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Friday, March 31, 2017

Tell Your Story

Let the redeemed  of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, 
  those he gathered  from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.
-Psalm 107:2-3 (NIV)


My friend Bobby Ross is a Christian journalist. I don’t mean that he’s a journalist who happens to go to church. I mean that he’s a believer in Jesus who seeks truth and professionalism in his reporting, and who is guided by his faith in whatever he does. He’s been a religion editor for the Oklahoma City Oklahoman, a religion writer for the Associated Press, and is currently chief correspondent for The Christian Chronicle. He also writes for getreligion.com, a website that deals with the relationship of mainstream media and religion.
     Bobby just posted a story in the Chronicle that I think is a must-read for everyone who is attempting to follow Jesus in our world. It’s actually intended for the leaders of churches, schools, and ministries, but there are some points in it that are essential for every Christian who wants to take walking by faith and sharing their faith seriously.
     Bobby starts where the psalmist does: with story. Too often, I think, we try to live by other people’s stories. We look at ourselves through the eyes of the people in our world whose opinions we value most. We do our jobs according to the expectations of our superiors. We try to live a faith that’s been handed down to us by our parents, or shaped by whatever experiences of church we’ve had. None of that is bad, of course. But could it be that we don’t know our own stories? Could it be that we struggle in living and sharing our faith because we’re having a hard time figuring how a self-image derived from others’ opinions of us, a job that we do largely by standards imposed on us, and an inherited faith can be woven together into something coherent?
     The fact is, I have a story that is not yours. Our stories may be similar in some ways. We certainly should be aware of the many ways our stories affect others outside of ourselves. We may even have a common faith. But my story is my own. I have come from a place and lived a life that no one else has. I have a relationship with God that’s unique. It’s informed by the relationships others have had with him. It’s understood in categories largely shared with others. But the story of my life and my relationship with God through Jesus is mine. It’s not better or more normative than yours, nor is it inferior or less normative. It’s just mine, in the same way yours is yours.
     And so there’s no one more qualified to tell my story than me. I should be an expert on my story. Oh, I know, sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves, but that just highlights my point. They know us better than we know ourselves because we don’t know ourselves. We haven’t learned our stories.
     We need to, though, because our stories need to be told, especially in those places where they intersect with God’s story. We’ve thought of sharing our faith, evangelizing, witnessing, whatever you prefer to call it, as convincing others to believe in some lifeless doctrine. We should have been telling our stories.
     “Let those redeemed by the LORD say so,” the psalmist more literally says. It’s true, of course, that God has redeemed all human beings through Jesus. Or, at least, all who believe, if you’d rather put it that way. But he has more particularly redeemed you. Maybe you can talk specifically about the addiction he’s helped you overcome. Maybe you can speak about how your temper is being tamed. Perhaps the Lord has redeemed you by teaching you a deeper and stronger faith in the midst of suffering. You might rather talk about how he has brought you from despair and grief to hope and purpose, or how he is using a particular talent or passion of yours to touch others, or how your job has been transformed into a ministry by his touch. The possibilities are endless, and that’s the point. It’s your story. The only similarity with mine is that we’ve both found redemption through Jesus. 
     Bobby’s column insists that we identify our audience. He doesn’t mean that we need to isolate an audience to whom we want to communicate, to the exclusion of others. He just means that we need to think about those to whom we have the opportunity to tell our stories. Who are they? What are they like? What are their experiences, their strengths, and their blind spots? In short, however well we may know our own stories, we need to know something about the stories of those to whom we would speak. Where do they come from? What do they value? What are their fears, and what are their hopes? We need to learn their stories so we’ll know how ours intersects with theirs, and how our experience of the Lord’s redemption might be most relevant to theirs.
     The rest of Bobby’s column leads us to consider how we tell our stories. He talks a lot about new media, and I’m reminded of how amazingly simple it is to tell our stories to large numbers of people. Through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blogging, and numerous other outlets, we can creatively and efficiently get our stories told. We can use photos, videos, words, music, or any combination to get across the message we want to get across.
     Unfortunately, we don’t always put a lot of thought into what stories we’re telling. We post something or the other because we think some of our friends might like it — again making the mistake of playing into the expectations of others. We might not give a thought as to the story it might tell if we post this video or retweet that political story or favorite this blog post. We need to remember, perhaps, that the story we should be telling in every aspect of our lives is a coherent and consistent one. It’s ours, but it isn’t only ours. It has the imprint of God’s story all over it. And it’s now a vessel for the gospel of Jesus.
     The church has always used technology to communicate. Paul used Roman roads and the latest in sailing-ship technology. (Even if it failed on him now and then.) From architecture to the printing press, from radio to TV to the internet, there’s always been an impulse in the church to use technology to tell the story of the Lord’s redemption. That’s a good impulse, even if we sometimes get the how-to wrong. For all its pitfalls, social media, the internet, and other modern technology are wonderful tools we can use to tell our stories.
     So figure out what your story is. Consider the ways God has redeemed you, and is currently redeeming you, in Jesus. Then figure out how you can use the opportunities, settings, and tools God has given you to tell that story in a consistent and authentic way.
     I can’t wait to hear it.

Friday, March 24, 2017

New Maps

   The god  of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God…
…For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
-2 Corinthians 4:4, 6 (NIV)


Look at a map of the world, and you can easily note a few things. South America and Europe are very similar in size. So are Greenland and Africa. You’ll see that Alaska is larger than Mexico and Germany. You’ll notice how huge Antarctica is, if it’s on the map you’re looking at. You won’t need a ruler or scale to notice any of this; it’s obvious at a glance.
     Obvious, and also wrong.
     It’s hard to make a three-dimensional globe behave properly when you try to lay it on a sheet of flat paper. Gerardus Mercator, the Flemish cartographer who came up with the map we mostly still use in 1569, was mainly concerned with trade routes between Europe and its colonies. It was most important, then, for Europe to be at its proper scale. North America, at roughly the same latitudes, also got a pretty accurate representation. But when you go north and south, there is considerable distortion, both of scale and centricity. South America, in reality, is nearly twice the size of Europe. Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland. Alaska is much smaller in relation to Mexico and Germany. And Antarctica is not nearly as large as Mercator’s projection makes it look.
     So Boston public schools are getting new maps: the Gall-Peters Projection. This projection tends to squish everything laterally, but at least it gives a more accurate view of the relative sizes of land masses. It has some inaccuracies as well, but according to Hayden Frederick-Clarke, director of cultural proficiency for Boston Public Schools, it comes closer to accuracy. "Eighty-six percent of our students are students of color,”he says. "Maps that they are presented with generally classify the places that they're from as small and insignificant. It only seems right that we would present them with an accurate view of themselves." 
     So what we’re talking about here isn’t maps, really. It’s worldview. Colin Rose, a superintendent with BPS, puts it this way: “It's about a paradigm shift in our district. We've had a very fixed view that is very Eurocentric. How do we talk about other viewpoints? This is a great jump off point.” Worldview is the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual, group or culture watches, interprets and interacts with the world. It’s the set of lenses through which we see the world.
     Remember in Return of the Jedi, when Luke asks Obi-Wan’s “ghost”why he told him that Darth Vader killed his father, and not that he was his father? Obi-Wan’s answer sounds slippery: “Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Truth, with respect to Obi-Wan, isn’t relative. But our perception of it almost certainly is. And it’s worldview that teaches us how to perceive it.
     So it might be worthwhile for us to ask sometimes what map of the world we’re using.

     For instance, if you’re a white man, don’t presume to “correct” a black woman on race relations. She has a worldview as well, but at that moment it isn’t about which “map” — yours or hers — is more precise. What matters is that you can see hers, and understand where she’s coming from. She’s quite possibly spent a lot of her life being told that a map like yours is the correct one. It will mean a lot if you can at least understand the differences between yours and hers. You’ll likely learn some real truth in the process — and how your map might distort it.  
     Worldview is what’s on Paul’s mind when he writes that whatever “this age” worships “blinds” its worshippers. It leaves us with a world map that doesn’t have room for the gospel, that inflates the importance of money and comfort and pleasure, that distorts sex and power, relativizes all religion, and does away with peace and community for the sake of radical individual freedom. It leaves us afraid of immediate death and suffering and marginalizes concepts like eternal glory as impractical fables. 
     This shouldn’t surprise us, though. Believers are not immune to being blinded by the worship of this world’s gods. In fact, our own maps are only different to the extent that God has made them so by making “his light shine in our hearts” so that we may come to know his glory through Jesus. It’s Jesus — his life, his teaching, his acts, his death, his resurrection — that redraws our maps. And, as you’ve probably discovered, even that is a process that’s still ongoing. We still make plenty of mistakes in the way we see the world. We still navigate by inaccurate charts, and sometimes even run aground. In Christ, however, his light grows brighter and our worldview is slowly (sometimes almost imperceptibly) but surely reorganized.
     Make no mistake, our maps are redrawn only by God, through Jesus. But don’t imagine it’s some mystical epiphany that happens in a desert hermitage or on a mountaintop. One of the ways we’re blinded to the work of God is by our constant longing for an experience. As a rule, our worldviews will change mostly through following Jesus: that is, trying to go where he goes and do what he does. So your attitude toward wealth will probably only change when you follow him in loving and serving the poor. Your need for the approval of the world will only be transformed when you follow him in receiving the insults and scorn of the world with humility and faithfulness. Your love of your own sins will only change when you follow him in dying to self and rising to live a new life of service to God.
     “We do not lose heart,” says Paul. Not when our new maps of the world remind us that inward renewal can accompany outward wasting, that the “light and momentary” troubles of this world are achieving for us a glory that never passes away. “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” he tells us. That’s a stretch, isn't it? It’s a step of faith to navigate by maps that don’t look much like the landscape you can see. That's why Paul says “we” so often. A lot of the redrawing of our maps will take place together, in community, as we reassure each other that our new maps work, that this new worldview is accurate enough to live by. Don’t imagine you can do it alone. God didn’t intend for you to. That’s why he gave you the church.
     Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving recently told two of his teammates in a podcast that the earth is flat. His reasons all make sense, except that they’re based only on what he can see, his direct experience. 
     It’s so easy to fall back to the old maps. So inviting sometimes to go back to living by what we can see directly. Don’t make that mistake. God is redrawing our maps. May the trajectory of our lives witness to the brand new view of the world we’ve been given through Jesus.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Jailhouse Rock

  About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
-Acts 16:25 (NIV)


I’ve never been in jail. Well, I got shut into solitary on an Alcatraz tour. I’ve visited a couple of people. But, so far, I’ve managed to avoid a lengthy incarceration. This means that, admittedly, I don’t know the rules about being in jail first-hand.
    I’m pretty sure about this, however: I don’t think jail would make me feel like singing. Oh, maybe Folsom Prison Blues or Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Maybe just to pass the time or whatever. In general, though, the brief time I’ve spent in jails and prisons only reinforces for me the obvious: they’re bleak places, gray and cold and filled with some of the worst hopelessness human beings can know. Not much to sing about.
    That’s why, I guess,  I’ve always been so interested in this story of Paul and Silas in prison. I know how it comes out, so I know that they have something to sing about. They didn’t know that, though — not at the time. What they knew is that they were in jail, accused of thumbing their noses at Rome by “advocating unlawful customs.” If things went as they often did, they would be imprisoned and punished until they “confessed.” They were in the equivalent of maximum security, shackled into stocks and under heavy guard.
    Let me say it again: not much to sing about.
    Look, I get the importance of being optimistic. I generally try to be a glass-half-full kind of guy. But I challenge you to find half a glass of anything good in a prison cell. There are times when even the sunniest dispositions fade, when the most relentless optimists give in to despair. That’s why optimism is good if you can manage it, but it’s nothing to build your life on. If there’s nothing behind it, nothing holding it up, then it’s just whistling past the graveyard. It doesn’t grapple with the harshness of life. It doesn’t take seriously the horrible things that can happen.
    But Paul and Silas weren’t just being optimistic, I think. They weren’t exactly unrealistic idealists trying to convince themselves things weren’t as dire as they really were. Their songs were “hymns” — praise songs addressed to God. They were accompanied by prayers. Their songs were a proclamation of their trust in God, even in their dark times. Far from denying their circumstances, they were acknowledging them and witnessing to their faith in the power of God over those circumstances.    
    That can be hard. Praising God when it seems that there’s no reason to can take some effort. Singing hymns for what he could do or has done is tough when what you really want is for him to act now. It’s hard to worship him as the saving God he is when he hasn’t yet saved you from whatever you feel the need to be saved from. And, yet, that’s exactly what this story calls us to do. It doesn’t promise everything will always go well for us, that we won’t have devastating catastrophes. It says something more important.
    It says we should praise him anyway.
    I’m struck by what singing has become in many American churches. It’s so often the metric by which a community’s worship gatherings are evaluated. It’s supposed to be led by professional musicians and create a sense of joy and the presence of the Spirit in the audience — I mean, the congregation. But that isn’t really a slip, of course, because often the church is just an audience, siting back and watching the show instead of joining in the singing. Often, they aren’t even encouraged to join in. In our context, this story is so puzzling: singing in prison, with no instruments or leaders with powerful voices, with bad lighting and terrible acoustics and not a Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin (or even a Fanny J. Crosby) lyric to be found? How is that going to encourage the church and win people to Christ?
    But it says the other prisoners were listening. There’s a way in Greek to say “they overheard them,” and a way to say, “they were listening to them,” and here it’s the latter. The other inmates were paying attention to these two. If for no other reason than it’s weird to praise God when you’re in prison.
    Every church I know anything about is trying to figure out how to win people to Jesus, or evangelize, or make disciples, or do outreach, or whatever they call it. And few are doing it well. There are all kinds of reasons for that — but perhaps one of them is that we think evangelism happens best when the lighting is right and the mood is created and everyone in the room is feeling spiritually up and has on their best church face. We think people mostly come to Christ from padded pews or comfortable theater seats or in trendy, warehouse-y looking spaces, with worship team or band or organist, singing the songs we like best.
    Whatever the not-yet-convinced might have once thought about all that, these days they seem to think it’s disingenuous, phony, and maybe even manipulative.
    Paul and Silas knew that there was no better witness for the Lord than when his people praise him and call out to him from the dark places, when a church service is miles or worlds away.
    So here’s what I think: let’s worry less about what we’re singing on Sunday morning in church, and more about what we’re singing on Thursday afternoon at the office, when the deadlines are here and the pressure is on. Let’s think more about what comes out of us at school, or in a meeting room, or behind closed doors at home. Let’s think about what we sing with our words and actions — and maybe even our actual singing voices — at a hospital or a funeral home. The people around us will pay attention if the circumstances swirling around us don’t smother our praise or quiet our prayers. They won’t always understand, or come to their own faith, and certainly not right away. But they will take note.
    Perhaps our churches aren’t helping people come to faith because away from the church building, when the darkness is pressing in and the bars are clanging shut, we aren’t that different. Instead of taking what could be despair and making praise and prayer from it, we slump our shoulders with the rest of the prisoners.  There’s nothing weird, nothing otherworldly, in that. There’s no salvation there. No hope, no deliverance.
    But sing when it’s all gone off the rails, and people will notice. They might not understand, but they’ll believe that you’re convinced of God’s power and grace. And that may be the time when they first begin to look for salvation and begin to hope that the light of God might penetrate their darkness, too.
    People around you now are listening for something that they’ll only know when they hear it. Sing.

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