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Friday, June 22, 2018

Such As These

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
-Mark 10:13-16 (NIV)


A crying two-year-old in a pink jacket and shoes has become a Helen of Troy for the 21st century: the face that launched a thousand ships. And sunk a few, too.
    It’s sad that, in our world, being good and generous to children has become politicized, but that’s exactly what happened in the case of little Yanela, whose photo was snapped last week at a border crossing in McAllen, Texas. While US Customs and Border Patrol Agents question her mother and pat her down, Yanela looks on and wails. The fear and exhaustion is evident on her face.
    The debate over President Trump’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy has run at a fast clip the last couple of weeks. The President and his supporters claim previous administrations are responsible for the problem. Critics point out that, while previous administrations enacted procedures to deal with unaccompanied minors at the border, it’s this administration that has made a point of separating children from parents. (not an insignificant point) It’s a deterrent, say supporters. Criminals have their children taken from them every day. But comparing people trying to cross the border to give themselves and their children a chance at a better life with drug dealers, murderers, and violent offenders is not exactly apples to apples, is it?
    President Trump, to his credit — or do you get credit for finally deciding to do what most people seem to think is the right thing? — has signed an executive order backing off his “zero tolerance” policy. Little Yanela — who may or may not have actually been separated from her mother — may have had something to do with that.
    In all of this, though, the world has been treated to the spectacle of the United States, ostensibly a beacon of liberty and justice in the world, intentionally and admittedly using children as leverage in a war against a flow of undesirables from other countries that no one even seems to know for sure is coming.
    And we’re treated to Christians (mostly white), quoting Scripture to try to support this policy.
    I hope it isn’t the majority of us. I don’t think it is. Most believers I know seem opposed to the policy. But it’s enough of us that it gives the church a black eye and undermines the gospel.
    Yes, I said that support of the “zero tolerance” policy — even if it’s backhanded, “Well, someone has to do something” support — undermines the gospel. I don’t care who you voted for. Let me say that again. I don’t care who you voted for. This isn’t partisan. If you think that the way to solve our immigration problem (a debatable problem, at best) is by putting children at risk, then you’re not paying attention to Jesus.
    This is not hard at all. There are things about being a Christian that are tough, and stuff that’s kind of uncertain, but this is the equivalent of “Write your name here” on the Christianity 101 self-assessment. So some of us aren’t as familiar with the Bible as we’d like to be. Fair enough. Just type “little children” into the search box of the Bible app on your phone, or look up “children” in a concordance if you’re more old-school. It won’t be but a minute until you’re reading something like this: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” It’s in three out of four of the Gospels, for goodness’ sake. Really, I’m serious here — this should not be difficult at all.
    Let me ask this: How likely do you think a parent is to come to believe in Jesus when people who wear his name say they think it’s OK if the government separates them from their children? How willing to hear the gospel do you think they’ll be if that gospel doesn’t offer grace to their family? How inclined to believe in the love of God do think they’re likely to be if his people think that separating children from parents is an acceptable strategy for keeping them from living in “our” neighborhoods, taking “our” jobs, or getting seats in “our” kids’ schools?
    According to Jesus, the test of the gospel you preach and live and believe is whether or not it welcomes “such as these.” By keeping the kids away from Jesus, his disciples belied the good news of the kingdom of God. In effect, he asked them, “How can you claim to believe in the kingdom of God and turn away some of those who would enter it most readily and who are most able to receive it?”  
    As a general rule, when the Bible says that a thing made Jesus “indignant,” we would do well to avoid that thing.
    A church that doesn’t know how to say that children should be cared for, and that anything that would put them in harm’s way is wrong, is in danger of losing sight of the gospel we claim to preach. A church that is willing to trade kingdom work for any nationalistic agenda, however well-intentioned it may be, is serving the wrong Master. Believers whose consciences aren’t pricked by the predicament of the weakest among us need a refresher course on compassion from the One who took children in his arms and blessed them and said that his Father’s kingdom was especially for them.
    Right now, in our city, there are children of immigrants who are in need of a blessing by the church. Even those who are with their parents may be in need of food, medical care, assistance with homework, and so forth. Some have parents who have been detained or deported; will the church be their surrogate family for as long as it takes?
    “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,” said the Lord. May we love the little ones among us and near us with his love, so that they will have the chance to come to him. May we take the time and make the effort to show the children that are so important to him that they matter to us.
    If not, how can we call ourselves his followers?

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.

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