Friday, July 20, 2018

Mad Jacks and Miles Standishes

     Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 
     The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
     Now you are the body of Christ,  and each one of you is a part of it.
-1 Corinthians 12:15-27 (NIV)

I always suspected I had greatness in my bloodline. Now I know for sure. Or, like, for possibly.
     I’ve been playing around recently with a little genealogy research online. I’ve been mostly concentrating on the Odum side of the family so far, and I’ve made a discovery. It’s nothing a real genealogist would sign off on, I’m sure, but the links are there.
    A guy they called “Mad Jack” Oldham is probably my 11th great-grandfather.
     You know how some families trace their heritage back to the Mayflower, right? Mad Jack — John, to his mother (I imagine) — came to Plymouth Colony only three years later, on board a ship called the Anne, and apparently didn’t like those Mayflower guys. The way they ran Plymouth didn’t much agree with him. According to William Bradford, the leader of the colony, Mad Jack stirred up some dissension. He and some other troublemakers wrote some letters back to England disparaging the Pilgrims (some of which Bradford intercepted), and refused to stand watch when it was his turn. Things apparently came to a head when he pulled a knife on Miles Standish — yep, that Miles Standish — and called him a “beggarly rascal.” I guess that was a bridge too far, because shortly thereafter he was banished from Plymouth Colony.
     He did better after that at the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and as a trader as far as Virginia and England. He was overseer of shot and powder at Massachusetts Bay (but not knives!), and was even appointed to the General Court of Massachusetts for a couple of years.
     But then he started a war. I mean, it wasn’t totally his fault, but on a trading voyage to Block Island, Rhode Island, he got himself killed by a group of tribesmen, probably Narragansett. They claimed another tribe, the Pequot, were the culprits, which led to hostilities later called The Pequot War between the Pequot and several colonies.
     I think my son said it well: “Wow, I’ll try my best to live up his example.”
     There are Mad Jacks in every family, aren’t there — family members that sometimes don’t want to consider themselves part of the family, and that we’re tempted to banish? (If you can’t think of any in yours, well, you’re probably it…) What’s true in our own biological families is true of the church as well. Look at history, if you doubt that; it’s full of believers who chafed under the rule of the churches of their time, and full of those who tried to show them the door — and sometimes succeeded. Mad Jacks fill the rolls of church history, pulling metaphorical knives and sometimes driving some of the church’s most complete reforms. But those who opposed them often served the family of God as well, sometimes moderating those reforms and helping the church keep their hold on the ancient truths of the faith. Today we consider the Mad Jacks and the Miles Standishes of church history as part of the same family — even if they didn’t see it that way during their lives.
     But you don’t need to look to ancient history to see this. Your church’s own history probably reflects the push and pull between the Mad Jacks and the Miles Standishes. Maybe your church came to exist because a group of Mad Jacks united in their opposition to an existing church decided to strike out on their own. Maybe your church has been marked by the departure of some Mad Jacks. God can and will use even some of those circumstances for good. 
     But maybe it’s time again for the church to reconsider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians about the church as the body of Christ. He speaks, first, to the Mad Jacks — to those who don’t see how they fit into the local church. They don’t feel appreciated, they don’t feel like their gifts are being used, they just don’t think they belong. They’re thinking about heading for the exits. 
     If that’s you at the moment, then Paul says to you that your feelings of not belonging don’t mean that you stop belonging. It isn’t always easy to be part of a family. It isn’t always comfortable. There isn’t always agreement. We’re not supposed to all be alike — Paul says God has made the church that way. It may hurt when we find it hard to discover our place in the church, but it doesn’t mean we walk away. It doesn’t mean we’re not an essential part of it.
     Paul also speaks to those in the church who adopt a “my way or the highway” philosophy, the Standishes who would banish the Mad Jacks. That usually happens because the ones doing the banishing have a high need for control and a low tolerance for diversity. They want everyone to look, talk, act, pray, sing, and believe the same. They doubt that the church needs such diversity, and they want to cull those who at a particular moment are weaker, less honorable, less “presentable”.
     But Paul says we need those “weaker” parts in the church. We need to give special honor to the less honorable and special care to the “unpresentable” parts. The sick, the broken, the divorced, the doctrinally “incorrect”, the powerless, the poor, the maladjusted, the exhausted, the aged, the uneducated — those who in a lot of circles might be considered an embarrassment — should be treated by the church as particularly important. Again, this is because God has put the church together just as he wants us, and he intends that the suffering of the weakest, most dishonorable, and most unpresentable should be the suffering of all of us, and they should be included in the celebration of all the others.
     “You are the body of Christ,” he says, “and each of you is a part of it.” We don’t always feel that’s true. We don’t always even want it to be true. But true it is.

     May we create in our churches places for the Mad Jacks and the Miles Standishes among us.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Holy Family, Incarcerated

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 
     So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled  what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  
-Matthew 2:13-15 (NIV)

A church in Indianapolis has pulled its statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph out of storage at an unusual time of year.
     While a lot of churches have the holy family set out on their lawns in a nativity scene during the Christmas season, they don’t usually come out in the middle of summer. But Christ Church Cathedral decided to haul theirs out to make a statement
     Instead of the usual stable, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus have been placed inside a chain-link fence on the church’s lawn. The intent, as you’ve probably guessed, is to mirror the situation that many immigrant families on our borders — especially our southern border — find themselves in. While families are no longer being separated at the border, they are being detained together indefinitely according to the administration’s new policy.
     “Holy Scripture is clear about how we are to treat people trying to find safety for their families — we are to show mercy and welcome them,” said Steve Carlsen, dean and rector at the Cathedral. He went on to say that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph “call us to stand with all families seeking safety and a future for their children,” and that "We must not be divided by race, language or culture, but reach out to care for our neighbors — because every family is sacred.” 
     Mr. Carlsen is, of course, referring to the fact that the Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Joseph taking his wife and newborn son to Egypt in order to escape King Herod’s murderous intentions. In the gospel, the story functions more as a meditation on the strange twists the fulfillment of prophecy can take. In our world, though, it takes on a little different meaning. Jesus began his life as an immigrant asylum-seeker. He was born into a world that didn't have a place for him and his family, into a world that would just as soon exterminate them. His family left their livelihood, family, and everything they knew behind to give their new son a chance at life. To the degree that any family in our world has to make that decision, we’ve failed as a race. To the degree that we don’t show compassion and mercy to those who are forced into that decision, we’ve failed as a church. 
     How does it change our thinking, those of us whose families have been here 3 or 4 or, like mine, many more generations, to see Jesus and his family as immigrants struggling to survive? Were there folks in Egypt saying that to “make Egypt great again” they needed to stop the flood of potentially dangerous immigrants coming to their borders? Were there those who would have turned this little family from Nazareth around and sent them back into the waiting arms of Herod? Almost certainly there were. If that makes some of us who are believers rethink our position on those who come to our shores looking for a life, so be it. "They were a homeless family with nowhere to stay," Mr. Carlson said in an interview. "I think our faith tells us where we need to be.” 
     One of the things I appreciate about the statement Christ Church is making is that it offers us an alternative way of reading Scripture. I think that’s pretty important, especially when administration officials are quoting Romans 13:1-5 as a way of telling believers that we should just be quiet and meekly submit to what the government tells us is right. (As if Paul would have ever stood for that!) The Bible can be and has been used to justify some of the most horrific abuses in human history — often by the very governments carrying out those abuses. It takes some discretion, some critical thinking, to read the Bible well. Christ Church takes the story of the flight to Egypt and uses it to make us think about what the “old, old story” of Jesus tells us about this very contemporary issue.
     I know a brother in Christ who thinks that the church, in its zeal for interpreting and explaining individual Bible texts, sometimes misses the big picture. He thinks we read Scripture in a way that misses the forest for the trees. I think he might be onto something, even if it’s not what he thinks it is.
     My take on it is that it isn’t so much a “miss the forest for the trees” problem. It’s that we ignore a large percentage of the trees — unfamiliar ones, of a species we can’t identify at first glance — and focus on a small grove here and there that are familiar territory. The Bible is a vast wilderness, and we tend to leave a lot of it unexplored and untouched. You know those parts in your Bible where the pages are still stuck together? Yeah, they’re Scripture too. And if the Bible is as important as we claim it is, then leaving large chunks of it untouched leaves our faith impoverished.
     If the sight of the Holy Family caged up on a church lawn makes your blood boil a little, you might ask yourself what it is that’s bothering you about it. The Bible shouldn’t always confirm what we already believe. Sometimes it should upset our beliefs. Sometimes it ought to wreak a little havoc in our value systems, overturn some tables, bust some holes in old wineskins. Maybe, if this little display bothers us, it’s because it’s allowed a previously-unexplored bit of Scripture to burrow its way to right where it should be: under our skin.
     I can already hear some believers saying that this is too political, that a church should concentrate on preaching the gospel and not take sides in a political debate. I get that, I do. In a lot of ways, I sympathize with it completely. Some of the spiritual ancestors I most admire would have said the same thing. They probably wouldn’t have taken a position on the subject, or had any confidence that one party was motivated by anything other than political gain.
     But here’s where they would have parted company with some I know who decry politics in the church: they would have gone out and served immigrant families in the name of Jesus. They would have gotten to know them, loved them, cared for them, and helped meet their needs because they would have known that the gospel correctly understood pushes us and nags at us to love the most vulnerable among us. They’d make their churches places of welcome. For some of us, worries about the church being “political” are a smokescreen that let us use our faith as a blindfold to keep us from having to see the suffering of real people. 
    It strikes me that it seems I can’t decide whether this is a post about immigration or reading the Bible. Turns out it’s both. That’s as it should be, since our opinions about the one should be formed by the other. 

     If someone needs to break out a nativity scene a few months early to remind us, so be it.