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Friday, March 25, 2016

Justice

…[Y]our iniquities have separated you from your God…
your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. 
For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. 
Your lips have spoken falsely, and your tongue mutters wicked things. 
No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity…
The way of peace they do not know;  there is no justice in their paths.
They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks along them will know peace. 
So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. ” 
-Isaiah 59:2-4, 8-9 (NIV)


When James Meyers rented a videotape in 2001, I doubt he ever imagined that it would spend a couple of days in the news cycle in 2016. Amazingly, though, that’s exactly what happened.
     Late in 2001, Meyers rented a VHS tape of the Tom Green “classic,” Freddy Got Fingered. The movie is, by all accounts, quite forgettable. And James, apparently, forgot. Forgot to return it, that is. 
     Cut to March 22, 2016. Meyers is driving his daughter to school, when he’s pulled over for a traffic violation. When the officers ran his license and registration, they discovered that he had an active warrant out for his arrest. They allowed him to drop his daughter off at school before driving to the police station to turn himself in. James was booked on one count of failure to return rented property. He’ll go to court in April to answer the charge, and is facing a $200 fine. Pretty steep for a Tom Green movie. 
     Comments on some of the websites where the story has been posted question why the police wasted their time running down an inconsequential crime like James'. (The officers in question stopped him for an unrelated offense, and were simply doing their jobs in acting on the warrant.) Some have used the story as a forum for commenting on perceived injustices in society: how the wealthy get away with much more serious crimes than this, for instance. Still others say that justice was done: Meyers committed a crime by not returning the video, in effect stealing it, and a court date and possible fine are the correct punishment. 
      Most of the comments, in some way, reflect a concern that justice needs to be done: At least, some specific version of it. James Meyers needs to pay for his crime. The justice system needs to concern itself with much more pressing problem. The holes in the system by which people get away with horrific offenses need to be closed.
     We think of justice in almost exclusively legal terms. In our way of thinking, justice is about the guilty being punished. Justice is when the courts assign the blame for a murder or a rape or a libelous article or a negligent action to the correct person, and then exact the proper retribution. Justice, in our thinking, is regulated by a criminal code.
     Scripture has a somewhat different view of justice, though, and maybe it’s one we should pay more attention to. In the Bible, justice isn’t only about guilt being assigned and punished. In fact, Scripture seems to think that if there is guilt to be assigned, justice has not been done. Injustice in the biblical world occurred when someone did wrong to another. When the poor were taken advantage of, when a widow was cheated out of her property, when a murder or sexual assault occurred, the Bible called that injustice. 
     Justice in the Bible is closely tied to the idea of peace. And not just absence of conflict: peace in the Bible includes security, prosperity, faithfulness, and fair treatment. So if there isn’t justice, says Isaiah, then no one knows the way of peace. When justice is far away, there is only “darkness.”
     But Isaiah points to One who will come to bring “peace” and “justice.” And when Jesus came, he proclaimed that God’s kingdom had come, too, and that folks who hunger and thirst for justice in the world we live in will be filled. He claimed that he brought good news to the poor and freedom for the prisoners. He fulfilled the prophetic promises of a Spirit-empowered Servant who would proclaim justice to the countries of the world — and not just proclaim it, but also bring it about.
     Ironically, Jesus died as a victim of injustice, but he was vindicated in his resurrection. Into this world of injustice and corruption he brought justice, through his own suffering. And that Spirit he received, the one that brought him from the tomb and vindicated him, he pours out that same Spirit on his followers. That Spirit helps us to live lives characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In other words, the Spirit helps us to be people of justice. People who walk the way of peace, and lead others on it.
     The church hasn’t always seen that, and we certainly haven’t always lived it out. But justice is in our DNA. It’s the atmosphere of the Kingdom that we serve and look forward to. We live in it and breathe it in and breathe it out because of Jesus.
     So among people who are hurting, marginalized, sick, weak, and oppressed, may we be known for justice. Not so much by crying in the streets, or litigation, but by loving people, being faithful to them, and  bearing the suffering of a broken world the way that Jesus did, knowing that God is big enough to vindicate us, and them along with us.

     Jesus proclaimed a kingdom characterized by justice and peace. And his church should do our dead-level best to show our world what that looks like. May that responsibility teach us how to live.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Sing

     Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord… 
-Ephesians 5:19-20 (NiV)

So I’ve been singing songs in church all my life. 
     I have a huge repertoire of hymns, gospel songs, devotional songs, spirituals, and contemporary Christian music in my head. (If I had more musical ability, I could vocalize it more accurately, but that’s another story.) I know Charles Wesley and Fannie J. Crosby and Chris Tomlin and Thomas Dorsey (and I know he’s a different person from Tommy Dorsey, the musician more people know).
     I say all that so maybe you’ll hear me when I say this: singing songs in church is weird. It is. It’s weird.
     If you don’t believe me, bring someone to church who’s never been. And when the music starts, tell that person to sing along. Nine times out of town, that person will look at you like you’ve just suggested that he or she strip naked and juggle kittens while standing on a pew. Five times out of ten, he or she might be more willing to do just that, in fact.
     Quick, name another setting where you get together with a lot of people and sing. The National Anthem at a ball game doesn’t count — you aren’t there for that. (Though, listen to the National Anthem sung at a Harding University basketball game…) You can’t, can you?
     Singing in church is weird because, in the world we inhabit, when you want music you download it. Or you stream it. Or you turn on a radio (if you’re some kind of Luddite). Music, for us, is a product. We’re music consumers, and those who produce it are trained and wardrobed and auto-tuned and mixed. They’re professionals, and they’re part of an industry. And our involvement in the process is to buy it and listen to it. Music is made by other people for us to pass the time when we’re driving or working out or relaxing. And live music: well, that’s a concert, where we listen while the professionals play.
     And that explains as well as anything why church leaders and musicians from many different traditions and denominations have noted over the last two decades that the church has forgotten how to sing.
     In a lot of places, the church is more likely today to reflect our cultural assumption that music is a commodity, a product to be consumed. Worship services have in many places taken on the feel of concerts, at least until the sermon starts. The professionals, the musicians, play or sing on stage at the front of the room. Lighting sets a mood. And the job of the assembled church is to serve as audience. “Sing along if you want,” someone up front might suggest into a mic. But it isn’t strictly necessary that anyone take him up on it. The amplified voices and instruments of the worship leaders usually drown out the church anyway. And so the church doesn’t sing. “Aren’t the songs beautiful, aren’t the musicians talented?”
     Am I overstating the case? Maybe, but not by much. 
     The Bible says sing. Not listen, not hum along, not sway in place with your hands raised. It doesn’t say have an emotional response to the ambience set by the lights and music. It says sing. It says be filled by the Spirit, and by the Word of Christ, and express what’s filling you with singing. Doesn’t matter if you can carry a tune in a bucket. Doesn’t matter if you know the difference between a G string and, well, a g-string. Doesn’t matter if the singing sounds good, or impresses visitors, or gives me goose bumps. Sing, for heavens’ sake. Sing, church.
     When the church sings, we speak the gospel to each other. When I hear someone who’s lost a spouse or child sing, You give and take away…my heart will choose to say, “Lord, blessed be your name,” I’ve heard a sermon. When I hear a man who struggles with chronic illness and depression sing Just as I Am, I’ve heard a sermon. When I hear the words of former slaver John Newton’s song Amazing Grace sung, I’m drawn into his experience of the gospel. He has something to say to me, two centuries later. When I sing It Is Well With My Soul, Horatio Spafford is there with me singing the lyrics that he wrote on a transatlantic voyage, near the place where his daughters had died a few days before. When the church sings we speak the gospel to each other, across rooms and across centuries. 
     And of course when the church sings, we speak to the Lord. We express to him what’s in our heart. The psalmist knew that there are some days so full of joy or pain that the only way to express what you’re feeling to God is to sing. Sitting quietly, reflecting on even a beautifully-sung and played ballad won’t do it. Even standing with arms and faces upraised doesn’t quite cover it. When we’re filled with the Spirit, the only thing that will do is that we lift our voices to God.
     Worship music has become a sticky issue in most churches because it’s become about little more than personal preference. Singing in church was never supposed to be about that. It’s about proclaiming the gospel to each other, and expressing gratitude, repentance, and obedience to God. Singing in church is weird, but it’s supposed to be, the way anything that challenges our world’s focus on self will seem weird.     
     So sing in church. Don’t just listen, or meditate, or hum along. Open your mouth and sing. Sing from your heart. And if a song doesn’t quite capture what’s in your heart, sing it anyway, enthusiastically and from your heart, because maybe it was there and you just didn’t know it. Or maybe someone close to you needs to hear exactly those words from your mouth.     

     Sing. Church isn’t supposed to be just an opportunity to hear some great music about Jesus and walk away feeling better. It’s a time to speak to one another and to God. 

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