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Friday, June 15, 2018

Generations

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!
-Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)


I’ve been reading Jonathan Storment’s latest blog post and thinking about a man named Gene Arnold.
     So, first, Jonathan writes this in his post, titled Generationally Generous: 
I think so much of the Church problems that we have today can be summed up by the fact that we have generational divides that are being addressed, not by working through problems together and reconciling, but through just creating different churches.
     One of the by-products of the individualistic society that we have created is that we have carved up the world so many distinctive ways that we no longer have to share life with people who are different from us. This is true racially, economically, educationally, and generationally.
     This is the great tragedy of modern American Churches.
     I think Jonathan’s right, which doesn’t mean he is, but just go with me for a minute here. When churches start talking about this problem we seem to have of keeping and/or attracting younger members, how does the conversation usually go? We start talking about changing the window dressing. Let’s have a coffee hour. Let’s change the music. Let’s add a band. Let’s throw out the liturgy. Let’s put in a liturgy. 
    Of course, the existing members of the church like things as they are pretty well. We don’t want to alienate them. So what do we do? Well, some churches solve the problem by having two different worship services. Traditional and Contemporary, they might call them. Others just plant a different church, one better suited in location, style, etc. for younger people. And some — most, maybe — just kind of give up and decide they’ll appeal to one demographic or the other. Usually, the one that’s already filling the pews and giving the money.
     In all of those cases, though, what you’re left with is two different churches. As Jonathan says, instead of working through problems together and reconciling, we’re carving up the church so we don’t have to share it with people who are different.
     In that, we look very much like our world: we’re pretending we’re tolerant and accepting of others by doing our best to associate mainly with people who aren’t very different from us at all.
     In our world, young people are lazy, spoiled, demanding, oversensitive, image-obsessed hipsters. In our world, old people are cranky, boring, out-of-touch, behind-the-times codgers. In our world, old people and young people live, work, shop, and eat in different places. They watch different TV shows, on different devices. They listen to different music. They get their news from different sources. They use different social media.
     I have one question. Answer it, and you can stop reading now: Why isn’t the church different? 
     Maybe it’s because we haven’t given this idea of carving the church up into generationally homogenous segments a whole lot of thought. We inherited grade-level Sunday school from those who went before us. We inherited youth ministry segregated from the rest of the church. We just don’t have a lot of experience that tells us how to live and worship and serve together. So, instead, we argue and fight and end up dividing over the “right” music, preaching style, dress code, or something equally asinine — as though there is a “right” any of those things. As though what we’re talking about isn’t just what we like best, what pushes the right emotional buttons, what makes us feel like we’re in our kind of place.
     Listen; if we’re trying to create generationally-specific churches, then we’re trying to do something that the church has never done in any other time or place. Something that seems very much like the co-opting of Christianity to cultivate an image that we want the world to see.  
     And, by the way, say you do find the perfect image that makes your church attractive to younger people. That image that seems so new and cool now will seem old and irrelevant to your kids and grandkids. Good, Good Father will, one day, be Just As I Am. One generation’s Oceans is the next’s Be Not Dismayed Whate’er Betide.
     The problem is that churches don’t know how to be generationally generous. We don’t get that love demands listening to one another and caring for one another. We don’t get that church is supposed to consist of older believers and younger believers serving and working and growing in Christ together.
     Which is why I’m thinking about Gene Arnold. 
     Gene was a longtime minister at the church where I grew up. He was there for some of my most formative years. When I think of Gene, the last thing I think of is hip or cool. At church, Sunday or any other day of the week, he would be in a conservative suit and tie. (He’s the main reason I still can’t bring myself to wear jeans on Sunday morning.)  He wore a fairly obvious toupee. His jokes were corny, and he was old. (Like, in his 60’s!) There was little obvious reason for a teenager to become friends with him. All the same, I like to think that’s what we were. I can tell you this: I really don't see how I’d be doing what I do today if I hadn’t known him.
     Gene loved me, and it showed. He was patient with me. His joy in my growing faith was evident. He asked my opinion as though it mattered to him (because it did). We would talk about the Bible, and life, and he had the humility to appreciate my point of view. He took me under his wing. I went with him to visit hospitals. I learned theology and languages and homiletics in school. I learned from Gene how to minister. 
     The church will be so much the poorer if we don’t learn generational generosity. If older believers don’t learn to be thankful for the energy and new perspectives of younger believers, we’ll miss out on so much. If younger believers don’t learn to be thankful for the wisdom and patience of older believers, what we lose will be irreplaceable. If we can’t learn to sing each other’s music, listen to each other’s opinions, value each other’s points of view, and give of ourselves for one another, the damage to the church will be catastrophic.
     I heard someone not long ago disparage some older hymns by saying something like this: “I can’t sing songs that don’t sound like the way I speak.” I get what that person was saying, but it’s just wrong. As the church, we don’t speak to ourselves through our music. We speak to one another. If we can’t learn to speak each others’ languages, how can we hope to embody the good news of the One who gave himself for all of us?
     Of course we can learn. The problem is that we don’t want to. That’s why our churches struggle to attract anyone that doesn’t look just like us. That’s why people come in, and sit quietly for a service or two, and then leave. That will never change until we decide to love each other, whatever our age, as we have been loved.
     Reach out to someone at church who’s older or younger than you. Ask them about a favorite hymn or worship song. Invite them to your house. Listen to their stories. Tell some of your own. Pray with them. Serve together. Sit together in worship.

     They’re part of your family in Jesus, and you don’t want a church without them.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Be Faithful

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer...Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
-Revelation 2:10 (NIV)


Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Cleveland Cavaliers are in trouble.
    By the time you read this, in fact, the NBA Finals might already be over. In the best of seven series, Cleveland is down 0 games to 3 to the Golden State Warriors. They were in two of those games. But for a major brain freeze on the part of J.R. Smith at the end of regulation in Game 1, things might be different. But even those games the Cavs were in kind of make you feel like Golden State is just going to find a way to answer everything Cleveland does. Like in Game Three, where in rapid succession, with time running out, Steph Curry hit a 3 to give Golden State a 4-point lead, LeBron James hit a 3 to cut it to 1 point, and then Kevin Durant hit another 3 to push the dagger in. As if to say, “It doesn’t matter what you do. We’re the better team and will find a way to win.”
    No, the series isn’t over. But, yes, it is. Teams that have fallen behind 0-3 in the NBA Playoffs are, collectively, 0-131 in Game 4. It would be an achievement of historic proportions for Cleveland to even win the next game, never mind 4 straight. So what do you do if you’re Cleveland? Give up? Stay home tonight instead of going to the arena? No, of course not.
    In the words of LeBron James, one of the greats in NBA history, “When I wake up Friday morning I’ll be locked in on the game plan of what needs to be done to help our team win. That’s just who I am.”
    We live in anxious times. Terrorism. School shootings. A country divided along ethnic, racial, and political lines. Renewed tensions with old enemies. And that doesn’t even include all the stuff you carry on your shoulders personally: the health problems, family problems, work stress, school demands and so on that everyone seems to bear to one degree or another.
    It’s easy to think, in times like these, that the ending is written and there’s nothing to be done.
    The original readers of Revelation were believers who might have been tempted to think that themselves. Their faith cost them: their livelihood, their standing in society, their friends, their families, their lives. Following Jesus didn’t ease the burden of life for them: it added to it. And, considering the number of times in Revelation the phrase “be faithful” is used, they needed to be reminded that the fact that they were down didn’t mean that they should count themselves out.
    That’s what Revelation is about, by the way: those believers couldn’t have cared less about the things that we find so fascinating in that book. What they needed, and apparently got in Revelation, was assurance that whatever was happening around them, just on the other side of the door God was at work and his plan wasn’t inconvenienced in the slightest. Evil was being dealt with. The righteous would receive their reward. Things too big and too wonderful for them to understand were happening, and the cries of those who were suffering were not falling on deaf ears.
    All they needed to do was “be faithful.”
    “Be faithful, and I will give you life” – I think I’d prefer it if Jesus had left it at that, if you want to know the truth. “Be faithful” – that’s harmless enough. That’s about going to church and saying my prayers and being nice to people, isn’t it?
    No, it’s not. “Be faithful” is about suffering and not giving in to fear. I didn’t say it was the absence of fear – Jesus himself didn’t meet that standard – but recognizing that being afraid of something doesn’t have to be the same thing as shrinking from it. The promise Jesus makes is for people who will put their trust in him even if it literally kills them. And the reality is, of course, that every person who has ever trusted Jesus before you is dead. No one survives the experience.
    So the more I think about it, the more I think we need the promise as it is: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” That’s real, isn’t it? It takes seriously the gravity of the struggles we face, the toll it takes on us to live in this world. It takes seriously that there really are people and forces out there who would hurt us if they can. It’s a promise that grapples with human mortality, a promise for hospitals and funeral homes. It’s for battlefields and prison cells, for killing fields in places like Somalia and blighted urban neighborhoods closer to home. It’s a promise that even though Jesus’ vision of love and justice and holiness sometimes looks a little thin and unsubstantial next to the reality of the world around us, faithfulness to him is where our hope lies.
    Jesus’ promise is that we are not done, not by a long shot, if we will just hold on to our trust in him. The outcome is sure. The victors’ names are already announced, and their trophies of eternal life will soon be in their hands.
    I like what LeBron said about Game 4 because I like the reason for his showing up to play: “That’s just who I am.” For believers, being faithful is as easy as being true to ourselves. Through Jesus, that’s who we are. We belong to him, we follow him, we were saved by him and live in him and, really, what else are we going to do but be faithful?
   So things are tough. Uncertain. Difficult. Jesus never promises that it won’t get worse before it gets better. But he does promise that it gets better. Maybe he doesn’t spare us the struggle so that we’ll enjoy the victory that much more. Maybe we need the struggle to harden and refine our faith. I don’t know. I don’t understand it. But I know the promise he makes is one that he lived. He was faithful to death, and his Father gave him life. And it’s his intention to share it with all his faithful people.
    So hang in. Keep doing what he tells you, what you know to be right. Love God, and love your neighbor, and take your life’s energy from that source. And when you’ve gone as far as you can, he’ll step in and take you the rest of the way.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Follow Me

     After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
-Luke 5:27-28 (NIV)


It took two words to change his life.
     Levi, you see, had it pretty good. Oh, he was probably not winning any popularity contests — except maybe among those who wanted some of what he had — but what he had made what he didn’t have a little easier to live with. What he had, not to put too fine a point on it, was money. In a world where currency was in short supply, Levi had plenty of it. He was one of the one-percenters of his day. When everyone else was bartering with what they grew or made themselves, Levi had a full money bag. He had a life his neighbors, in many ways, could envy.
     But he had paid a price for this life.
     Levi made his money collecting revenue for Rome, the occupying force in his homeland. His neighbors weren’t all revolutionaries, and others of them made one kind of living or another by cooperating with the Occupation. Levi collected taxes, though. No one likes taxes. To make things worse, Levi operated as an independent contractor,.meaning the Romans didn’t pay him a salary. He might have sub-contracted for another of his countrymen, or maybe directly for the Romans, but in any case he didn’t get a salary. He made his money by charging a few points above whatever taxes Rome was levying. Caesar told Levi how much he had to give to the Empire — not how much he had to collect. However Levi might have spun it others or justified it to himself, the fact remained that he was enriching himself at the expense of his already-overtaxed countrymen. The only ones making any money were Rome and Levi himself. 
     No wonder his neighbors sneered at him. No wonder they lumped him and his tax-collecting brethren with the other “sinners” in their world. No wonder they assumed he was ritually “unclean” and forbade him from the synagogue and the temple. No wonder he wouldn’t have had a place in the homes or at the tables of any of the virtuous folk.
     Levi’s folk were the other tax collectors and the motley assortment that the uber-righteous Pharisees called “sinners”. They didn’t ask how he made his fortune, how he took care of his family. They didn’t wonder if he was ritually clean before they joined him at his table. Call us all “sinners” if you want, he’d think. At least we know how to welcome each other and look out for each other. The camaraderie was warm, the wine was free, the smiles and laughter were real. It didn’t take much for Levi to learn to prefer the company of “sinners.”
     So he was definitely surprised when the teacher stopped by his booth.
     Levi knew him by name, if not by face. People had been talking about him; he was supposed to be a miracle-worker. Stories about a group of lepers healed, a paralyzed man who was walking, a miraculous catch of fish for some fisherman from over at Capernaum — lots of people were talking about this guy. Supposedly the things he did and taught upset some of the Pharisees, so Levi figured he must be a pretty good guy. Still, he wasn’t prepared for a religious teacher to stop by his place of business. 
     At first he was embarrassed, but it quickly became apparent that the teacher hadn’t stopped by to preach him a sermon on patriotism or greed or corruption. Neither did he seem to be trying to pay taxes. Matthew was so fixated on trying to figure out what this Jesus of Nazareth wanted with him that he almost failed to hear the words he said. When those words finally did find their way through the confusion in his mind, though, it was like someone reached into the darkness in his heart and flipped the light on — a light he hadn’t even realized until that exact moment had been turned off. 
     Two words: “Follow me.”
     Later, when he recounted the story to others, he always had trouble explaining what happened. He always had trouble making people understand how he could walk away from his life, his livelihood, all that money, to travel around with this teacher who didn’t seem to have anything but the clothes on his back. There was no prestige in following Jesus. Nothing in it for Levi. 
     The best he could do to explain it later was also two words: “He asked.”
     Levi mattered to Jesus enough for Jesus to take whatever risks were connected to being associated with him. When he invited Jesus to his home to celebrate, the teacher didn’t hesitate when he said yes. He didn’t consult his other followers or try to calculate the risk/reward — he just wanted to know what time he should be there. 
     For the rest of his life, this was how he described the good news of Jesus to someone to whom it was new. He came to believe eventually, of course, that Jesus was much more than a teacher, and he never got tired of telling the story of the day that the love and grace and acceptance and hope and redemption of God made flesh stopped by his booth and said he wanted a hated, hopeless sinner to come live with him. 
     “That’s why I followed him,” he’d say, “and that’s why I’ve kept on following him. And, if you follow him, that’s why you will too.”
     Two words. Not deep theology, the secrets of the universe, the answers to all your conundrums. Not “five easy steps to a better life,” a free pass, a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Two words: “Follow me.”
     We follow him because he asks us to. He asks us to live with him, walk with him, learn from him, and in him find a new way of seeing ourselves and loving the people around us.     

     May we never stop following.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Do You See?

“Do you see this woman?“
-Jesus, Luke 7:44 (NIV)

So I spent last weekend with about 50 people at a retreat out in the farmland of Illinois.
     The ages of the participants ranged from student to septuagenarian. There were professionals, blue-collar workers, and retirees. Some were new believers, and some had followed Jesus for decades. There were men and women, urban and suburban, Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian. It was one of the more diverse groups I had been a part of, and that’s saying something. There were even some White Sox fans there, and they don’t leave the house much these days.
     What brought this group of people together was a desire for the church to take the lead in our society’s struggles for racial unity. Every person in that group, I think it’s safe to say, believes that “the saints,” the people of God through Jesus, should be salt and light in the struggles over skin color and ethnicity that have plagued our cities, our nation, and our world for three centuries or more now. Everyone who showed up out in the Illinois countryside last weekend came to do the hard work that might let the Spirit of God have his way in our hearts and help us to see how we might better be channels of the grace of God to heal the wounds of racial division.
     At some point during the weekend, as people opened up about their experiences of racism and the ways that they have been marked by it, I thought of Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house. 
     If you don’t know or remember the story, Jesus goes to dinner at the house of Simon. Simon is a very religious guy, a very godly person according to most standards. Deliberately or not, Simon fails to show Jesus the basic courtesy of a host: having a servant wash his dusty feet before inviting him to the table. 
     So, while Jesus and the other guests are reclining at the table — that’s the way it was done back then, so you can imagine that foot-washing was more than just an interesting custom — an uninvited guest shows up, a woman who “lived a sinful life.” She comes to honor Jesus, and as she approaches him near the table she starts to weep. She’s weeping in gratitude for the forgiveness of her sins, maybe mixed with some sorrow for her past.  In any case, she finds in Jesus someone worthy of honor, and she intends to honor him by pouring a jar of perfume on him — probably the most expensive thing she owns.
      Maybe she intended to anoint his head with the perfume, but as she gets near him and sees his dusty feet sticking out as he reclines at the table, she shifts gears. Her tears suffice to wash his feet. And then, having nothing to dry them with, she bends down and uses her hair. And, while she’s there, she kisses his feet before pouring the perfume on them.
     Luke give us a glimpse of what Jesus’ host is thinking as this is going on. He doesn’t say it out loud, apparently, but what he’s thinking is something like, “How could Jesus let this —insert insulting/demeaning word for a woman with questionable morality here — touch him like this?”
     See, this is how racism works. And classism, and jingoism, and xenophobia and misogyny and ageism and whatever other -isms and philosophies and half-baked ways of thinking let us justify our prejudices and keep at arm’s length the people we don’t want around our tables. When we categorize people who are different from us as ignorant, inferior, morally defective, malicious, and so on, we give ourselves all the leeway we need for our worst impulses and most sinful, heartless actions.
    Look, while we might think of Simon twirling his mustache and cackling evilly, for all we know this story captures a very good man on a bad day. This is why we have to be vigilant, even those of us who consider ourselves religious and godly and call ourselves followers of Jesus. It’s so easy to think we know “what kind of people” this group or that bunch or this race are. And once we “know” that, it’s even easier to dismiss them all and feel justified — even righteous — in doing so.
     We excuse racism by assuming that Blacks are criminals. We excuse xenophobia by assuming that Muslims are all radicalized, or that immigrants are taking “our” jobs or our children’s spots in the best schools. Women are blamed for sexual assault because it’s assumed that they “asked for it” in some way. We know what kind of people these are. We say, with Simon, “The problem is in them, not me."
     What Jesus says to Simon in response is, I think, a simple antidote to the poison of our prejudices. It’s easy to overlook. The story he tells Simon to highlight the woman’s joy and gratitude and Simon’s own stinginess is interesting, but it’s not what I’m thinking of. His connection of the experience of forgiveness with love is helpful, but what I’m thinking of is even simpler.
     Jesus asks him a simple question: “Do you see this woman?”
     That’s why I thought of this story over the retreat weekend. “Do you see her?” That, I think, is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, in confronting the sin of racism. Whatever racist attitudes I may have brought with me to that retreat, it would have been difficult for me to hold onto them in regards to any of the people there with me. At the very least, praying and talking and interacting with them over the weekend would have required me to add a caveat to my racism: “but not them.” 
     Not them. Because I saw them. I saw something about who they were. I heard the pain in their voices as they talked about their experiences wrapped in a skin different from mine. I saw that in every way that mattered they were no different from me, but that through no fault of their own they had lived some very different experiences than the ones I took for granted. And it dawns on me that this is the way forward. But to see takes work.
     A friend told me recently he and his wife are moving to a neighborhood that I would consider “bad.” It’s made me think of why I would label it that way. Do I mean “bad neighborhood” as the code for “Black neighborhood” that I sometimes heard growing up? I don’t think so. Do I mean that it’s economically less well-to-do than where I live? Maybe. What am I assuming about the people who live there? What don’t I see? I bet they’ll be able to tell me before too long because they will see their neighbors. They’ll get to know who they are, and will see that they’re not so different from anyone else, in positive and negative ways.

     As people who have been seen and loved by God through Jesus Christ, may we see with clearer eyes those around us, especially those different from us. May we get to know them so that we can see our similarities more clearly than we see our differences. And may we with joy show them the same love we have received.            

Friday, May 11, 2018

Warnings

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone...
-1 Thessalonians 5:14 (NIV)


We wish we had been warned.
     On a family vacation this past week, we got the chance to swim with some dolphins. Lots of fun, of course. When we were done, though, Laura asked me to look at her back. She thought maybe she had gotten sunburned, but the welts she had looked nothing like sunburn. I noticed a few similar welts on my arm; they itched and burned considerably. Then Josh mentioned that his back was burning a little too; sure enough, the red, angry-looking welts were raising up from his shoulders to the middle of his back. We were pretty puzzled, at first. Had the dolphins passed on some rare cross-species skin disease? Was the Caribbean sun particularly dangerous to pasty-skinned people from the Midwest? 
     We started asking a few questions, and the guys who worked at the dolphin place came back with a quick answer: “Fire coral. We put vinegar on it.” So Laura and Josh spent the rest of the day smelling like salad dressing. (Laura also bought some hydrocortisone cream, which probably worked better than the vinegar.) They recovered quickly. Vacation crisis averted.
     As near as we can guess, the fire coral was growing on the dock we were holding onto while waiting our turn to play with the dolphins. After we had been there for a while, the trainer did mention we shouldn’t brush up against the side of the dock, but by then the damage was probably done. A late warning is really no warning at all. Would have been nice if, while he was telling us exhaustively what the dolphins did and did not like, the trainer had mentioned that there were little sea creatures growing on the dock that hated us and would take advantage of any opportunity to make us miserable. Guess that didn’t cross his mind. I suppose it isn’t very Christian of me to wish for fire coral to grow in his underwear drawer.
     We recognize from time to time that warnings are necessary. We even understand that it can be irresponsible to fail to warn someone. Ever seen a child doing something dangerous right under her parents’ noses? Ever noticed a person about to brush up against wet paint? If you’ve stopped someone from straying into traffic, called a friend to tell her about traffic on her route to work, or pointed out to your neighbor a house repair that needed to be done, then you know what I mean. Sometimes a warning is exactly what’s needed.
     So why, I wonder, do we not consider warnings to be necessary to our walk with Jesus?
     The Bible says we should warn each other. The text above mentions warning those who are “idle and disruptive,” but there are actually quite a few places in Scripture where warnings are encouraged, for all sorts of things. According to the Bible, folks need to be warned about the likely future consequences of their actions. Warnings are needed against sin as a general category, along with specific sins. The expectation for God’s people is that we won’t be afraid to warn each other when we aren’t living in a way that’s worthy of the label. 
     Expectation is the right word, actually. The Old Testament book of Ezekiel says explicitly that we’re responsible for warning “a wicked person.” He probably has in mind especially people who claim to worship God, but whose behavior belies that claim. If we don’t issue a warning, he says, we’re “held accountable” for what happens to them. The human heart can be deceptive, and sin can do such damage that it’s irresponsible of God’s people not to warn one another away from ways of life that can hurt others and undermine our own spiritual lives.
     Maybe this is the problem for us: we don’t feel adequately responsible for one another. “That’s between him and God,” we sometimes say, as though that absolves us from responsibility to say something if we see something (to borrow an idea from the TSA). Of course a person’s behavior is between him and God. But how do we know that ours isn’t the voice God would use to warn someone and get him or her back on the right track? How do we know that warning that we decided not to give wouldn’t be the very thing that might bring someone to his senses?
     Our world has created a disconnect between private faith and public life that didn’t really exist in the early church, and probably was never supposed to exist. Simply put, “my” faith is a community matter, and the community has the responsibility to help each other in our walks with the Lord. A community in which no warning against sin is forthcoming when necessary is not really a community at all.
     Look, don’t get me wrong here: this isn’t an excuse for gossip, judgment, and self-righteousness. I’m not judging you if I warn you that a bus is coming and you should get out of the street. I have no right to take pleasure in your predicament, or point out to others how much better a person I am than you because I didn’t walk out in front of a bus. The holier-than-thou, the self-righteous, the judgmental snobs who look down their noses at everyone else’s sins need to be warned as well. Their attitudes jeopardize the community too. But that possibility is no excuse for winking and laughing at the most obvious, blatant sin in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. 
     Maybe it’s our own sins that discourage us from warning each other. Most of us probably don’t feel very qualified to warn anyone about anything, knowing that if someone were to look hard enough at our own lives — or maybe not very hard at all — they’d find plenty to warn us about. That’s a fair concern, but really it’s exactly that attitude that makes a warning go down a little more easily. Warning a sister or brother is not about having any power over them, or pretending to be better than them. Often, a warning is most credible when it comes from someone who’s upfront about their own failings, and maybe has even been burned by the very thing he or she is warning against. No one person in a community should be doing all of the warning while holding him or herself above receiving a warning, either; that’s a disaster waiting to happen. 
     The kind of warning I’m talking about comes out of a sense of love, not judgment, anger, control, or disdain. It should be expressed in loving words and tones. It should invite repentance, not demand reparation. It should make the person being warned feel valued, not diminished. It should honor their agency and freedom to make their own decisions. It should always be offered in a way that emphasizes God’s grace, compassion, and forgiveness. It should always offer a way forward. It should be accompanied by reassurances of the person’s place in the family of God and the family’s commitment to their support, encouragement, and well-being. 
     Maybe we should look again at what Paul says: “warn…encourage…help…be patient.” Warning should be part of our life together in the community of faith. Love demands it. But encouragement, help, and patience will ensure that those warnings are delivered in the proper context and with the right spirit, and that they accomplish what they’re supposed to accomplish.
     Trust me: sometimes the most loving thing you can say to someone is “Stay away from that!”

     And a warning not given may be something you end up regretting.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Disciples

     …[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. 
-Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)


If you’re a college student looking for a summer internship, and you don’t mind the wind in your hair and the sun on your neck — and sitting on a motorcycle for hours each day — I may know just the thing for you.
     Harley-Davidson is looking for eight college students to spend the summer riding Harleys around the country (and possibly overseas), attending motorcycle events and documenting their travels with photos, videos, and stories on various social media. The program is open to students looking to pursue careers in social media, communications, public relations or marketing. Harley-Davidson will teach the students to ride, give them bikes, and send them out for the summer. And, here’s the thing: you get to keep the motorcycle when you’re done.
     Harley is doing this because they recognize that young adults aren’t gravitating toward motorcycles in the same numbers as previous generations. They believe that the only way to ensure their health as a company going forward is if they grow the next generation of riders themselves. By teaching students, equipping them, and sending them out, they hope to create a whole new market for their products. Their 10-year strategy is to train 2 million new U.S. riders.
     They want to train new riders. They don’t mean by that, primarily, that they want to build large buildings where people interested in motorcycles can come to hear lectures about building, riding, and repairing them. They aren’t interested in creating spaces for people who might be interested in motorcycles to come and eat together or watch movies together. They aren’t going to be content with gathering those with a casual interest in motorcycles for singalong versions of Born to be Wild or Roll Me Away or Wanted Dead or Alive. They want to get people on bikes, get them to adopt biking as a lifestyle, an identity. And they believe that lifestyle will be contagious and create even more new riders. And, incidentally, grow their market.
     The book of Acts tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians” at a town called Antioch, in Syria. The sentence is kind of a throwaway reference that, by the time Acts was written, those who had once been known as disciples of Jesus were now also called Christians.
     In some ways, that is a better name. Disciples isn’t as descriptive: disciples of whom? Christian removes all doubt. The way we mostly use the term “Christian” in our day, though — well, I’m not sure disciple isn’t better.
     What Harley-Davidson is trying to do, by way of illustration, is to create disciples. They’re training people to ride, equipping them, then sending them out to adopt biking as a lifestyle and an identity
     Those 12 guys who followed Jesus around: before they were called apostles, they were disciples. Before they were “sent out,” they were learners. Students. Apprentices. They didn’t sit in a classroom. They didn’t do assigned reading. They did listen to him teach, but then they taught too. He sent them out in his name to heal and serve. He trained them, equipped, them, and sent them out. So when they took the message of Jesus to the world, it was natural to call those who came to believe in him disciples.
     I don’t want to lose the word Christian, but I would like to recover the word disciple.
     Most churches today are likely struggling at some level with declining membership. We explain it in lots of ways: increased immigration of non-Christians, failure of the church’s witness, the secularization of our culture. Could it be, though, that people don’t need another vicarious experience? Could it be that they aren’t looking to be told what following Jesus is like? Could it be that they’re not looking for another cause, another ism? Maybe they’re looking for an identity. A lifestyle to adopt. Something, or someone, to give their life for.
     That’s what Jesus offers: “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We’ve sometimes acted in the church as though that’s something to be hushed up until people are ready to hear it. But maybe we should own it. Maybe discipleship is something people are looking for. Maybe some people, at least, are looking for someone who’s so good, so liberating, so freeing that following him is the easiest decision they’ll ever make. 
     And we offer them an hour on Sundays: a few songs, a sermon, the chance to throw a few bucks in a plate. 
     Could we, church, take a page from Harley-Davidson’s strategy? Could we start to spend more of our money, time, effort, and other resources to train, equip, and send out disciples
     We’ll have to begin by being disciples ourselves. If you’re a church leader, ask yourself if you’re more enamored with corporate leadership models and “vision-casting” than you are of following Jesus. Do you spend more time in meetings or in prayer? Telling people what to do, or showing them how to do it? More time standing before the church teaching, or standing beside other disciples trying to do what Jesus says?
     Let’s get rid of the notion that making disciples is about conversion. Conversion is the beginning. We baptize, sure — but then we teach. We tell people that they should come to Jesus, yes — but then we have to show them what they do once they get there. Baptism is the beginning of being a disciple. Not the end.
     Let’s finally, once and for all, let go of the idea that making disciples is just about the transfer of information. Teaching people to obey what Jesus commands isn’t just about telling them what he says, explaining what he meant, and ending with “go and do likewise,” any more than teaching someone how to ride a motorcycle is about those things. At some point, you have to get them on a bike and show them. Let them give it a try, and maybe even fail a time or two. Be there to cushion the landing and help them learn from those mistakes. Show them a better way to do it. Keep them excited and focused on the lifestyle they’re learning. Don’t leave them alone with frustration, fear, grief, or guilt.
     Living as disciples is something a community of faith does together. It’s relational. We teach each other by serving together. The greatest lessons I’ve learned about ministry were not learned in a church building, or a classroom: they were learned by seeing others live out what Jesus teaches in the world, among the people that he sends us to. When we serve together, share expertise and encouragement with each other, combine the gifts the Spirit gives us, pray together, even mess up together, we learn better what being a disciple is all about.
     May we never forget, finally, that disciples are eventually sent. If we’re faithful in creating disciples, then goodbye will be a word we’ll say and hear often. We aren't creating disciples of ourselves, or of our church or our leaders. We’re creating disciples of Jesus, and sometimes he will send them out of our range of influence and association. But that's as it should be, so they can create more disciples.
     Let’s never be content with the polite form of church life that doesn’t really require all that much of us. Let’s live as disciples, willing to give up everything. Let’s train, equip, and send disciples. Let’s go where discipleship takes us and tell the stories that come about because of it.

     Get your motor running. Head out on the highway.       

Friday, April 20, 2018

Infiltration

     …[E]ven if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins,  the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. 
-1 Peter 3:14-18 (NIV)


Chick-fil-a has infiltrated Manhattan.
     The restaurant chain showed up in the dead of night, unannounced, stealthily building four restaurants, including the largest in their chain, without anyone knowing about it. I mean, I guess it was something like that, since Dan Piepenbring used the word “infiltrated” in a hard-hitting New Yorker exposé, and as far as I know “infiltrate” implies a lot of secrecy. It’s kind of tough to believe that a company could open four stores, even in a town the size of New York City, without someone knowing about it, but I’m sure Mr. Piepenbring must know what he’s talking about.
     Mr. Piepenbring seems to have a lot of problems with Chick-fil-a. That’s his right, of course. He clearly doesn’t care for their famous “spokes-cows” — his issue there is apparently with an ad campaign “in which one farm animal begs us to kill another in its place.” (I hope no one tells him that the meat other restaurants serve doesn’t come from animals who have willingly given their lives, or died of natural causes.) 
     It seems, though, that the cow evangelists (cowvangelists?) aren’t the main problem Mr. Piepenbring has with Chick-fil-a. He doesn’t care for a well-known quote by the late founder of Chick-fil-a, S. Truett Cathy, expressing his belief that America is “inviting God’s judgment” by supporting same-sex marriage. The fact that Cathy, a Southern Baptist, was speaking to a Christian news organization and more or less echoing the position of most Christians for centuries doesn’t seem to throw Mr. Piepenbring off his stride at all.
     That’s kind of the crux of the matter, as I see it. Think of it this way: if Chick-fil-a were outspoken supporters of same-sex marriage, I doubt Mr. Piepenbring would have penned an article blasting them for their outspokenness. Neither, probably, would he excoriate in print a halal restaurant that made no effort to hide its owner’s Islamic beliefs, or a bookstore devoted to Buddhism. The real problem that Mr. Piepenbring has with Chick-fil-a, I think,  is summed up early in the article:
“…[T}he brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism. Its headquarters, in Atlanta, are adorned with Bible verses and a statue of Jesus washing a disciple’s feet. Its stores close on Sundays.”
     What makes Chick-fil-a an infiltrator? What makes them outsiders, as far as Mr. Piepenbring’s New York is concerned? Bible verses. Jesus. In his eyes, they’re a “Christian” company. Or, at least, “Christian Traditionalist.”
     Leaving aside the question of whether or not a corporation can be in any sense “Christian,” Mr. Piepenbring can believe and write what he wants about Chick-fil-a, and it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me one way or the other. (More chicken sandwiches for me!) His words certainly don’t rise to the level of persecution. I even understand where an attitude like his could come from: The church, historically, hasn’t always practiced love as much as we’ve talked about it. Too often we have reflected society’s prejudices instead of our Lord’s love and grace and used the gospel for our own selfish ends. We should, and will, receive our Lord’s judgment for that sort of thing.
     But I would like to point out to Mr. Piepenbring — but more to my sisters and brothers in Christ — that for people who believe, faith is not a buffet where we pick and choose what we’d like to keep and what we’d prefer to discard. Our faith is in Jesus, and he tells us to be light and salt in the world, to make our presence known by doing and saying the things that we learn from him. He tells us that when we do sometimes people will insult us and persecute us because they don’t really care for him, but that even if that happens we have to be faithful. Following him makes us Christian. If it makes us traditionalist as well, I’m OK with that.
     We’re called to follow the Scriptures, too. Admittedly, figuring out what those Scriptures from another time and place have to do with us in our time and place is not always easy, and undoubtedly we’ve made mistakes — and likely will again. Yet, part of our faith tells us that those Scriptures are God’s word. Believing it and obeying it is part of what makes us Christian. If it makes us traditionalist as well, so be it.
     Keeping our faith to ourselves isn’t really an option, either. Sometimes people who don’t believe seem to expect that those of us who do should just not talk about it, should separate our public personas from the faith that means so much to us privately. That isn’t something we can readily do, though. Nor should we have to. Faith that means anything at all — even if it’s faith in science, or reason, or words — will inevitably show itself in the things we say and do, the priorities we set, the values by which we live. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. 
     My suspicion is that believers are going to encounter assumptions like Mr. Piepenbring’s more frequently, that our faith is going to be increasingly pushed to the margins, that the pressure will increase for us to keep it to ourselves. One way to respond to that is to panic, to lash out, to try to push back into the center of power. But Jesus didn’t do that, and millions of his followers through the centuries never had that option. Our faith doesn’t lose its legitimacy if it loses its majority. 
     Another way to respond is to go into stealth mode, to do exactly what Mr. Piepenbring and those who share his opinions of faith think we should do and just be silent. Jesus didn’t do that either, and neither have millions of his followers who those in power have attempted to muzzle before us. 
     May we respond like Him, and like them. May we live without fear, anxiety, or defensiveness. When insulted, slandered, and told to be quiet, may we respond with gentleness and respect, keeping our consciences clear. But may we never hesitate to continue to speak about the hope we have. And may we learn — in this world in which every injustice, every slight, can immediately be exposed — that suffering for doing good can actually be a blessing. May we remember that we learn that from our Lord, who suffered for the sins of others in order to bring us to God. May our sufferings, if they should occur, bring many to God.

     And may we be as earnest and clear about our message as those cowvangelists are.     

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