Friday, December 20, 2019

Impeachment and the Song of Mary

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; 
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 
He has brought down rulers from their thrones 
but has lifted up the humble.  
-Luke 1:51-52 (NIV)

This year, as Christmas closes in, for the third time in American history the House of Representatives has voted to impeach a President. For the third time in our history, a President will stand trial in the Senate.
     Like most Presidents, I suppose, this one has been polarizing. Presidents often inspire both blind love and irrational hatred, and arguably to a degree that far exceeds their actual importance. A presidency is best evaluated, probably, by historians who weren’t alive during its span. Whichever side of the aisle you fall on, though, and even if you don’t much care about politics, when a majority of the House votes to impeach it’s not a good day. It doesn’t seem like something either side should celebrate, even those who think the President is unfit for office. At best, an impeachment is a necessary but unpleasant duty. At worst, it’s a campaign tactic.     
     The fact that all this is happening before Christmas is reminding me, though, of what those of us who celebrate the significance of Christ’s birth actually believe. And maybe we need reminding. Because maybe we’re too quick to believe that it’s a President — or his downfall — that will ultimately ensure safety, security, and prosperity for ourselves and those we love.
     After the angel Gabriel visits Mary, the gospel of Luke attributes a song to her. We usually call it the Magnificat, after the first word in the Latin Vulgate New Testament. In the song, Mary glorifies God and celebrates having been chosen to give birth to Jesus. But she also sings about one other thing, something that I think is especially appropriate this Christmas as the news talks impeachment and maybe we worry about the divided state of our country.
     Mary believes that what God will do through the child she’s bringing into the world is the same brand of “mighty deeds” that he’s always done. And she lists those mighty deeds:
He has scattered those whose pride wells up from the arrogance of their hearts
He has brought down the powerful and lifted up those in humble circumstances
He has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty
Between his mother and his Father, I guess it’s no surprise that Jesus made promises like, “the first will be last, and the last will be first,” or “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” or “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus’ conviction that the kingdom of God would overturn the values of every earthly kingdom was literally part of his DNA. It was baked into him from the womb.
     What we’re saying when we glorify the Lord for the birth of Jesus is that none of the values upon which we human beings typically build kingdoms, and by which we defend them, are the ones that God cares about. More than that, we’re saying that the values of human kingdoms are more typically antithetical to his kingdom. Pride in accomplishment, belief in our own strength, the ideas that might makes right and that the wealthy are more important than the poor — human kingdoms from the dawn of time have existed on those principles. But God is continually acting in history to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the humble, fill the hungry, and empty out and toss away those who flaunt and hoard their wealth.  
     I’m not saying that the impeachment of our current President is God’s work. Neither do I know that it’s not. What I am saying is that those of us who believe in Jesus believe that God will lift up and bring down rulers until Jesus returns. I’m saying that our hope doesn’t depend on a King, or even a President. I’m saying that no kingdom is free from God’s judgment or essential to our well-being — not even the American kingdom. I’m saying that maybe we should be concerned a little less this Christmas about the powerful playing their power games and more about embodying God’s care for those in humble position. I’m saying that the truly important things in the world aren’t happening in Washington, D.C., but in our churches, homes, offices, and neighborhoods — wherever people who believe in Jesus and are energized and led by his Spirit make good on his mom’s promise that he will fill the hungry with good things.
     People turn to Presidents and Senators and Congressmen because they need hope. They need reassurance. They need to know that their voices matter and that they don’t have to be afraid and that, one day, they’ll have what’s missing from their lives. Well, God can and has used — and certainly still is using — those with political power to help people. But in the birth of Christ he told us that political power is just one tool that he uses, and that those he puts into power will also be taken down. God’s people are saved because God is merciful, and for no other reason. 
     And the form God’s mercy ultimately took was that of a baby in an animal shelter in a little town so far away from the important people and places that it was still called The City of David a thousand years after David sat on the throne.        
    The truly important things in the world — the things of ultimate significance and relevance to every person on earth — aren’t happening in Washington, D.C., this Christmas. Just like, on that night Bethlehem, they weren’t happening in Rome or Jerusalem. They were happening in Bethlehem, known only to a young working-class couple, her cousin and (somehow) her baby, a few shepherds, and group of astrologers from the East. Oh, and known to a numberless host of angels, and to a Father who was remembering to be merciful to his people.
     And he still remembers, even today. Long after the impeachment trial is over, long after these events are known only in history books, his mercy will remain. And so will the hope that was born when his mercy and powerful Word was given flesh. When everything about this presidency — and America itself — is a distant memory, Jesus will still be giving birth to that hope in the hearts of men and women. 
     Look for what matters this Christmas. It won’t be what most everyone thinks it is. 

     Look for what matters, and be a part of it.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Christ in Christmas

         The people walking in darkness 
have seen a great light; 
on those living in the land of deep darkness 
a light has dawned….
           For to us a child is born, 
to us a son is given, 
and the government will be on his shoulders. 
And he will be called 
  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
-Isaiah 9:2, 6 (NIV)

A Chattanooga, Tennessee, resident is really shining this Christmas.
     Chattanooga — where, it happens, I grew up — is the home of Miguel Wattson. Miguel lives at the Tennessee Aquarium. He’s an electric eel (Watt-son…get it?), and the Aquarium is making use of his unique talents to light up a Christmas tree near his tank. The AV Production specialist hooked up some sensors to Mr. Wattson’s tank, and his shocks — which he emits when he’s looking for food — cause the lights on the tree to flash on and off with varying degrees of brightness and power speakers that create sound effects. 
     The Aquarium had a tree-lighting ceremony last week that they called — bad pun alert — “Shocking Around the Christmas Tree.”
     One of the things I like about Christmas — and, in fact, the other holidays celebrated this time of year — is that light is an important tradition. Maybe it’s because it gets dark so much earlier this time of year, at least in this hemisphere. It’s nice, though, to drive through my neighborhood and see the lights strung on houses and bushes and trees, lighting up yards that are normally dark by 4:30. 
     Lights are certainly an appropriate symbol for Christmas, more so even than Santa Claus, Christmas trees, reindeer, or stockings hung by the chimney with care. Looking forward through the centuries, Isaiah saw a “great light”coming to illuminate people walking in darkness. He located that light in a child to be born, a child who would lead his people by relieving them from their oppression, taking away their burdens, turning war into peace, and establishing a new world of justice and righteousness.
     I know, most of us string lights without thinking of all that. We put them up thinking that they look pretty, or that they make us feel happy, and that’s fine. Putting them up might even be just one more chore we have to check off our Christmas to-do lists, in between buying gifts and baking cookies for the office Christmas exchange.      
     The problem is that a symbol that no longer connects to its meaning isn’t really a symbol anymore, is it?
     It’s hard to deny that something like that has happened with Christmas. Originally a feast day to mark the birth (or baptism) of Jesus, Christmas through the centuries kind of soaked up other celebrations and traditions. We sometimes decry the commercialization of Christmas in our age, forgetting that the industry built around the conglomeration of holiday traditions and gift-buying that we celebrate today arguably began in the 19th century. The early church wouldn’t have recognized the idealized Dickensian Christmases of 200 years ago any more than they would have recognized the multi-holiday winter celebrations of today. That isn’t a problem; there’s a lot about our world two thousand years later that the early church wouldn’t recognize. It’s just a fact. 
     Some Christians today think that we’re being persecuted if we’re not allowed to celebrate Christmas just like the Cratchetts in A Christmas Carol. But those Westernized Christmases of two hundred years ago were not necessarily any more Christian than our celebrations today.  Some Christians just choose not to be a part of the commercialization of the Holidays, effectively conceding to Santa Claus. More of us just kind of roll along with the current, putting up our trees and buying our gifts like everyone else, and occasionally remembering that, somehow, we need to “keep Christ in Christmas.”
     Which brings me back, somehow, to Miguel Wattson.
     If we want to keep Christ in Christmas, I really don’t think it’s going to be by going back in time to the good old days when every town square had a nativity scene and everyone said “Merry Christmas” to everyone else. Neither, obviously, are we going to keep Christ in Christmas by giving in to the impulse to max out all our credit cards and make Christmas into nothing more than a retail bacchanal. (Some predict Americans will spend $1 trillion on Christmas this year.) 
     To keep Christ in Christmas, look to the Christmas eel of Tennessee. Miguel Wattson is using what the Lord has given him to light his corner of the world this Christmas. If an eel can do it, so can we.
     “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples. Paul called the church “the body of Christ.” The light of Christ is generated in our world — if it’s generated at all — by people who follow him. That light that dawned at his birth on all those people walking in darkness dawns in our world when Christians live like he taught us to live and are busy doing the things he told us to do. Yes, it really is that simple. 
     So as the Holidays begin this year, you might ask yourself what the Lord has given you that you can use to light up the corner of the world that you inhabit. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It won’t necessarily come in the form of an extravagant gift, or a perfectly set table, or a stylishly decorated home. The light of Christ is best seen in the dark places, so perhaps that’s where you should let the light he’s given you shine. Shine it where people are hurting, where they’re full of sorrow and regret and grief and pain. Shine it where people are lonely. Shine it by including in your celebrations those who otherwise would be sitting alone in empty apartments or houses. 
     Keep Christ in Christmas by making a giving list instead of a gift list. By serving instead of being served. Keep Christ in Christmas by forgiving those who have hurt you, and by asking for forgiveness from anyone you may have injured. Keep Christ in Christmas by being an agent of peace on earth, not just a recipient. Light up  your world with acts and words that glorify God, lift up Jesus, and proclaim the gospel.
      You might even create more light than Miguel Wattson. 

     I wouldn’t be shocked.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Gratitude and Harvard Medical School

      Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.       
-Colossians 3:15-16 (NIV)

This time of year everyone tells us that we ought to be thankful. A lot of us have every reason to be. We have family and friends who love us. We have work to do that pays us a living wage and allows us to contribute something to the world. We have roles to play in the lives of our children and grandchildren. We have at least some measure of health. We gather in warm homes around full tables and rightly count our blessings. 
     But there are those, aren’t there, to whom easy platitudes about being thankful might sound more insulting than helpful? There are empty seats at their tables. The food there is pretty sparse. Their families are estranged. They live with chronic health conditions that make it hard to smile and laugh. They lost jobs this year, or their jobs don’t pay the bills. I’m all too aware that there are people in our world, our city, even our church who might hear the words “be thankful” as callous disregard for the real difficulties that characterize their lives, often through no fault of their own. 
     I’m all too aware that if my life wasn’t so good, I might find gratitude much more difficult too. 
     On the Harvard Medical School website, there’s a post about gratitude that makes a pretty bold assertion: “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” It cites several studies indicating that “gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” It was honestly a little surprising to me to find such strong research on an admittedly abstract topic like gratitude among the established medical community.
     One study cited had a group of participants write about things they were grateful for that had occurred that week, a second group write about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and a third write about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After ten weeks, the researchers found that those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
     Another study, from the University of Pennsylvania, had 411 people write about early memories. Researchers tested the effectiveness of various psychological techniques in helping participants cope with those memories. When their assignment was to write and deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who they had never thanked for their kindness, participants immediately exhibited a large increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.  
     Together, the cited studies found associations between acts of gratitude and a reduction in stress hormones, improved sleep quality, fewer feelings of hopelessness, and increased levels of optimism. One even suggested a connection between gratitude and eating better!
     Admittedly, all of this falls short of proving causation. I’m sure the studies have holes in them. But I bet all of us can probably attest to the fact that gratitude can make a huge difference in personal and professional relationships. I know that I can say that being grateful helps me to cope when life isn’t going as I wish it was. But even if there is no real connection between gratitude and psychological, emotional, and physical health, as believers in Jesus we should still be grateful.
     That’s because we aren’t supposed to be grateful because it’s good for us, or makes us more likable, or helps us cope. We’re supposed to be grateful because of the love and faithfulness of God. 
     Paul writes that Christians should give thanks in all circumstances. He didn’t say for all circumstances, of course, but he does think that we should be able to find a reason, whatever is going on around us, to give thanks to God. For believers, gratitude isn’t just a way of looking at the world. It’s a habit in which we choose to regularly and sincerely give thanks to God for his love and faithfulness. 
     Notice, too, that being thankful has to do with our being “in Christ Jesus.” Paul means something similar in Colossians 3, when he connects letting “the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts and letting “the message of Christ dwell among [us] richly” with being thankful. When we’re grateful, we create space for the peace that Christ brings to rule our hearts (instead of the anxieties and fears that run the show when we’re not thankful). When we show gratitude by giving thanks to God and loving each other, that’s when the message of Jesus can live among us most vividly.   
     I think it’s important to note that the studies mentioned in the post emphasized acts of gratitude. That’s for obvious reasons, of course: empirically there’s no other way to measure it than by what study participants do. I think that’s true for you and me as well. Gratitude isn’t just a feeling. It’s made known in the things that we do to show it. And sometimes you can do those things even if you’re not feeling gratitude in the moment.
     When you pray, cultivate the habit of thanking God for what he’s blessed you with and how he’s shown his faithfulness to you. Be specific. Count your blessings, as the song says.
     Make your gratitude known. Tell people you’re thankful for them. Let them see it in the way you treat them. And let people know that you recognize that God has been good to you, and that you’re thankful for it.
     Say “thank you.” At home, at work, at school, when your waiter brings your food: you can’t say it too much.
     I love the way the post on Harvard’s website talks about gratitude:

     Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

     I think that definition overlays nicely with Christian gratitude, especially in emphasizing how gratitude helps us to recognize that what’s good in our lives often comes from outside ourselves.
     That’s why we can always be grateful: our God never fails us. He has shown us in Christ that nothing, not even sin or death, can un-do the good he does for us. As the writer of Hebrews says: “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,  let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe…”     

     It might make you feel better. It might make you more likable. It will certainly please God.     

Friday, November 22, 2019


     Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth  of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.  You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
     Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish,  but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.     
-Mathew 23:23-26 (NIV)

A production company is using our church building as a film location next week. It’s just a short film, not the next Avengers movie, but I’ve been kind of amazed at what’s involved in getting ready for even something of this scale. 
     One of the things that has to be done is the recruiting of extras. The production company has asked our church to serve; anyone who wants to is supposed to show up on the days of filming in “Sunday best” clothing to be part of the background. I hope we can be convincing; they want us to pretend to be a church.
     It occurs to me, though, that pretending to be a church is a lot easier than the real thing. 
     I guess that’s why it’s so tempting. I guess that’s why most of us, myself included, are tempted from time to time to just play the role of a Christian.
     I don’t think Jesus necessarily had anything against actors. He just didn’t want actors in the ranks of those who claimed to be his disciples. In the Gospels, he called some of the religious people who antagonized him hypocrites. Literally, it’s a compound word that describes someone who “interprets underneath,” but it was originally used to describe an actor or stage performer — someone who spoke his lines from underneath a mask. By Jesus’ day it was also used metaphorically of anyone who wore a mask and played a role.  
     So those religious people who antagonized Jesus were hypocrites because they were more interested in being admired by other people for their piety than really pleasing God. They lived their religious lives for others to see. Sometimes they hid violations of God’s most fundamental commands under a veneer of religiosity, ignoring their responsibility to their parents or taking advantage of widows and calling it a religious requirement. They split theological hairs while ignoring matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They converted people to their own brand of religion while leading them away from the kingdom of God.
     They made sure that they looked good for their audience — the people they wanted to impress and even cheat — so that hearts and minds that were dark and sick would remain safely out of view. 
     They wore their masks and played their roles and had maybe even convinced themselves that in so doing they were pleasing God.
     That’s the thing about hypocrisy: It isn’t only those watching who are fooled.
     We use the word hypocrite in our world a little differently. Sometimes folks say they want nothing to do with the church because it’s full of hypocrites. They dismiss us all as actors playing a role because they’ve seen (or maybe just heard about) some of the inconsistency in the church. And, to be honest, “inconsistency” is sometimes putting it mildly. There are, without a doubt, hypocrites among those who claim to follow Jesus. Everything he criticized the pretenders of his day for can be applied to some of us. There are those among us who are more interested in being admired by other people for their piety than in really pleasing God. There are those among us who live their religious lives strictly for others to see: They don’t “waste” one act of service or kindness or piety if there isn’t an audience to applaud them. 
     Some among us hide violations of God’s most basic commands under a veneer of religiosity and split theological hairs while ignoring matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Some convert people to their own brand of religion while leading them away from the kingdom of God. Some perform religion for an audience while dark and sick hearts and minds hide safely behind masks and costumes. There are hypocrites in church.
     But it isn’t hypocrisy to honestly struggle with sin. It isn’t hypocrisy to know that anger, drunkenness, lust, and so on don’t please God, but still lose battles with those very things. Preachers, teachers, ministers, pastors, elders — everyone who has ever tried to instruct people in following Jesus or has tried to model what following him looks like — are very aware that we don’t always successfully practice what we preach. In itself, that isn’t hypocrisy.
     It becomes hypocrisy when we grow content with pretending. It becomes hypocrisy when the costume and mask are our religion, when there’s no tension between the role we’re playing and the ways in which the heart and mind under the mask and costume betray that role. It becomes hypocrisy when the applause of the audience to whom we’re playing becomes all our faith is about. 
     So how do I know if I’m a hypocrite? Well, at first blush I’d say that we know if we’re honest with ourselves. I might also say that being concerned about hypocrisy in your life is a pretty solid sign that you aren’t one, or at least that you’re reforming. One of the marks of a hypocrite is that he or she doesn’t see it in his or herself.
     Do you pray when you’re alone and no one else can see you? Do you give and serve when no one knows? Do you worship when it’s just you and God? Spend time in Scripture when there’s no one to impress? Those are pretty solid signs that your faith is not just for show, that you aren’t just playing the role of someone following Jesus. 
     Those same things also happen to be the prescription for treating hypocrisy. If you’re feeling convicted that you may be pretending to follow Jesus instead of actually following him, then make a decision to spend a certain amount of time in private prayer every day. Read the Bible at least as regularly as you go to the gym. Serve someone in need or give to a good cause for no reason other than it’s the kind of thing the Lord wants us to do. Try to stop playing to the audience of your church, friends, family, or whoever, and make an effort to find reward in simply living like Jesus and trusting in him.  
     If we’ll do those things, our masks will start to slip. That will be OK, though, because underneath we’ll find that our real faces look more like Jesus followers than the characters we’ve been playing.
     I hope that we can act sufficiently like a church next week while that movie’s getting made.

     The rest of the time, I hope that we’re not acting at all.

Friday, November 8, 2019

"The Chorus Is the Gospel"

     If God is for us,  who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son,  but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things…? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
     …I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future,  nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.      
-Romans 8:31-32, 35, 38-39 (NIV)

Back in 2002, when Bruce Springsteen released his post-9/11 record The Rising, he did an interview with John Pareles, the longtime music critic for The New York Times, in his living room in New Jersey. Talking about his music in general, and the album in particular, he said something for the first time that he’s said in many places since. It’s just a short sentence, but it’s stuck with me since I first heard him say it.
     He’s describing the way he writes music, and particularly how he wrote after September 11th. He talks about feeling that he has to write about “real horrors” that are part of peoples’ lives, but also the hope that people find in friendship, family, work, and day-to-day life.  
     And then the line about his songs that’s stuck with me: “The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel.”

     You know people whose verses are full of the blues, don’t you? More than their share. Some of us meet them every week in our food pantry, hearing updates on lives characterized by struggle, health problems, age, addiction, insecurity, and fear. Some are strangers here, immigrants bewildered by the system they have to navigate to enjoy what I take for granted because of the accident of my birth. Some need help with food because of the cost of medications that sustain their lives — lives they wonder if there’s much reason to sustain. 
     Some of us meet folks singing blues-filled verses in the nursing homes they visit each week. They sing and pray and speak words of comfort and hope from Scripture to people whose spirits are imprisoned in failing bodies, who have no one to care for them, whose only visit each week are from those of us willing to sacrifice  a Sunday afternoon to listen to them, smile at them, laugh with them.
     We hear colleagues at work or school singing the blues of alienated families, lost marriages, financial setbacks, health issues, and grief. Closer to home, our hearts break hearing our kids sing the blues, our parents. We hear the blues from our neighbors, or from high school or college friends on our social media feeds. They dominate the headlines, sung in unfamiliar languages by people we don’t know. But we know the blues when we hear them. 
     That’s because we know the blues ourselves. Job, the ultimate bluesman, once pointed out, “Mortals, born of woman, are of few days  and full of trouble.” He may have been depressed when he came up with that, and there is much more to a life than the trouble he bemoans. But he wasn’t wrong, was he? That’s a song we can identify with. Even when we have it good, when life is going well, we know the blues are lurking. Maybe not in this verse, but quite possibly in the next one. Or the one after that.
     When the verses of your life are the blues, there are a few ways you can go. One is to whistle a happy tune anyway, plastering on a fake smile and singing Don’t Worry, Be Happy, or Keep on the Sunny Side while everything around you is Hurt. Sometimes that’s our impulse in the church, that we shouldn’t feel pain or disappointment or anger or fear, that somehow to acknowledge the darkness is to turn away from the light. That’s a mistake. The light shines in the darkness, John’s Gospel says. 
     The darkness is real, but it doesn’t snuff out the light. That’s the other mistake: to believe that the blues are all there is. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. The darkness is real, but the light’s still there. The verses of our life are the blues, sometimes at the very least. We have loss and grief and pain and disappointment, and it’s easy to sing about that in a loop. But don’t forget that there's a chorus, and our chorus is the gospel.

     While I was writing this, I got a call that my great-aunt, Mozelle Payne, had died. She was my maternal grandmother’s last living sister, 98 years old. I always called her Aunt Mozie, and I guess I was a teenager before it dawned on me that she was actually my great-aunt. Aunt Mozie had a long life, but it wasn’t always easy. Its verses had their share of the blues about them. Her children had lifelong health problems. She had her own struggles. But I never saw Mozie that she didn’t smile and hug me. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the hardships and grief in her life, but she faced all of it with hope, courage, and joy. 
     She knew the chorus, and that made the difference.
     It will make the difference for you and me, too. Seems like our world is about getting rid of the blues. If we elect the right party, “cancel” the right people, call out enough injustice, then we won’t have to sing the blues anymore. Or is it eating right, exercising, and taking the right vitamins or essential oils or antioxidants? Or maybe we just need to be more tolerant. Or watch our children more closely. Or quit watching them so closely. Or arm ourselves. Or get rid of all the guns. 
     No. The chorus is the gospel. It’s the counterpoint to the blues in the verses of our lives. It draws our eyes and hearts upward to the hope that God has given us in Jesus. The blues are part of our lives, but the answer is neither to ignore them nor to wallow in them. The answer is to, periodically and regularly, sing the chorus.
     That’s the chorus there in Romans 8 — one version of it, anyway. There are many variations on it in the Bible and in the life of the church, but that one that Paul sang is pretty compelling. It reminds us not to sing the blues without singing the gospel. Hardship, trouble, grief, shame, violence, disease, death — all of that is real, but it can’t separate us from Christ’s love, from God’s love as experienced through Jesus. The blues are real, but so is God’s love.

      So may we sing the blues when we need to, and may we care enough about each other to sing them together. But may we then sing the chorus of the gospel even louder, and may the tears of our joy mingle with and finally wash away the tears of our sorrow.        

Friday, October 25, 2019

Don't Be Afraid

     I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
     Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”     
-Luke 12:4-7 (NIV)

McKamey Manor sits in a little community in Middle Tennessee called Summertown (Population: 866). It almost sounds like some genteel southern estate. But it is, by all accounts, anything but.
     You could say McKamey Manor is a haunted house, like the ones popular all over the country around Halloween, but that would be a little like saying World War II was a disagreement. They do one “production” (that’s what they call it) per week at McKamey. To attend, you have to be 18, have a sports physical from a doctor that attests to your physical and mental well-being, and sign a 40-page(!) waiver. You also have to go through a face-to-face screening before you can even be considered. There is a waiting list.
      To get some idea of the kind of experience you’d have at McKamey Manor, neighbors last year called police when they saw a woman being dragged, tied up and screaming, from a van into the basement of the house. Police found her there, tied up and shivering.
     Yes. She had signed up for it.
     The website warns that the “actors” (that's what they call them) in the house will come in contact with the “guests” (that’s what they call them). I think that means guests may be grabbed and even struck. The website goes on to warn that “guests” might be submerged in water, and that the experience will be “rough, intense, and very frightening.” Guests are encouraged to pick out a safe word that will end the experience immediately. 
     Oh, and it can last up to 10 hours.
     Not to worry, though, because the creator of McKamey Manor, Russ McKamey, says that in sixteen years no one has ever made it all the way through the experience. I think he means that everyone who’s been a “guest” at the Manor has quit before getting to the end of the experience. I think that's what he means.
     So why in the world would anyone do this? To prove their bravery? Test themselves? See how tough they are? I’m sure there’s some of that, but you’ve probably guessed the obvious reason: a considerable amount of money. 
     Russ McKamey offers $20,000 to anyone who can make it through without employing the safe word, running away, cursing, or hitting one of the actors.
     Fear is a funny thing, isn’t it? When we know it (mostly) doesn’t have lasting effects, we enjoy it. Some of us, at least, like the kind of heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping fright we get from people dressed up in scary costumes at an elaborate haunted house. We’ll pay for that. Others like scary movies, or thrilling roller coasters, or extreme sports. 
     But the real frights, the things that really scare us: well, that kind of fear we don’t need. It’s one thing to be frightened by a pretend vampire jumping out of a dark corner at you. It’s another thing entirely to face, say, the loss of someone you love. Or your own mortality.
     At their heart, aren’t most of our fears connected to pain: the pain of illness or injury, the pain of grief, the pain of having something you value taken away, the pain of being laughed at? We fear the things that we perceive can make us suffer, in one way or another. And that’s normal, of course. Healthy, even. The problem with fear, though, is that it can drastically warp our perspective. Fear can easily become so overpowering, so strong, that everything we do becomes about avoiding the things we’re afraid of.      
     At first glance, what Jesus says about not being afraid doesn’t seem awfully comforting. “Afraid of a little persecution?” he asks his disciples. “Afraid of physical pain? Of death? Let me suggest to you guys that who you should really be afraid of isn’t so much the person who can kill you as it is God, who can throw you into hell after you’re dead.” I can imagine a lot of silence after that, a lot of shuffling feet and cleared throats and chewed fingernails. “Uuuummm, o-kay. Thanks, Jesus. That, uhhh….helps.”
     Something tells me that you don’t like to think of God in those terms, either. Hell just isn’t an idea we spend much time considering. Most of the time we avoid talking about it entirely in our church, and quite possibly that’s true in your church, too. Maybe there are some good reasons for that – hell has at times in church history undoubtedly been overused as a motivational tool. 
     Still, Jesus is right. Fear can make you do crazy things, and fearing the wrong things can make you do crazy things for all the wrong reasons. Fear can lead you into addiction to whatever you think will ease your fear. It can lead to abuse and even violence. It can lead you to make some decisions out of self-interest that should be made self-sacrificially. By reminding us to be afraid of the God who can throw us into hell, he helps us to realign our priorities. There are worse things than difficulty, pain, loss -- worse things even than death. The worst that can happen to you, Jesus says, is not your worst fears coming true. The worst that can happen is that you might sidestep all your worst fears but find yourself estranged from God and recipient to his terrible justice.
     But as quick as he says that, Jesus reminds us that the God he’s talking about doesn’t make throwing people into hell his primary agenda. God takes care of the dime-a-dozen sparrows – surely Jesus said that with a smile. “Not one of them is forgotten by God.” God knows you intimately, right down to the number of hairs on your head. “Don’t be afraid.” he said. “You’re worth more than many sparrows.
     So which is it, Jesus? Do we fear God as the One who can throw us into hell, or trust him as the one who knows how many hairs there are on our heads? The only answer, I think, is the one that’s inevitable: yes. Yes, God has the authority to throw us into hell. And yes, he chooses instead to come to us through Jesus, to remember us with love and grace and forgiveness. 
     Most of what we fear is the equivalent of McKamey Manor; it won’t do any real damage. Especially not when there’s a God in heaven who keeps track of birds and hairs on human heads. Especially when Jesus Christ came into the world and faced his own fears. 
     As Halloween comes to a close, I hope you’ll think about what you’re afraid of. What’s going to happen at work? How a medical test will go? That your children will be hurt? That you’ll hurt, or die? Instead of living scared, live in faith and trust and reverence. Fear God, as you’d fear anything or anyone that’s completely beyond you and above you. And love him as your Creator who knows every hair on your head and who loves you enough to carry a cross for you. 

     Next to that, everything that’s ever frightened you is just another costumed pretender. 

Friday, October 18, 2019

Secular Work

    Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.    
-Colossians 4:23-24 (NIV)

I haven’t heard it so much in recent years, but growing up I sometimes heard someone use the expression “secular work.” Usually, it was used in apposition to “church work” or “full-time ministry” or some other term that denoted what you might refer to as clergy — ministers or preachers, in our terminology. Like, when a person left ministry for some other job, someone might say he had “gone back to secular work.” 
     It’s funny, my mom was a “secretary” at the church for a while. I never thought about it then, but I wonder if they would have called what she did “ministry” or “secular work”. My son is currently doing an internship with an adoption and family counseling agency that often partners with churches — ministry, or secular work? 
     Actually, I think there was something wrong with the terminology, and with the assumptions about what ministry is. 
     Like I said, I haven’t heard that phrase, “secular work,” in a long time. Maybe it’s kind of out of fashion, and that’s for the best. But I still think we sometimes fail to reckon with the idea that the work we do Monday-Friday might be every bit as much ministry as the work a minister, pastor, or other clergyperson does. Maybe it’s that term “secular” that’s the problem. We often use it in contrast with “sacred;” something that’s secular, then, is not connected with religion — and usually we mean organized religion — in any way.  
     The word comes from a Latin word, saeculum, that means “age” or “generation.” So something that’s secular is of the world, of this age. That’s true, of course, for most of the work we do. It has to do with the world. It’s of this age, as opposed to the age to come. That doesn’t mean it has no value, of course. Doctors work hard to heal people of this age, in this world. Financial advisors help people to plan their retirements in this world. Mechanics repair cars, plumbers fix leaks, bricklayers build walls — all “this age” activities. When a lawyer represents a client, or an advertiser writes a campaign, or a social worker gets a child out of a dangerous situation, or a teacher gives a lecture, their minds are all on “this world” problems, “this age” goals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the work those people are doing should be thought of as having nothing to do with religion. 
     So, I’m a minister. That means that I don’t do “secular work,” right? Except, really, I do. Most weeks I help unload a truck full of food that comes from our food bank. Most Sundays I help give that food to people in our community who are food insecure. Yes, we’d love for all those people who get food from us to have a spiritual awakening and become followers of Jesus, but the fact is that receiving that food and then giving it out is a secular activity. It’s a “this world” solution that we offer to a “this world” problem. 
     Most weeks I make and answer phone calls, visit folks who are sick, talk to people struggling with problems, meet with repair people, and so on. You might be surprised at how non-spiritual — secular — a lot of a minister’s job looks. (That used to bug me sometimes, truthfully.)
     While you’re thinking about that, think about how most churches do a lot of stuff that looks, at least at first glance, pretty secular. We put together shoe boxes full of essentials for homeless people. We visit with nursing home residents. We provide candy and games for trick-or-treating kids and their parents at Halloween. We eat together. Our buildings are used by community groups. We collect coats and school supplies for kids. Most churches use a lot of time and resources to do things that don’t seem to have a ton of spiritual significance.  
     Of course, in being secular we’re just following Jesus’ example. 
     Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was breaking into this world. He demonstrated its coming, too, by healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, proclaiming good news to the poor. He didn’t tell a blind man just to hang in there until he died and went to heaven, where he’d be able to see. He didn’t reassure five thousand hungry people that their bellies would always feel full in heaven. He dealt with “this world” problems just as surely as a doctor or counselor or banker does. But he did those things in the Spirit of God. He embodied the idea that God could be secular — that he could break into a broken world and make it better as a prelude to the day when he redeems it entirely. 
     See, I think Jesus would have a problem with our idea that secular and sacred are opposite poles, that they are to be kept distinct and that they have nothing to do with each other. As I hope I’ve pointed out, our experience tells us the same thing. “This age” and “the age to come” have a connection, and that connection is Jesus. 
     That’s why Paul can tell slaves — slaves, mind you — to work at whatever they’re told to do with all their hearts. Their work might be secular, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sacred too. It’s work done for the Lord, and it’s work that the Lord will use for his glory. And they will be rewarded for it.
     Don’t forget that human beings were made to work. God put us in the world to cultivate and take care of it. It’s in that way that we represent God in the world — that we’re made in his image. It’s easy to miss, but Genesis says that God “finished his work” of creation by putting people in the world to carry on that work. God is a secular God, and he works in this world and this age through his people. 
     Too often we think of our work as a way to get a check so that we can enjoy the rest of our lives. We make money at work so we can afford to give our families what they need, travel, enjoy some luxuries, and, when it’s time — stop working. Oh, we want to give some of what we make to the church so it can be used for spiritual purposes, sure. But I think we might see our jobs as a necessary evil so that we can have the life we really want. 
     Yet maybe it’s in working at “whatever we do” with all our hearts, as though serving the Lord, that we find the life God has actually given us. He would continue his work in the world through our work. When a human being creates something, it’s something that can be used for the work of God in the world. When a doctor heals someone, he or she is doing God’s work. When a mom or dad cares for a child, or for an aging parent, God is doing his work of caring through them. When a cook prepares food, or a waiter serves it, they are doing God’s work of service in the world.
     I’m so thankful when people give of their time and energy to do work at church, or on behalf of the church. But please don’t think for a moment that the “secular work” you do is any less the work of God in our world. Worry less about what work you do, and where, and for how much money, and think and pray about how you do it. Do it with all your heart. Do it to please the Lord, not because someone is looking over your shoulder. Work with joy and gratitude, knowing that God is at work in what you’re doing — whether you can see how or not.   

     God has always done secular work. He’s glad that you’re doing it too.