money — money being the best way in our world to assign value to anything. 
     As it turns out, I’m just far too valuable to the world to be reduced to sitting in traffic. I mean, I’ve been saying…
     So when things don’t go for us as we’d like them to, does that mean nothing of consequence is happening? I’m thinking of sitting in traffic or waiting in line at the DMV or waiting to check out at the supermarket, but also I’m thinking of waiting for a better job, or any job, to come along. I’m thinking of the sometimes long journey between diagnosis and cure. I’m thinking of times when we’re struggling through family conflict, or when we’re waiting and hoping for the right person to come along at all. I’m thinking of lean economic times, and I’m thinking of cities stewing in racial tension, and I’m thinking of terrorism, and I’m asking: can it be that something good or productive or even holy might be possibly be happening in our lives while we wait for our preferred outcome? And is it possible that we might miss it if we don’t keep our hearts and minds open to that possibility?
      One of the issues that Christians throughout the ages have wished the Bible spoke more directly to is the issue of slavery. Most of us feel a sense of repugnance at the notion that a human being could ever be treated as the property of another human being. History says that there’s an ethic taught in the Gospel and in the Bible that dismantles the institution of slavery. And yet, when the Bible speaks directly to the idea of slavery, it doesn’t dismantle it. It says that Christian slave owners should treat their slaves well, as family in Christ, and it says that Christian slaves should work hard, as though they’re working for the Lord and not their human masters. You’d like the Bible to read more like The Emancipation Proclamation, and instead you get Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s transformation, to be sure, but not revolution.
     The root of that, though, is the belief that God is still God and that his work is going on in our lives, even when our lives don’t match our ideals. Put another way, we don’t have to wait until everything works out in our lives as we’d like them to for God to act for us and in us and through us. That’s how traffic jams are like slavery is like a dead-end job: in all of them, God is at work and we’re called to be a part of his work.
     “If you’re a slave and freedom is a possibility, then by all means, get free,” says Paul. But his bigger point is that God has chosen us, whatever our circumstances are, and that it’s a waste of time to miss what he’s doing right now where we are while we wait for things to get better or brighter. The lives we have right now are the lives we’ve been given, and God will transform and use these lives, the ones we have right now, for his glory in the world. 
     So you can fret and worry and stew and smolder and complain about traffic. Or you can be in prayer (eyes open, please), or you can be on the phone (hands-free, please) with someone the Lord might bless through you right there. You can dwell on how much you hate your job, and how much you’ll do for the Lord when you finally get the decent job you deserve, but if you do you’ll miss what God wants to be doing through you and in you right now, in that dead-end job you have. You can spend your whole life dwelling on how you could have mattered if only this or that — and you will have completely missed how, in the Lord, you could have mattered exactly where you were, doing exactly what you were doing. 
     Live as a believer where you are, doing what you do, and God will do wonderful things. To waste your life wishing for something else is to doubt him. To trust him is to believe that he has invited you right where you are to be a part of his work in the world, and to learn to expect him to work in unusual ways and unexpected places.

     Maybe even in a car stuck on the Kennedy at 5:30 in the afternoon.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick to Listen

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…
-James 1:19 (NIV)

At a Des Moines high school recently, President Obama was asked by a student about a Presidential candidate’s proposal to defund universities that display political bias. Obama responded that the idea “runs contrary to everything we believe about education.” Then he said:

I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either.
   I have a son who’ll be starting college next year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the people he’ll meet and what he’ll hear from them. My wife and I have not tried to shelter him from points of view other than our own. We want him to know what we believe, and why we believe it, but by and large I think we’ve resisted the urge to shield him from other, even competing, beliefs. When I’ve been tempted to, I’ve tried to talk myself out of it by reminding myself that the world doesn’t work that way. I agree with President Obama, I think: differing points of view are not obstacles to learning and growth, but prerequisites for it. We learn best, not by hearing points of view that we already share rehashed and recapitulated, but by allowing our own belief systems to collide with others. 
     When that happens, as President Obama says, we can have an argument. We can discuss and debate. We can try to convince each other. Best of all, we can start to understand where those other points of view come  from, and, even if we never find ourselves sharing them, at least come to know why others do. That always makes us better, more well-rounded people. 
     Christians haven’t always been known for this. Fairly or not (and it isn’t always), we’ve kind of been known for holding a black and white view of the world that tolerates no dissent. There have been times, admittedly, when we’ve tried to stifle other points of view. While it’s admirable for believers to hold firmly to their faith and to obey God as radically as they can, we’ve crossed the line wherever and whenever we’ve tried to force others to do the same by censoring other points of view and belief systems.
      I don’t see that as a uniquely Christian problem, though. In fact, I think the church may be better positioned than most to see the problem and contribute to its solution.
     Our society claims to value tolerance, and on the surface we do. But, like most cultural values, this notion of tolerating diversity only runs so deep. We don’t really want tolerance of our views. We want agreement and approval. And if we can’t have agreement and approval, then we don’t want to discuss it anymore. In the face of non-agreement, we expect silence and resort to censorship.
     Tolerance requires that we hear from those who disagree with us, and allow them the same room to express their views that we expect for our own.
     We don’t do debate well anymore. 
     The Scriptures, interestingly, are full of the mandate to love each other. To bear with each other. James says we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. The fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives includes such traits as peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. And we still follow, don’t we, a Lord who responded to the misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and mistreatment of others, not with censorship or demands to be heard or violence or legal action, but by giving himself in love?
     Which, as always, is the only real way to overcome evil. 
     Wherever Christians go, we should bring with us the ability and willingness to hear from people who don’t see the world the way we do. Why should we expect the world views of people of other faiths, or no faith, to align with ours? God give us the grace to hear from folks whose experiences are different than ours, and to hear with the love and grace that Jesus has brought to life in us.
     In the church, too — maybe especially in the church — may we listen carefully and lovingly when someone’s opinions about this or that or the other thing differ from our own. Unity in the church is created by the Holy Spirit, not by agreement on particular issues. May we resist our culture’s impulse to stifle dissent and gloss over disagreement by some mindless appeal to “tolerance.” 
     Have arguments with the people around you sometimes. Love others enough to ask questions when someone has a different point of view. Don’t disengage from disagreement on the one extreme, and don’t stifle it on the other. Wade in, stand up for what you believe, and really try to hear and understand what the other person is saying. And that is another person on the other end of that issue. A child of God.

     We don’t stand, as believers, for the mistreatment of others, whether those doing the mistreating share our point of view or not. We don’t allow evil actions to go unchallenged. But we’re not so fragile that we can’t hear other points of view, not so flabby in our faith, surely, that we find it challenged by a different belief system. We follow One who proclaimed that the Kingdom of God overcame the world, and then he showed how by giving himself. Surely we can do the same by listening, understanding, and then proclaiming him in a way that shows his love and grace.

Friday, November 6, 2015


  I want you to know, brothers and sisters,  that the gospel I preached  is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man,  nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation  from Jesus Christ. 
     …[W]hen God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb  and called me  by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles,  my immediate response was not to consult any human being.
-Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16 (NIV)

     OK, I'm a a little embarrassed that I knew that line by heart. Then again, maybe you do too, or at least recognize it. The line is from a little movie from several decades ago, delivered with a sardonic smirk by a self-proclaimed "scoundrel" played by Harrison Ford, a rogue named Han Solo who discovers his heroism by the end of the film.
     Apparently, that's not all he discovered.
     That line flashed through my mind a couple of weeks ago when I saw the newest trailer for the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, the first time we'll see Han Solo on the big screen in over 30 years. A lot's happened in his life in that time, apparently. He was a skeptic in the first film, telling a naive farm boy named Luke Skywalker that belief in a "mystical energy field" that controls human destiny is foolish, ridiculous, and even dangerous. 
     Somewhere, though, Han Solo changed his mind.
     In the trailer for the new film, a new character, Daisy Ridley's Rey, asks Solo about the events of the first films, events that apparently passed into legend before she was born. "There are stories about what happened," she says, half in hope, half doubting that anything so amazing and wonderful and frightening could possibly be true. And, once the skeptic, Solo smiles and confesses his faith: "It's true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They're real."
     I know. They're not real, of course. And maybe none of that has the resonance with you that it does with me. But you know about conversion, don't you? You know something about what it's like to change your mind and see the world in an entirely different light, the light of something that you couldn't imagine was possible before but that changes everything.
     Saul had a moment like that. The new light in which he saw the world came from a risen Jesus, a man who he thought was dead. That new light was so bright it took away his own vision for a little while - just long enough for him to realize that his own limited vision was just holding him back. That's what conversion is, isn't it: seeing the world with new eyes?
     And Saul does. He sees himself anew, someone who needs the grace of God instead of deciding who’s worthy of it. He sees that he needs to “call on the name of Lord,” and it’s through that risen Lord, Jesus, that what’s wrong in him and in the world around him will be put right. He sees that the power to transform his world isn’t in his hands, and in fact it’s been going on around him all the time, through these Christians energized by God’s Spirit. 
     Conversion is hard, because it demands that we give up any view of the universe that doesn’t have God at its center. Sometimes we think that conversion is about information transfer, but the only information Saul learned on that road was that Jesus, who he knew was killed, was alive again. The rest came later — and Saul, who took the name Paul after his conversion — developed at least the basis of most of the best-known doctrines of Christianity. But his conversion came first, and only then did he sit down to think through the implications of a new world view in which the risen Lord Jesus is alive and active in the world, and is bringing it toward an obvious resolution.
     Conversion is hard. It’s no easier for us. We usually think of conversion as a once-for-all event, in which we “see the light” and everything changes for us. That seeing the light happens often enough, of course, but even then it’s not usually once-for-all. Conversion is more often a recurring theme in our lives, as in many different ways we’re forced to come to the conclusion that we aren’t at the center of our worlds at all. It’s a moment of conversion to realize that your church attendance doesn’t make you a believer, and that you need to change your way of seeing the world every bit as much as the addict who mistakes meth for God. It’s a moment of conversion to realize that your belittling of your spouse has to do with your need for control, and that if you don’t give up control to God you’re going to destroy your marriage. It’s a moment of conversion to let go of your ideas of the perfect family, or the perfect career arc, or the perfect retirement, and instead bow in submission to the perfect will of God. 
     For a long time now, the church has been best at information transfer. It’s a reflection of the values of the world around us that knowledge and information are power. We conquer the forces of nature, or the open market, or the atom, or whatever, through knowledge. And the church has often adapted this strategy. “Tell people how to be good Christians, and they will be,” we’ve said.
     But we’ve neglected conversion. 
     Here’s something all the knowledge in the world won’t help you with: the world doesn’t bend to your will, and it never, ever will. Evil, disease, and death claim the most powerful, the most intelligent, the most visionary among us. Forces more powerful than we are push time and history along. Hope for our own redemption, and the redemption of the world around us, is out of our hands.
     And so we need to be converted, every one of us. We need to come to the point in our lives when we’re blinded by the light of a risen Lord and make room for him at the center of our lives. By his grace, God wants to reveal him in us. It’s revelation — God’s doing, not our own. It calls us to action, no doubt; but first, it calls us to get ourselves out of the way and let God have his way. It’s true. All of it. The gospel of Jesus, that he has been raised from the dead by the power of God and is putting right what has gone wrong — it’s true. 

     May we live in such a way that its truth can be made known in us.