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Friday, December 30, 2016

Memorials

   So Joshua called together the twelve men  he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan.  Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign  among you. In the future, when your children  ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off  before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial  to the people of Israel forever.”
-Joshua 4:4-7 (NIV)


Growing up in Tennessee, I was surrounded by memorials.
    Most of them were on Civil War battlefields, and the names are a vivid part of my childhood memories: Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Stones River. Almost everywhere you go around Chattanooga or Middle Tennessee, you see memorials: plaques, statues, even cannons. They commemorate battles and honor the soldiers who gave their lives there, both Union and Confederate. They’re witnesses to the past: testimonies to people generations gone whose courage and sacrifice helped to draw our nation back together. As a kid, I’d climb on the cannons and shoot down imaginary enemies. A little older, I’d read the plaques and the names and sometimes wonder what they were like, which of them went home and which were buried in the Tennessee clay under my feet, which had a life after the war and which left widows and orphans and grieving parents behind.
    The New Year is barreling down on us, so it’s a good time to consider memorials. But not so much those elaborate Civil War memorials of my childhood that are so good at bearing mute witness to the past. It’s a different kind of memorial that’s on my mind today, less elaborate, almost crude, but more vital and living: A pile of stones standing on a riverbank.
    When the Hebrews crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they brought those stones with them. The Jordan was the last obstacle, the one thing keeping a four-decade horde of wanderers from beginning to grow into a nation. Their leader, Joshua, the successor to Moses, knew a memorial was in order. So he tasked a representative from each of the twelve tribes that made up the fledgling nation with removing a large stone from the dry riverbed that God gave them to walk across. Once across, they were to use the stones to build a memorial. Kind of like those Civil War memorials.
    But not really, because this memorial was to serve a different function. It was less a memorial to the past than a marker for the future. Joshua imagine kids playing by the riverbank, or young men hunting, or young women washing clothes. He imagined a future when Israel was secure in the land, and imagined that future generation might need a history lesson. “What’s this pile of rocks here?” they might ask. And then those who knew the story could tell it: “You might have trouble believing this, but God stopped the flow of the Jordan so we could cross! This is who we are. We’re the people of the God who dammed a river for us.”
    A trailer was shown at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It contained no actual footage of the movie it promoted, because no one is allowed to see that movie yet. It’s called 100 Years, and it’s billed as “The Movie You will Never See.” It envisions life on earth in 100 years, and once it was completed it was placed in a bulletproof, time-locked vault set to open on Nov. 18, 2115. A thousand people from around the world, including star John Malkovich and director Robert Rodriguez, have received invitations to be passed down to their descendants.
    What the future holds for us, whether 100 years or a day from now, is locked. It’s inscrutable. This time of year is filled with predictions, and it’s filled with retrospectives, but rarely do the two inform one another. We memorialize the past with markers, and look toward the future with some mixture of hope, fear, uncertainty, dread, and anticipation. But rarely do we occupy the only ground we really can, the present, and let what our past tells us inform the future we know is coming.
    So here’s what our past tells us about the coming New Year. It tells us, for one, that we will face obstacles. We have to anticipate that there will be times in the next twelve months when taking a step forward will feel like wading out into a raging river. If you think being one of God’s people means that life should be easy and comfortable and free of conflict, well, then you just don’t know your history. There will be moments in 2017 where you find your way blocked and your fears mounting.
    But our past also reminds us, doesn’t it, that God goes with his people? Whatever you face between now and next January, you won’t face it without him. Where God’s people go, he goes with them, whether as a pillar of fire or an Ark of the Covenant or the Word made flesh. You know that’s true, because you remember what he’s already walked through with you. You will encounter no adversary, no obstacle, no snare or temptation or sickness or grief that he will not encounter with you.
    And where he goes, the dangers recede. Where he goes, rivers dry up and armies break and run and storms still and demons submit and grieving people find joy again. This year will bring nothing that he can't handle, that he hasn’t already handled. There is no hurt so deep, fear so powerful, obstacle so big, or enemy so strong that God is not deeper, more powerful, bigger or stronger still.
    The New Year seems like uncharted territory, and of course in some ways it is. But, look, there on the riverbank. Look at all those markers, all those memorials of how God has been with his people and helped them through and over and around the obstacles they’ve encountered on the way. Word and song and prayer remind us. Jesus assures us. The experiences of our family in Christ testify that we walk into this New Year’s inevitable mix of joys and sorrows, blessing and hardship, with the presence of God and in his power.
    So grab your rock as you cross. Make it part of the testimony of God’s people, so that when your children are scared and your friends are in doubt and even your own heart is weary, you’ll look ahead with hope and joy and anticipation.
    On New Year’s morning, we’ll gather around the table and share bread and cup in memory of Jesus. But  we won’t just look back on that awful past event. It will serve for us as a marker as we cross into 2017 to the future hope we have because of it.

    May all who need such hope this year see it. And may we tell that story well.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Celebrating Christmas

   When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem  those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
-Galatians 4:4-7 (NIV)



It happens most every year. Someone I know — at least one someone — will say it. This year it happened to be my doctor.
    “This must be a busy time of year for you.”
    She said it because she knows that I’m a minister, and because she’s a believer, and so she assumes that Christmas for me must be like tax season for accountants: lots of overtime, lots going on, lots to take care of. It’s an understandable assumption, and one I rarely bother to correct. What’s the point, really, in a setting like that to explain that not all churches celebrate Christmas with pageants and extra services and such? She was more or less just being polite, after all.
   I didn’t grow up with Christmas as a specifically religious holiday. That isn’t because I didn’t grow up going to church — I did. It isn’t because my parents weren’t explicit about their faith — they were, and are. I mean, I knew that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. A lot of people I knew went to churches that were decorated for Christmas and had those pageants. I went to more than one, in fact. Lots of people I knew, even some who didn’t grow up going to church every Sunday like I did, attended a Christmas Eve mass or service.
    Not me, though. The church I grew up a part of didn’t do any of that. We went to church on Christmas when it fell on a Sunday or Wednesday. (Sundays were tough; we had to interrupt or delay present-opening, which my sister and I hated. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good argument for taking your kids to church every Christmas!) Otherwise, nothing much changed at church around Christmastime. I was into my 20s before I understood Advent at all. (The “Advent Calendar” in our house just let you move a candy cane closer to December 25th.) I was never in a Christmas pageant. Our church never had a Christmas Eve service. Honestly, I’m not even sure that we sang Christmas songs around Christmastime.
    The reason for that, as simplistic as it sounds, is that the celebration of Christmas doesn’t come from the Bible. Neither Jesus nor the New Testament church seemed all that interested in the celebration of his birthday, and in fact we don't know that December 25th is his birthday at all. (That date came to be acknowledged through kind of a perfect storm of theology, church history, and existing pagan celebrations.) The gospel writers (two of them, anyway) describe his birth more out of interest in theology than history, and none of them ever bother to date it outside of a vague reference to historical people and events going on around it. The church didn't settle on December 25th until three or four centuries later, at the earliest.
    We weren’t anti-Christmas, you understand. We just wanted to be able to point to a very specific text to support what we did in church, and Christmas just didn’t have it. Christmas pageants and decorations and special services in church seemed to us a little too liturgical, a little too tangled up in human tradition, and so we just didn’t do it.
    Well, the church I’m a part of now doesn’t do much in the way of Christmas either, other than that the preaching and much of the singing during the Advent and Christmas seasons acknowledges the time of year. Some people I know still probably consider that too much. Others probably don’t think it’s enough.
    I get it. But I now believe the church should celebrate Christmas because it is about incarnation. It’s about the Word of God made flesh in all its power and holiness. But it’s also about the form that Word takes — not fire or angel armies or even a holy book, but humanity. “The Word became flesh,” John wrote in his version of the nativity story, “and made his dwelling among us.” Or, as Paul put it, he “did not consider equality with God  something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature  of a servant, being made in human likeness.” This is the Gospel, that in Jesus God has come to us as one of us, has in some way let go of what it means to be equal with God to be made in our likeness. To make his dwelling among us.
    And this is just me now, I speak for no one else, but I don’t need a text in the Bible telling me to celebrate that with other human beings created by God and in whose likeness Christ has come. With other human beings who because he came now bear his Spirit and call God Father and constitute the living body of Christ on earth.
    But we don’t leave that celebration to Sunday — even when that Sunday is Christmas. To celebrate incarnation is to not only look back with joy on what Christ has done, but to look ahead with anticipation to what Christ will do through us, through our hands and feet and mouths and hearts and eyes and ears and minds.
How beautiful the hands that served the wine and the bread and the sons of the earth.
How beautiful the feet that walked the long dusty road and the hill to the cross
Yes. But also:
How beautiful the feet that bring the sound of good news and the love of the King.How beautiful the hands that serve the wine and the bread and the sons of the earth.How beautiful…is the body of Christ.

   So I don’t want to leave Christmas to Santa Claus, retail insanity, or even the Spirit of Giving or peace on earth. I want to spend Christmas with the people Jesus loved so much and in whose likeness he came — so that we could be imprinted with his likeness. It’s the church who teaches me what it means to be the body of Christ, and who sends me out into the world to live with those with whom he lived.
    I know he may not have been born on December 25th, that there’s no biblical text to support Christmas.

    But it happened. And we must find some way to celebrate together.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Hush

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-28)


It seems like, every year, we hear something about what’s been called “The War on Christmas.”
    You know what I mean, I’m sure. Someone in some media outlet somewhere catches wind of a story about someone or another taking a nativity scene away from a town square. Or some coffee chain that changes out its regular cups for “Holiday Cups” with snowflakes or other non-specific winter imagery, so that we can’t sip $5 lattes out of cups adorned with baby Jesuses or Christmas trees, as the Lord intended. And this media outlet somewhere writes a headline that ominously intones that this is the latest skirmish in the War on Christmas, and that those who want to hang on to their right to prop up dead evergreens in their living rooms had better come to arms.
    And then we do what this media outlet somewhere knows we’ll do: we watch, we click, we read. We share on Facebook and Twitter and write blog posts and bulletin articles that link to their article or video or post or whatever. And they get paid.
    Can I confess to you a heresy? I’m a Christian. (That’s not the confession, though some might doubt that I am.) I’m a minister at a church, in fact. But at some point in my life, I developed the habit of wishing people I didn’t know well “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Oh, with family or at church I’m a “Merry Christmas” kind of guy, but when I’m with someone I don’t know very well I don’t assume. I doubt seriously that there are many people who would take a well-intentioned “Merry Christmas” and make something sinister of it. But I figure it doesn’t take all that much energy to be respectful of someone else’s background. We live in a very diverse city in a diverse country on a diverse planet. It’s not surprising, I guess, that we sometimes have to take a second look at the cards we send out.
    But here’s my heresy, maybe. It’s not “giving in to political correctness” (as someone once accused me of doing when I confessed my “Happy Holidays” leanings). It’s this: the holiday that Christians – and non-Christians alike – are getting ready to celebrate marks the moment in history in which God sent his Son into the world to unite all human beings, whoever they are and wherever they live, in him.
    The gospel writers drop little hints to remind us. Jesus was born, we’re told, at a time when Caesar had decreed “that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” (Luke 2:1) Wise men “from the east” – what we know as Iran, most likely – traveled to a small town in Judea to worship a little Jewish baby. Jesus spent the first few years of his life living as a resident alien in Egypt – Nazareth would have seemed pretty small and provincial in comparison, no doubt. While Matthew shows Jesus as a descendent of Abraham, Luke goes back generations earlier to remind us that Jesus, like every human being, is a son of Adam and a son of God.
    The herald angels on that night sang of peace on earth “to those on whom his favor rests” – not of just one ethnicity or race, but all. Maybe most eloquent was old Simeon, who spoke of Jesus as God’s salvation “prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”  
    Yes, it’s important to make sure that we select appropriate cards to send out. And it’s good for us to be sensitive to other people’s cultures and traditions. But along the way, I don’t want to make the mistake of perpetuating the myth that Christmas is a Western holiday for only some of the people on earth.
    Maybe part of the problem is the way we celebrate it. Most of our best-loved Christmas traditions and music and other trappings are very Western in orientation and origin. Certainly, the conspicuous consumption and rampant consumerism in which most of us indulge at Christmas time would be foreign to the majority of people in a good portion of the world. And that might just be part of the reason that so much of the world thinks that the story of Jesus is for us, not them.
    But of course Jesus lived in the Middle East, and was firmly a part of that culture. He didn’t ask that his birth be celebrated by exchanging expensive gifts or eating lots of food or putting lights over every square inch of our well-kept neighborhoods. And while all those things might be well and good, I think I’m safe in saying that it’s much more important that those of us who still remember what the story of Jesus is really all about let our memories inform our lives.
    The story has to do, of course, with what happens when the literal embodiment of God’s love and grace moves in down the block. It’s about the inevitable clash between the kingdom of God and the petty tyrants of the world’s power structures. That “silent night, holy night” was an illusion. What happened that night was subversion and revolution – not with weapons, but with love, sacrifice, and humility. Christmas is about what happens when God in all his glory, power, and pure, undiluted love gives himself to every one of us without regard to the language we speak, the color of our skin, the part of the world where we live, or whether or not we go to church on Sundays.
    “You are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote to churches in what we’d call Asia today. Sometimes I wonder if we believe that. There are times when anyone looking at my life might reasonably doubt that I do. Paul wasn’t saying that those differences of culture and social standing that divide human beings aren’t real, or that they get left at the bottom of the baptistery. He was reminding them that in Christ all of them were participating, along with believers everywhere, in the fulfillment of all God’s promises. And he reminds me that wherever there is a believer in Jesus, there I have a sister or a brother.
    We celebrate Christmas best when we share our lives with the people around us – not just the people like us, but those different from us as well. We celebrate it best when through our love of our neighbors, whoever and wherever they are, we join in the angels’ chorus of “peace on earth to those on whom is favor rests.”
Yet with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong;
And men, at war with men, hear not The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife And hear the angels sing.
    As it strange as it seems to some, I grew up in a church that didn't really acknowledge Christmas. Oh, as individuals and families we did, but never in church, simply because Christmas wasn’t in the Bible. I think that might have been an overreaction, but I mention it to point out that saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t inherently better or more spiritual than “Happy Holidays.” Or worse, or less spiritual.
    But may we who believe in Jesus never forget that he did not just come for “us”. There is no War on Christmas, because Jesus chose not to fight. In Christ there is no Us vs. Them. There is only the good news of God’s love made flesh.


    Hush the noise, you people of strife. Hear the angels sing.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Spirit of Truth in a Post-Truth World

    “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
-John 14:15-17 (NIV)


Every year, Oxford Dictionaries designates a “word of the year.” This year’s is an interesting one: post-truth. The dictionary defines it as referring to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
    “Post-truth” is the word of the year because Oxford is acknowledging something about the world we live in now. To make your case and win agreement in this time, you have to push buttons. You have to provoke, inflame, and arouse, not so much with facts and figures, but by tapping in to fear, anger, grievance. And what taps into those passions will be considered true. A cynic might say that we’re not really interested in truth.
    But it’s not that simple, I think. All you have to do is see how people react when they’re lied to, and you have to recognize that truth still matters. The problem is deeper: We don’t know how to recognize truth. What’s happened, I think, is not that people don’t care about truth. It’s that our world has become so much larger, and the voices we hear so much more diverse, that competing versions of truth slip and intertwine and collide around us in ways that would have been impossible a generation or two ago. And with so many competing opinions of truth in world, we see little hope of untangling it.
    So we choose to find clarity in feeling, in our personal belief systems, in the little shortcuts and crutches that help us navigate the confusion of so many “truths” trying to shout each other down. We adopt as truth what feels right. What works for us. We call “truth” what answers our questions or scratches our itches.
    That’s why we don’t listen to each other well. That’s why we can end up in shouting matches with the people we love most over what is true. That’s why our latest election has left us so divided, why social media is filled with angst and argument, why universities that once were driven by a search for knowledge and understanding now offer safe spaces where a student’s personal understanding of truth won’t be challenged.  When what you call truth and what I call truth seem so incompatible, it’s no wonder we have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on, well, anything. And when we demonize each other and question each others’ characters and motives instead of trying to understand how truth can take on different shapes to different people, it’s no wonder we can literally or figuratively go to war.
    No wonder so many of us would like to think of ourselves as “post-truth.” It’s easier. Less confrontational.
    So what does it mean, in a world that considers itself “post-truth,” that Jesus promises that his followers will receive “the Spirit of truth” to be with us forever?
    For one thing, it means that God is about truth, that whatever our world may think of the subject, however human beings might doubt the existence of some objective truth, for God truth is not an outdated notion. God is about truth, and intends for human beings to at least begin to grasp it.
    It means that this truth is outside myself. I don’t invent it, and it isn’t supposed to be for my benefit. If truth lives in me, it’s because I have received it, nothing more. Truth isn’t given as a textbook for me to memorize and understand. It’s not a badge of honor I receive for maintaining the proper orthodoxy. If the Spirit of truth lives in me, it’s only because God has reorganized and renovated my heart to make room for it.
    This means, in turn, that truth isn't a weapon given to me to serve my own ends. It isn’t for the defense of my way of life or my vision of America, or to give advantage to those most like me, or to reinforce my own prejudices. In fact, if I find truth at all comfortable, it’s probably because what I’m calling truth is simply my own feelings and preconceptions talking. Truth is an equal-opportunity offender, and if it isn’t doing a number on my own heart then it probably isn’t truth at all. Even if I’m using God’s name on it. While we sometimes seem to think that being Christians means we get to speak authoritatively about everything, truth  doesn't work like that. You don’t need to take everyone’s view of truth at face value. But don't mistake your own assumptions and prejudices for unvarnished truth, either.
    It means, too, that truth is relational. It has its origin in the relationship between God and Jesus, Father and Son. It’s received relationally, as Jesus gives it to those who live with him. And as we live in relationship with others, in justice and righteousness, we discover its nuances. If you’re white, for instance, don’t say you know the truth about racism unless you know the experience of people who have suffered it. Don’t pretend you know the truth about the poor without being friends with and walking with some folks who are poor. Don’t write off Muslims as extremists without first getting to know some Muslims. You get the point, right? Truth works in relationship. In good, right relationships, with him and with those around you, the Spirit of God will lead you into truth. And it will probably take a while, and subject you to your own internal struggles.  
    “Truth” isn’t exactly synonymous with “facts,” either. They’re just close enough that we can make that dangerous assumption. Facts, in our world, can be and are easily manipulated by those with an agenda. Truth isn’t necessarily known in the recitation of facts. Truth — the Spirit of truth that Jesus promised — is known in him, and is known in relationship with those around us as we treat them with the love and justice and grace that he showed. Facts require no love, no grace, no concern, no involvement. Truth, by definition, does.   
    But don’t be surprised when the world doesn’t genuflect to you. “The world cannot accept” the Spirit of truth, says Jesus, “because it neither sees him nor knows him.” Fact is, your job is not to convince all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers that you know the truth and they don’t, like some God-ordained conspiracy theorist out to expose all their misconceptions. Remember, it’s God’s work to reveal truth. It’s ours to proclaim the good news of Jesus, in word and action, and invite those with whom we have connections to submerge and even lose their own “truths” in his. But that isn’t an easy message, and sometimes people will react the way, well, the way you and I often react when our own understandings of truth are threatened: with defensiveness, anger, and outright hostility. Don’t be shocked, and don’t react in kind.
    Hear me, now: none of this is to disparage truth, or to drink in our “post-truth” culture’s assumption that objective truth is nothing but a narrative used by the powerful to control the powerless. Fact is, the One who embodied truth did not use it for his own advantage. And that’s who we follow.
    We’re not post-truth, not really. Those who want to follow Jesus cannot be. We can, though, and should, acknowledge the damage done in our world by those who have come in the name of some truth or the other. And we must shine with the light of the Spirit of truth, given by the One who laid down his life for the world to those who would follow in his footsteps.  


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