Friday, December 21, 2018

Of Candy Canes and Non-Resistance

     You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  
-Matthew 5:38-41 (NIV)

Bring back the candy canes.
     You might have seen the news that the principal of a school in Nebraska banned candy canes a couple of weeks ago. Actually, candy canes were just one item on a memo the principal compiled of holiday symbols that should be avoided by teachers, staff, and parents at the school. Other items on the list included Santa- or Christmas-themed clipart on worksheets, Christmas trees in classrooms, Elves on Shelves, Christmas carols or music, reindeer, Christmas movies or videos (or characters from those movies and videos), Christmas tree ornaments, and even the colors red and green. You can see that candy canes were by no means singled out, but probably gained the most attention because the principal explained the rationale for the ban in this way:
“Historically, the shape is a “J” for Jesus. The red is for the blood of Christ, and the white is a symbol of his resurrection.” 
     Obviously, this principal was trying to navigate the tricky path of serving a diverse community of students, families, and teachers, some of whom might not celebrate Christmas. “We have varied beliefs in our school,” she wrote, “and it [is] our job to be inclusive.” 
     It seems like every year around Christmas time there’s at least one story like this that makes national news and ignites a debate about whether or not our country’s “Christian heritage” (whatever you make of that) is being threatened. I don’t know a thing about this principal or her motives, and I won’t presume to accuse her of anything other than attempting to be sensitive to the children she’s responsible for educating and their families. 
     The school district her school is a part of almost immediately issued a statement that said the principal’s memo does not reflect district policy and suggested that candy canes are off the “naughty” list. They also placed the principal on leave: I really hope that she doesn’t lose her job over what seems to be nothing more sinister than excess enthusiasm. Candy canes do not represent Jesus, though I’m sure that at some point during the 200 years that candy canes have been in verifiable existence someone — probably several someones — has made the connections. But, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a candy cane is just a candy cane.
     I’m really not bothered by the principal’s actions. They were a bit misguided, but they seem to have come from good intentions.
     I’m a bit more bothered by the actions of Christians (apparently) who made her memo the latest morsel for those who want to see themselves as the victims of some kind of war against Christianity to salivate over.
     Let me be very clear here: Jesus has told those who want to follow him what we should do if (and when) the world at large turns against Christianity. If (and when) the world around us wants to take away our freedom to worship without being harassed, if (and when) it wants to take away our livelihood, if (and when) it wants to take away our rights, Jesus is unambiguous about what we ought to do then. It’s not hard to understand. It doesn’t require deep reflection on the text or fluency in biblical languages. The problem is not understanding; the problem is that what he tells us to do runs so counter to the ways we’re used to thinking that it seems wrong
     “Don’t resist,” he says. 
     “What!? But it’s un-American to let someone walk all over you that way!” Maybe. But it’s very Christian. “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” we argue — but Jesus literally says that’s exactly what should happen. “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is in the Bible, yes, but it isn’t the way Jesus says we should deal with those who want to take from us. Want to follow Jesus? When someone strikes you, don’t strike back. On the contrary, treat them with the kind of gentleness that would allow them to strike you again if they chose. Want to follow Jesus? Give more than the one who takes from you expects. If someone takes your candy canes, give them your Christmas tree too.  
     I know, Jesus is exaggerating — a bit. Honestly, though, not by much. His point still stands: “Don’t resist.” It may be heroic to fight back, but it isn’t Jesus. Jesus defended the defenseless, absolutely. He stood up for the powerless and lent his strength to the weak. But when he was accused, misquoted, attacked, beaten…. 
He was oppressed  and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth; 
he was led like a lamb  to the slaughter, 
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
     What bothers me way more than the actions of one Nebraska school principal is that at least some believers attached Jesus’ name to their decision to go to war over those actions. What bothers me is that some might even be celebrating her suspension as some sort of victory in a “culture war” that Jesus would tell us is not worth fighting at all. What bothers me is that we still don’t understand why non-resistance is integral to the Gospel.
     Jesus tells us not to resist when people act to threaten our faith because we’ve already won. We don’t have to fight against human beings, none of whom are really our enemies anyway. The victory over evil, injustice, sin, and death was won when Jesus chose not to resist. In him, we see our own path to victory.
     We can’t resist because the gospel of God’s love in Jesus can’t be proclaimed by force, or election, or coercion, or legal decision. The only way we have a chance of credibly preaching the good news is by showing our world how it works: by taking seriously his command to love even those who oppose us.  
     No one will ever take away your right to love your enemies. No one will ever be able to force you to stop being generous to those who take from you. No one will ever be able to oppose you for giving more or going farther than you have to. So don’t you see? No one will ever be able to keep you from practicing your faith. For a Christian, practicing your faith is following the example of Jesus. The only way to stop that kind of faith is to not live up to his example. 
     This time of year, we’re reminded that his story starts with God giving.
     May we receive what he’s given us with joy, gratitude, and worship, and may we then engage our broken, divided world with hearts filled to overflowing, with words and actions infused with kindness, grace, mercy, and caring.

      Even if someone wants to take away our candy canes.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Follow the Shepherds

     In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
     And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 
     When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 
-Luke 2:8-15 (NRSV)

      It could have been King Herod who got the news from the angels. "Messiah," the Anointed One, was a loaded term in his day. It implied royal power, kingly authority. If this child born in Bethlehem was going to be king, it meant that Herod's descendants would not be. You'd think, wouldn't you, that he would have been notified? But while shepherds are visited by angels, while the birth of the Savior is announced to simple herdsmen and their confused sheep, Herod sleeps in his comfortable bed. Unaware of the storm about to break.
      It might have been the high priest to whom the angels went. If anyone should welcome the Messiah with open arms, it should be the man who was in charge of the people's spiritual well-being. He who offered the sacrifices on behalf of worshippers should have recognized the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world. But while the high priest dozed, the birth that would make the entire system of sacrifice obsolete was announced to the victims of those sacrifices and their keepers.
     You might have expected the scribes and Pharisees to be notified. They were the faithful, the scrupulous, zealous for the Law and the teachings of their forefathers. They knew how far you could travel on a Sabbath, what constituted work and what did not, and the proper way to prepare food. Sure people who knew the Scriptures so well would have recognized the significance of the birth of a descendant of David in his city. They would have known the prophets' longing for the Messiah and joined in the angel chorus enthusiastically. But while the upright Bible scholars rested their pious heads and dreamed their righteous dreams, God sent angels to announce the birth of his Son to men who weren't trusted enough to be accepted as witnesses in court.
     Or you might think that God would have sent his angelic ambassadors to Governor Quirinius, the Roman authority in the territory. Or even to Rome, to Caesar himself. You might think that God would get in the face of the Emperor, that the angels would sing a song of the conquest of God's kingdom over the human race's mightiest empire. But while heads of state rested from the cares of their offices, the birth of a new King was announced only to common laborers caring for someone else's livestock as far from the corridors of power as they could be.
     Curious of God to announce the birth of his Son in this way. Curious that the One whom the church has believed for centuries to be God in flesh should come into the world in such an innocuous way. Wonder what the shepherds thought when the angels told them that the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord was wrapped in common cloth and lying in an animal's feed trough? Wonder what they thought when they arrived at the stable to find no one but a tired peasant couple trying to get a cranky newborn to nurse? 
     "Good news of great joy for all the people," the angel had told them. In a rich-get-richer-poor-get-poorer world, good news for everyone is hard to come by. But by announcing the birth of Jesus to simple people like these shepherds, God showed his commitment to creating joy for everyone. By going to the shepherds, God showed that average, everyday working stiffs matter to him. By believing and going to search for the One God told them had come, the shepherds showed their trust. Herod, we know, felt threatened and tried to exterminate the upstart king. The high priest, we know, eventually condemned him to death. The scribes and Pharisees were offended by him. A Roman governor passed off responsibility for him. And in his lifetime he was never important enough by human standards to attract Caesar's attention. All the important people of Jesus' time missed his coming, for one reason or another. But the shepherds were a different story. They heard and saw the angels, believed, and went to see.
     As Christmas rolls around again, should we perhaps stop and ask ourselves if we too believe and go to see? It's ironic that in the "Holiday Season" that Americans celebrate Jesus is almost nowhere to be found. He makes an appearance in our Christmas carols, sometimes adorns cards, maybe is the centerpiece of nativity scenes, and yet very often it feels as if he's little more than a decoration -- one that gets put away with all the others when the season ends. But according to what the angel said to those shepherds, his coming is not just a holiday to be celebrated once a year. To those who put their trust in him, he brings "good news of great joy." He is exhibit A that God looks upon the human race with favor. 
     Only too many of us miss his coming. We go about our busy lives, raise our kids, do our jobs, even meet our religious obligations, and never see what those shepherds saw. We never see God Himself sleeping in a manger or nursing at the breast of a human mother. We never notice that the Creator became creature, that he traded heaven for earth: for a stable, a manger, a cross. We don't notice because few of us take the time to listen.
     Hear that? A chorus of angels sings in heaven still, because one song won't contain the joy of the gospel. But this good news is not to be just heard. It is to be seen. Experienced. Lived. So follow the footprints of a scraggly bunch of shepherds. Go with them to the manger to see the Savior of the world, the Son of God who cares for shepherds and mechanics and admins and managers and accountants and students and wives and mothers and fathers and preachers just like me and you. Kneel beside them in the dirt and straw and dung to see the Savior who came into this world and took our sufferings on himself to save us. All the "important" stuff you have to do will wait. For now, let the song of the angels lead you to the Savior. To good news of great joy for all the people. Including you. 
     Including you.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Price of Christmas

     The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. 
     Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. 
-Matthew 13:44-46)

You could probably have guessed that Christmas was going to cost you more this year than last. You just didn’t know how much more. PNC Wealth Management can help you with that.
     The financial organization has released, for the 35th year in a row, their Christmas Price Index. The index is a tongue-in-cheek (but accurate) look at the escalating price of Christmas, as seen through the classic Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
     According to PNC, this year it will cost you $170,609.46 to surprise your true love with the items in the song if you repeat the gifts each day as the song suggests (a total of 364 gifts). That’s up only one half of a percentage point from last year. On a budget? Then just buy each item in the song once for the low, low price of $25,969.43 – an increase of 1.7%. 
     Prefer to shop online? Shipping is going to add a considerable amount. Ever try to ship seven swans a-swimming? (I’m pretty sure they aren't available on Amazon Prime.)
     Higher food costs pushed the cost of six geese a-laying (laying eggs, as opposed to geese a-laying in the freezer of your grocery store) to $390, better than an 8% jump over last year - by far the largest increase in the index. The going rate for musicians has apparently increased as well: it’ll cost you $2,804.40 to hire eleven pipers piping and $3,038.10 for drummers drumming. (No word on whether you get a break if the pipers drum and the drummers pipe.)
     Strangely, while lords a-leaping will cost you $1,000 each (up $300 from last year), ladies dancing are a bargain at $7,552.89 for nine ($839.21 each for the sixth year in a row). Someone should take note of inequities in the salaries of men and women in the entertainment industry.  
     There is good news in the index: the prices of a partridge (just over $20), two turtle doves ($375), three French hens ($60.50 each), and calling birds (about $150 a piece) remained flat. Seven swans, a-swimming or not, are the most expensive items on the list ($13,125 for the set), but they haven’t gone up in the last couple of years.
     But for the biggest bargain in the index, look right in the middle of the song. For $750, you can get your true love a fist full of gold rings. That’s down over 9% from last year.
     I’m imagining one of those MasterCard commercials: “Five gold rings: $750. Seven swans a-swimming: $$13,125. A Christmas she’ll never forget: priceless.”
     Priceless. Lest we forget, that word describes what Christmas is really about better than it describes anything else. In all our rushing around, internet browsing, and catalog-perusing (“Does Harry and David even carry partridges or pear trees?”) for the perfect gifts, we can easily overlook the reason for the gifts we give. What we should be recalling as we make final preparations for another Christmas is that we give Christmas gifts because God gave a gift first. Our gifts seem to get more and more expensive every year, as our credit-card bills will attest in January. But maybe “pricey” and “priceless” are more different than the words themselves suggest. And maybe, if you’re like me, before you spend another dime on the one kind of gift, you need to take a minute or two to reflect on the other.
     A treasure hidden in a field. A pearl of great value. When Jesus wanted to talk about what it’s like to live in God’s world and pursue his agenda, he described it as a treasure so priceless that when you get a glimpse of it, you wouldn’t hesitate to give up everything you have to possess it. There isn’t much you could say that about, probably – something so valuable to you that you’d consider it a bargain to live on the street if only you could have that one thing. But that’s the very definition of “priceless,” isn’t it: so beyond our standard methods of measuring value that we can’t even place a price tag that would make sense on it? Something is really only priceless when it has value far beyond what human beings can attribute to it.
     Christmas, of course, is about the event and ultimately the person who was the focal point for this new reality God created for us. When Jesus talked about God’s kingdom as a pearl or a hidden treasure, he was also talking about himself as the one through whom that kingdom has come, and through whom it will come in its culmination. Let’s not forget that the gifts we give to one another should call our attention to the Gift he gives to us in Jesus. Let’s not forget that the gifts we receive from one another should remind us to receive graciously the Gift God gave to us graciously.
     Jesus comes to us first, even before we know enough to look for him or recognize him. Like the hidden treasure in the field, we uncover the gift unexpectedly, often while we’re all about other things. It has nothing to do with our goodness, or ingenuity, or perseverance. Jesus is God’s gift to give, and he offers it to us on his own initiative, out of his own goodness and grace, and in his own way and time. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” How and why the treasure got into the field, we can’t say. How and why we were blessed to find it is not necessarily for us to know. “Saving is all his idea, and all his work…It’s God’s gift from start to finish!” (Ephesians 2:8, The Message) It’s left for us only to celebrate.
     And then again, the gift God gives us in Christ is like that valuable pearl; he fulfills our wildest dreams more completely than we could ever hope. By his grace, we find one day that he is everything we’re looking for, and more than we could ever expect. By his grace, we recognize that the greatest catastrophe to ever befall us would be to lose what we’ve been given, to have it in our grasp and let it slip away. By his grace, we come to know that all of the other trinkets we’ve spent our lives pursuing together don’t come close to matching the value of God’s single perfect gift.
     So that’s why the only response that makes sense is the response of the fortunate people in the parables: you let everything else go. The Lord who put aside equality with God and took on the limits and pains of humanity and our fallen world asks that we live his life after him. He asks that we rise above our preoccupation with self, loosen our grip on the false treasures that leave us unable to receive his gift, and be alert for the ways in which God will offer the gift of Christ to others through our lives. He asks us to follow him in giving to others: our time, our resources, our energy, and our lives
     There’s no Christmas Price Index to help us put a number on the gift God gave to us. There’s no way to value it. It costs much more than we could ever repay. It’s offered in grace, love, and compassion. But when you receive it – well, there’s no room for anything else, and no reason to want anything more. 
     As we give this Christmas, let’s think about how we have received God’s gift of Jesus Christ.

     There’s a limit on your credit cards. But God’s gift to you? Priceless. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Old Testament

       Each of us should please our neighbors for their good,  to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself  but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. 
-Romans 15:3-4 (NIV)

“The Old Testament.”
     It just sounds bad, doesn’t it? I mean, in most any other context calling something old is a way of differentiating it from what’s new, and therefore preferable. For instance:
Why do I have to drive the OLD car?
Are you going to wear that OLD shirt again?
Isn’t it time to replace that OLD carpet?
My phone is getting OLD and slow.
My husband is getting OLD and slow.
     The Old Testament has a branding problem. Some people call it The Jewish Scriptures, but that doesn’t really help to make it sound more relevant, especially for non-Jews. Some people prefer The First Testament, but I’m not sure that helps a lot (and it sounds a little pretentious). Maybe you could call it The Story of Israel?  The Account of God’s People? I don’t know — neither of those seems to help.
     It’s more than just a branding problem, though. The Old Testament can be an obstacle to belief. It’s long and confusing, and there’s lots of war and killing and mayhem and sex, so it can seem a little like trying to base a faith system on Game of Thrones. What’s the difference between an Amorite and an Ammonite? Somebody point out En Gedi or Goshen on a map. 
     Most of what gives people doubts about the Bible is in the Old Testament. The age of the earth, the origin of human beings, the structure of the universe: the Old Testament makes claims about all of these things that seem incompatible with science. 
     And then there are the commands. Sure, nine of the Big Ten make sense. But what does building a parapet around my roof have to do with living a good life? Why shouldn’t I boil a young goat in its mother’s milk — oh, and why would I? Should I really not shave my sideburns? Is it really a big problem to wear a nice cotton/poly blend? And, if I can discard those commands, which others might also be disposable?
     You get what I’m saying, right? It’s no wonder that at least one high-profile preacher thinks we should “unhitch” Christianity from the Old Testament. Few Christians are willing to say stuff like that, but most of us read the Old Testament selectively, at best. The parts that are really confusing, or seem insensitive, or defy our best efforts to explain — well, we sort of leave those alone, don’t we?
     Good thing we have a New Testament. 
     Here’s the thing: the New Testament writers had another name for the Old Testament. They just called it The Scriptures, and, for them, it was pretty authoritative. All but two or three New Testament books quote from or allude to the Old Testament. While the New Testament writers made it clear that Christianity wasn’t contained by strict adherence to the old ways, they also made it clear that it wasn’t completely disconnected, either.
     When Paul wants to encourage the Christians in Rome to bear with each other instead of insisting on their own way, he pointed them to Jesus’ example. But to nail it down, he quoted from Psalm 69: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” He used the quote — from a different time and place, about a different person — to remind his readers that when they followed Christ in serving others over themselves, he would identify with them and take on himself whatever abuse they might receive.  
     Right after that, Paul tells his readers what he hopes that quotation accomplished: he wants the ancient examples of faithful people enduring suffering for God, and the encouragement that they received in their faithfulness, to give faithful people of his day hope that their trust in the same God would not go unrewarded. “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us,” he assures them. The first Christians didn’t think that the Old Testament was a puzzle that needed to be unraveled or irrelevant history to be ignored. They didn’t see those books as dead documents, but as the living Word of God to be received as a source of hope that the same God who was active and faithful to his people back in those days centuries in the past could be trusted in their own day and time. 
     That’s not to say that they believed everything in it could or should be obeyed to the letter in their day. Jesus himself was willing to walk back some of the commands of the Old Testament*, and the early church made the decision to welcome non-Jews who had faith in Jesus whether they obeyed any of the Old Testament commands or not. Salvation was definitively determined to rest in God’s work through Jesus, and not on obedience to the Old Testament.
     Strikingly, though, they didn’t see that as license to throw out the Old Testament — even as their own Scriptures were coming into existence. Even as their new identity in Christ replaced their old identities and loyalties, those Scriptures took on added meaning. They began to see in those Scriptures foreshadowing and anticipation of God’s final work of salvation, and began to see how Jesus’ work and death and resurrection were the last acts in the working out of God’s purposes in his world and in their lives.
     To be sure, working out what the Old Testament has to do with us today is, if anything, more complicated now than it was then. The story of the fall of Jericho doesn’t teach us that if we walk around the walls of a city -- provided we can find a city with walls to walk around — that God will knock those walls down. The story of David and Goliath doesn’t teach us to fling stones at our enemies, and Amos’ judgment against Damascus shouldn’t dictate policy in the Middle East. But seen as sources of endurance and encouragement, they can and should lead us to hope in the faithfulness of our God to his promises and to his people.   
     We don’t need to adopt the worldview of the Old Testament to see the hope it offers to God’s people and adopt it as our own. We don’t have to see every command as meant for us, every reference as a secret code to be deciphered. We read it, in short, to see God. We echo its psalms in our hearts as we lift our own voices to God. We see its commands not as a moral code to be obeyed to the letter, but as a revelation of God’s character. In its stories we look for, not obscure history, but the account of events in which God’s people back then found out just who this unchanging God is.
     You’ll find, I think, that reading it like that will never get old.

*He said, for instance, that the kosher food laws no longer applied, and that the location in which his followers worshipped was not important — both of which were central to Jewish identity in the Old Testament. He refused to allow divorce (except for sexual immorality), even though the Old Testament did. In the Sermon on the Mount, he “fulfills” the Law of Moses by redefining it as an expression of the perfect love of God.   

Friday, November 16, 2018

Words Made Flesh

      In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…. 
     The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 
-John 1:1-4, 14 (NIV)

Unless you’ve been trying to avoid it, I imagine you’ve heard about the group of refugees known as the “Migrant Caravan.” The group of several thousand moving north from Honduras and other Central American countries toward, they hope, asylum in the U.S. has been a media talking point and political football for several weeks now. 
     Chances are, someone has told you what you ought to think about it. Someone at work, at school, on social media, or maybe a stranger at an airport — it seems like everyone has an opinion about this group. Some call them an “invasion.” Some hysterically claim, with little to no evidence, that they’ve been infiltrated by terrorists. Others, with maybe more sober views, recognize that many or most of them are people fleeing with their families from violence and danger in their homelands, hoping to make a new life in America. Maybe you’re having a hard time knowing what to believe.
     If so, I suggest you believe Gavin Rogers.
     Gavin is a San Antonio pastor who wasn’t exactly sure what to believe either. But he didn’t settle for Googling it, or for trying to make something coherent out of the competing views of the talking heads on TV. Neither did he wrap himself in the security and certainty of his own prejudices. Instead, he went to see for himself.
     He joined the migrant caravan.
     I mean, for four days Gavin traveled with them, ate with them, slept with them as they walked, hitchhiked, and rode trucks toward Tijuana, Mexico. Gavin has posted extensively on Facebook during his travels, so I won’t say too much about that here. Suffice to say that you should check out his page if you want some information about these refugees. He shares many stories of the people he’s met and lived with, including the teenager who held on to him to keep him from falling out of a truck, and the strangers who rushed up to him as they walked to return his wallet, which he’d unknowingly dropped. 
     Gavin says that many of the migrants he met have family members in the United States. Many want to get legal help in applying for refugee status. (I hope that, instead of more soldiers, our government will send some immigration lawyers!) He says some of the travelers he’s met have taken offers from Mexico, but that many are wary of seeking asylum there because they doubt that the country’s unstable political situation and threats of violence will be an improvement over the lives they’ve walked away from.
     Refugees who were willing to share their stories with Gavin told him of having their children kidnapped and other relatives killed in Central America. Their journey, he says, is “not about a better life in American terms, it’s just about living.” They want their kids to be educated. They want to “be free from violence and rape and murder.”
     Is everyone in the “caravan” a saint? No. Are there people there who might take advantage of the situation? Almost assuredly. I don’t know exactly what the U.S. should do, nor does Gavin. But what you take away from looking at his photos and reading his posts is what we should already know: that from a distance you can’t know people. That arguing about policy seems inappropriate after you put faces on the faceless horde that some in our country would like to use to scare us. That when you walk with people, learn their names, and hear their stories, things come into much clearer focus. 
     In other words, don’t knock the inner city until you’ve spent a few nights there. Don’t demean those on welfare until you’ve tried to put dinner on the table for minimum wage (or spent some time with someone who has). Don’t waste a moment trying to solve other peoples’ problems from a distance; if you really care about them, you’ll have to do it close up. And if you won’t get close, then all you’ve got is an uninformed opinion. 
     Gavin Rogers reminded me of this. But I didn’t learn it from him, originally. 
     When God acted to save us, he didn’t do it with words. Not really. Oh, I mean, I know we have Scripture, and I believe its words are from God. I know people have preached the gospel through the centuries using words. I’m writing words right now. I believe God has given us words, and I know that he’s used the words of his servants to do his work in the world. The last thing I want to do is devalue words.
     But that’s actually sort of my point: as useful and as powerful as words can be, the only One who can literally create worlds with his word didn’t act to save us with words. At least, not spoken or written ones.
     John goes to great lengths to describe God’s word. “If you know the Genesis creation story,” he says, “then you know how powerful God’s word is.” God’s word can’t be separated from him. It’s always been, just as God has always been, been there from the beginning. It’s the creative force behind everything that exists, even human life. When God speaks, what he speaks just is. 
     Even so, God didn’t save us with words. He didn’t speak our salvation into existence from a distance.
     Instead, John says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
     Everyone in our world has words to share. Words to speak, write, post. Words to shout and growl through clenched teeth. Words used as projectiles to hurl at one another, words like knives in the back, whispered about one another. Words that carry lies, empty promises, fake news. We use words to proclaim our wisdom, our power, our superiority. We employ them to get other people to do what we want them to, or what we think they should, or what we believe is best. 
     There is no shortage of words about the “migrant caravan,” or whatever other issues you might think of. No shortage of words in our world, about anything.
     There is, however, a shortage of words made flesh. That’s what Gavin’s example reminds us of.
     May those of us, especially, who praise God for his word made flesh in Jesus, not hesitate to make our dwelling with those we would save. Let us be known for fostering children, feeding those who are hungry around our tables, visiting those in prison, spending time with people forgotten in nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals. Let us be known more for walking with the refugees of this world’s sin and death than giving our opinions about them. May we do it for no other reason than that our Savior did.
     And may we do it knowing that through our words made flesh, they might very well come to know the Word made flesh. They might see his glory.
     Next time we feel like speaking about something, let’s be sure we put flesh on our words first.

     Who can you walk with today?         

Friday, November 2, 2018

Jesus Is Political

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
     Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled  in your hearing.” 
-Luke 4:16-21 (NIV)

“Jesus isn’t political.”
     I’ve heard that declaration all my life. It’s come from my own mouth often enough. In a Christian fellowship that doesn’t particularly encourage organized political engagement, it’s a phrase that allows us to keep our politics personal.
     There are good things about the “Jesus isn’t political” stance.
     For one thing, it might keep one political ideology from being conflated with the gospel. Not that any church or any Christian would do that intentionally, but sometimes it’s best if we guard ourselves against our unintentional mistakes, and it’s hard to deny that large sections of the church in our world have been co-opted and compromised by extreme adherence to a party line. (Sadly, much like the state churches in some formerly Communist countries, which were only legal if they had a member of the Party on the church board. Only, in our case, we’ve chosen this for ourselves.)
     Based on what we think “politics” means, “Jesus isn’t political” might even be correct. Jesus was neither Republican or Democrat, nor Libertarian, nor Green. You can’t sum him up — or dismiss him — by calling him Conservative or Liberal. (It’s interesting how political persuasions across the Conservative/Liberal spectrum all find something about Jesus to love — and something about him to ignore!) You have to do some twisting and editing of Jesus to get him to fit completely onto any party platform.
     There were political parties in Jesus’ day, and he didn’t fit well into any of those, either. The Pharisees thought he was too liberal. The Sadducees thought he went too far. The Zealots and Essenes wouldn’t have thought he went far enough. (Yes, those were political parties as well.)
     Sometimes, though, what we mean when we say “Jesus isn’t political” is more like this: “I don’t want to think about what my faith has to do with my politics.”
     Or, “I’m too invested in my political philosophy to seriously consider what Jesus might have to say.”
     Or, “I prefer huddling with those who are like me politically over engaging with people whose experience  might force me to rethink my positions.”
     Or, perhaps, even something like this: “My political positions mean more to me than does following Jesus.”
         We sometimes argue that the church should be about preaching the Gospel. Hear, hear. The gospel — the “good news” — that Jesus came preaching was regime change: God’s kingdom is near, and it will supplant the schemes by which the rulers of this world attain and hold power. It’s only because we’ve twisted “kingdom of God” into something other than the obvious meaning of those words that we can think he wasn’t being political. He told his hearers they should “believe the good news,” not in a “Huh, isn’t that interesting” sort of way, but by repenting of all the stuff in our lives that doesn’t line up with God’s rule of the world.
     Look at the text Jesus used to declare his mission in the world, from the book of Isaiah. He found in that text a light that illumined his own priorities: to, by the Spirit of God, bring good news to the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for those who are oppressed. He came to announce “the year of the Lord’s favor” to those who need a year like that most. He wasn’t shy about it all: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
     In any other context, we’d say Jesus was being political. He’s talking about dealing with poverty, imprisonment, health care, and human rights. But because we hear those words in church we sometimes say Jesus was talking about the spiritually poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed. We gather to thank him that he saved us when we were spiritually in that condition — and somehow manage to think that he’s a “no comment” on political questions that most impact those who are literally poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed! (Even though he did, literally, spend his life ministering to exactly those people!) 
     I’m not talking about whether the Republicans or Democrats have the right answers as to how we should deal with these problems: I’m saying that Jesus cares about them and expects his people to do something. I’m not making a statement about how much government should be involved: if the church was doing its job, maybe the government’s role wouldn’t be such a big issue one way or the other. 
     Jesus is political. The things he taught and did should push those of us who follow him out into the world to teach and do the same things. Following him will, inevitably, have political ramifications. It should make us consider our votes carefully, and for the right reasons. It should make us care about those who haven’t managed to get the kinds of breaks in this world that we have. It should make us inclined to take the side of the powerless over the powerful, and it should make us instantly suspicious when anyone demands loyalty to a country or a system or a party or a platform over human beings created in God’s image.
     We haven’t always done well with everything on that list.
     Jesus is political. If you still doubt it, then look at how his life ended. He wasn’t crucified because most people felt his message was comfortable and non-threatening. “We have no king but Caesar,” they cried out as they demanded his blood. They didn’t say that because they missed the point. They said that because they got the point. Better, perhaps, than those of us who wear his name sometimes do. 
     So, let us do what he says: let us “repent and believe the good news.” Not the good news that Jesus died to save me — I mean, that’s good for me, but what about everyone else? No, the gospel Jesus preached is the gospel that God’s kingdom is kicking down the door and renewing and restoring all the damage that Satan has done to the world and the people he created and loves so much. It’s the gospel that, through his death and resurrection, we are set free to live new lives as instruments of God’s righteousness in our world. That, dear reader, is most definitely political; it was in Jesus’ day, and it will be in our day too, for as long as those on top in our world would enrich themselves at the expense of those on the bottom.
     The church’s answer to the political division in our world shouldn’t be that Jesus isn’t political; it should be that he is, and it should be to invite others to come to know him.

     It should be to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, with our words and with our lives.     

Friday, October 19, 2018

Jesus and Women: Feeling Like An Impostor

     May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
     Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 
-Romans 15:5-6 (NIV)

     I'd I was reading an article at Sojourners Blog this week. Julie Clawson wrote about women and “Impostor Syndrome” – the secret fear that women have that they’re not as intelligent, capable, and professional than their peers. Clawson suggests anecdotally that this fear is even subconscious – she relates a dream in which she’s talking with Michelle Obama and is worried that she sounds like “a complete idiot” to the First Lady.
     I found myself pretty interested in what Clawson calls “Impostor Syndrome” – especially when she suggested that the church actually encourages this feeling in women. Actually, she didn’t suggest it as much as stated it explicitly as fact. “Impostor syndrome,” she writes, “causes women to dismiss praise, add disclaimers to their statements, and constantly feel less intelligent or mature than their peers. In short, to mirror the qualities and virtues of a nice and humble Christian girl.”
     A couple of things struck me as I read. The first was that, if we’ve somehow managed to equate the biblical virtue of humility with a lack of confidence and self-esteem, we’ve missed the boat. Humility, as I understand it, is about seeking God and others above our own interests. It isn’t feeling inadequate; it’s knowing you’re more than adequate, giving praise to God, and not taking inordinate pride in it. Humility is recognizing that God is God and I’m not, and that because I’m not I’m of no more – or less – intrinsic worth than anyone else. 
     But a humble surgeon doesn’t, because he’s humble, think that an accountant is as qualified to remove a gallbladder as he is.
     The second thing to strike me was to consider the ways the church has contributed to this thinking among women. Among churches that distinguish between “ordained” and “non-ordained,” and that generally don’t include women as potentially among the ordained – or that ordain men and women for different functions – has there perhaps been more value placed on the ordained? Have women been taught in that way – unintentionally, surely, but no less genuinely – that they are somehow second-class citizens in God’s kingdom? That they should sit and be quiet and mind the children and kitchen while those who are more capable than they are lead the church?
     Then it struck me that in churches that don’t explicitly “ordain” – like mine – this could be even more of a problem. 
     In churches like mine, the people who seem important, the decision-makers, are the people who are in front of the church on Sunday mornings. The people who are on the “ministry staff.” The people who are elders and deacons and ministry leaders. In churches like mine, these people are, almost without exception, male. It’s no wonder that women might struggle with feelings of inferiority when they have no personal stake in what is a very important part of their lives. And for the women who know they have more to offer and say so, churches like mine might sometimes tell them, in effect, that good Christian girls know to sit quietly and demurely while the men make the important decisions.
     Not that we intend to do that. Oh, sometimes we might, but I think by and large it’s an unintended consequence of the way we read the Bible and the way our churches are built to resist change. 
     But the fact that it might be unintended doesn’t make it any less destructive.
     I know that churches that get their identity from Scripture have real struggles with some of the biblical passages that are regarded as limiting the roles available to women. But earlier generations of believers came to decisions about slavery, for instance, that at the time were regarded by some as running counter to biblical teaching. Those believers came to their conclusions because the gospel taught them that all people were equally loved and valued by God. Their convictions motivated them to stand against slavery, and in time the church vindicated their stand.
     In any case, any application of Scripture that causes the church to give any of their members the impression that they’re second-class citizens is wrong. Period. It may be well-intentioned, but it’s just wrong.
     So churches like mine need to take a long look at whether we’re reading the Bible well, and behaving toward one another in ways that take the gospel seriously. To take texts that may limit what women are asked to do in public worship and use them to shut them out of decision-making and direction-setting, or make it difficult for them to find ways to use the gifts God has given them, is mistaken.
     We need to listen to each other. I’m glad Clawson wrote about this, because it made me realize that sometimes in the church we don’t hear each other very well. We focus on defending territory and accurately interpreting Scripture, without noting the irony that when we devalue people in any way we violate some of the most central and consistent truths of Scripture. I’m glad to have had the chance to hear what Clawson said.
     But I also want to say something that might surprise her. I have Impostor Syndrome too. 
     There are times when I’m not sure I’m capable or intelligent or talented enough to carry the responsibilities I have. I’ve sat through conversations where I’ve tried to say as little as possible so the other person wouldn’t know what a moron I felt like I was. I’ve felt like my critics are more accurate than my supporters, and I’ve sometimes chosen not to try something because I didn’t think I was up to it. (I'm already worrying about how people will respond to what I've written here.)
     If I had a conversation with Michelle Obama, Julie – even in a dream – I would probably feel idiotic too.
     I don’t mean to take anything away from Julie, there, or to suggest that her concerns aren’t valid. I’m saying I understand them. I understand them first-hand, and that should help me be aware that others in my church might be feeling that way too. It should help us to realize that we're not as different as we might think we are. It should help us find ways together to glorify God “with one mind and one voice” – and yet make sure that all our voices can be heard. It should help us learn to accept one another as we learn more and more about the totality of acceptance that Jesus has shown us. And God will be praised. 

     And maybe no one among us will have to feel like an impostor anymore.