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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.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Forgiveness

“…[H]er many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”    
-Luke 7:47 (NIV)


The Amber Guyger trial wrapped up in Dallas this week. Guyger, a Dallas police officer at the time, was convicted of murder in the shooting death of Botham Jean, a 28-year-old accountant. On the night she shot and killed Jean, Guyger had just finished her shift and was returning home. She went to the wrong apartment, and when she opened the door and saw a man she didn’t know, she drew her gun and fired. While Jean lay on the floor dying, she called 911 and talked to the dispatcher about how she was afraid she would lose her job.
     Given the choices of convicting her for murder or manslaughter, or finding her not guilty, the jury returned a verdict of murder. After a day of evidence and victim impact statements, Guyger was sentenced to 10 years.
     I’ve followed this trial a little more closely than I might have followed other trials in a city pretty far from where I live. Botham was a part of the fellowship of churches that I’ve been a part of all my life. He graduated from the same University I did. I guess that makes me feel like I knew him. But I didn’t. I only know him as a murder victim. But of course Botham Jean was more than just a victim in his murder. Ask his family, they’ll tell you. 
     And Amber Guyger is more than just the villain of the story. Ask Botham’s brother, Brandt. He’ll tell you. 
     After Guyger’s sentencing, 18-year-old Brandt addressed the court. Actually, he addressed Amber Guyger:
If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I love you just like anyone else. I am not going to say I hope you die just like my brother did… I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do — and the best would be to give your life to Christ.  
     After his statement, Brandt Jean shocked everyone in the courtroom by asking the judge if he could go and hug Guyger. The judge allowed it, and while the judge wiped at her eyes and audible sobs were heard in the courtroom, Brandt came down from the witness stand and hugged Guyger. They whispered to each other for a minute or so, three times beginning to break the embrace. Each time it seemed that Guyger pulled him back. It’s hard to let go of that kind of love and grace, I guess.
     No one could possibly ask Botham’s family to forgive his killer. No one would dare say they should. How Brandt got there is hard to say, but I think it’s safe to speculate that his faith had something to do with it. He resisted the understandable urge to try to make some sort of sense of his brother’s murder by demonizing his killer. He remembered that, despite the terrible thing she did, Amber Guyger is loved by God. That was enough, it seems, to remind him to love her too.
    But the really interesting thing is the way Brandt’s gesture spread. Dallas County DA John Creuzot said of Brandt’s statement, “I think that’s an amazing act of healing and forgiveness that is rare in today’s society. That young man is 18 and he is a leader… He should guide us in leading.” The judge, Tammy Kemp, also hugged Guyger and gave her a Bible, saying, “You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.” 
     Not everyone is happy about the forgiveness shown in that courtroom. Jemar Tisby points out that Brandt’s display of forgiveness is “cheapened” if white Christians use it to say that racial injustices can be overcome if victims just forgive, ignoring or minimizing the work of repentance required of those who have been victimizers. I encourage you to read and reflect on his post. “Instant absolution minimizes the magnitude of injustice. It distracts attention from the systemic change needed to prevent such tragedies from occurring,” Tisby writes. We shouldn’t let Brandt Jean’s extraordinary forgiveness distract us from the work that needs to be done. Botham’s mother, Allison Jean, said Guyger’s sentence would give her time to reflect and “change her life.” The willingness of Brandt to forgive her should never be used to free us as a nation from the obligation of reflecting and changing, too.  
     Maybe it’s important to point out that Judge Kemp, like Botham and Brandt, is black. Surely we can honor their choice to offer forgiveness and love. But none of us has the right to demand that they do so, or that others share in offering that forgiveness, to her or to anyone who has treated them unjustly.
     Perhaps our struggle with showing forgiveness is that, so often, it is cheapened. Celebrities offer scripted apologies written by their media consultants when they get caught misbehaving. Sometimes human beings seem incapable of anything other than “Yes, but…” half-justifications of our worst actions, and so it should come as no surprise that we view forgiveness in those cases as letting the bad guys off the hook too easily. 
     And yet…there’s something about grace and forgiveness that has transformative power. If Amber Guyger truly received Brandt’s forgiveness, she’ll come out of this a different person. Not absolved, but different. Some will use forgiveness as an easy out, yes. They never received it, in that case, probably never even recognized that they did anything that requires forgiveness. The problem, I think, isn’t in the forgiveness itself, but in the way it is received. Those who truly receive forgiveness offered freely and generously see it for the extraordinary thing it is and come away with its marks dug indelibly into their hearts. 
    At a banquet, Jesus was confronted by a woman who Luke tells us was “a sinner.” Everyone knew her. Her presence was a scandal. The way she behaved was a scandal. But Jesus explained her actions to his host by telling him that her expressions of love for him came out of a deep sense of forgiveness. 
     To truly receive forgiveness is to have a love awakened that you thought you’d lost, or maybe never knew. Far from letting us off the hook, it puts us further on. It mandates that we go out and live with the kind of love and grace for the people around us that we’ve received. 
     That is, of course, the kind of forgiveness God has offered us in Christ. It makes us gasp, shocks us, can even make us angry. It’s not part of any equation we can understand. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prayed as they murdered him. As we murdered him. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” 
     Maybe Amber Guyger will live the rest of her life marked, not just by the murder of Botham Jean, but by the forgiveness of her brother. Maybe she will see the responsibility that comes with Brandt Jean’s forgiveness to love those around her, to give her life to Christ in service of her fellow human beings.
     And maybe you and I will live our lives marked by the forgiveness we’ve received from God through Jesus’ acts of love. Maybe we’ll recognize in that forgiveness a responsibility to love the people around us in extraordinary ways. Maybe it will drive us to lives of service, kindness, and grace. Maybe it will push us to confront the unloving, sinful parts of our lives, to reflect on them, and to change by God’s grace. 

     Maybe it will lead us to truly give our lives to Christ.

Friday, September 27, 2019

A Mindset for Withering Grass and Falling Flowers

“All people are like grass,
     and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
     because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
     Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
    
-Isaiah 40:6-8 (NIV)


The Mindset List is the creation of Beloit College Professor Tom McBride and former Beloit administrator Ron Nief. It was originally created to keep faculty members aware of how quickly “contemporary” references in lectures can become dated. Now associated with Marist College, each year a new list for the entering freshman class is created. The lists have become a yardstick for the passage of time and the changing world we live in. Mostly, it'll just make you feel old. To wit, some excerpts from the Mindset List for the class of 2023….
     Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 2001. Most of the class have never shared the earth with Joey Ramone, George Harrison, or Timothy McVeigh.
     For students in the class of 2023, 9/11 is as much a historical event as the Kennedy assassination was for their parents, or Pearl Harbor for their grandparents. Nearly half of their generation is composed of people of color. They have witnessed two African-American Secretaries of State, the election of a black President, Disney’s first black Princess, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
     Entering freshmen have always used a flash drive, rarely a CD, and never a floppy disk. They've always had the option to use PayPal for online purchases. As far as they know, news headlines have always been crawling across the bottom of TV screens. For them, there have always been smartwatches, and taking photos has always been a primary use for a phone. Facial recognition technology has always been used at public events. Bad hearts have always been replaced by self-contained, battery-powered artificial ones.
     The year they were born, the number one draft pick in the NBA came straight from high school for the first time. As far as they’re concerned, Pittsburgh’s Steelers and Pirates have never played at Three Rivers Stadium. Troy Aikman, as far as they know, has always been a football analyst. Cal Ripken, Jr. never played a baseball game in their lifetimes. Sporting events have always included honor guards, flyovers, and God Bless America.
     Students entering college this year have always known what “If you see something, say something” means. Passengers have always had to take off their shoes to get through airport security. Oklahoma City has always had a national memorial. They have grown up with the Patriot Act.
     For them, Monica and Chandler have always been married on Friends. Alex Trebek has never had a mustache. When they pulled themselves up off the floor for the first time, they may have been hanging onto their parents’ brand-new Xbox. Heinous, sexually-based offenses have always been investigated by the Special Victims Unit on Law and Order.
     You get the point. A decade or two can make a world of difference in your frame of reference. When I was a college freshman, no one imagined Berlin without a wall. It's been a while, but not that long. The fact is that the world changes around us. We're young, and then one day we're not so young anymore. One day we're welcoming a child into the world, and it seems only the next that we're sitting across a table with someone who's getting frighteningly close to adulthood. One day we're talking with friends about who we're dating or what career path we're on, and the next the topics of conversation have changed to mortgage rates and our parents' declining health.
     It seems that we instinctively freak out about change and the passage of time. (“Freak out” - I don't think anyone says that anymore, do they?) We don't like it when things change around us. Hang around an office one day when they upgrade the computers and you'll see it. Or a church when they change – well, pretty much anything. As a rule, change makes us uncomfortable. We develop certain little shortcuts in life, certain little routines that revolve around things staying generally the same. It can be downright unsettling when things change and those little shortcuts don't work anymore.
     And, of course, the most unsettling changes of all are the changes that we see in the mirror. A few more lines in the face. A few more gray hairs. A little more width around the middle. The inability to hold what you're reading far enough away from your face to get it into focus. All evidence of the one change in the world that affects all of us most deeply: that one day we won't be here anymore.
     Our world screams hysterically that we have to resist the passage of time. It sells us creams and dyes and exercise equipment and clothing and surgeries that will make us look – more or less - like the passage of time isn't affecting us. But that's an illusion, of course, as evidenced by the fact that it gets harder and harder to pull off as the years go by. However loudly our culture screams that we must look untouched by age, you can still hear the rush of the river of time. 
     “People are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,” the prophet reminds us. It's a good thing he does; otherwise, we might forget what really matters. We're not built to resist the passage of time, any more than the grass and flowers in a meadow are. We navigate a changing world in dying bodies, and all the hair coloring and pilates in the world won't change that. Oh, in some cases we can improve a little on Job's “three score and ten,” but not by much. “The grass withers and the flowers fall,” the prophet says. “Surely the people are grass.”
     Our world calls that depressing, but it isn't. Depressing is people going about their lives like they're going to be anything but a hazy memory a mere century from now. Depressing is not being able to read the writing on the wall. Depressing is living for wealth and influence and control. Depressing is forgetting that we are mortal. And forgetting what does last.
     “The word of our God stands forever.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, what God says is true. What he speaks, exists. Isaiah's point in reminding us of our mortality is to remind us of God's glory. “The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it,” he says. “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:5) 
      And this God never forgets his people. That's our hope – not in holding on to our youth, because “even youths grow tired and weary.” (Isaiah 40:30) “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.” So while our world changes around us, we trust in the God who never does. When our strength fails, we trust in the God who renews our strength. And when our bodies fade and die like a flower dropping its petals, we trust even then in the God who lives. And who gives life.

      So bring on your Mindset List, Marist College. You don't scare me. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Homelessness Problem

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 
     The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 
     Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
     “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.” 
     Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.    
-Matthew 20:29-34 (NIV)


Like most every other city in the world, Chicago has a homelessness problem.
     I chose that word carefully: “homelessness.” Three syllables, not two. It’s easy to skip over that last syllable, just as easy as it is to believe that it’s people who are homeless that are the problem in Chicago and cities like it. People who are homeless, though, are first and foremost people. They’re people like me and you. The degree to which we find that hard to believe is the degree to which we’ll tend to think they are the problem. 
     We don’t, after all, have a cancer patient problem, or a heart disease or stroke victim problem. It’s the diseases with which they suffer that we want to cure. The faces of real people with those diseases remind us that the fight against them is real.
     When it comes to homelessness, though, we don’t want to see it. We have a homeless problem — two syllables. And if it’s a homeless problem, then we solve it by keeping the homeless where they can’t be seen or make anyone uncomfortable. 
     It was announced this week that the Environmental Protection Agency will cite the city of San Francisco for environmental violations because of the “tremendous pollution” — used needles and “other things” that supposedly make their way into the ocean through storm sewers  —  which the government says is caused by the homeless in the city. (The mayor of San Francisco points out that debris that gets into storm drains is filtered out at the city’s water treatment plants.) All this concern for “The homeless problem” despite the fact that funding for homeless shelters and mental health continues to be cut.
     The EPA notice is a political move, of course. It illustrates that “the homeless problem” is addressable at most levels of government only from a political perspective. Too often, though, the government’s perspective on “the homeless problem” is only an echo of the electorate’s perspective: “We have people living in our ... best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings and ... people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”
     So “the homeless problem” is a problem because it represents a loss of “prestige.” 
     But you can’t really fault the government for considering homelessness a prestige problem when the people who put them in office see it the same way.
    And the evidence suggests that’s exactly the way we see it. There are places in Chicago, as there are in most cities, where homeless people aren’t allowed to stay. You won’t see a lot of them along the Magnificent Mile, or around Wrigleyville on game day. You won’t see them in the winter enjoying the warmth in Water Tower Place, asking shoppers for change in the food courts. In the less prestigious neighborhoods, in the spots where there are fewer tourist attractions, you’ll see them and their camps under viaducts, in parks, in alleys. In the “nice” parts of the city, though, they’re kept as invisible and inconspicuous as possible. 
     Chicago people talk about homelessness in terms of prestige, too, even if we don’t recognize it as such. We worry about our property values if the visibility of the homeless increases in our neighborhoods. As though homelessness is primarily a problem because it decreases the value of a homeowner’s investment. 
     Not to mention our discomfort about the whole issue. People without homes find it hard to blend in, don’t they? Their hair and makeup games aren’t on point. Their beards tend to be kind of wild. Sometimes they don’t smell very fresh. Sometimes (though not as often as we remember) substance abuse and mental illness make them act strangely. They don’t fit well with the stories we like to tell ourselves and each other about success and affluence. They don’t have a place in the pictures of our cities and neighborhoods we like to show visitors.
     That’s what ought to make the homeless priority recipients of the church’s love, mercy, and compassion.
     I don’t know if those blind men by the side of the road in Jericho were homeless or not. They were certainly beggars. That suggests that they didn’t have much of support structure — no family to give them food and shelter and not many options for employment. Their situation has homelessness written all over it, and if so they’re in that situation for the same reason many of the homeless in your city are; they have a disability or disease that makes them unable to care for their families and themselves.
     They aren't the kind of folks the crowd around Jesus want to hear or, God forbid, see. So when the two call out for help from Jesus, the crowd tries to shut them up. The crowd rebukes them, tries to silence them. But they shout “all the louder.” 
     Don’t you like that? I do. But I don’t think we would if it happened in our neighborhoods. In our neighborhoods, we don’t want homeless people making much noise or being too visible. It makes the neighborhood look bad. Somehow it reflects on our prestige. 
     But Jesus turns that crowd’s self-interest on its head, doesn’t he? “What do you guys want me to do for you?” What you take away is that, in contrast to the crowd who wants them to be quiet and disappear, Jesus hears them and has compassion. 
     For the church, the “homeless problem” is a homelessness problem. The problem is not people who are homeless, so it isn’t a problem that goes away if we don’t see any homeless people. The problem is that there are people in our city, in our world, who have no place to stay tonight. They’re begging for money and food. Some of them are living in cars, or sleeping in parks or alleys or under bridges. Some have families who are worried about them. Some have children living with them. Some need medical or psychiatric care. Some need rehab. Some go to sleep each night praying for help and safety. Some have given up praying.
     This is a problem the church can begin to make a difference in because the church begins with compassion. We start with the love of Jesus. But the love of Jesus is an intentional act to do good. To help. To serve.
     We can’t let the crowd silence those who are homeless. We can’t let those who are mainly concerned with prestige, perception, and politics keep us from hearing their cries for help. We have to stop looking away. We know Jesus, after all. And he would like for homeless people in our city to know him.
     Let’s introduce them. Or remind them of his love. But not by lessons or sermons or Bible studies. By embodying his compassion. By refusing to let their voices be silenced. By seeing and hearing them, by asking them to tell us their stories, and by acting in love on their behalf. 

     That’s how we begin to make a real difference in the homelessness problem.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Of Robots and Clay Jars

     For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. 
     But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.    
-2 Corinthians 4:5-7 (NIV)


Our robot overlords are coming.
     At least our robot pastors are. That according to an article at Vox by Sigal Samuel, in which she advises that “AI (artificial intelligence) religion is upon us” and reassures us that “robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral.” The article describes a robotic Buddhist priest in Japan that delivers sermons and interacts with worshippers at a temple in Kyoto. “[The robot] is not AI-powered,” Samuel tells us, and in fact is only programmed to deliver one sermon. Its creators are planning to give it machine-learning abilities that will enable it to “tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.” 
     There’s a robot in India that performs a Hindu ritual over and over. (Wonder what the monks who used to take care of that are doing now?) There’s a freaky-looking robot called BlessU-2 (I couldn’t make this up) that gives pre-programmed blessings to worshippers in the Protestant Church of Germany, and a 17-inch robot that looks like a figurine of a saint can recite Bible verses to people who come to it with problems.
     There’s even a Japanese robot named Pepper that performs Buddhist funerals. Pepper has one major advantage over his human counterparts: he works significantly cheaper than the cash offerings usually made to Buddhist priests. Well, there’s that, and also he can live stream the service.  
     While none of these robotic ministers are actually AI-powered, Samuel quotes experts who claim that robotic priests, pastors, and ministers with artificial intelligence are coming, and that these “free-willed beings that we’ve made” will force us to rethink our theology and even ask questions about what it is that makes up a human “soul”.  
     There are some in my church who might prefer artificial intelligence to what I bring to the table. They might also say that the same sermon preached over and over is preferable to what I manage some Sundays. Still, I need answers to a few questions before I can sign off on robotic ministers in Churches of Christ:
  • Can they be made waterproof? We baptize by immersion, you know. It could be bad if RoboPreacher shorted out just as he got a new convert under the water.
  • Would he come with an attachment for filling tiny communion cups? And maybe a grape juice reservoir?
  • Would there be a Non-Aggression Module that would keep him from responding to random criticism with laser fire from his eyes? (I guess I’m just assuming they’d put lasers in these things.)
  • Finally, if RoboPreacher comes with music, would it be a cappella?
     All right, maybe those aren’t really the most pressing questions I can think of. I guess the one that really occurs to me is, “Why?” What values are driving even the notion that robotic ministers, priests, and pastors might be useful or even preferable to human beings?
     One possibility that comes to mind is that a robot can provide the consistency, perfection, and predictability that human beings never can. It’s nice, isn’t it, to imagine clergy that will never make a mistake, never get tired or impatient, never make a wrong decision, never give bad advice or a wrong answer, and never commit a sin? The Lord knows that sometimes ministers try to look like robots instead of the messy, confused, struggling human beings that we know we are. Sometimes we try to make our churches think that’s what we are. Though I suspect most of the time our churches see right through that act. 
     Sometimes, truth be told, we do the work of ministry like robots: performing the actions, going through the motions, but with our hearts not truly in it. When we’re like that I suppose we might as well be robots. 
     But, here’s the thing: God didn’t call perfect people to minister to others on his behalf. He didn’t create a flawlessly consistent clergy who would never struggle or doubt or be hurt or get sick or hurt other people. God has entrusted normal people with ministry from the days he called a shepherd to be King, a vine-dresser to be a prophet, a carpenter’s son to be Messiah, and a group of fishermen, tax collectors, and terrorists to follow him. None of those people — save one — embodied perfection. All of them — save one — messed up, failed, acted selfishly, compromised their integrity, lost hope, struggled with sorrow and doubt, and made enemies. 
     God was surprised by none of that, of course.
     If God didn’t create a perfect race of clergy, then neither should we. We shouldn’t hire other people to do ministry for us, and we should especially not create other beings to do ministry for us — even if they could do it better. It’s in our imperfections that our faith is deepened. Maybe machine learning can teach robots to respond to the questions of believers with nuance and sympathy, looking for what they’re really asking. Maybe robots will one day even be able to come to something like faith on their own. But I doubt artificial intelligence will ever be able to replicate the lessons learned through struggle, failure, and weakness. Faith grows when we’re pulled past the limits of our own capabilities so we can learn to put our trust in God and not ourselves. 
     Faith grows, in short, through messiness.
     That’s Paul’s point about the clay jars. We’ve been given this wonderful treasure of the gospel of Jesus, a treasure that we’re supposed to share with the world in its fullness. And we’re tempted to think that we need to be adequate containers for this treasure. We need to be elegant vases, hand-carved, jewel-encrusted chests, ornate display cases. We’re painfully aware of what we are, though: clay jars. We’re the Tupperware of the ancient world: functional enough, maybe, but not much else. Certainly not worthy of containing such a treasure. Wouldn’t it be better to build a robot that would better represent the value of that treasure?
     Paul points out, though, that God’s power is most clearly shown when it comes through unremarkable, uninspiring, imperfect vessels like us. Robots, to use Paul’s terms, don’t have the capabilities to feel crushed, to despair, to feel abandoned, or to fear destruction. We human beings can. But that doesn’t make us inferior for God’s purposes; in fact, it makes us superior. By faith, we can choose not to be crushed. By faith, we can look into the pit of our own darkness and not despair. By faith, we can experience persecution and yet know that God hasn’t abandoned us, and even when we’re struck down and looking our own destruction in the face, we can instead look to God’s face. And our world can see the treasure of the gospel shining out of the cracked, worn, chipped, broken clay jars that we are.    
     God doesn’t need robot ministers. He just needs us. He just needs you, clay jar though you are.

     Run that through your processor, Pepper.

Friday, September 6, 2019

How a Church Can Change Without Killing Each Other

     It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…    
-Acts 15:28 (NIV)


My friend and brother in Christ Mark Love consults with churches as a side gig to his main job teaching at Rochester College. A couple of days ago, Mark wrote a blog post that started this way:
     In my consulting work with congregations, I’ve learned a few things about the capacity of a congregation to make significant changes. I am of the mind that a hopeful future for most congregations will require deep, adaptive change. All congregations can make an adjustment here or there, typically of a “technical” nature. They can change or add programs, in other words. But when they’re done, they’re still fundamentally the same. The moment we occupy, however, as congregations in a world of discontinuous change, requires more. It requires “adaptive” change–not just that we do something different, but that we become something new.
     Mark goes on to say that he isn’t optimistic that most congregations are capable of the kind of “adaptive change” he’s talking about. He says that people usually “do not authorize people to make them face what they do not want to face” — which is a helpful insight that touches on a lot of our relationships. Most churches don’t have a high tolerance for conflict, either — and conflict is pretty much a given when you’re talking about significant change.
    Change is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard in most aspects of life. Most of us like it when things remain on a pretty even keel. Many of us don’t even like it when we have to update our phone or computer operating systems — never mind how we feel about change at church.
     Well, listen: there may have been a time at your church when people were convinced that it was a sin to use the Lord’s money to pay for air conditioning. Some would have been convinced those Bibles in your pews right now compromised the word of God. There might have been a time when someone thought it was immoral to desegregate your church. There might have even been a time when some matter of teaching that you take for granted would have been considered heretical by a significant segment of your church.
     You know what happened, though? Change happened. Someone proposed something, or taught something, or started something. There was disagreement. Debate. Cases were made, meetings were held, there may have even been a few horses traded. Hopefully, in all of it there was prayer and an openness to the Holy Spirit. Over time, changes were made. Maybe even fundamental ones.
     Of course, there’s precedent for fundamental change in churches from the very beginning. Take a look at Acts 15 sometime if you don’t believe me.  What you see there is a church in the middle of adaptive change at a very basic level. The question in front of them is, “Who’s in, who’s out, and how do we know?”
     See, at first the church was Jewish. That’s strange to say, and my Jewish friends might even take issue with it. Still, the early Christians thought of themselves as Jewish. The Jews did too: the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, for example, ordered Peter and John to stop talking about Jesus. That they felt they had the authority to order them to do anything assumes that they still saw the Christians as Jews who needed straightening out. The book of Acts says that believers in Jesus were first referred to as Christians in Antioch — a Gentile city. That’s because there was already a name for them in Jerusalem and other predominately Jewish places: Jews.
     So Acts 15 tells us about a meeting held in Jerusalem and attended by all the leaders of the church. The original apostles were there. So were Paul and Barnabas, who had been planting lots of new churches in Gentile country. James — Jesus’ brother — was there too. 
     The meeting had to do with some Jewish Christians who had been teaching Gentile Christians that Jesus only saves those who are circumcised. Think about it for just a second and you’ll understand why they felt that way. There was not one verse in their Bibles that told them circumcision had been displaced as the sign of the covenant. There were plenty of Biblical texts that commanded circumcision. Until Paul and others like him started inviting Gentiles into the church, there probably wasn’t one Christian man who wasn’t circumcised. To change, in their view, would be to compromise. Violating one of God’s direct commands was too large a price to pay so that a few non-Jews might be more willing to believe in Jesus.
     Skip down to the end, though, and you see that the debate went in a shocking direction: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” This from James, a leader in the Jerusalem church and a Jew. 
     They decided that circumcision wouldn’t be required, and in fact only minimal fidelity to the Jewish law. It’s how they get there that’s interesting to unwind, though.
     First of all, they listen to each other. We’re not good at this as a society, and I’m not convinced it’s better in most churches. When we do listen, we’re mentally preparing to shoot holes in what’s being said. Here, though, the church actually listens to each other. They listen to the experiences of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, who have already been preaching Jesus to the Gentiles. They know that these guys who have been living in Gentile country have been working out the theology. They hear their conviction that reaching out to the Gentiles is the will of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.
     After they listen to each other, they allow what they hear to inform their reading of Scripture. I think that’s pretty important. Sometimes people who take Scripture seriously shut down personal experience that doesn’t match their understanding of Scripture. “What you’re saying has happened or is happening can’t be valid,” we argue, “because it goes against what we think the Bible says.” Except we sometimes leave out that “we think.”
     The verses James quotes could have probably been understood any number of ways — even as supporting the more restrictive Judeo-Christianity. But James mentions Peter’s experience with the Holy Spirit first, and he says that the prophets agree with that experience. James doesn’t use the Bible to evaluate Peter’s experience. The Bible is read through the lenses of Peter’s experience.
     Maybe we need to do more of that. Maybe our churches would be more able to change if we could let the experiences of our members — all of them, not just those of a few — inform the way we read the Bible. That’s not giving up on biblical authority. It’s just admitting to ourselves the way biblical authority works. I can tell you this: my reading of the Bible, and thus the way I live, the way I preach and teach, all of it, has been changed by listening to the church. Your reading of the Bible has been affected by listening to others too, whether you recognize it or not. We can’t escape having our reading of the Bible altered by the people we listen to. What we can escape is only listening to people like us, who don’t force us to hear the Bible in different ways. 
     Change will never be easy. But it doesn’t have to be traumatic if we can listen to each other, recognize the work of God in each others’ lives, and then allow what we hear to affect the way we read the Bible. 

     If God wants change in our churches, do we want to be the ones standing in the way?

Friday, August 30, 2019

First Day of School

     Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.     
-Galatians 1:10 (NIV)


Like a lot of moms on the first day of school, Jill Falconer, of East Renfrewshire, Scotland, took a photo of her daughter, Lucie before she sent her off for her first day of Primary Two (like first grade in the States). Jill says Lucie “likes to be clean” and “loved having her new things on,” and she looks like it as she smiles cutely in the photo at home, perfect in the school uniform of black cardigan, skirt, knee socks, and shoes with a spotless white shirt and black-and-gold striped tie. She even has a black-and-gold bow in her perfectly combed blonde hair. 
     The photo looks like countless others I’ve seen on social media the last few weeks. Parents have always liked taking photos of their kids on the first day of school, I guess, but in the era of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. those photos get shared much more widely. Seems like a certain amount of competitiveness has grown up around it; parents feel the need to up their back-to-school photo game to keep up with the perfectly coiffed, styled, posed, and composed progeny of their social media friends. 
     One Facebook friend of mine even admitted recently in posting her daughter’s back-to-school picture that they’d staged the photoshoot a few days before the first day of school, to make sure they had plenty of time to create the perfect shot.
     So first-day-of-school photos have joined the long list of things (including vacations, meals, workouts, style, weight loss, political opinions, church, work, and pet hijinks) that we “curate” for an audience instead of just living. 
     Even that word, “curate,” is new — at least in that usage. It implies a self-consciousness about the photos we post (and don’t post), the words we make public (and don’t make public), even the food that we want people to think we eat and the places we want them to know that we’ve visited. (Seems like no one on Facebook ever eats a bag of Cheetos or vacations in Pittsburgh…) The word suggests an intent to create a posed, scripted, and sanitized life that’s safe for display, a life that we think others might enjoy, admire, and maybe even be a little bit jealous of.
     I know; not everyone on social media does it. But enough do that you know exactly what I’m talking about.
     Maybe you’ve even thought about why it could be a problem.
     Taken to an extreme, living your life for the admiration of other people leaves you empty, always searching for the next perfect thing worthy of sharing, always anxious that someone will see past the life you want them to know about and catch a glimpse of the less than perfect stuff in the storerooms and closets behind the scenes. We’re left forever looking for approval in the form of likes, upvotes, follows, and all the other ways we keep score. Beyond that, we start to lose the ability to distinguish between what’s real and what’s for public display, as seen most sharply in our tendency to compare our real lives with other peoples’ curated ones. (No one posts photos of a fight with their spouse or their kids’ behavioral problems or the way those pants fit after they’ve gained 10 pounds.)      
     That’s a perfect recipe for depression, anger, and despair. Especially for kids and teens who haven’t yet figured out that a convincing picture of reality isn’t the same thing as reality.
     All that is why I love what Jill Falconer posted alongside Lucie’s “official” first-day-school shot. It’s a much more honest photo of Lucie at the end of her first day. She’s walking up to the house, it looks like, and let me tell you she doesn’t really look like the same girl. Her hair looks impossibly tangled and matted, sticking in all directions like it’s alive and trying its best to climb off her head. Her tie is coming unknotted, her cardigan is unbuttoned and sliding off one shoulder, her shirt is coming untucked, and her socks are “knee” in name only. (More like mid-calf socks…) Her unicorn backpack, hanging in the crook of one arm, has its eyes closed as if it’s exhausted. 
     When Jill asked Lucie what in the world she’d been doing to get her uniform in such a state, she simply gave the standard response to parental questions about what happened in school: “Not much.” 
     The photos have gone viral, ironically enough. Lucie’s response to millions of people seeing her at, ahem, less than her best — “Oh, I’m famous.” May she never worry too much about what others think.
     The Bible tells us not to spend much time trying to impress others. In fact, Paul seems to suggest that at best it’s very difficult to be a servant of Christ and to please God if we’re preoccupied with the opinions of others. Those two centers of gravity will inevitably take us in opposite directions. If we get our self-image from what others think of us, we’ll sooner or later do what they expect instead of what God wants.
     I’ve wondered sometimes how we’d dress at church if we came in looking like we really felt. Maybe that would be better because then we’d know. We’d know our brothers and sisters were hurting, and we’d know that the people we were trying to impress are as messy and unkempt as we are. We’d know that we have nothing to gain from putting on a front for each other. We’d know that the only thing to do is come together in our shared brokenness and love and help each other. Maybe that’s why the Bible says we should carry each others’ burdens — so we know that everyone has them and that none of us are really all that put together.
     Like many struggles we have in our walk with Jesus, this one comes out of a failure to really grasp the gospel at heart level. Here’s what we have to know in our gut about ourselves, and about each other: “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags." Oh, we can make a pretty decent start of it. We can hold people at arm’s length enough that they don’t see much but the idealized picture we want them to know about. But by the end of the day, there’s nothing that looks too good about us. We’re a mess of conflicting motives, selfishness, weakness, and greed. That’s scary to admit, but it’s freeing. If anyone looks an inch below the surface when we’re tired, discouraged, angry, and afraid, they won’t see much there that’s admirable. Neither will we when we look at them.
     But the gospel says that’s not where God’s approval lies. God sees right past our carefully-curated lives. He knows that what we pretend isn’t remotely true. He’s very clear about the real picture. He knows all the ugly stuff that we keep hidden — and he knows the pain and fear that makes us want to hang on to it. 
     Here’s the thing: he still loves us. He loves us when we get ourselves all cleaned up and pose with a happy smile. And he loves us no less when we’re shabby, filthy, bedraggled, exhausted, and unable to pretend.
     The answer to the need we have to curate our lives is the wonderful news that God loves the real us, and that he loves us so much that he sent his Son into all our ugliness to save us — to save us by giving his life.

     Put your confidence in his love, right where you are, as who you are, and you’ll never feel the need to impress anyone else ever again.

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