Friday, July 21, 2017

That's Family: A Response

     For by the grace given me  I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body,  and each member belongs to all the others.
-Romans 12:3-5

In a blog post called “12 Reasons Millennials Are Over Church” Sam Eaton delves into the reasons why Millennials (the generation born between the early 80s and early 2000s) are…well, you probably get the idea from the title. Sam’s concern in the post is to bring to light some of the reasons that young adults are staying away from church in large numbers, and hopefully to help the church start to consider what we can do to help reverse this trend. I recommend reading the post, despite what I say below, largely in the form of a response to Sam. 

     Let me tell you, Sam — I’ve been disappointed by the church, too. I’ve felt ignored and devalued. I’ve doubted that we’re helping the poor like we should, wondered about the use of our resources, and been tired of being preached at. I’ve scoffed as the older generation talked about how bad the world is. I’ve felt unwanted and excluded. I’ve felt embarrassed that the church was silent about important issues. I’ve even been ashamed of public opinion concerning the church. I think that’s all twelve of your points, more or less. 
     Here’s the thing, Sam: I’m 49. I’m not a part of your generation — fine. But I’ve felt all of what you feel about the church, I’m betting. I agree with all your points. And I say this with love and respect and care for you as a brother in Christ: you’re wrong.
     Not about the church’s failings and shortcomings: I say again, I agree with you. Not about the church’s seeming inability to reach younger people: we’ve kind of stunk at that my whole life, too. What you’re wrong about is this: 
“The truth is, church, it’s your move. Decide if millennials actually matter to you and let us know. In the meantime, we’ll be over here in our sweatpants listening to podcasts, serving the poor and agreeing with public opinion that perhaps church isn’t as important or worthwhile as our parents have lead us to believe.”

     Well, that kind of hurts. That doesn't make it wrong, of course, but let’s think about this a little. 
     Every church I’ve been in over the last 49 years has tried to pass on the gospel of Christ to the next generation. We haven’t had unqualified success, I grant you. But those churches have made good faith efforts to put young people together with teachers and youth ministers who would pass down the faith and help us to grow into adults who love the Lord and see it as our purpose in the world to serve him. You could argue that we could have been better at it, sure. But to wonder now if your generation matters to us? Seems a little unfair.
     I was in a church leadership meeting last week. We were sitting around plotting ways to make Millennials mad at us. No, I’m kidding. But there was this guy there, one of our deacons, 12 or 15 years younger than me. He’d be considered a Millennial. This was on a Monday night after he’d put in a day at the office. He could have been home with his wife and kids. And we were talking about some of these same things, and he said something interesting. He said, “Family means showing up”
     I’ve been thinking about that all week: “family means showing up.” That’s so true. In healthy families, no one chooses to just opt out. If you disagree with your family’s budget or priorities or attitude about particular issues, or you’re tired of Uncle Ralph telling you again how kids today are so spoiled, you don’t just choose non-participation as a response. You don’t skip Christmas dinner, or Cousin Hetty’s birthday, or little Joey’s bar mitzvah. Sure, people do that, but when they do we recognize that it’s extreme. You normally deal with family dysfunction by showing up. You make your contribution to the family. Maybe you try to influence them to be better. Maybe you make an argument. Maybe you fight. Maybe you try to understand each other and laugh together about the things you find funny. You probably do all of that in the space of half an hour. But, whatever the particular struggles of your particular family, when it’s said and done you try to appreciate the good intentions, understand each other, and forgive each other for hurts and slights. And then you do it again. And again.
     Family means showing up. In a family, what you have in common is much more important than the things about which you disagree.
     It boggles the mind, honestly, that we don’t think to apply that to church.
     That’s probably because we don’t really think of the church as family, even though we pay lip service to the notion. We behave more like it’s a religious interest group or action committee. Or like it’s a volunteer organization that exists to serve its members' pet causes. Or like it’s an exclusive club looking to exclude whole generations. It’s none of that, of course. Paul calls it the body of Christ. Not the church at large, or the church as it should be — that actual, real, local church you go to each Sunday (or not) is Christ’s body. His presence in the world. As imperfectly as we represent him. And we’re arranged just as God wants us arranged, and if one part doesn’t do its work then the whole presence of Christ in the world suffers. 
     Each of the members (think arms and legs, not attendance rolls) belongs to all the others, Paul says.    
     Maybe I’m coming across like some old geezer who’s good with things as they are and doesn't want to hear a bunch of young punks telling us how it should be. And, I don't know, maybe there’s some of that. But it bears repeating, Sam: I agree with many of your critiques. I have since I was a young punk. Some I feel even more strongly about today. I think it’s good when younger people in a church grow into a place where they can start asking pointed questions and grilling up some sacred cows. I think it’s healthy when they make those in positions of influence and leadership ask some questions they might not have asked. 
     What I don’t think is good is when all of that’s done through emotional extortion: Change things, or we millennials will stop showing up. And then what will you do?   
     The fact is, the church is not for any of us: not individually, not generationally. We don’t even exist for the poor or needy or lost. We exist to be the body of Christ in the world: his arms and legs and presence. That’s what brings us together, what makes us belong to each other, what makes us family. 
     Most churches I know largely depend right now on older generations to be the presence of Christ in the world. They love younger people. They want younger people in the church. But what they want to know from younger people is this: “Can you be trusted? Will you show up?” And if they think you will, they’ll hand you the keys and turn you loose. And you’ll be able to shape the church as you’re led by the Spirit to do.
     At least until your children and grandchildren come along to show you where you got it wrong.

     That's family.   

Friday, July 14, 2017


     A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan,  as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 
-Luke 10:30-33 (NIV)

When Corpus Christi Police Senior Officer Richard Olden arrived at a bank to answer a call, he was pretty positive he was responding to a joke. The call, after all, was that there was a man trapped in an ATM. Trapped. In an ATM. 
     Obviously, a joke. 
     He wasn’t the only one to think so. When he arrived on scene, he found a series of handwritten notes that had apparently come out of the receipt slot of the ATM. The notes were all some variation on this theme: Please help. I'm stuck in here and don’t have my phone. Please call my boss at 210-XXX-XXXX. One bank customer finally took one of the notes seriously enough to call the police, but based on the number of notes laying around it was clear that several other customers had assumed, like Richard, that it was an elaborate prank.
     Richard was convinced, though, when he heard a voice coming from the ATM.
     A contractor had been changing the lock on a small service room attached to the ATM when he accidentally locked himself inside. Having left his phone in his truck, all he could do was push notes through the slot and hope it wouldn’t take long for someone to take him seriously.
     Unfortunately, it took three hours.
     Officers were able to kick down the door and rescue the contractor, who wasn’t hurt and who understandably didn’t want to give his name. I’m glad he’s OK and all. What I’m wondering, though, is what would have done if I was one of those customers. I mean, I get that it might be hard to believe someone could be stuck in an ATM. But you’d think that it wouldn’t take three hours to get some help.
     I wonder how long the injured man in Jesus’ story laid by the roadside waiting for someone to save him. I wonder if he could even cry out for help. I wonder if he was conscious enough to feel frustration when two people who might be expected above most others to offer help not only refused but crossed the street to avoid him. They didn’t even alert someone else to his predicament. At least those customers at the bank had a reason for their disinterest. All we know about that priest and that Levite is that they had a massive failure of compassion. With no compelling reason not to help, they still crossed the street and passed by.  
     Yet, perhaps it’s not all that surprising. They’re neither the first nor the last to suffer compassion failure.
     The punch line of Jesus’ parable, of course, is that the last person his hearers would expect to be compassionate is in fact the only one to show any compassion. That subversion of what’s expected confronts Jesus’ followers in every time and place with the moments when we’ve crossed the street to avoid getting involved when we should have been first on the scene with compassion. Even people who are religious, who identify themselves with God’s people and imagine themselves as rather good, generous, caring people, can find themselves crossing a street — or not answering a phone, or avoiding a conversation, or inventing an excuse, or creating a justification — to escape taking responsibility for those in need. 
     Sometimes it’s because we don’t trust the person in need. It’s true that sometimes people want help on their terms, and theirs alone. It’s true that they can take advantage of our generosity. Neither of those things, of course, means that there is no need present. When we’re honest, we might admit that doubting the person is just a convenient way to side step the responsibility to help. Perhaps you can best help in a different way. Perhaps you can take the opportunity to get to other needs that are more basic, but maybe going overlooked. 
     Certainly, when appropriate we can expect those we help to take responsibility for themselves. Look at helping as a way to give people breathing room so that they can heal, or improve their situation, or make some changes in their lives. We do no one a favor when we make them dependent upon us. We should, in collaboration with those we help, come to an agreement about how long the help will be for and what the landmarks on their way to self-sufficiency look like.
     Sometimes we cross to the other side of the street simply because the need seems too big for us alone. It threatens to suck us in and drag us down. It will require more energy, more resources, and more involvement than we feel that we can muster. Just recall that the Good Samaritan — the guy who helps — in Jesus’ parable doesn’t do it all himself either. He has somewhere to be, after all. Commitments that can’t be disregarded. So he helps as he can with emergency first aid and getting the injured man off the side of the road and to an inn. But he can’t stay, and so on he travels — after first getting the innkeeper involved and leaving some money. 
     Never forget that each of us is only one part of the church. Others have resources that we don’t have, expertise that is beyond us, opportunities and contacts we’ll never have. None of us is self-sufficient. This is why it takes the whole church to give presence to Jesus in the world. When you’ve done what you can do, bring in someone else. In this way, we can more adequately be neighbors to those in need while showing more completely the presence of Christ in our communities.
     Note, too, that the guy promises to stop back by. Needing for the moment to hand off responsibility to the innkeeper doesn’t mean that he sees his connection to this man ending. Yours doesn’t either. When you’ve hit the limits of your expertise, resources, time or energy, you can certainly bring in others with a clear conscience. But check back to see how the situation has changed. Continue to pray, to remember those in need, and to believe God does amazing things through the combined efforts of his people.
     The story arises out of a question: “Who is my neighbor?” But it changes the question in the process. By the time Jesus answers the question it’s not about those other people who might or might not be neighbors. It’s about us, and whether we’ve been acting as neighbors or not toward people in need.

     They’re there. And it’s no joke.

Friday, July 7, 2017


The end is now upon you,
and I will unleash my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct 
and repay you for all your detestable practices. 
  I will not look on you with pity; 
I will not spare you.
I will surely repay you for your conduct 
and for the detestable practices among you. 
     Then you will know that I am the LORD.
- Ezekiel 7:3-4 (NIV)

When Jim Hellrood sees a car parked illegally in Wausau, Wisconsin, he knows what he's supposed to do. It’s in his job description, after all. It could be pretty black and white, if he wanted it to: Jim is a parking enforcement officer. His job is to ticket illegally parked cars.
     So when he saw a car that had been left overnight in a metered lot near three bars in town, he walked over to do his job. As he got nearer the car, though, he noticed a note, written in blue ink on a page torn from a spiral bound memo pad. The note read simply, "Please take pity on me. I walked home ... safe choices. :)”
     Pity. That’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Sometimes — maybe most of the time — we think of pity in negative terms. Most of us don’t want to be looked at with pity. We consider it humiliating, maybe, to see that look of pity in someone else’s eyes. “Don’t pity me,” we might say. “I don’t need your pity.”
     Oh, but then sometimes pity is exactly what we want — usually when we know there’s no good excuse for our actions. When we know there’s no way to escape the consequences of what we’ve done, when we know there’s no good reason anyone would forgive us or let our behavior go without some kind of action. When we’re looking down the barrel of our own sins and feeling the heat of punishment, suddenly pity doesn’t seem so bad.
     Pity is what that anonymous driver wanted, and pity is what Jim Hellrood offered her. He left her a warning ticket, along with a note of his own: “Pity Granted. Just a warning.”
     Jim says that he actually gives out more warnings than tickets on most days, so he probably didn’t think much about that. But the driver was certainly impressed. She posted her note, along with Jim’s response, on Facebook. It went viral. The story was picked up by news agencies all over the country, and even in a Korean newspaper. 
     Which might suggest that there’s a hunger in our world, with all its coldness and harshness, for pity. That people look for it in whatever form we can find it. That we want someone who knows our flaws and failures, and yet understands us and recognizes our best natures, even when buried under layers of bad choices. 
     It suggests that we keep within us somewhere the hope that there is forgiveness, mercy, and grace for us somewhere. And, beyond that, there is pity for our pain and grief — even, and maybe especially, when it’s self-inflicted.
     That’s what pity is, and that’s how it’s different from grace and mercy. Pity is sorrow. Pity is that feeling you have in the pit of your stomach when you see someone suffering. It makes you want to help, to stop the suffering. Sometimes you might be able to, and sometimes you can’t, but you still feel pity. But, and here’s the thing, pity is usually short-lived. You can’t muster the emotional energy to maintain it for long. So when the news story passes, or the immediacy of the need is gone, or the person for whom you feel pity isn’t right in front of you, the feeling may recede a bit. 
     You may have experienced this, too: we weary of pity when we see someone make the same bad choices again and again. Jim says if he sees the same car parked illegally again, he won’t hesitate to write the ticket. 
     The Bible says that God feels pity sometimes. But it also says, at least as often, that his pity can come to an end as well. “I will not look on you with pity / I will not spare you,” he says there in Ezekiel. He’s talking there to his people, those to whom he’s promised to be faithful. But he says he’s done with pity for them. He’s had enough of their bad choices, their “detestable practices.” And he won’t spare them from the consequences of their actions — consequences that have been spelled out for them for centuries.
     Understand, God’s love for them doesn’t end. He’s going to remain faithful to his promises to them. But he’s had enough of their cycle of ignoring him to pursue their own selfish interests, getting into trouble because of it, and crying out to him for rescue. Early in Ezekiel, God leaves his temple. He just picks up and moves out, leaving his people to the enemy armies who are the consequences of their sin. 
     I think we sometimes depend too much on God’s pity. After years of selfish decisions, we beg him to save our marriages. After a lifetime of bad decisions, we ask him to restore our health. We get angry at him for allowing children to go hungry without reckoning with the mass of greed, selfishness, corruption, and failure of community that has contributed to it. We get frustrated at him for making us face the consequences of our own sins. 
     I’m not saying it’s a one-to-one correspondence, or that every time we go through pain it’s because of our own sins and bad choices. Jesus suffered though he never sinned. But the fact is that even God’s pity apparently fails sometimes. We’ll never know how often it motivates him to protect human beings from the accumulated sin of our race. But sometimes he refuses to show pity. We suffer for it. Others suffer for it — even those who are innocent. 
     And yet his grace never fails. Ezekiel ends with a vision of God returning to his rebuilt temple. He preserves a remnant of his people to eventually return to the promised land. While he chose not to show them pity, he never forgot them. 
     He never forgets us. In Christ, there is always the promise of forgiveness and mercy. To trust in him is to find that we’re never out of the reach of his grace, even when we’ve exhausted the depths of his pity. 
     So, on the one hand, it doesn't make sense to imagine that God sees you always as a helpless victim at the mercy of your circumstances. You have the choice, you have the agency to live in obedience to him, whatever else is going on around you. Don't presume upon his pity; others of his people have done so and found themselves living with the consequences of their bad decisions and actions.
     But don't imagine, even when we're undeserving of God's pity, that we're completely bereft of his grace. God's glory will return to your life, too, even if for now he seems AWOL. The only way to shut ourselves off from God's grace and mercy is to refuse the gift he has offered us in Jesus.
     God won't always pity us. But he'll never stop loving us.

     You can park there.