Friday, October 27, 2017

"Me Too"

    Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 
-Galatians 6:2 (NIV)

In the wake of news that a powerful movie producer used his position to sexually harass, abuse, and assault actresses and other women in the film business — news which surprised absolutely no one — a hashtag movement is sweeping across Twitter: #MeToo. It’s a way of encouraging women in and out of Hollywood to tell their own stories of sexual abuse in the hopes that by shedding light on what they suffered, they will expose abusers and take away the power they have to keep their victims silent. It’s one of those uses of the internet that has real potential to create positive change in the world. The more women who step forward, the more they demonstrate that they’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to be ashamed of. The more victims feel emboldened to come out of the shadows. The more abusers will have to answer for their crimes.
     So far, the hashtag has been used over 500,000 times.
     This kind of crime, perhaps more than any, is one that thrives on secrecy, fear, and shame. Victims have stayed quiet because they aren’t sure how telling the truth about what was done to them will be received by friends, colleagues at work, even family, and even church. Will they even be believed?
     Vali Forrister was a student in 1989 at the university my son attends now when she was kidnapped and raped in a Nashville alley by a paroled sex offender. It took her nearly fifteen years to be able to tell her story; she was simply afraid that she would be blamed, that people would wonder what she was wearing at the time, whether in some way or another she was “asking for it.” For ten years — ten years — on the anniversary of that day, the anniversary she never wanted, she would get in her car and drive down that alley alone. Just to keep it, I suppose, from having power over her. Think about that. She would rather face it every year by herself than tell a friend, a family member, someone at church. She was more afraid of their response than she was of that alley.
     Now, I imagine no one intentionally gave Vali the impression that she couldn’t speak up. I imagine no one told her that they would judge her if something like that happened to her. Somehow she did get that impression, though, and that should give us pause. What is it that makes victims of sexual assault so afraid to speak about their experience, when speaking about it is often one of the things that help them heal most? 
     And, more importantly, what can we do to create space where victims can find love, care, hope, and healing?
     The internet didn’t really create “Me Too,” of course. The main teaching of the church — the Gospel — is that God said “Me Too.” “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” says one formulation of it. Another is in the words of Jesus himself: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The belief upon which Christians for centuries have placed their hope is the crazy idea that God loves us so much that in Jesus he identified with us to the point of becoming one of us and carrying our burdens. God, as Christians understand him, doesn’t stand at a distance and demand our service, penitence, and worship before we can come near. Instead, he comes near to us, just as we are and where we are, and takes our suffering upon himself.
     In other words, he comes to us saying “Me Too.” 
     And so we are expected to do the same for others.
     “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” he says to those who would follow him. Paul tells one of the churches to which he writes that they should “have the mind of Christ” by “in humility valu(ing) others above yourselves.” John thinks that we know what love is by seeing Jesus lay down his life for us, and that we should do the same for those around us. He thinks that we don’t love so much by saying it as we do by showing it in our actions. 
     In other words, we receive God’s “Me Too” love for us in Jesus by turning and saying “Me Too” to those around us. By “carrying each other’s burdens,” we fulfill the law that Jesus said is above any other: to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
     Reading Vali’s story brings tears to eyes, literally. Not just what was done to her by her assailant, as horrible as that was, but also the years she suffered silently and alone because there was no one — not friends, family, and not church — who she trusted to carry this burden with her. And there should have been. There should have been. She grew up in church. She went to a Christian university. And when it counted most, there was no one to bear her burdens? There was no one to say, “Me Too”?
     But we can make sure our churches are “Me Too” churches. For one thing, we can talk about sexual sin instead of keeping quiet. Sexual abuse thrives in the silence and darkness: let’s not give it either. If there are those in our pews or our pulpits who take advantage of their position to abuse and assault those who can’t fight back, let’s make sure to call them what they are and give their victims a voice. And for those in our pews who are victims of sexual sin, let’s be sure we’re known as communities where that sin is called out.
     We can give women who have suffered a chance to speak out about their suffering. We can let it be known explicitly that they won’t be shamed or blamed, that their character won’t be called into question, and that their sorrow and pain and anger will be met with love, sympathy, and safety. Many women have had to heal alone, but they shouldn’t have to. We can let them know that they will be believed if they tell their stories; that we won’t excuse such sin as a “misunderstanding” or a “he said, she said.”
     Sometimes, though, what we say and the impression we give can be two different things, and so we’ll need to be very careful that what we say implicitly reinforces our explicit “Me Too.” How, for instance, do church leaders use power: to control, or to serve? One says when women tell their stories, they will be loved and believed and cared for. The other says that they might not find so friendly a hearing.
     We can say “Me Too” as well by considering, as men, how we might unintentionally reinforce stereotypes and assumptions upon which sins like harassment, assault, and rape thrive. How might the gender stereotypes in our churches create a dynamic in which women have less of a voice? How might our misinterpretation of Scripture provide the cover an abuser is looking for to justify his crimes? We can, and should, guard ourselves: much of the media, and virtually all pornography, can desensitize us to the suffering of those who have been victims of sexual sin.
     We say “Me Too” in our churches by going out of our way to show, as our Lord did, that the suffering of those who have been hurt is our suffering too. We do it by identifying with victims as Christ identified with us; by being willing to see and hear their pain and carrying in our own hearts, returning love, grace, and hope for healing.

     “Me Too.” The love of Jesus is carried in those words.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Light in the Lord

    For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light  (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 
-Ephesians 5:8-13 (NIV)

We’re number one.
     Defending World Series Champs? Yep, but that’s not what I mean. Best pizza city in the nation? Debatable, but quite possibly. But that’s not what I’m talking about. First in medical research? Great museums? Best architecture? You could make a case for Chicago being number one in any of those areas. But, unfortunately, none of those are rankings that came out this week. The list I’m talking about is one that no city wants to be on, much less top. But there we are, right at number one.
     According to Orkin Pest Control's annual list, Chicago is the rattiest city in the United States.
     Somehow we’re rattier than New York (#2 on the list), where garbage bags sit piled on sidewalks. Somehow we have more rats that Washington D.C. (#3) — but only if you don’t count the ones making policy. Judging by the number of rodent treatments the company performed last year, Chicago is rattier than LA (#4), Philadelphia (#7), Detroit (#9), Boston (#12), and Cleveland (#15). 
     It’s apparently not for lack of trying to eradicate them. As long as I’ve been here there have been signs in alleys telling residents to make sure to keep their garbage bin lids closed. (Though something chews holes through the lids.) This past summer, Streets and San started a pilot program using contraceptive bait in addition to the usual poison. (Yes, we’re encouraging our rats to have safe sex.) And a few years ago, the city released 60 coyotes with radio tracking collars into the city with the idea that they’d find the rats delicious. (Probably the occasional Yorkshire terrier, too.) We call them, I kid you not, urban coyotes. Sounds to me like it’s going to take more than 60. And I’m not sure coyotes running wild through the city is all that preferable to rats. 
      To read about our rat problem, you’d think Chicagoans must be knee-deep in them. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve lived in Chicago for about a quarter of a century and in all that time I’ve seen, like, five rats. Tops.
     There’s a reason for that, and you don’t have to be a rodent expert to figure it out. The rats prefer it that way. They’d rather not be seen. They don’t care if you know about them, and in fact being known is exactly how they get killed. Rats can only thrive — get food and grow and reproduce (unless they’ve nibbled on Chicago’s contraceptive rat bait) — when they live in darkness and secrecy. And so they’ve learned really well how to stay hidden in a city of three million people. They seek out the dark places. They live in the disused places. The places no human beings want to go are paradise to them. 
     A lot of what human beings put their minds and hands to do thrives in places like that, also.
     For years, decades, a movie producer sexually harasses and assaults hopeful young actresses. This is someone who everyone in Hollywood knows. His habits are an open secret, something movie people warn each other about in whispers. But only in whispers. He’s too powerful, too rich, and has too much influence on the careers and lives of the people who might otherwise report him. So his victims receive his gifts and money and the roles he gives them, and try to forget. The bystanders — some powerful enough to actually do something about it — pretend that they don’t see anything, don’t know anything, that it was all consensual. Darkness is pulled tight around the acts, and they thrive. 
     Until one person pulls back the curtain and the light rushes in.
     If God’s people won’t do that, who should we expect will? If God’s people won’t function as the element of our society that exposes evil to the light, why aren’t we surprised that others won’t?
     That’s part of being "the light of the world,” Paul seems to suggest. It’s one thing to say we should “live as children of the light,” uninfluenced by the darkness. Children of light is who we are — not because of ourselves, but because of Jesus. Goodness, righteousness, truth — these things should characterize us. Our lives should be marked by a love for what’s good, a commitment to righteousness in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, and an obligation to tell the truth.
     We haven’t always been good at this. Sometimes, we have to admit, the church has lived in darkness. Other times we have been complicit in allowing what’s done in the darkness to go unchallenged by refusing to shine the light of Christ on some particular shadows. We have to repent of those times and ask the Lord to help us be better.
     Then there are the times when we’ve been content to live in a bubble that we’ve created for ourselves:  Good people, living good lives, but isolated from the world around us. We gather in our ghettoes of light and moan about the darkness around us and promise to have nothing to do with it, but convince ourselves that the Gospel doesn’t make the darkness “out there” our problem.
     But not only should we have nothing to do with the darkness — we should expose it. That’s what light does to shadow, of course. It dissipates it. It isn’t about self-righteously and hypocritically sitting in judgment on everyone who sees one social issue or the other differently from us. That we’ve done at times. We’ve become known for it, in fact. Many in our world still today associate the church with this kind of narrow moralizing that we’ve been guilty of cudgeling “sinners” with. It doesn’t roll back the darkness because it isn’t the light of Christ. It’s the garish neon of our smugness and pride and fear. It isn’t living as children of light; it just makes those in darkness dart further into the shadows.
     The light of Christ warms as well as illuminates. It defends the weak by exposing those who take advantage of them. It offers hope to people resigned to living in the cold shadows of poverty, disease, death, grief, and tyranny. It shows people who thought they were alone that the darkness they were living in just made them think so. It offers dawn to those who are living in the constant night of addiction, bitterness, and guilt. It illuminates people who have been lost in sin and turns them into light, too.
     Aaron Courtney knows something about that. At a protest outside a white supremacist rally at the University of Florida this week, Courtney, a black man, came face to face with a man in a swastika t-shirt in the crowd. Courtney yelled over the screaming, “Why don’t you like me, dog?” When the man wouldn’t answer Courtney’s repeated question, Courtney finally said, “Give me a hug.” After a moment, he wrapped his arms around Courtney. “Why don’t you like me?” Courtney asked again. 
     “I don’t know,” was the answer.
      Light. I don’t know what difference Courtney’s hug made in that guy’s life. But it made one. “I heard God whisper in my ear, ‘you changed his life,’” was Courtney’s take.

     Of course he did. That’s what light does. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

One of Us

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
     “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
-Mark 9:38-41 (NIV)

The last day of October this year is something a little more than just Halloween. It marks a significant event in the history of Christianity. On October 31, 1517, a German priest had had it up to here with what he regarded as the blatant corruption and abuse of spiritual authority that was clustered around many of the practices of the church in his era. He was particularly (but not exclusively) incensed over the sale of indulgences to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
     Indulgences actually had a more solid theological foundation than is often assumed, but they were popularly regarded as a way to purchase freedom from the consequences of sin, whether for self or loved ones. While indulgences were more often given in return for prayer or good deeds, in 1517 the basilica needed some work, and so the good deed most prized by the church was the giving of money. And so priests were sent from village to village “selling” indulgences. When this particular priest heard that there was to be an indulgence sale in his village of Wartburg, he decided to make public a few criticisms of the church he had so far kept more or less to himself. Ninety-five of them, in fact. He nailed them to the door of the Castle Church, and when they were printed and published a few months later Martin Luther found himself at the center of a firestorm that remade the religious landscape of Europe and eventually the world. Luther’s 95 Theses launched what would become known as the Protestant Reformation.
     Many of the denominations that make up the Christian world today connect in one way or another to Luther’s criticisms of the church. Predictably, of course, many who agreed that reformation was needed disagreed as to the specifics. Many of those reformation efforts would later go through reformations of their own. Still, that date almost 500 years ago has marked our world indelibly. Especially for those of us who wear the name of Jesus.
     I noticed an article recently on this topic that I think sort of missed the point. The author (who I’m sure has good intentions) points out that all this occurred 500 years ago, and so he concludes “there is no Protestant denomination which is older than 500 years, certainly none that reaches back to the time of Christ and the apostles.” The author goes on to argue that “denominationalism is not in harmony with the teaching of the Scriptures” and that “the disciples were not encouraged to wear the names of men in religion.” OK, fair enough, as far as it goes. He talks about the “worthy things” Luther accomplished, like making the Bible accessible and undermining the power that was possessed and often misused by the church hierarchy. 
     “Yet,” the author writes, “he did not go far enough.” He lays at Luther’s feet the formation of “denominationalism with its multiplicity of creeds, names, and organizations. None of this conformed to the ‘one body’ revealed in the New Testament.”
     It is easy to see the splinter in brother Martin’s eye and fail to see the beam in our own.
     This all reminds me of the time Jesus’ followers “caught” someone casting out demons in Jesus' name. “Don’t worry,” they told Jesus later when recounting the story. “We shut him down since he wasn’t one of us.”
     That’s so easy, so alluring. It’s maybe the path of least resistance to fall into Watchdog Mode and think the Lord needs us to monitor who’s “one of us” and who isn’t. In pointing out this tendency in my brother’s article, I don’t want to pretend that I’m immune to it. There's something rewarding about it. It provides clarity. It locates “correct” comfortably close to where I’m sitting. It makes what’s familiar and easy for me into the norm for all believers, everywhere, at all times.
     The disciples didn’t exactly have it all together, did they? We’re like them in that. We have 500 years of hindsight that Luther didn’t enjoy, and yet we want to sit in judgment on his efforts? “Nice try, Martin. Really, you had some good ideas there. Too bad you didn’t carry them through.” Well, look: Luther stood up to Popes. His faith didn’t wither under the pain of excommunication. When the church could bring dire consequences to bear, he didn’t blink. Through his work and suffering, the Spirit brought fresh air and new life into the church. How dare we dismiss him with a wave of our hands and a patronizing “A for effort”? How dare we pretend that we’re somehow superior to him?
     The author of this article would say that the fellowship of Christians of which he and I are members is different. Instead of just reforming the church, we’ve restored the church of the New Testament. If that sounds like a matter of semantics to you, that’s because it is. The spiritual forebears at the headwaters of “my” tribe stood on the shoulders of Martin Luther and others like him — even if we don’t always acknowledge that. Yes, our intent is just to be the church of the New Testament; Luther's intent was the same. Don’t put on him the frailties of those who came later. And don't pretend we aren’t subject to those same frailties. And don’t for a moment imagine that any of us have the authority or responsibility to evaluate Luther’s work. To his own Master he will stand or fall.
     I know it goes against our impulses to nail down and control everything, but let’s just allow Jesus’ word to his disciples to be enough for us: “Don’t stop him.” Don’t consider anyone doing great things in the name of Jesus to be an antagonist who must be prevented from serving the Lord until they have “our" imprimatur. There’s a time to discuss theology and debate best practice, but that time is not when we see someone honoring the name of Jesus. When we see that, we need to welcome a friend and acknowledge his ministry. To do so is not necessarily to embrace everything that friend believes or practices. It’s simply to take seriously what Jesus himself said: there’s no “us” to safeguard. If we truly believe in the “one body” of the New Testament, then we should also believe that it’s loved by Christ, that he gave himself up for it, and that he is cleansing it through water and the word. And more, that through his sacrifice he will present that body to himself radiant, unstained, and blameless.
     If we believe in that one body, we believe it’s his, and so we’ll let him evaluate who’s a part of it and who isn’t. And we’ll bend over backward to safeguard its unity.
     No one needs to be one of us. Not if they’re already one of his.  
     One day, when the new creation is all that exists, maybe I’ll get a chance to argue with Martin Luther about baptism or something, though I suspect by then I won’t want to. If I do, my guess is he’ll be there. 

     Even if he wasn’t one of us.

Friday, October 6, 2017

"Lord Willing"

     Now listen,  you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will,  we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. 
     Now listen,  you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 
-James 4:13-5:3 (NIV)

Good news. I’ve found something new to be prideful about. It’s about time: I was tired of the same old things.
     This newest source of egomania comes to me weekly in the form of an email. It’s from a company that has created a grammar-checker app that can be embedded in the web browsers, word processors, and email clients that you use. It works like a spell-checker, only it makes sure your participles aren’t dangling and your infinitives aren’t split. (Which sounds way worse than it is, by the way.)
     Here’s the neat thing: this weekly email from the company gives me my statistics for the week. 
     These are last week’s:
I was more productive than 82% of the users of the app.
I was more accurate than 98%.
I used more unique words than 74%.
     Now you see why I’m so proud of myself, don’t you?
     I’m joking, of course. But, well, not entirely. I was really proud of that 98%. I was kind of disappointed…no, crestfallen…dolefulwoebegone…about that 74% in usage of unique words. Part of me knows that the email is mainly a marketing gimmick to get me to buy the “pro” version of the app. But part of me is still unreasonably proud of how well it thinks I write.  
     It doesn’t take much, does it, to make us proud of ourselves? My grammar usage is just the silliest source of pride for me, and therefore the easiest to “confess.” I can sort of wink at it, poke a little fun at myself. But if I was really confessing I’d have to own up to other forms of pride — and their consequences — that aren’t funny at all. 
     You might reasonably ask if it’s even such a bad thing to take some pride in your work, your accomplishments, your success. Don’t we sometimes wonder at people who debase themselves? Don’t they have any pride in themselves? we ask. Don’t we tell our kids regularly that we’re proud of their accomplishments, their hard work, their character? Surely we do, and I wouldn’t want to tell you that expecting people to take pride in themselves or letting your kids know how proud you are of them or feeling good about the things you’re able to accomplish are negative things. In fact, I’d say a lack of appropriate pride can create as many problems as inappropriate pride does. To fail to tell a child she’s done well when she has or to recognize someone for a job well done is to cause resentment and undermine achievement. 
     That said, there are forms of pride that Scripture consistently and unanimously warns us against. What the Bible seems to mean with its frequent condemnations of pride is what we’d more often call arrogance. It’s one thing to be proud of the things you do well. It’s quite another to let that pride inflate your sense of self-importance to the point that you see yourself as superior to others. It’s quite another to let that inflated sense of self-importance make you blind to your dependence on God and to his call on your life.
     James says that our calendar events ought to include the note, “if the Lord wills.” I knew a guy who used to attach that suffix to every mention he made of future plans. Sometimes he’d even do it for someone else: “I’ll meet you Thursday for lunch.”  “Lord willing.” That might strike you as a little extreme. You may doubt that what James wanted was literally for people to attach a phrase like that to every plan they make. But this guy was trying to let the reminder that “we are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” push against the human tendency to “boast in [our] arrogant schemes.” Scripture suggests that a misplaced confidence in our own competencies leads to a dismissal of the necessity of God’s grace in allowing us to live and carry out those plans. 
     If you don’t think it matters, look at what James thinks will happen when we become too proud of ourselves and fail to acknowledge God’s place at the center of all our plans and all our successes. He leads us to glimpse a future where all our accomplishments have rotted and corroded, and we’re left with nothing but misery. He warns us that the end of that kind of pride and arrogance is a life in which we line our pockets at the expense of others and live in luxury and self-indulgence. And that what that arrogance has caused us to withhold from those in need will “cry out against” us before God.
     To hear some of us — and sometimes it is believers — argue against care for the poor by saying “no one ever gave me anything” is to be reminded that the arrogance James warns us about lives on. To believe in the grace and generosity of God, however, is to believe that none of us are self-made men and women. We have talents and abilities and strengths, but receiving them and having the opportunities to develop them are in one way or another the gift of God. We may earn our salaries or wages, but long before we had marketable skills that translate into those salaries and wages God was at work in our lives, providing opportunities to learn and grow despite the many variables that might have derailed us. And the moment we start to think that in some way or another we’re more deserving of success than anyone else is the moment we fall victim to arrogance. 
     It’s ingrained in our culture: we are the architects of our own prosperity. It lets us take the credit for all we accomplish while absolving us of the responsibility for those who aren’t so successful. It allows us to forget our relative weakness, our inability to predict even the nearest of futures, and the trivialities of most of our best-laid plans. To boast in any of that would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high.  
     Instead of boasting in the plans we’ve made and the resources we bring to the table, James counsels patience. He reminds us of the way a farmer waits: he waits for the rain, he waits for the crop to grow and mature. He doesn’t mean, of course, that a farmer doesn’t work hard. Of course he does. But all his hard work is for naught if the rain doesn’t come, or the seed is bad, or pests or disease attack his fields. 
     So it is with us. Don’t boast of your achievements as though they make you better than anyone else. Don’t imagine that the plans you make or the work you do are the most important parts of the story of your life. As much as we’d like to think we’ve figured it all out, there is so much in our lives of which we have little or no control. And that’s why we trust in the God who is in control. That’s why we say, in everything, "If the Lord wills". And that’s why we wait for his coming, knowing that our lives will never be complete and our accomplishments will never find their true meaning and fall into their proper context until that day.

     If only there was an app that could check for arrogance. I’d score high on that one too.