Friday, August 9, 2019

Thoughts and Prayers

    It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer  and the ministry of the word.”    
-Acts 6:2-4 (NIV)

Believe it or not, there’s a Wikipedia page for the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”
     The page exists, of course, because there’s something of a backlash against “thoughts and prayers” in our world right now. The criticism is usually in the context of gun violence, as a response to politicians who, it’s perceived, could do something more tangible, choosing instead to tweet out “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. The criticism is understandable. People affected by violence — or any other disaster or injustice — rightly want something to be done to prevent something like they’ve experienced from happening again. They’d like to see their politicians passing legislation about gun availability or sentencing laws or whatever. People who’ve been injured in a building collapse, or have lost people in an earthquake, want their elected officials working on building codes or early warning systems. Over the last decade or so, after large-scale tragedies there are calls to “move beyond thoughts and prayers” and take action.
      In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton last week, at least one writer opined that “thoughts and prayers” have become “a cynical punchline conveying inaction….It’s what people say when they plan to do nothing.”
     That can be true: tweeting “thoughts and prayers” is easy (especially in comparison to actually thinking and praying). It can be — not always is — a dog whistle for a politician to use to show that he or she is engaged with the issues without, you know, engaging with the issues. I can only imagine the frustration and anger a victim must feel when they see nothing but empty platitudes from a person who is supposed to represent their interests and the interests of their family and their fellow citizens. “Thoughts and prayers” — prayers in particular — should never be invoked in lieu of doing something more that is within the power of the one offering the prayers. Whenever possible, prayer should empower, motivate, and be accompanied by further action. (James seems to think so.) Maybe one of the reasons that God wants us to pray is that it’s hard to be detached from something you’re often in prayer about. Praying helps you to see other actions you can take. 
     I do want to push back a little, though, at the idea that seems to be in the background of some of this criticism of the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. For some critics, prayer is a waste of time. To pray at all is to abdicate responsibility. It would surprise me, of course, if people who openly or functionally have no belief in God felt any other way about prayer. 
     The danger is when believers start to buy into the assumption that prayer is what you do when there’s nothing else to do. Prayer is doing something — and in fact sometimes prayer is the thing to do.
     The book of Acts tells about a crisis in the church that, if I was making the movie, would have ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s the first real crisis in the church we know anything about. It’s a crisis of love. It forces the question of who belongs, and who doesn’t. It’s the first referendum we see on whether the gospel really overcomes barriers between people. 
     The problem is really just sketched out in Acts 6, but it comes down to a question about those who are insiders and those who are outsiders. There’s a festival in Jerusalem. It’s brought Jewish people from all over the Greco-Roman world, many of whom don’t seem to be all that Jewish. They’re from other, faraway places. They have different customs. They don’t even speak the language! Some of them — the widows — need some help with daily food. But they aren’t being included in the church’s daily provision to the widows who actually live permanently in Jerusalem. Now the church is asking, “How far does our responsibility to them go? Or are they actually us?”
     It’s a pretty fundamental question. What does it mean to be part of the church if you’re going to be treated as second class to those who speak the language and are from here? If it was us, we’d expect statements from the church’s leaders. We’d expect mea culpas to be issued, heads to roll, and a plan to be executed. There’d be photo ops with native Jerusalem church leaders handing over food baskets to Hellenistic Jewish leaders.   
     What do the apostles, the leaders of the church, actually do? Here’s the statement they issue: “Uh, folks, we have other important things to do. We need to focus on telling the story of Jesus and praying. So these other guys are now in charge of making sure the food gets to everyone who needs it.” 
     They pray, they proclaim the gospel, and they empower the church to solve the problem themselves. 
     They pray because they believe that it’s God who will help the church to love one another as they should.
     They proclaim the word because they’re convinced that if the good news of the love of Jesus is heard, then the church will do the right things. 
     They empower the church to solve their problems because they know that the church is indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of God and that the only way the church can possibly meet the needs before it is if everyone is using their gifts, talents, and opportunities to love and serve in the name of Jesus.
     I know a little about how the church usually does things. On the one hand, we sometimes meet, and meet, and meet some more. One elder I know used to sometimes ask, jokingly, if we ought to “have a meeting to see if we need to have a meeting.” Sometimes the church version of “thoughts and prayers” is to meet about something until all momentum and interest are lost.
     On the other hand, sometimes our impulse is for a few of us to do it all ourselves. No one else is as interested as we are, or as capable as we are, or whatever. So we take on too much and forget that somebody needs to be praying.
     The church exists in a world in which there are innumerable tragedies, injustices, and needs to fill. Sometimes we feel the pressure to show the world that the gospel is relevant in those circumstances. It’s good and right for us to serve, to comfort, to meet needs, to stand against injustices. But there are others who can do those things, too. The one thing the church can do that no one else can is pray in the name of Jesus and proclaim the gospel.
     Prayer doesn’t excuse us from any other service or action. But let’s be sure that nothing else crowds out the place of prayer and the ministry of the word. Let’s feed the hungry. Let’s meet the needs of those who are suffering. Let’s show compassion, and let’s stand with the mistreated, and let’s give generously. First, though, let’s remember the gospel that gives us good news to tell the world. And let’s remember to pray for God’s power and blessing, for his heart to care and his eyes to see and his comfort to give. 

     Prayer is doing something. And it’s foundational in helping us to do more.           

Friday, July 26, 2019

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

    Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.   
-Romans 13:8-10 (NIV)

I’ve been having flashbacks to my childhood this week seeing the new trailer for the Mr. Rogers movie, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A lot of people my age are saying they were Mr. Rogers fans when they were kids. Not to get competitive (Mr. Rogers probably wouldn’t like that), but when Mr. Rogers would come onscreen, singing his signature song, from doing whatever Mr. Rogers did when he wasn’t on TV,  and put on his cardigan — well, I would put on a cardigan too. (My mom made me stop in high school…)
     Fan? You bet I was. 
     It’s sort of mystifying to some why Mr. Rogers, who was sort of the epitome of uncool, was such a draw to kids. There was no animation on the show, no Bugs Bunny or Super Friends or dinosaurs or giant robots. Just Mr. Rogers, and his friends, and the puppets in The Land of Make-Believe. It’s not really a mystery, though. Mr. Rogers had a gentle voice, and a nice smile, and he seemed genuinely glad to “see” us every day. His “neighborhood” was a place where you were accepted and appreciated. He made it clear that he meant it when he asked, “Won't you be my neighbor?” and said that he wanted a neighbor “just like you.” 
     I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Fred Rogers, an ordained minister, built his TV show around Jesus’ insistence that Leviticus 19:18 — Love your neighbor as yourself — was one of the greatest commands. That’s why his show was about a neighborhood. That’s why he wanted us to be his neighbor.
     That’s not to say life was perfect in his neighborhood. In the very first episode, during the Vietnam War, King Friday of The Land of Make-Believe established a border guard to keep “unauthorized” visitors from his palace. In a time when swimming pool integration was an issue, he invited Officer Clemmons (the first black recurring character on a children’s TV show), to take a break from walking his beat to join him in soaking his feet in a kiddie pool. When they were finished, Mr. Rogers bent down and dried Officer Clemmons’ feet with a towel.
     And in 1968, after the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, Daniel Striped Tiger asked, “What does assassination mean?” Because loving your neighbor means not hiding hard things from them. It means admitting that even the most loving of neighborhoods is located in a world that sometimes is anything but loving, and so loving our neighbors as we love ourselves doesn’t always seem to be the smartest, most efficient, most advantageous course of action.
     Loving our neighbors doesn’t mean trying to get them to pretend that their problems and struggles aren’t real. It’s listening while they ask their hard questions. It’s giving them space to feel what they’re feeling, and letting them know that you accept them and have compassion for them.
     “To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now,” Fred Rogers once said. I think he’s right, because that’s how God has loved us. He loved us when our sins still needed atoning. Before faith, before repentance, before baptism, before discipleship, there’s God’s love. Before anything we did to make ourselves the least bit lovable is his great love for us. Great enough to send his Son into the world. So this is how we are to love one another: before we should, before justice demands it, before popular opinion makes it safe, before we can be sure that those we love won’t take advantage of our love for their own purposes.
     Love puts us on the line in the same way that it put Jesus on the cross. Love makes us vulnerable in the same way it made God vulnerable.
     We’ve always had a hard time believing that God’s plan for saving the world hinges on love. We think love is important, sure, but history tells us that it’s rare for human beings to see it as anything but a little added bonus. We throw in a little persuasion. Manipulation. Control. Rule-following. Guilt. Even some condemnation now and then. “Oh, sure, we love people. But we can’t let them think we approve of everything they do.” Love, after all, needs a little help. Left alone, love changes nothing. It’s unicorns and rainbows and fluffy bunnies. 
     Love is soft. It isn’t practical. It’s great when it’s safe, like in a family or marriage or friendship or church. It’s no way to live in the real world. 
     If you love the wrong people, you might even get taken advantage of. 
     Maybe even killed.  
     A couple of weeks ago, Abubakar Abdullahi was given the International Religious Freedom Award from the U.S. Department of State. Last yeah, the 83-year-old sheltered a group of 262 Christians from Fulani Herdsmen who had entered his village in Nigeria. The armed attackers caused chaos in the village, and Abdullahi opened the door of his house and the building attached to it as shelter for the Christians. He told the refugees to lay down on the ground to avoid being shot and locked the doors. Then he stood guard outside the buildings, even going so far as to lay down in front of the attackers and plead with them in the name of God to leave his guests alone. Eventually, the attackers moved on and Abdullahi and his “guests” shared a meal together.
     Oh. The building attached to his home? That’s a mosque. Abubakar Abdullahi is the Imam in his village.
     That’s funny; if I didn’t know better I’d swear he learned to love from Jesus. 
     Don’t tell Abubakar Abdullahi that love isn’t for the gritty, real, scary moments of life. Don’t tell Jesus. 
     Don’t believe for a moment that love isn’t practical, that it doesn’t speak to the real problems of our world, that it accomplishes nothing. We think that, you see, because we talk about love much more than we do it. And it’s true: talking about love doesn’t accomplish much. 
     If we actually love, though, in the way Jesus loved, we just might find that love can change everything. 
     In any case, it’s what we’re called to. It’s our mandate. You can’t control whether one person loves you or not. But you can choose to love your neighbor as yourself: To wash their feet, to speak to their fears, to let them put a name to their feelings and give them a sympathetic ear. 
     To say to those who would hurt them that they’ll have to go through you first.

     That’s the Mr. Rogers way. But he just stole it from Jesus.

Friday, July 19, 2019

This I Know

   “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 
   Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”   
-Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

A few thoughts this week. They might not seem connected at first. I think they are. I hope I can show you how.

     This weekend is our church’s Vacation Bible School. Some of us have been working to get ready for it, planning and decorating, writing scripts for skits, preparing lessons, making food, and just generally trying to make sure everything is ready for the kids. We think VBS is pretty important because we think it’s an opportunity to teach kids the gospel in a language they can relate to and understand. As much trouble as churches seem to be having in communicating our faith to the next generation, we think of it as a responsibility and an opportunity to host our church’s kids — and with God’s blessing some from the neighborhood as well —  for a few hours on a weekend, and we want to be faithful in how we use those hours. 
     In some ways, VBS is a cross-cultural mission effort. Ditto for Sunday school classes. It’s trying to speak their language, it’s bringing the gospel to them in their context. We sometimes think of it as simplifying, but I don't think that’s the best way to look at it. The gospel is simple; VBS just reminds us of that and challenges us to communicate it in ways that will resonate with kids. 
     It gives us a chance to embody Christ’s love for them too, so that we teach with our lives and hearts and not just our words. By spending the weekend with them, we try to communicate that they’re important to us. That’s the shape love usually takes.

     Sometime this week our President told a group of four young Congresswomen who have disagreed with his policies to “go back where they came from” and fix the problems in the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Maybe he meant New York, Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts. (Only one of the four is not a natural-born citizen.) Somehow I doubt it, though. 
     I don't care who you voted for. I really don’t. But I’ve never heard a President say such things. This is the worst thing I can ever remember hearing a President say about members of Congress, or American citizens in general. Those Congresswomen have a constituency to represent and have every right to question and criticize the President. And he responds like the worst caricature of a Southern redneck I’ve ever seen.            
      What really angers me about it, though, are the people at his rallies chanting “Send her back.” If polls mean anything, a large percentage of those supporters would claim to be Christians. Many, in fact, would claim a strong faith in Jesus and would be found in church most every Sunday. They’d probably say they pray and read their Bibles and even take their kids to VBS. How can they stand in that crowd and chant their wish to “send back” anyone? Is there no thought given to how that chant might be heard by immigrants — even some who might share communion with them on Sundays?
     A Facebook friend of mine posted her anger and disgust about the statement this week. One of her friends posted in response: “I am feeling afraid…I am a black female immigrant…do my fellow Christians feel I should be sent back?” 
     Well, do we? 
     I’m reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told that story to reply to a question: “Who is the neighbor that I have to love as I love myself?” In the story, of course, the people you expect to love their neighbor, the people closest to the man in the ditch, cross the street to avoid him. The neighbor, it turns out, is the one in every way farthest from him. “Who was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?” Jesus asked. “The one who helped him,” came the (reluctant) answer. 
     We don’t get to choose our neighbors. We don’t get to choose the ones who look like us or talk like us or agree with our politics. “Neighbor” is a verb, and we only love them as we love ourselves when we show compassion and offer help. And we shouldn’t call ourselves Christians if we’re not willing to try to follow one of Jesus’ two main commands. We’re just auditing, at best.    

     My cousin, Tom Liner, is as full of the love of Christ as anyone I know. He works with Kairos Prison Ministry. In the course of that work he spends a lot of time, obviously, in prisons. He recently sent me a piece he’d written about his experience being with a prisoner named John Peoples on Death Row at Holman Prison in Alabama. 
     “He talks about his mother and about dying. He has ‘gotten his date,’ as the men say…That morning volunteers and inmates sing together. Charles Runnels, the leader of the volunteers, says, ‘Let’s sing Jesus Loves Me. That is my favorite song.’ And we do, our voices rising somehow clearly in the clatter of that place. We sing a cappella and with joy. We sing the verse through twice, and Charles says, ‘That is all we need to know.’ We stand in a circle and talk about our spiritual struggles and joys, the men from the outside and the men who live here. We share as friends. We hold hands and pray together…
      “I went to Death Row at Holman Prison willingly, knowing I would make friends who would die. After all, that is what they are there for…
     I wish my friends in Holman D.R. did not have to live like that. I do not understand why a man lives there in a tiny cell for 20 years before the state kills him. I do know some of these men are my friends, and I will be their friend. I know that my God loves them just as much as he loves me. Probably that is all I need to know.”

     It’s funny: as I’m preparing for VBS Tom reminds me of the simplicity of the gospel. It is about the fact that Jesus loves me. I don’t know either why Death Row has to exist, but I know what Jesus’ love can do there. I don’t know why we’re so conditioned to hate those who are different from us, but I know that Jesus’ love can drive that hatred out. Probably that is all I need to know.

     Jesus loves me…and you, and those totally unlike us in every way we can think of. If I’m grateful for his love,  I must take it and love my neighbor as myself. There is no other choice. This  I know.  

Friday, July 12, 2019

Replacing Religion

     …Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.    
-Ephesians 5:25-27 (NIV)

I read an article this week called “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals.” The article was pretty much just what it sounds like it is: it’s an “investigation” of “a growing number of young people…who have turned away from traditional organized religion and are embracing more spiritual beliefs and practices like tarot, astrology, meditation, energy healing, and crystals.” That’s not really anything earth-shaking, of course: it’s been apparent for quite some time that many young adults do look outside the church for their spirituality. The article references the 2017 Pew survey that shows Millennials (defined roughly as people born between 1981 and 1996) increasingly identifying as “unaffiliated” when given a choice of (Christian) religious groups to choose from. (But might only giving a choice of Christian groups skew the results?) 
     The article quotes a young woman who teaches “breathwork,” a combination of breathing exercises and affirmation, as saying that she knows it’s “weird.” She goes on to say, “But it makes me feel better and that’s why I keep doing it.” It’s not hard to see why it makes her feel better. The affirmations she and other practitioners receive during the class include I love myself, I am beautiful, I am powerful, I am a bright light, and I am ready to be seen.  Who doesn’t need more affirmation in our world? Who doesn’t need to be told sometimes that they’re worth something, that they’re of value, that they matter? Honestly, if the church can’t do that for each other, then we deserve to have people go elsewhere.
     Of course, religion is more than feeling better. I can’t help but think that some adults who have turned their backs on the church — or never given the church a chance — do so because they have a therapeutic view toward religion. It’s supposed to make them feel better. So as the article points out, they “cook up their own spiritual or religious stew…their way,” as a “progressive Christian reverend” at the University of Southern California puts it in the article. “You’re seeing an aggregation of disaffiliation,” he goes on to say, “people coming up with their own meaning-making and their own personal spiritualities.”
     Some days I’d like that better too, to be honest.
     Thing is, though — and it looks like this needs to be said — I’m a Christian, and thus a part of the church, because I believe in Jesus. I believe in trying to live the way he taught, and I believe that he died for the sins of the world, that he literally rose from the dead three days later to defeat sin and death once and for all, and that he’s coming back to inaugurate a new creation, redeemed and restored from all the damage that’s been done to it. I believe in the God that Jesus reveals to us, who’s behind all of it. And I believe that he has filled those who believe in him with his Spirit and that our reason for being in the world is to shine his light of love and grace through all of our words and actions.
     That all means that sometimes what I see in myself won’t measure up to his teachings or his sacrificial love. It means I’ll notice some things in my life that are hurting my witness to his love and grace in the world. Because I believe in Jesus, and not just in feeling better, sometimes I’ll need to do uncomfortable things like repent, change, ask forgiveness, give in to someone else, or be patient in suffering. I don’t get the privilege of “coming up with my own meaning-making.” My recipe for “spiritual stew” is not all that palatable, it turns out, so I need to eat what God puts on the menu. And if my personal spirituality isn’t created by and energized by the Spirit of God, then it’s pointless, powerless, and hopeless.
     Because I believe in Jesus, I don’t get to “disaffiliate” from his followers, either. Even though sometimes I might want to. He loves them, and so should I. He sacrificed for them, and so should I. He called us all together to be his hands and feet and mouth and heart in our world, and so I have to play my part in that to the best of my ability. 
     If the church is what we should be to each other, we’ll help each other. We’ll help each other to feel better sometimes, but just feeling better isn’t the point of being part of the church, either.
     None of what’s in that article surprises or even upsets me. Why should I find it surprising that people who have ejected faith from their lives — or never had it — would try to piece together something transcendent?
     What bothers me — and the fact that it bothers me isn’t the problem — is that some who are still part of the church in name have in practice replaced their faith in Jesus with a quest for feeling better.
     Why else would people “belong” to churches they’re not really a part of? I know, I know: being in church doesn’t make you a Christian. Neither does being in a hospital make you a surgeon, and yet when I want to find a surgeon I’m not going to a Cubs game. There are legitimate reasons to be absent when the church is together, but too many of us think that any reason is legitimate. We’ve long said in church that twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work — so why do we just keep saying it while nodding knowingly? By definition, most of us aren’t part of that twenty percent. Why don’t we have people lining up to teach our kids, help with VBS, work in our ministries? Why aren’t we in each others’ homes? With each other in the hospital? Celebrating each others’ happy occasions together? Praying together?
     Isn’t it because we’ve bought into the idea that church is only valuable to the degree that it gives me something? Beyond that, it’s take it or leave it. Mostly, my schedule will tell me to leave it.
     It’s worse than that, though. Why do we so easily silence our faith in favor of our politics? You know why: because we think this political candidate or platform will make us feel better quicker than Jesus will.
     Why do we get angry when we don’t hear the songs we like sung in church? Or when a sermon rattles our cages? Or when the leaders make a decision we don’t like, or fail to do or say what we think they should?
     It’s because we think the church exists to make us feel better. 
     Those folks trying to cobble together their own “spirituality” to help them deal just honestly don’t know the difference. We should know better.
     Our Scriptures tell us that Jesus “gave himself up for the church.” And, what…we can’t give up a couple hours a week? A little energy? A few prayers? A moment or two to cry with or laugh with one of those people for whom Christ gave himself up?
     I get it: nothing about your church is perfect. It’s not even close. Then again, neither are you. 
     You know what, though? The Bible tells us that Christ had a purpose for giving himself for the church, and part of that purpose is “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” We’re imperfect people, and together we make up an imperfect church, but Jesus is working on us even now. And, spoiler alert, at the end we all wind up looking pretty good. 
     Let that make you feel better.

     Until then, feeling better isn’t the point. Let’s be the church. Lots of people need us to be.  

Friday, July 5, 2019

God Bless America

Truly I am your servant, LORD;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.
  I will sacrifice a thank offering to you 
and call on the name of the LORD.   
-Psalm 116:16-17 (NIV)

Some thoughts on July 4th, American Independence Day (in no particular order)…
     I’m thankful that I live in a country in which I’m free to practice my faith. I’m thankful even that I’m allowed by my government to choose, when necessary, my faith in Jesus over loyalty to my country. I’m thankful that I’m allowed, if my faith demands, to be openly critical of my government. There are many places in the world where that isn’t possible. There are people in America who would restrict that particular freedom. I’m thankful that, with occasional lapses, that freedom has remained part of our identity.
     I’m thankful that no one is forced to share my faith. Faith becomes something else when it is coerced. Religion only becomes “the opiate of the masses” when it’s used as a tool of government. It becomes a means of conquest, oppression, and domination. Christianity thrives best in a context in which we’re out of power and outnumbered, in which there’s no political advantage in being a Christian. It’s when our motives are most pure, our mission most clear, and the necessity of trust in the Lord most apparent.    
     I’m thankful that justice is an important part of our national conscience. Though its wheels sometimes seem to turn infinitesimally slowly, they do turn. When voices cry out in complaint that they are marginalized, mistreated, and defrauded, our lawmakers — in time — respond. It almost never happens as quickly as we might like. It’s almost always more incremental than those who have suffered injustice deserve, and it almost never solves all of a marginalized population’s problems overnight. But it almost always happens, and when it does it opens the way for others who are the victims of injustice to finally have their day. Nearly all Americans today deeply regret the suffering of Native Americans, blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and a host of other ethnic and cultural minorities. Most of us hate injustice in any form (despite sometimes being complicit in it) —whether it be toward ethnic and racial minorities, children, the elderly, or the poor. A nation founded on subjugation and cruelty became a place of freedom and hope for millions. It continues to be a place of new beginnings for refugees across the world (Even when we don’t know how to welcome them). Our economic and justice systems, flawed as they are, make it possible for people to prosper in ways unimaginable in much of the world.
     I’m thankful that our country continually rises above its leaders. We’ve had some amazing leaders, certainly. But we’ve also had our share of despots, tyrants, and fools. When they’re in power, there are always voices that remind us that the emperor has no clothes. Sometimes they are of the minority party. Sometimes they take the form of grassroots movements or local initiatives. Sometimes, even, it has been the church that has spoken with a prophetic voice calling for sin to be removed from the palace. From whichever direction they come, they always come, and they convince, coerce, and shame us into actually being in some way or another the country that we like to tell ourselves we are.
     I’m thankful that loving our nation doesn’t require that we uncritically accept everything done in it and by it.
Despite the “love it or leave it” attitude some “patriots” take, America has always invited the critique of its citizens. We can protest, we can write, we can speak, we can contact our lawmakers. Our voices are unsuppressed, and we can raise them to call our nation to account. 
     So can those who disagree with us, and we can listen to them and learn why and how they disagree, and our nation can be that much stronger and broader and deeper.    
     I’m concerned, though.
     I’m concerned that we don’t listen to each other. I’m concerned that social media, which should have made national discourse easier, threatens to choke it out. Faced with a differing viewpoint, many of us now resort to unfriending, blocking, and in other ways metaphorically sticking our fingers in our ears so we don’t have to hear the voices dissonant from our own. It’s that national discourse on which our nation is built. From our origins, people with differing viewpoints and agendas have hammered together alliances in service of the greater good of freedom, justice, and opportunity. To lose that discourse now would be fatal to our nation.
     I’m concerned that our national identity as a land of opportunity is eroding, replaced with the conviction that we can Make America Great Again by strengthening our borders, fetishizing the military, raising tariffs, and protecting jobs. There seems to be a battle raging in our national conscience between our impulse to close ourselves off and surround ourselves with others like us and our understanding that it’s always been in our diversity that we’ve been at our best. We’ll never Make America Great Again by making it less diverse. I pray that we don’t forget that.
     The United States isn’t what we sometimes want to pretend it is. It’s not a Christian nation. (It borders on blasphemy to say so.) It’s not above criticism. Our national myth, that anyone in America who works hard enough can be prosperous and successful, is not true for very many of our citizens and those who come to our shores. Neither is the “hard work” part of the myth true for the percentage of our population that was born wealthy. We’re like many other powerful nations, full of contradictions. We speak of peace and freedom, but are built on bloodshed and oppression. We claim to be a land of opportunity, but deny that opportunity to many who could benefit the most from it. We have in some undeniable ways been blessed by God, and yet routinely deny that our blessings are from him. In some undeniable ways we stand under God’s judgment, and yet refuse to learn our lessons and turn from our sins. And so it shall be until the Lord returns.
     Today, as millions of Americans celebrate independence by taking a day off work, cooking out, going to the beach, watching fireworks, my friend Juan is working. He’s painting our church classrooms. When I asked him if he wanted to take the Fourth off he said he’d rather come to the building, if that was OK with me. “I don’t have any benefits,” he said. “I need to work.”
     As we celebrate our freedom, as we celebrate the good things about our nation, let’s remember that they are gifts of God. We don’t deserve them more than others. All we can do is thank our gracious God.
     And let’s remember Juan, and others like him: hard-working people for whom the American Dream is anything but a certainty, and who know that disaster is just a step away.

     When we ask for God’s blessings on America, may we also ask him to help us be as generous to people like Juan as he has been to us.

Friday, June 28, 2019

How Things Should Be

  The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   
-Luke 4:18-19 (NIV)

Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez was just 26 when he died. His daughter, Valeria, was just a month shy of 2 years old when she died with her arm around his neck. Their bodies were found last week in the shallow water and undergrowth along the bank of the Rio Grande, near Matamoros, Mexico. There was nothing between them and the United States but the river. It might as well have been a wall.
     Óscar left San Martin, El Salvador, in April, along with Valeria and his wife, Tania. They made it to Matamoros about a week ago, where they intended to apply for asylum in the US. That’s something to note about their case: they intended to enter the US legally. But they heard that Mexico would crack down on migrants in response to threats of trade tariffs from the States. They found that with the sheer number of asylum-seekers and the reductions in the number of migrants the US allows to apply for asylum each day, it could take weeks to even begin the process. That’s when they decided to cross the river and figure out what to do from there.
     Witnesses say Óscar took Valeria across while Tania waited on the Mexico side. He got Valeria safely to the US side, then went back for his wife. Valeria, unfortunately, went into the river after him. He went back to get her, and the current took them both.    
     Isabel Turcios, a nun who directs the Casa del Migrante shelter in Piedras Negras, has seen it many times. She says that those who work for her shelter warn migrants not to try their luck in the Rio Grande, but often their warnings aren’t heeded. “People get desperate and cannot keep waiting. They just want to cross.” 
     “They always tell me that if God wants them to make it then somehow they will make it. It’s not how things should be.”    
     No. No, it isn’t. I think surely everyone can understand that, can’t we? I mean, we’re told that there are rapists, murderers, and terrorists massing at our border, just waiting to get in and prey on us, the good people who live on the right side of the border. Strange, then, that what we keep hearing about are kids kept without their parents in abysmal conditions while the government — the one that’s of the people, for the people, and, oh yeah, by the people — wrangles in court over the definition of “safe and sanitary.” Our political leaders keep telling us about the dire consequences of migration to “our way of life” (Whose way? Defined by whom?) Strange that they can’t offer statistics for any of those dire consequences. Politicians win elections playing to our fear of an army of migrants coming across the border to invade our country.
     Strange that all we keep pulling out of the water are the bodies of toddlers holding on to their daddies. 
     Parents shouldn’t have to wade into a raging river to provide for and protect their children. But they will, you know they will if they’re desperate enough, because so would you. Sister Isabel is right, it’s not how things should be. But it’s how things are.
     As Christians, though, one thing we should be quite clear on is the difference, the Rio Grande-sized divide,  in our world between how things should be and how they are. We’ve always held that distinction in our minds. Our Scriptures and songs proclaim it. In fact, the central story of our faith is all about that wide discrepancy between things as they are and things as they should be.
     Sometimes we’ve dealt with that discrepancy by pointing to the coming of Christ as the time when things will be made right, when we’ll no longer have any use for that phrase, “It’s not how things should be.” There’s truth and hope in that, of course. But, to be honest, we’ve also sometimes used that hope as a way to stifle the objections of those who are hurt most by things not being as they should be. Some of us use that hope, in fact, to say that our faith has no place for those aspirations that things should be better. We should just buckle down, have faith, and not make trouble. “Our hope is not in this world,” after all. 
     The thing you might notice is that the Christians who say this with the most volume and conviction are often those who seem to have the most invested in the way things are, and who fear they’ll lose the most from how things should be
     Bruce Springsteen’s song of a few years ago, Matamoros Banks, seems prescient. Unfortunately, it’s just that what he was singing about back then hasn’t changed:
For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound…
Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
'Till every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same.
     But, really, did the one we follow think that the things of heaven and the things of earth should be so far apart? Did he teach us that it doesn’t matter if the inequities of where a person is born and how much money they have takes away every trace of who they ever were? Didn’t he teach us to pray, “Your Kingdom come/ Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? 
     Jesus came proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor;” that the blind could see, the oppressed could have relief, prisoners could go free, and that there was actually good news for the poor. We believe that time will be culminated and brought to completion when he returns, but we believe (because he believed) that it started when he came the first time. When he healed someone, when he raised the dead, when he showed love and compassion for the weakest in his world, when he died for our sins and rose for our redemption, he was proclaiming that the year of the Lord’s favor had commenced.
     How could those of us who follow him not do the same?
     I believe there is still hope in the gospel of Christ for Oscar and little Valeria. I believe a day is coming when they will wake to security, peace, and joy that they never found in this life. I hope I’ll get to meet them then, if only to see them smiling and laughing and enjoying being with each other and with Tania. But that hope doesn’t make it OK that they died, nor that some of us who wear Jesus’ name could shrug it off, or object that it’s just the way things are.
     Protest. Write decision-makers. Vote, or don’t vote. Those are the tools of a democracy. But we depend on something greater than that. Pray. Add words of hope, gospel words, to the debate. Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, then show our world what that looks like. It looks like love, grace, acceptance, compassion. 

     That’s how to begin to change the way things are into the way things should be.    

Friday, June 7, 2019


     For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. 
-Romans 12:4-6 (NIV)

A friend of mine emailed me about leaving his church recently. I have a lot of conversations about things like that. I guess people figure I’ll be interested because of what I do. 
     Anyway, he didn’t have any deep theological concerns about his decision to leave. No doctrinal worries, at least none that he expressed. He did talk a little about “pastoral vision,” but when I asked him to tell me more about that he really couldn’t seem to elaborate. 
     What really drove his decision to leave this church he had been a part of for a significant number of years seemed to boil down to the fact that this church didn’t offer some things he was looking for. He’s a good guy, a strong Christian with a solid faith. But it felt like he was making the decision to leave a group of believers with whom he had served and prayed and worshipped and laughed and wept for nearly a decade, over a couple of things that weren’t to his liking. Things that I suppose he could have started himself.
     Talking with him, the phrase in that text in Romans up at the top of this page came to mind: “each member belongs to all the others.” That might be a tough sell in our world; after all, we switch cable companies every couple of years to get the promotional rates. We change employers if we see a better opportunity for advancement. We’re loyal to brands only to the point that they disappoint us, and then we’re trying something else. We even end marriages sometimes because we meet someone we like better.
     It’s a little quaint, in a world like that, to talk about being so knitted together in Jesus that we have the sense of belonging to each other.
     Paul isn’t really saying there that we’re stuck with each other because we’re part of the same group. I mean, that’s true as well, but what he’s getting at is theologically more important. The comparison he’s making is with the human body; we all know that the parts of our bodies are interdependent. The brain knows when something needs to be picked up. It sends the electrical impulses down the nerves that move the muscles of the arm and hand to pick that thing up. But if there’s no hand to grasp it, then the brain’s best efforts amount to nothing. Your right hand won’t independently cut off a finger from your left hand. Your eyes won’t close while you’re walking down the street so that you run into a lamppost because you wouldn’t let them look longer at the flowers in the park you just passed. There’s no mutiny among the parts of your body because your body has been put together for the purpose of living, surviving, and thriving. 
     Paul’s saying that in the church we belong to each other like that. We belong to each other in the sense that we’re responsible to use our gifts for one another, and for the good of the church as a whole. I know that isn’t always easy to remember, but forgetting it doesn’t make it less true. 
     Right here is where church leaders sometimes want to use this body metaphor to manipulate members by saying something like, “So you members should do what we leaders tell you to do.” (We’re rarely that explicit, but I assure you we’re sometimes thinking exactly that…) The problem with that thinking, of course, is that it assumes church leaders are “in charge” like managers or CEOs or officers. I recall, however, that Jesus said something about leadership in the kingdom being done from a position of service. So I want to start unpacking this idea of belonging to each other by saying that church leaders belong to the church, and to the people we would lead. Our job is to help the church to grow in Christ; not command them, tell them what to do, or use their efforts for our own agendas. We listen, pray, sympathize, serve, demonstrate — then we teach and talk. “Belonging” is dangerous if it doesn’t start at the top.  
     In the church, adults belong to the children. Sometimes we rationalize that there are people in church who are “gifted” at working with children, and sometimes that’s true. Mostly, though, I find that those who are “gifted” at working with children are just those who choose to invest the time and effort in doing it. It’s a shame that in the church we have to coerce people to teach Sunday school or help in VBS or whatever. It’s a shame that we adults aren’t lining up to share our faith with what is potentially the next generation of the church; and what is, at the same time, potentially not. Children in the church aren’t a distraction, an inconvenience, or a special interest group best served by specialists in segregated Sunday schools or youth ministries. They’re a part of the church, and they need we who are more mature in years and in faith to look out for them. 
     In the church, young and old belong to each other. In opposition to a world that wants to segregate young and old with individualized marketing, forced retirement, and the mutual dismissiveness and distrust with which generations treat one another, we witness to a different reality. We believe that young and old need one another, that each is less without the other. We believe that our differing experiences of the world better inform our life together and make us better able to live out the gospel of Christ.
     In the church, conservative and liberal belong to each other. We don’t believe the false dichotomy that says the church has to be one or the other, that either label can accurately represent or encapsulate God’s kingdom. We don’t bow to the cultural pressure to demonize the other side. We don’t buy into the message that one or the other is the salvation of the world. We think that both conservative and liberal believers have something to bring to the table, as well as those with no political persuasion at all. We recognize that each helps us as Christ’s body to better understand the problems in our world and act as salt and light 
     In the church, those in the minority and those in the majority belong to each other. Those of us who have advantages in the world based on where we’re born, the color of our skin, our gender, our education, or the money we make recognize those advantages. We see them as resources, blessings from God that can be used on behalf of the church and the world. We use them especially for those who don’t have such advantages, following Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and the early church’s example of sharing in one another’s suffering. 
     We don’t leave when we get frustrated or discouraged. We don’t let “issues” separate us. We talk out disagreements, listen to each other, and try to understand. When we can’t agree, we go forward anyway as parts of the same body.
     It’s hard to commit to this way of thinking about one another when there are many other churches in close proximity to you. That, I suppose, is the reality my friend is running into. He’ll be a blessing, I’m sure, in whatever church he decides to attend next. I can’t help but think, though, of those believers he chose to walk away from. In what ways is that body less now because he chose not to belong?

     May we choose to belong, really belong, to the churches we’re a part of. Not as subscribers, consumers, or investors, but as indispensable parts of the body of Christ in those places.

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