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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

     As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 
     While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 
     On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
-Matthew 23:25-28 (NIV)


“That’s not what you meant, right, Jesus?” 
     Simon’s voice carried a little more than he intended, maybe. The conversation that had been going on for the last few minutes, since the Pharisees had approached their little band outside Matthew’s house, came to a sudden stop. Everyone looked at him: Pharisees, disciples, Jesus. Simon could see Matthew, standing just outside the circle looking uncomfortable, and shot him a look that could have peeled paint off a wall. A tax collector – he still couldn’t get over it. Jesus, asking a tax collector to follow him, then eating at his house with all these…these…people! No wonder the Pharisees were talking. Everyone was talking.
     They didn’t call Simon “The Zealot” for nothing. It wasn’t that long ago that he and his compatriots would have trampled Matthew’s collection booth under their horses’ hooves. And if that wasn’t enough to push him into a new line of work, they might have just introduced him to the points of their daggers. 
     He had barely been able to get anything down at dinner. The food they were eating, the house in which they were eating it, had been purchased with the blood, sweat, and tears of his countrymen, stolen without a qualm by their host. Bad enough that he collected the taxes that funded this foreign occupation of the Promised Land. What made it worse was that he funded his own affluent lifestyle with the “surcharges” he collected on top of the taxes. Tax collectors never really tried to hide that those surcharges went right into their own pockets.
     And there they had sat, eating at Matthew’s table liked they belonged there. Jesus laughed and traded jokes with his host and all his friends, complimented the food and house, and generally seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. Simon, on the other hand, spent the meal trading astounded looks with the other disciples and glaring at Matthew and his buddies.
     So he hadn’t been at all surprised when, as they left the house, the Pharisees were waiting to pounce. They gathered around, looking down their noses at the little group. Their spokesman had stared them in the face, in turn, until they were all looking down at their feet like scolded children. “This teacher of yours – why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
     Silence, except for sandals shuffling in the dirt. And then Jesus, approaching the confrontation, threw alcohol on the fire. 
     “Healthy people don’t need doctors. Doctors are for the sick.” 
     He said it with a smile, but with steel in his voice, and Simon had been startled to see the Pharisees’ smug self-righteousness melt right in front of them all. He didn’t let them off the ropes. “Go study a little more, and learn what the prophet meant when he said, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Now it was the Pharisees’ turn to contemplate their own sandals. 
     “I haven’t come to call the righteous, you see. I’ve come for sinners.”
     This last, these were the words that Simon was sure he must have misunderstood. Not for the righteous. For sinners. With all this talk of doctors and healthy people and sick people, Simon was getting an unsettling feeling that following Jesus wasn’t going to be what he imagined it was. Surely he had misunderstood, because if he hadn’t then Jesus was saying that following him wasn’t about drawing lines and building walls to keep out the rabble. It wasn’t about reassuring themselves that God loved them. It was about taking that message of God’s open door to those who thought their sins put them outside God’s love and concern.
     Everyone looked at Simon, then back at Jesus. Simon swallowed hard, but he wasn’t going to let this go. “I mean, we have to have some standards, right? No one’s perfect, but, let’s face it: some of us are better than others.” He glanced apologetically at the Pharisees, then whispered, “Tell them you don’t mean that the way it sounded. Tell them that they misinterpreted this dinner. Tell them you’re not really welcoming sinners over righteous people.”
     Jesus looked at Simon for a moment. He was thoughtful. Quiet. Then he turned to walk back toward Matthew. “Sinner. Righteous.” he murmured, loudly enough so Simon could just hear it. “And which are you, Simon? Which are you?”
     And suddenly it made sense to Simon. What Jesus was saying made sense. If Matthew had blood on his hands, so did he. If Matthew had cut corners to get what he wanted, so had he. If Matthew had associated with sinners in the course of his life, so had he. In the end, they were with Jesus for the same reason. He had asked them to follow, and they had wanted nothing more than they had wanted to say yes.
     Who was righteous, really? Not Matthew and his friends. Not these Pharisees. Not even him. And yet, by puncturing his self-righteous balloon, Jesus gave Simon something that was, maybe, even better. Acceptance. He knew Simon, just like he knew Matthew. And he loved them as they were, and wanted them to be better. He wanted it enough to live with them, and teach them, and show them.
     Simon shook his head and smiled to himself a little. He glanced at the Pharisees. “If you guys will excuse me, I’m going to talk to my friend.” Simon walked over to where Jesus stood talking to Matthew, and he embraced the astonished tax collector. “Thank you, brother, for the hospitality,” he whispered into his ear.

     This is going to be interesting, he thought to himself. Very interesting.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Stench

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
     “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. 
-Matthew 23:25-28 (NIV)


Our basement really smelled bad. So bad you didn’t want to be in it for more than a minute.
     It wasn’t usually like that, you understand. But on this particular Saturday — ugh. The strong smell of mildew. Mold, maybe. Or something. We’d had a little water seep in after strong rains and wet the carpet and pad in one room. It had never been this bad, though. Something was clearly going on. But the carpet didn’t seem to be wet. Well, maybe it had been, and the mold had started growing. 
     Not knowing what else to do, I decided to pull out the carpet. It was getting kind of old anyway, and if it was as moldy as it smelled then it certainly didn’t need to be in the house. I went down and started cutting and pulling. After an hour or so of work, the carpet and pad in what we still call “the playroom” (despite the fact that the one who mostly played in it is now a junior in college) was rolled up in three or four sections, ready to be dragged to the curb.
     Funny thing, though — I never found the mold I expected to find. 
     Well, maybe it was in the pad or the carpet or something. Maybe when I dragged it out to the curb, the smell would be gone. So I opened the door to the outside, the door that leads to steps that go up to ground level. The door that gets used once or twice a week. I opened the door, and it hit me.
     When I say it hit me, I mean I realized that what we were smelling wasn’t mold at all.
     But I also mean that the smell hit me. I mean, really hit me. Like I imagine an armored truck would hit me.
     The smell of a squirrel that had expired, oh, I’m guessing 5 or 6 days before and had spent the better part of a week…contributing to the ecosystem, let’s just say. On the steps just outside my basement door.
     The good news is that once my late little friend was hosed off my steps and his remains (mostly tail) buried in my backyard — deeply, and with all the honors deserved by a squirrel of his stature — the smell was out of my basement in no time at all.
     What if I had never opened that door, though?
     Go along with me here. What if I just replaced the carpet? Would the smell be gone? No, even with beautiful new carpet, or expensive tile, or whatever, the basement would still stink. It would look better, newer, but you still wouldn’t want to spend any time there.
     So what if I placed some air fresheners around? Well, that might help a little. It might mask the odor. Make it smell like death and lilacs (which would not be a great smell, but is a wonderful band name…). The smell would still be there. It still wouldn’t be a place you’d want to spend much time.
     So, OK: if new carpet and air fresheners wouldn’t do it, how about new paint? New paint always freshens a place up — no cracks, no stained trim, no scuff marks. Surely a couple gallons of Sherwin-Williams would do it, right? 
     You know it wouldn’t, of course. Neither would nice new furniture, better window treatments, a state of the art home theater, or a top-notch security system. It wouldn’t matter if you made the room into a library, game room, office, or bedroom. You could do a lot of work, much more than I did, and still get nowhere, for one painfully obvious reason; none of that would get anywhere near the source of the problem.
     Of course, no one would be dumb enough to do that, would they?
     Well, hold on. 
     I’ve seen a lot of people change churches over and over, jump from place to place, trying to find something that they can’t even define: a feeling, a sense of belonging, a purpose. They chase that…whatever it is…from church to church, when maybe all along the problem has more to do with their expectations. But they’re never going to find it if they never move from a preoccupation with receiving to a determination to give.
     I’ve seen people identify their marriage problems as some variation of “my spouse doesn’t make me happy.” So they set about trying to “fix” their husband or wife, which generally has the effect of making things worse. Or go find a new one that’s closer to their ideal. Thing is, while their attention is on fixing or replacing their spouse, they don’t consider that the smell might be coming from something corrupt in their own heart.  
     You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen self-righteous people who know every dark place on the internet demean “the gays.” You’ve seen angry, bitter people attack immigrants as the source of all their problems, when their problems have nothing to do with that family down the street from Mexico, or Yemen, or Poland. You know people who laugh that their only drinking problem is that they can’t get enough beer, and you know that there’s something full of decay down deep inside them that they haven’t seen or think they can ignore.
     Maybe, just maybe, you yourself have been letting something rotten stay in the darkness of your heart of hearts for a long time now: anger, jealousy, hurt, grief, lust, selfishness, pride, greed. You’ve tried fixing the people around you. You’ve tried engineering your life to look just like you want it to. You’ve whitewashed your tombs. You’ve obsessively scrubbed the outside of your best china. But the stink is still there. 
     “First clean the inside,” Jesus says. That doesn’t work with china — please clean the outside of your dishes too — but it works with people because what’s inside us tends to find its way outside until it poisons the air all around us. 
     Of course, if we could clean up our own insides we wouldn’t be in this mess. Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus is saying. The problem he’s pointing at is our inability to even acknowledge that there might be something in our hearts, something that needs cleaning out down in the tangle of needs, wants, values, perspectives, and attitudes that make us who we are. We’d rather just leave the door shut. We need Jesus to do the cleaning, to write God’s laws on our hearts, in the words of Jeremiah. But we have to be willing to “draw near to God with a sincere heart” so that can happen.
     There’s nothing we need to hide. Nothing we have to prove. Open that door. It might be kind of gross back there. It might take some work to clean it up. But it’s only when we’re willing to acknowledge where the real problem is that God will start to clean it up.

     Trust me: you don’t want to leave it there. It’ll just smell worse.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Not of This World

…As I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. 
-Philippians 3:18-21 (NIV)


A couple of weeks ago, a group of evangelical church leaders was invited to dinner at the White House. 
     I’m guessing my invitation was lost in the mail. Or maybe I’m not evangelical enough. Or, most likely, I don’t have influence on a large enough bloc of potential voters. (Did that sound cynical?)
     The — let’s call him the Host-in-Chief of the dinner — had some words for the church leaders that were present there. Now, before I go on, let me just promise you that I’ll say what I’m going to say again if someone from the other party ever comes out with something like this in a room full of church leaders. But this is the guy who inhabits the White House now that we’re talking about, and so I’m going to come across as critical of him. So, just get ready for that, or stop reading here if you prefer. And know that I pray for the guy and would like to see him succeed. I just can’t let this go by without comment, though.
     So, again — room full of church leaders. Pastors, teachers, etc. Not leaders of small churches. They preach to and teach and are read by large numbers of people every week, some of whom hang on their every word. This is why I take it seriously when the President of the United States invites these folks for dinner and then says the following:  

“I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote. Because if they don’t — it’s Nov. 6 — if they don’t vote we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time because then it just gets to be one election — you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”

     He went on to stoke fears of militant action from “violent people” if his party doesn’t do well in the midterm elections. He also talked a lot about getting rid of the Johnson Amendment*, the tax code provision that prevents churches and church leaders from publicly endorsing candidates for office.
     “Maybe it’s why you are very plateaued. I hate to say it, if you were a stock, you’d be like, you’re very plateaued,” he said at one point. “They really have silenced you. But now you’re not silenced anymore.”
     Well, that’s a relief. We’re not silenced anymore. Maybe now the church will be saved.
     So I think I’d like to use my “newfound freedom of speech.” This will be a little weird, having been silenced for so long, so bear with me. I think I’ll use my new liberty to quote some guy whose name I can’t quite remember. I mean, he isn’t a politician or an evangelical church leader, so how important can his name be anyway? But the quote goes something like this: “My kingdom is not of this world."
     Jesus said that (I remember now) while on trial before another politician who claimed to have power over him. In response to Pilate’s fear of losing his own power, Jesus answered that power as the world defines it did not interest him in the slightest. The proof, he said, was in the fact that his followers didn’t fight by the rules of those who held power in the world, or those who wanted to take it. They weren’t confronting Pilate’s soldiers. They weren’t appealing to Caesar for an audience. The kingdom of which Jesus is ruler isn’t concerned with the ways in which the world allocates power. It doesn’t care about national boundaries, or party lines, or Imperial governors or Presidents. If the Roman legions couldn’t bring down Jesus’ kingdom then neither, I suspect, would the IRS. 
     And our President will never be the savior of the church. We already have one, thanks.
     I get why he talks the way he does: decades as the head of a real estate and entertainment empire, and a couple of years in Washington, has taught him how to think about power in our world. It’s to be used for personal advantage. It’s to be held onto at all costs. When you have it, those who don’t have it need your influence on their behalf. And they’ll sometimes give a lot of loyalty in return.       
     The church doesn’t need special treatment secured by loyalty to a politician who won’t give us anything that he doesn’t get back, with interest, in votes and money. We don’t need to be able to endorse political candidates in order to have a message to speak in our world — and, in fact, endorsing candidates gets in the way of that message. If you want to do something for us, Mr. President, then please do what’s right and just for all people — and, when you have to choose, especially for those on the margins of our world. That’s what our King is interested in. That’s what his Kingdom is about.
     The danger in all this silliness isn’t that our President believes that his policies can save the church. The danger is that the church might start to believe it. We’ve shown ourselves as having heads that are easily turned by the temptations of power — either having it ourselves or being close friends with those who do. When that happens, we tend to lose our way. We start thinking, like those influenced by power inevitably seem to, about how to get more, and how to use it to our own advantage. We build empires instead of following our Master in proclaiming God’s kingdom and following him in giving ourselves in sacrificial love.  
     We’re not “one election away” from losing what we have. And, if we are, then it isn’t worth having. The church has never depended on the world’s power brokers to keep it alive, or to keep its “stock” from “plateauing.” If we did, I doubt we would have ever gotten past that night when our Lord and Savior stood before Pilate. We say with Paul that our citizenship is in Heaven. We live for the same kingdom for which the One who died for us lived. And we eagerly await a Savior from there who will bring about resurrection, renewal, and redemption. 
     I’m going to use my freedom of speech to tell you to vote for whoever your conscience tells you to vote for — or no one, if that’s the way you want to show your loyalty to the Kingdom of God. I’m going to tell you that, whenever some politician on either side of the aisle suggests that a vote for him is a vote for God, you should call that what it is. And I want you to know that the price for any favors any politician wants to offer is too high. 
     We know who the King really is. Why should we care which pretender sits on the throne at the moment?


*The Johnson Amendment is an amendment to the U.S. tax code, not the Constitution. The President does not have the power to abolish it; President Trump has instructed the IRS not to prosecute violations of it by religious organizations, which they rarely have since the amendment was passed in 1954.

Friday, August 31, 2018

For All the Saints

Be very careful, then, how you live —not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity,  because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
-Ephesians 5:15-20 (NIV)


My son and I were talking about this hymn tune that we heard in church a few weeks ago: Sine Nomine, written by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and used as the tune for the hymn For All the Saints. We were kind of thinking we had heard the tune attached to a different hymn, so we did a little internet detecting. Turns out that it was indeed attached to another hymn, but not one I had ever heard.
     The tune is used in a work called The Secular Hymnal, in which hymn tunes are given new lyrics without overt religious content (or much content at all, as it turns out). The hymnal actually exists, it seems, to allow student choruses to sing “hymns” without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. So it is what its title says: a Secular Hymnal, filled with lyrics that no one would mistake for being religious in any way.
      As an example, here’s William Walsham How’s  lyrics for the first verse of For All the Saints:
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed;
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

     The lyrics go on to describe how the Lord had been a rock, a fortress, a light for those who confessed him, and how the promise of their glory is an encouragement for us who still struggle to confess him in a world that doesn’t seem to know him. Their example makes us strong and brave in our own testimony, and helps us to look forward to the day when “all the saints” — us and those who have gone on before — will stream “through gates of pearl” as “a countless host”. The lyrics are powerful, and they make good use of the anthemic Sine Nomine.
     In comparison, here’s the first verse of the lyrics written for Sine Nominee in The Secular Hymnal:
This day, this day, I know I’ll find a way.
Let come what may, I’ll make it through this day.
Tomorrow’s fate is not yet on my plate.
But, come what may, I’ll make it through this day.
     
     Inspiring, no? I mean, the example of the faithful who have gone before us is lost, as is the promise that the same God who has cared for them in their struggles, and given them rest, can be trusted to do the same for us, to make us courageous in our own testimony and perseverance, and to bring us all together in eternity.
     But, hey. You’ll make it through this day, in a very nonspecific, nonreligious way.  
     I know, I know. The Secular Hymnal was made for a very particular purpose, and I can even understand the reasons for it. I just wonder if it should be called a hymnal at all, with lyrics like that. I mean, isn’t a hymn a song of praise, and as such shouldn’t it be addressed to something — and, preferably, to someone who can receive and appreciate such praise? 
     But I guess maybe This Day, This Day is a hymn to someone. Do you see it? Right: it’s addressed to the Great God I. I’ll find a way. I’ll make it through this day. Those who have come before me are long gone. The God in whom they trusted and placed all their hope means nothing to me. I have what I need. I’ll make it on my strength, my intelligence, my wits, my talents, my money, my accomplishments. I’ll find a way.
     But, hey: it’s called The Secular Hymnal. We shouldn’t really expect anything more. 
     Somewhere along the line, though, I’m afraid the church has decided that singing is all about I as well.
     I don’t mean just the lyrics here. (Though, actually, a fair number of more contemporary praise songs and choruses do seem to be written in the first person singular.) What I’m really talking about, though, is the expectation in some churches (surely not ours) by some believers (surely not any of us) that what I sing in church, and how I sing it, is mostly about making me feel the way I think I should, or singing the songs that I like the best, or checking off God’s requirements so I can feel confident that I’ve obeyed him perfectly. We’ve made singing about ourselves: we sing because it makes us feel good, or because the songs have sentimental connections, or because it allows us to take pride over those who don’t sing in the right way. (I mean, not us, or anyone we know; but we’ve heard about people who sing for these reasons, right?)
     Tell me, please, how we (they) get that from Ephesians 5. The only one who isn’t in that text is I. Paul says that singing should come from being filled with the Spirit — that’s his term for allowing the Spirit’s influence to direct the way we live our lives, as opposed to the flesh. Singing’s about God, not me. We sing best, not when we’re giving full vent to our emotions or taking pride in our knowledge, but when we’re letting The Holy Spirit call the shots in our lives. How we sing on Sunday should come from a life lived in step with the Spirit Monday through Saturday. That’s the only way to sing from our hearts — we hear emotions there, but what Paul is talking about is authenticity. We sing because we really are people who are thankful to God.
     Singing’s about God, and it’s also about each other. You may not love that one song, but the person sitting next to you may desperately need to hear it sung. We sing out of the influence of the Spirit in our lives, and we sing for one another. I’m sure God likes to hear us praise him from the heart. But we do it together because we need to speak to each other.
     Maybe it’s because we sit in rows facing a stage when we sing, but we need to get out of our heads the idea that singing is about someone entertaining us. If we come to church with the same expectations that we bring with us to a concert, I think we’re not quite doing it right. Instead, let’s try coming to church with the Spirit guiding our steps, instead of ping-ponging all over the place as our fleshly bodies and minds dictate. Let’s try coming to the singing as thankful people who want to sing about what God has done and how grateful we are. And let’s think about the people around us a little more, and a little less about our irritation over having to sing that song again. If I come away from church evaluating the singing based on how I feel, well, I’m not going to say it’s been a waste of time, but it’s awfully hard for me to be led by the Spirit and bless my sisters and brothers if all I have is me on my mind. 
     Make the most of the opportunity to glorify God and speak to one another. Don’t be foolish.
     I know you’ll find a way.

  

Friday, August 17, 2018

On Change in Church

In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
  They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment. 
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same, 
and your years will never end.” 
-Hebrews 1:11-12 (NIV)


A blog post got me thinking this week about how the church has changed. It dawns on me that after 50 years in church, all 50 of them in the same “tribe,” and almost 25 in literally the same church, I actually have experienced some changes. Not all of these changes apply to the church I’m a part of now; some are differences I’ve only experienced in other places. But here, in no particular order, are the ways in which church is different now than it was in, say, the mid-seventies, when I was old enough to actually pay attention. Funny how so many of these differences have become so ingrained that you don’t even notice them.
  1. Songs. This is probably one of the most obvious ones. Back in the day, children, before PowerPoint and projected lyrics, we sang out of books kept in the pew racks. (see below for that word “pew”) There were a couple of ramifications that came out of that. For one thing, our repertoire was more limited and less subject to innovation. Blowing the dust off the two different hymnals I used most, I doubt that there were a dozen songs in either that were less than 30 years old. With the slides, we sing songs that you can still hear on Christian radio — along with some older selections the hymnal editors didn’t choose. Maybe some we shouldn’t try, but on balance I think the wider repertoire is a good thing.
  2. Singing. One of the effects of the usage of slides — especially lyrics-only slides — is the loss of harmony. If a church only projects lyrics on the screen, most people will only sing what they hear the leader singing. Some churches use praise teams so that everyone can hear their parts being sung, but that can be hard to follow. Of course, nothing in the Bible suggests that four-part harmony is the official music of heaven. The change is notable, though, in a lot of churches.    
  3. Seating. Pews, not chairs or theater seats. Full disclosure: we still use pews, and a lot of churches I’ve been in still do — even in newer construction. But I think the idea is that pews make things feel “too churchy” for some peoples’ liking.
  4. Prayer. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like we used to pray in church more than a lot of churches do now. I think we’re afraid that long public prayers aren’t participatory and interesting enough, as though prayer only works when God’s people are adequately entertained. And as though adding our silent prayers to the prayer leader’s audible one isn’t participatory.
  5. Clothes. Coats and ties and dresses and sometimes even hats have given way to khakis and polos and jeans and t-shirts and even shorts and flip-flops. That’s not surprising; it’s just part of a cultural trend toward dressing down. But might that trend also reflect a strong preference for dressing for our own comfort instead of the expectations of others and the demands of the moment?
  6. Scripture. Growing up, Scripture was read a lot. There were numerous texts in the sermon which we were expected to follow along with in our Bibles. The preacher focused on explaining the text. We had memory verses in Sunday School. Now we still seem interested in the Bible, but it kind of feels like to me sometimes that we’re more interested in it for the wisdom or advice or applications we can see in it than we are in understanding it for its own sake. And what about those texts where the relevance isn’t immediately apparent? Do they cease, somehow, to be the word of God to us? 
    The post I was reading when I started thinking of these changes suggested that many of them, at least, were negative: part of what was being called the “juvenilization of American Christianity.” I don’t know that all, or even most, of the changes on my list contribute to making Christianity more “juvenile”: that is, spiritually immature, consumerist, self-centered, and obsessed with feeling good at the expense of intergenerational community and theological literacy. But I don’t know that they’re all (or even mostly) for the better, either. 
     A couple of things about change in the church: 1) it’s inevitable, 2) its effects take a generation or two to be seen with any clarity, and 3) the pendulum always swings. So don’t imagine that you’ll stem the tide of change by digging in your heels. The church has always been in the process of change, from Day One. James called his church’s assemblies synagogues. Paul’s churches seemed to borrow some things from pagan temples. That way of doing church that you’re tempted to think God dropped the blueprints for down from heaven on Pentecost? It probably displaced some other way of doing church, and probably not as long ago as you think. You might delay change for a while, but it will come, and it will take more forms than you can recognize and trickle through more openings than you can stick your finger in. Change and adaptation are part of being alive, so if you’re feeling a little disoriented by changes in your church maybe take comfort in that truth.   
     But let’s not be too quick to evaluate a change, either as the greatest thing for the church since the resurrection, or the worst since your church threw out Great Songs of the Church. We’re notoriously bad at imagining where change — or lack of change — might take us and anticipating its effects on those who come after us. Your grandchildren will, invariably, have to undo some damage your generation did; but they may also be believers because your generation had the courage to make some necessary changes. Most of the changes the church wrestles with are neither as beneficial nor as diabolical as we imagine at the time. Patience in times of change is a good thing, patience in wholehearted acceptance or visceral rejection. It will take a while before the effects of those changes become truly evident. 
     Of course, the pendulum swings back, at least on some changes. We’re already seeing a correction in church architecture, for instance, from pragmatic and utilitarian to increased thought and even theology in design. Many churches are pushing back against what might have been lost in the megachurch boom of the 90’s and 2000’s. Change is rarely permanent, but (back to #1) it is inevitable. Don’t imagine that any changes are “final.”
     The writer of Hebrews reminds us, in a mashup of texts from the Jewish scriptures, that everything changes but God. We are creatures, he’s the Creator. Everything that we experience is temporary; he remains. If the heavens and earth themselves will be “rolled up” and changed “like a garment,” why would we imagine that the church can, or should be, unaffected by change? Or that we will, or should, like every change?

      However traumatic the change seems, it’s only permanent until the next change.

Friday, August 10, 2018

God-Breathed


     …As for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching,  rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 
-2 Timothy 3:14-16 (NIV)


“I don’t know anyone who takes the entire Bible literally, and I don’t know anyone who takes the whole thing as metaphorical.” That’s what this person I was discussing a Bible text with said, and I could only agree. It reminded me that reading and interpreting the Bible together can be hard, kind of like trying to hit a moving target sometimes, or maybe more accurately like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. It isn’t always immediately clear how a particular text applies to us, or why this one should be applied at all while we leave this other one in the ancient world. And by what standard do we decide to take this passage literally while that one is obviously figurative or poetic or at least in need of nuance?
      We sometimes tell ourselves that all we need to do to be united is read the Bible and just do what it says. But of course the church has been trying that on and off for a couple thousand years now, and in case you haven’t been paying attention our record is not unspotted.  
     Reading the Bible, in short, is difficult, and the more people involved in the endeavor the more complicated it gets. It’s so difficult, in fact, that you’d think the church would just give up on it. Sometimes it almost seems like we do. And yet…
     Paul, it seems, made up a word to describe the Bible: theopneustos, literally, “God-breathed.” Some English translations say “inspired,” but “God-breathed” captures it better. We have no evidence that this word was ever used prior to Paul’s usage of it in 2 Timothy: not in the Bible, and not in the extant Greek literature that pre-dates Paul. Apparently, existing vocabulary couldn’t express what Paul thought of Scripture. He literally had to come up with a new word.
     Ever since he did, of course, the church has argued about what that word means. We’ve used phrases like “plenary inspiration” or “verbal plenary inspiration” as shibboleths that prove we’re insiders, that our belief is pure and that we can be trusted to handle the Bible responsibly. We tie inspiration to ideas like inerrancy and infallibility. But it seems to me that Paul didn’t try to define “God-breathed” in that way. He doesn't try to define it at all, in fact. He doesn’t assume a theory of how the text got from God to the writers to paper, or formulate a statement on inspiration for his church to affirm. He just says God “breathed out” the Scriptures, and doesn’t seem to care about anything more than that.
     The point Paul is trying to make by coining that word “God-breathed” is that the Bible comes from God.  Full stop. Maybe he has in mind the creation account, where God “breathed” into Adam the breath of life to make him a living being. Maybe he has Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones in mind, where “breath” enters the reassembled bones as a symbol of God’s Spirit reanimating the remains of Israel. Maybe he’s just thinking about God whispering in the ear of those who know to listen for his voice. Whatever, he’s making a statement about the source of the Bible.
     Which leads him to its function: it’s useful for teaching, for getting in our faces, for straightening us out, and for helping us to come into our own as people who live righteous lives. It does, in short, what God does. This is why the church considers understanding and applying the Bible to be worth the struggle, in spite of the ways in which we get it wrong. This is why we keep going back to it, and why we’d best not stray too far from it in figuring out who we are. Our emphasis should be on allowing Scripture to have its way in our lives, not on proving that we know it better than anyone else, or take it more seriously, or have a higher view of it. The idea that the Bible is inspired is not supposed to be just another test of faithfulness or orthodoxy. Lots of us with what might be called very high views of inspiration don’t give the Bible much traction to actually do its work in our hearts. 
     Notice too that Paul doesn’t seem to think that the Bible alone is the way we learn the faith best. Maybe that’s an unintended consequence of the proliferation of the Bible. It’s everywhere, and everyone can have multiple copies of it. William Tyndale’s supposed hope, that “the boy who driveth the plow” might know the Bible better than the Pope himself, is actually within reach of the plowboy. But if the easy availability of the Bible leads to a radical individualism in reading and interpreting it, then maybe something has been lost.
     Paul tells Timothy to continue living out what he learned from others. Few of us learn the faith by reading through a Bible by ourselves. We’re taught by others. Our faith is influenced by their experiences, formed by their words and examples. We read the Bible best when we read it together with people who are different from us in one way or another. We’re shaken out of the readings that make us most comfortable and forced to plumb the depths of the text in ways that we don’t when left to ourselves. Our faith has to be our own, of course. But it shouldn’t be so radically individual that it can’t find room to sit down and open a Bible with others.
     And, of course, the Bible doesn’t save us. Maybe that raised some eyebrows, so let me say it again: the Bible doesn’t save us. Paul says that the Scriptures make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Lots of people have come to salvation through Jesus without knowing how to find Genesis in a Bible. No one has ever come to salvation without trust in Jesus. Let’s be sure we don’t start to give the impression that we think the way to salvation is knowing the Bible. The Bible helps us come to salvation because it helps us to know Jesus. Let’s read it with our eyes on him
     I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know exactly where I stand on inspiration. It sure doesn’t seem like God dictated the Bible word-for-word. There certainly do seem to be some contradictions, maybe even some errors. Definitely some things that are difficult to synthesize. But the Bible itself doesn’t claim anything different, only that it is breathed out by God. That’s enough for me. I think it’s enough for you, too.

     Read it, and let it do its work in you.

Friday, August 3, 2018

One New Humanity

     For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
-Ephesians 2:14-18 (NIV)


     Someone shared a blog post from several years ago with me recently. It might be of limited interest to a lot of readers, dealing as it does with the history of my little “tribe” of believers, but I found it pretty fascinating because it had to do with a subject I didn’t know too much about. And my not knowing about it is significant, because I think that probably my not knowing about it was intentional.
     To make a long story short, the post was an analysis of a letter written in 1958 by a man named Irven Lee, a professor, college administrator, and preacher in Alabama. The letter is a defense of Lee’s convictions that local churches should not financially support para-church organizations (like universities, orphans’ homes, and missions or relief organizations). Lee, and those who share his convictions, believe that Christians are to do things like that themselves, or within their own churches. While I don’t find his arguments particularly convincing — he might make a case that supporting para-church organizations is not best practice, but falls well short of proving that it’s unscriptural or unchristian to do so — I was struck by how well-reasoned they are and how kind his tone is.
     I guess that surprised me because I grew up hearing people like Lee referred to as “antis,” and being told that they didn’t care about orphans. In fairness, I guess, I didn’t hear that much about them at all, because by the time I was old enough to understand the issues involved “our” churches and the Non-Institutional churches had had nothing to do with each other for at least 20 years. When I did hear about them, though, they were always an example of “divisive” groups who elevated their own opinions over Scripture, who had left “us” because they preferred to have their way instead of just following the Bible like we did. 
     A little light research, though, turns up a different story; it’s probably more accurate to say that we’re separate groups now because influential people among “us” decided that “they” should be “quarantined.” “We” spent the next few years eliminating “them” from “our” churches and school and so forth, and that was pretty much that. That, as much as anything, explains why I didn’t hear much about the Non-Institutional churches growing up, or why I didn’t know anything about that church just a couple of miles from my house with the sign that said “Church of Christ” on it. 
     It’s funny; I gave up long ago that oversimplified view of the “Non-Institutional” churches — mostly because I met some of those good folks. (Nothing will overcome prejudice like personal acquaintance.) I guess I still had in the back of my head, though, the idea that “they” had left “us”. I wasn’t around when someone on “my” side of the divide made the decision to quarantine them, but it makes me wonder if I would have gone along with it.
     And here’s the point: it’s best to ignore human efforts to divide people.
     That impulse to divide will probably never leave us. Religion, denomination, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, language, skin color, culture, political party, economic bracket…on and on goes the list of identity markers that powerful people have always tried to use to break society down into easily manageable segments. While the division over institutionalism in my little tribe is sort of a quaint artifact of a time gone by, when that seemed like such a big deal, there are still plenty of people in our world trying to divide us along ideological lines that will seem equally as silly a generation or two from now.
     And, of course, that leftover division is not just an artifact. It’s also a lingering scar on the face of the church that Jesus died to bring together. It’s like a mass grave unearthed in an archaeological dig; it’s fascinating, and then you think of the carnage behind it and it makes you want to cry.
     Right there in your social media feed there are people who want to divide you from those around you, who want to isolate and demonize those who disagree with them, and want you to do it too. They’re right there on your TV screen, on channels that claim they just want to report the news, but who pay “commentators” (not journalists) large sums of money to be the faces and voices of their ideological points of view. There might be someone in the pulpit of your church doing the same thing, proclaiming a different gospel of division, anger, fear, and superiority instead of the gospel of Jesus.
     That gospel says that Jesus “sets aside in his flesh” the hostilities that divide human beings. He becomes “our peace” by bringing us together with one another and with God “in his body.” It’s not enough to say that Jesus takes away my sins, and the sins of those who agree with me and are like me. He came to announce that in him there is peace for those are near to God, and for those who are still far away from God, and he poured out the Spirit through whom we can all come to God together. 
     That’s why I think it’s best to ignore the efforts of human beings to divide us; their motive is control, power, advantage — always. They won’t sacrifice to bring about that division. Jesus, on the other hand, gave up power and control and advantage — and gave his life — to tear down the barriers that those who want to divide us would put back up. That gives him credibility to me, and makes his view of “one new humanity” that much more compelling. 
     So, yes, ignore the efforts of human beings to divide, even if they sound and look religious. Just recognize it for what it is and refuse to go along with it. May we never again be guilty of trying to divide what the One we call Lord died to bring together. May our words and actions testify to the good news that Jesus has put to death our hostility and comes preaching peace to those far away and those near. May we preach peace as he did, with words that elevate and point to God, and with lives of service and sacrifice for others.

     Ignore those who would divide, and you’ll have a lot more time and energy to devote to the One who brings us all together.

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