Friday, April 28, 2017

Easy and Stupid

      So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. 
                                 -Matthew 10:26-31 (NIV) 

Used to be that when I met someone new and mentioned that I lived in Chicago, I’d get comments about Michael Jordan, or the Sears Tower, or how perennially bad the Cubs were, or deep-dish pizza. People used to talk about experiences they’ve had here, or the cold winters, or the wind. Lately, though, I get a different reaction.
     These days, when I tell someone that I’m a Chicagoan, I get the look. It’s pity, concern, and fear all rolled into one. 
     The difference, of course, is that the media these days portrays Chicago as a terrifying place to live.
     To hear some media outlets tell it — or even some movie directors or US Presidents — when you cross into the city limits, someone starts shooting at you. Chicago is described as out of control. People who don’t live here imagine gangs flashing signs on Michigan Avenue or crowding into our trains or buses, or Giordano’s for a slice of deep-dish. Some columnists from towns with their own serious crime problems write opinion pieces advocating sending in the Marines. (Interestingly, few of those pointing out the worst in my city care to note that things have gotten more serious since the city’s ban on handguns was declared un-Constitutional. Huh.) 
     No wonder people start looking for bullet holes when they find out where I make my home.
      Let me make three minor points, and then my main one.
     First minor point: Chicago has had a rough couple of years with violent crime. Close to 800 homicides happened in the city last year — up nearly 40 percent from 2015. That’s not good. No one thinks it is.
     Second minor point: When you take our population into account, the number looks less terrible. In 2016, Chicago had not quite 28 murders per 100,000 people. St. Louis, in comparison, had over 59. Baltimore, more than 51. Detroit and New Orleans, right around 45. In Cleveland, Newark, and Memphis, over 30 people per 100,000 were murdered in 2016. The town where I grew up, Chattanooga, Tennessee? They had 23 murders per 100,000 in 2015.
     Third minor point: in Chicago last year, 32 percent of the murders that occurred happened in 5 police districts that contain 8 percent of the city’s population. This is particularly interesting because it highlights the real problem in Chicago and many other cities: not keeping the majority of the population safe, but figuring out why a tiny fraction of the population is so much more likely than the rest to die violently.
     Or, more likely, figuring out how to do something about it.
      Which leads to my main point: acting out of fear is easy and stupid.
     It’s easy and stupid to send in the Marines. It looks like decisive action, but it doesn’t address the real problems. It’s easy and stupid to lock your doors and hide in your house, skittish at every noise. It preserves the illusion of safety without allowing you to be part of the solution.
     It’s easy and stupid to stereotype races and ethnicities as thugs and killers. It’s unfair and unjust and it strips away the humanity of large swaths of people who live and work and care for their families just like you do, and who have the same dreams and hopes as you have. It’s easy and stupid to locate the problem with immigrants. 
     And it’s easy and stupid to write the problem off as someone else’s.
     Wherever you live, there are things you could be afraid of. But, if you are, they will drive you to gated communities, locked doors, exclusive schools, homogenous churches. It drives some to gangs and terrorists who promise them power when they feel weak. When you’re afraid, you’ll barricade yourself behind political rhetoric, legislative quick-fixes that allow you to ignore real problems, and racial, ethnic, and economic discrimination. You’ll line up behind any demagogue who promises to quell your fears. You’ll do or approve things out of fear that you'd never think of doing or approving in your saner moments.
     Fear, in short, will keep you from being like Jesus. He told us, after all, not to be afraid of those who won’t listen to us, who hate us, who arrest us, who betray us, or even who kill us. Fear is an understandable feeling. It can even protect us in times of imminent danger. But as a philosophy of life, it’s stupid and shallow and faithless. It turns us into the little roly-poly bugs I used to play with as a kid: it makes us hide under rocks and roll up into a tight little ball any time our lives are disturbed in the slightest.
     The world we live in is beset with real problems, and as followers of Jesus we have some things to do and say that can make a real difference in solving those problems. He taught that the kingdom of God is crashing into the world and overturning the tyrants and powers that take and oppress and terrorize. He taught that the laws of God’s kingdom are love and grace. He teaches us how to live as citizens and ambassadors of that kingdom in our broken world. Our neighborhoods and cities need to hear that message and see us live it out. But if we live in fear, the only ones who hear and see are other believers, and we invariably turn that message toward our own self-interest.
     But we don’t need to live in fear, because the One Who took the worst that unreasoning fear and anger could do to him and conquered it is the One we follow. In the garden, he faced up to his own fear and found a path through it in prayer and in the faithfulness of his Father.
     So will we, if we face up to our own fears in the same way he did: by saying to God, “your will be done.” 
     May that be our prayer in the face of fear: “your will be done.” May our fears, whatever they are, be replaced by our faith in the power of God — the power that raised Jesus from the dead, and the power that continues to free those who live in terror of death’s power. And may it lead us out into our world as his agents, carrying with us the love and peace and service that conquer fear.
     May it be so in my city, and in yours.

Thursday, April 20, 2017


“It is written…”

    When I was a kid memorizing Bible verses in Sunday School, I had to memorize the King James Version. That’s right: to get my gold stars, I had to watch my thees and thous and forsooths like a Shakespeare scholar.
    Kids today with their New International Versions and English Standard Versions….
    OK, that kind of dates me. I think it was around 1978 when the NIV came out, but it wasn't until 1984 when I got my first one. But it was, of course, like a light came on. I think I rarely touched my old KJV after that. Reading the Bible became, if not always a pleasure, at least something that a teenaged guy was much more likely to do. I’ve been a fan of new Bible translations ever since.
    Good thing, too, because there have never been so many translations of the Bible in English. (Probably other languages, too, though I obviously don’t have direct knowledge there.) I have, let me count…36 on my bookshelves, a few of which even predate the KJV. (My copies are reprints…) But then, of course, I also have access online to all of them — and maybe a few others that I don’t have.
    Now and then, though, I’m reminded of a centuries-old Italian phrase: Traduttore, traditore. It originally had to do with translations of Dante into French, not the Bible into English, but the problem is the same. The phrase means, literally, “Translator, traitor.” And it is, of course, true, at least to some degree. To translate is to betray the original, because translation will never be an exact science.
    I’ve been reminded of it when someone insists that the translation they like is the best, the most accurate, the most literal, or whatever. Or that my choice is less so. As if the translators they like aren’t traitors too. Thankfully, that particular conflict is less likely to occur than it was 20 or 30 years ago or so.
    But I was also reminded of it recently in a class, when I noticed how my favorite translation, the NIV, doesn’t always handle well Mark’s repetition of the word immediately. It just glosses over it sometimes, as though it isn’t in the text. It does so, I’m sure, because the translators judged that it’s more readable in English, and that sometimes Mark’s use of immediately is more like punctuation. But, in effect, this choice slows down Mark’s breakneck pace. It does to Mark’s writing what some treatments do to some patients with mental illness: it flattens it out. It may be better English, but it does violence to the text. Traduttore, traditore.
    That’s the kind of thing that bothers me more than what a translation does with Isaiah 7:14 or one of the other hot-button texts that have often been used as a basis for evaluating a translation. But that’s the tension translators are dealing with. Bible publishing is, generally, a business — and a very profitable one at that. While translations are marketed for their accuracy, what sells them is their readability. It is certainly possible to create an English translation of the Bible that reproduces the syntax and grammar of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek more accurately than any translation available today. Problem is, no one would read it.
    Which, you  know, sort of defeats both purposes of Bible publishing: getting people to buy Bibles, and getting people to read them.
    Look, there’s little chance that your church is going to make Hebrew and Greek classes available to you. And little chance that, if they did, you’d have the time to spend learning those languages. And that’s why, for centuries, believers have risked arrest, imprisonment, and death to translate the Bible into the vernacular of their people. Or like my friend, Gene Arnold, to smuggle those translations across borders. Traduttore, traditore, indeed. But traitors for a noble cause. They believed, in the words of John Wycliffe, “Christ and his apostles taught the people in that tongue that was best known to them. Why should men not do so now?”
    People ask me sometimes what the best Bible translation is. Sometimes people give me more credit than I deserve. I don’t know what the best one is. It’s been said, and it’s probably more true today than ever before, that the best translation of the Bible is one you’ll read. That’s usually the way I try to answer.
    It isn’t all that hard to figure out, really. What you’re going for is some combination of readability and accuracy. If you’re an excellent reader, try some more literal translations. If you're a more average reader, then you should probably look at translations that smooth out the reading experience a little more. Don’t fall for the marketing, though, or for the well-intentioned (hopefully) person at your church who insists that the only trustworthy translation is the one he uses. The fact is, almost every well-known English translation available — there may be one or two exceptions — is juggling readability and accuracy. Almost every one that’s widely available is the product of an inter-denominational committee, to avoid bias. The translation process is not novel, or new. Every translator on every committee is dealing with the same texts and the same problems.
    Honestly, why settle for one translation anyway? If you’re serious about understanding the Bible, go with two or three. Compare them, contrast them, let them dialogue with each other and with you. The Bible is best understood in community: the more translators you have sitting at the table with you, the better. Come see me: I might be able to find one or two to share with you.
    But there are at least three that I won’t share with you. One is that King James Version. It was given to me the day I turned 8, by my grandmother. I know that because she wrote on the “Presented To” page. My mom later wrote in it the date I was baptized: August 19, 1979. It has in it one of my first attempts, probably, to write my name in cursive. There are stickers for Perfect Attendance at Sunday School on the inside facing page. (Seven of them. How ‘bout that?) It’s falling apart, but still usable.
    One is that NIV. It was a gift from my parents on Easter, 1984, just a couple of months before I turned 16. I know that, again, because Mom wrote in it. Its cover is creased, and the pages in the back are falling out. (The Old Testament still looks pretty good. No surprise there.)
    And the third is another KJV. It belonged to my grandfather. It was given to him on November 6, 1978, by the elders of Red Bank Church of Christ in Chattanooga, TN. That was the day he was baptized.
    If you, like I do, enjoy a heritage that values the Bible, thank God for it. It’s easy to take for granted. Don’t.
    And if that isn’t your heritage, then create it. Buy a Bible for your kids, your grandkids, your nephew or niece. Your friends’ kids. Encourage them to read it. Read it with them. Forty years later, they might still have that Bible you gave them. More importantly,  they’ll still have whatever God did in them through it.     

Friday, April 7, 2017


   So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
-1 Corinthians 11:27-29 (NIV)

No one denies that it’s one of most distinctive marks of the Christian faith. It’s been practiced in the church since there was a church, since the church was a collection of disciples who didn’t yet know how they were going to turn the world upside down. When confused, broken followers of Jesus were keeping each other company on the road away from Jerusalem, away from the cross; when they were huddling together with the doors locked out of fear they’d be next; whenever they got together, they found their way to a table. And all their experiences of being around a table with Jesus came with them.
      They were all welcome, because Jesus welcomed all to his table — even the one who would betray him, the ones who would desert him, the one who would claim not to know him.
     Since then, the church’s most meaningful and universal symbol has been that table. 
     It’s been called the Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s been celebrated at actual dining tables, at ornate altars, or sitting in pews. It’s been celebrated standing, sitting, and kneeling. It’s been celebrated as part of an actual meal and as a symbolic meal of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice. 
     Some churches have celebrated it as a highly ritualistic, almost mystic event where in some way Jesus’ body and blood are literally present. They’ve amassed centuries of tradition: words and music and actions in which they find meaning. Others are almost casual with it, thinking of it as simply a memorial — a marker to help us remember what Jesus has done for us.
     And, oh, the controversy! Centuries of it. Transubstantiation. Consubstantiation. One kind, or two? One cup, or many? Weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly? Ironically, one of the few things that has been characteristic of the church in almost every time and place has also been a source of its greatest division. My own fellowship, Churches of Christ, connects some of its historical dots to a young Irish Presbyterian who grappled with the idea of closed communion. He chose to leave the hard-earned token that admitted him to that year’s observance lying there on the table beside the cup and loaf, unused, as a protest.
     I’ve known people — friends, believers, folks who want to please God — for whom participating in communion involves a constant spiritual licking of the finger and testing of the wind. If things are going well that week they’ll share in it. If not — usually because they’ve lost some private battles with sin — they’ll pass. I understand why, too; doesn’t Paul say that we ought to examine ourselves, and that sharing in Communion “in an unworthy manner” makes us somehow guilty of sinning against “the body and blood” of Christ?
     So, it sounds right. But, wait: are any of us “worthy” in the sense that we have all our t’s crossed and i’s dotted? The best of us come to the table as recovering sinners, right? In fact, every believer who’s ever shared in Communion has done so because of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. It would seem strange to imagine that we’re all a lost temper or an inappropriate thought or a careless action away from being DQ’ed.    
     So maybe “in an unworthy manner” means something else. Some churches have taken it to mean that, in order to participate, we have to be correct on doctrine. This is where the idea of closed communion comes from: it’s not a desire to be exclusive as much as it is a concern for the spiritual health of folks for whom we can’t vouch doctrinally. Some churches have even made communion into an annual event, and there’s literally an examination in the time leading up to it. 
     Again, that attitude toward Communion comes, I’m sure, from the best possible motives. Who among us, though, would claim perfect understanding of God, his Word, his work in Christ, the movement of the Spirit, or all the mysteries of our faith? And how do we know that what a particular knot of believers in a particular time and place think is most important really is?  Besides which, Jesus didn’t invite his followers to his table because they understood. More often than not, it seems, they didn't. He invited them because he loved them, and they him.
     And that’s what Communion’s about, really: Jesus inviting us to his table. 
     We know how to be gracious guests. We don’t need theologians to tell us.
     We know what it’s like to come knowing we’re unworthy to take the places of honor, and hear him call us friends and ask us to come closer. We know what it’s like to come poor and lame and sick, and have him welcome us. We know what it is to be called away from our sins and, with our no-account friends, be invited to share the table with him.
     But not just us. When we take our places at the table, we’re immediately struck by all the faces around us. Faces that might surprise us, maybe even offend us, belonging to people who we might not sit down with left to our own devices. 
     That’s what Paul means when he talks about sharing Communion in a worthy manner. He says it explicitly: the only way to share Jesus’ table with him is to recognize that it isn't a private dinner. We are to recognize that we and the people who sit at the table with us make up the presence of Christ in the world, his body. We belong to each other like Christ’s two hands belong to each other. And there are a thousand ways we can disrupt that unity without even thinking. 
     So he says, “when you come together to eat, wait for each other.” To the church to whom he wrote those words, he meant it quite literally: some of them were wolfing down a meal that they called “the Lord’s,” leaving nothing for those who had to come later (probably because they were poorer and had to work). For them, the Supper was a source of judgment instead of spiritual nourishment. 
     But even if we don’t share Communion as part of a meal, and even if everyone is there when we share it, we still have to wait for each other sometimes. We have to wait for those who are struggling with sin. We have to wait for those who are doubting. We share the Lord’s table with folks who have a different political point of view, who read a bit of Scripture differently, who don’t see the world like we do. We have to wait for them, and they for us. We share the table with people who are struggling with addiction, whose marriages are crumbling, who are estranged from their children. We need to wait for them while they catch their breath.
     Those folks around the table with us are not an inconvenience. They are not to be ignored, or passed over, or disqualified. That’s not what we learn from Jesus. They are part of his body, and every bit as important to it as anyone else. And they are there for the same reason we are: they have been invited by the Lord, an invitation written in his blood.       

     May our celebration of Communion always reflect that we are the body of Christ.