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Friday, June 7, 2019

Belonging

     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.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Even If He Does Not

King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. ” 
-Daniel 3:16-18 (NIV)


I’ve been thinking a lot about the act of testimony lately. In a world that mostly seems to prefer that faith be a private matter that’s never discussed in polite company, how do we as God’s people find ways to speak about our experiences with God? If our friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even family members would prefer that we keep our faith to ourselves, is it even possible to testify about our belief that God exists and that he’s faithful, compassionate, and powerful? Who will hear us when we do if our testimony is perceived as transgressing some sort of boundary?
     Tyler Smith and Heather Brown have a testimony. Celebrating Senior Skip Day by swimming in the ocean at Vilano Beach, Florida, they found themselves caught in a current that took them two miles out to sea. For two hours, the teenagers fought to stay above the surface. They were growing weaker, suffering from hypothermia, and there was no one around to hear their cries for help.
     Smith prayed out loud for a boat to come by. He says he said something like, “If you really do have a plan for us, like, come on. Just bring something.” 
     Eric Wagner was bringing his boat from Delray to New Jersey when he and his crew thought they heard a scream over the sound of the wind and the waves. As they scanned the water around them, they saw an arm waving above the swells. They changed course and pulled the two wet, cold, tired teenagers out of the ocean, out of what had been looking more and more like an early grave. 
     “The first words that came out of my mouth were, 'God is real,'" Heather told reporters after she and Tyler were safe. Eric Wagner’s testimony goes like this: "There were too many coincidences, in my opinion, for this to be a coincidence. I truly believe it was divine intervention. It had nothing to do with me. I was just put there at the right place at the right time, and I did the same thing anyone else would have done, pulled them aboard.”
     Bless Tyler, Heather, and Eric for testifying to their belief in the power of God. They’re willing to ascribe to God acts of mercy and salvation that others would doubt or even scoff at. They’re willing to talk about their personal faith in a very public setting, and that’s never easy.
     But, indulge me: What if God hadn’t intervened?
     I’m glad he did, and I’m Eric, Tyler and Heather are willing to call it what it is and give God the glory. But what if God had not done whatever he did to get that boat where Tyler and Heather needed it to be?
     I ask that because a lot of God’s people through the ages have discovered that God doesn’t always intervene in such a convenient and miraculous way. Think of Job. Think of the prophets who suffered for their willingness to be the line of communication between their people and God. Think of Jesus, who wasn’t plucked out of the grasp of death at the eleventh hour.  
     Think of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, three young guys who probably weren’t much more than teenagers themselves. We know how their story ended, of course, but they didn’t know. They didn’t wait to see if God would deliver them before they found their voice. They testified to an already-angry king that they had no doubt their God was able to deliver them, that he could set them free. But they didn’t tie their obedience to God doing anything. “Even if he does not…,” they vowed, “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold…”
     It’s great to testify when God does something wonderful. But if that’s the only time we have something to say about him, then testimony is only for those who God rescues dramatically.
     We can and should, however, testify “even if he does not.”  
     I get what Heather was saying, and I don’t have a problem with her saying it. But, of course, God is real whether he saved Heather and Tyler or not. We need to be able to say that.
     Lament and protest are a biblical way for God’s people to relate to God. It’s all through the psalms, if you don’t skip over it: complaints that God isn’t doing more (Psalm 74:11), questions of “how long?” (Psalm 13:1) and “Why?” (Psalm 44:24). But the psalmists are always asking those questions and making those complaints to God. This isn’t the existential doubt that seems so romantic and fashionable today, even among people who call themselves believers. These people of God believe that he exists and that he’s good, and so they’re trying to make sense of what’s gone wrong in their world. They’re determined to praise him and worship him, even if they aren’t sure at a given moment how they’re going to manage it.
     God’s people don’t believe because we understand his good reasons for the pervasive, capricious, and gratuitous suffering in the world. We know who he is, and so we trust his intentions for creation and within creation. We trust that he can save us and will save us even when he does not. We testify to his compassion and grace and power even when at a given moment we can see no evidence of it. 
     That’s why the psalmists worship even as they protest and complain; their feelings about what’s happening to them shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should they be allowed to determine whether they believe.   
     That’s why those three boys in Babylon said they wouldn’t give up on God even if he didn’t save them.
     That’s why Job kept after God, even though he had no hope of understanding what was happening to him.
     That’s why Jesus could weep and beg in the Garden and still say “Not what I will, but what you will."
    We weep over the condition of our world. We lash out over the pain in our lives and the lives of the people around us. We despair of ever understanding it or even being OK with it. We protest that God hasn’t done anything about it.
     When we do, we’re in good company. 
     Sometimes lament and protest are our best testimony: they speak volumes about our belief that God is all about justice, righteousness, peace, love, and healing. They show that there are no strings on our faith: we put our trust and hope in God even in those moments when doing so doesn’t save us. 
     When God rescues you, talk about it like Tyler, Heather, and Eric did. But don’t imagine that’s the only testimony you have. 
     Say you’ll worship him only, even if he does not rescue you. Worship him when your faith is messy, ugly, and unsettled. God doesn’t need us to prove to someone else how great he is. He wants us to speak about our walk with him, even when we don’t have much to say that we consider good. There’s someone else who needs to hear that God is loving, compassionate, full of grace and mercy, and that he can and will save.

     Even when…especially when…he, for a moment, does not.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Power of Wow

All your works praise you, LORD;
your faithful people extol  you. 
They tell of the glory of your kingdom 
and speak of your might, 
so that all people may know of your mighty acts 
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom….  
My mouth will speak in praise of the LORD.
Let every creature  praise his holy name 
forever and ever. 
-Psalm 145:10-13, 21 (NIV)


The Handel and Haydn Society in Boston is no collection of lightweights. An orchestra and chorus that performs  Baroque and Classical music for over 50,000 people each year at Boston’s Symphony Hall, they’re accustomed to all sorts of audience reactions. But even President and CEO David Snead was taken by surprise by the reaction of one audience member at a recent performance, a reaction very out of character for H+H’s typical audience.
     At the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, very clearly, Snead heard someone in the audience shout one word: “Wow.”  
     "There's a sense of wonder in that ‘wow,’” Snead would later say. “You could really hear on the tape he was like, 'This was amazing.’ 
     “He really touched my life in a way that I’ll never forget,” Snead says. He was so touched by the response , in fact, that he decided to try to find out whose outburst it was. Therein, as you might have guessed, lies a story.
     Snead sent an email to everyone in the audience that night. Stephen Mattin read it and immediately knew who Snead was looking for. He had been at that performance with his 9-year-old grandson, Ronan, and Ronan was the one who had surprised and won over Snead with his heartfelt response to the orchestra’s performance of Mozart’s piece.
     Snead wasn’t the only one surprised, though. Mattin had been as well when Ronan shouted his amazement. "He just doesn't do that. You know, usually he's in a world by himself," Stephen explained"I can count on one hand the number of times that [he's] spontaneously ever come out with some expression of how he's feeling,"
     Ronan is autistic, you see, and is considered non-verbal. 
     Keep in mind that Snead didn’t know that when he was first impressed by Ronan’s response. I’m sure it meant even more to him when he discovered that Ronan doesn’t usually speak at all, but it had an effect on him when he knew nothing about the person who had reacted to that piece of music. Ronan’s heartfelt “Wow” touched Snead’s heart in a way that a critic’s analysis of the music or the more conventional response of the Society’s usual audience wasn’t able to. It was honest, genuine, and empty of pretense or ulterior motive. That one “wow” had power.
     I remember as a teenager being taught in church that I should share my faith. I was kind of convicted at the time that I didn’t talk much about my faith in my day-to-day life, and one day in a Sunday school class a teacher shared with us a “secret” that I really thought was going to give me the edge I needed. He took us through our Bibles and had us highlight Bible verses that he said would help us convince people that they needed Jesus. At each highlighted verse, he had us write a marginal note that would take us to the next verse, and the next, etc. 
     I don’t remember trying to use those verses on my friends, to be honest. (Some of my friends might have been tougher nuts to crack than that…) I do still have the Bible, though, and paging through I notice that almost all of the verses are in Acts or in Paul’s letters. No disrespect to that teacher intended — he’s to be commended for trying to get teenagers to talk about Jesus with their peers — but how were we supposed to tell people about Jesus without, you know, at least referencing the parts of the Bible that describe the life and teachings of Jesus?  
     Maybe that’s why I didn’t, and maybe that’s one of the reasons the church today doesn’t seem to do much of a job of sharing our faith. Maybe we’re leaving out Jesus?
     I love the psalmist’s conviction that he should “speak in praise of the LORD.” He knows that God doesn’t really need him to testify — God’s works praise him, after all. But his faithful people do as well, and so the psalmist needs to. Earlier in the psalm, he resolves that he’ll join in the chain of generations commending God’s works to the next generation: he’ll “proclaim [God’s] great deeds” and “joyfully sing of [God’s] righteousness.” He doesn’t need anyone to give him a chain of Bible verses that will convince those who doubt with its unassailable logic. He only needs to respond out loud to the wonderful things he’s experienced from God. 
     In short, he just needs to hear the music and shout “Wow.”
     “Wow” has power. It’s unassuming, but it has weight. “Wow” isn’t about convincing someone else to see things your way. It doesn’t question someone else’s intelligence. It doesn’t come from a place of superiority or holier-than-thou-ness. “Wow” is what someone says when they’re so floored by what they’re seeing that they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it or talk about it. 
     Listen, church: any God that we have the vocabulary to adequately describe, categorize, and explain is not a God worth our time or efforts.
     On our vacation to Oregon a couple of weeks ago, we took a dune buggy ride. I know. I didn’t know there were sand dunes in Oregon either. But we set off down this trail through the woods, and suddenly we come out on this huge expanse of rolling dunes, blue sky, and ocean beyond. And I look over, and my wife sitting beside me is smiling under her goggles, and she makes this motion with her hands like she’s clapping. I suspect, in her head and heart, she was saying “Wow.”
     An explanation of sand dunes wouldn’t have done much for her at that moment. Neither would someone asking her to pick through a handful of sand from those dunes. Surely she would’ve paid no attention to someone trying to tell her what she was looking at wasn’t really so great. There she sat, applauding God.    
     I know, it feels like we live in a skeptical world. But that’s just because they aren’t hearing enough people saying, “Wow, look what God has done in Jesus!” So let’s not feel the need to convince, debate, win arguments. Let’s not confuse our responsibility to speak of the Lord’s wonderful acts with something as mundane as political debate or a legislative agenda. If we can’t say “Wow” to the gospel story, then maybe we’ve lost track of that story. If we can’t experience God’s grace in all the forms it takes in our lives and respond by praising him and thanking him in the hearing of the people we work with and learn with and live with each day, then maybe we’ve lost sight of his grace entirely. Let’s go back to God, to Jesus, to the gospel until we can say “wow” again.

     Who knows what lives your “Wow” might touch?

Friday, May 17, 2019

Antique Shop

…[T]hey rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here.… They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”. 
-Acts 17:5-7 (NIV)


In a little town on the Oregon Coast called Rockaway, there’s a little antique store just by Highway 101 as it goes through town. The name of the store, for reasons that are obvious at a glance, is Little White Church Antiques.    
     Little White Church Antiques is a charming little shop, full of the things that only small-town antique stores have in stock. It’s neat, clean, attractive, and no doubt stuffed to the rafters with antiques. It also has a steeple and bell tower still intact. It was a church. Today it sells antiques.
     I have no idea what happened to the church that used to gather in that building, the group of Jesus followers who used to worship, share communion, baptize, marry, and bury there. For all I know, they’re still a thriving community of faith meeting in a better building across town. But the shop rubbed me the wrong way, still. It made me uneasy and I couldn’t explain why immediately. But now I think I know what I didn’t like about it.
     Seeing that shop started me thinking that antique-peddling is a stage of life — or death — that most every church has to push hard against.
     I’ve always been a little uncomfortable when I’ve read the account in Acts of Paul and Silas and their associates in Thessalonica. See, I’m partially the product of a world and culture that preaches tolerance. I’m a big proponent of churches being loved and appreciated by their neighbors, and I like to think that if we’re just good enough neighbors then people will eventually see what great folks we are and just flock to our doors.  
     That isn’t the attitude the church in Thessalonica seemed to have, though.
     I do think that churches should be good neighbors, and I imagine the church in Thessalonica did too. But that isn’t all that they thought they were supposed to be up to in their city. They thought they were supposed to be telling their neighbors about Jesus, and that kind of got them into some trouble. 
     Well, “some trouble” might be an understatement. What happened is more like they caused a riot.
     Now, hold on, before you run off and create a scene that the police need tear gas and rubber bullets to break up, take a breath and keep in mind that the objections some folks in Thessalonica might have had were motivated by jealousy. There was bad faith involved. But what they accused the church of wasn’t altogether wrong. They grabbed some of the Christians they could get their hands on and brought them to the authorities accusing them of “causing trouble all over the world” and “saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”
     I read this week somewhere that the most persecuted religious group in the world at this time in history are Christians. I imagine there could be some debate about that, but some data over the last month or so suggests that there’s something to it. I don’t mean, let me hasten to add, the kind of persecution that American Christians sometimes complain about: this is a little more than being pressured to bake a cake for a wedding you don’t approve of or hearing “Happy Holidays” when you’d rather hear “Merry Christmas.” I mean the kind of persecution that the church in Thessalonica had to deal with that day, the kind where you’re brought before government officials and essentially accused of treason. The kind where your life is in danger.
     People who say that Jesus isn’t political clearly weren’t in Thessalonica that day, were they?
     Presumably, those Christians knew about being good neighbors. But they also knew that they needed to tell their neighbors that Jesus is king — and that the kingdom in which they were putting their hope was empty and futile. Because when you believe that a regime change is coming, you have to say so, don’t you? Even when it makes things uncomfortable.
     Seeing that antique shop in that little white church makes me wonder if a lot of us in churches aren’t already trying to sell antiques to our neighbors.
     Have you ever walked into a church and had the sense of going back in time? Like, you look around you and it looks like nothing has changed in 50, 60 years? You hear what people are talking about, and it really seems like literally nothing has changed? Ever been in a church where maybe they were even proud of the fact that nothing had changed? Or maybe things have changed, but only in an effort to put bodies in seats. 
     Look, if nothing has appreciably changed in our churches for 50 years, then we’re just selling nostalgia. We’re peddling antiques. We’re trying to get people to buy a piece of a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s fun to swing an old golf club from the era when a “wood” was really made of wood. It’s fun to poke around in old magazines and old jewelry. It’s nothing to base a faith system on, though.
     When you preach that Jesus is king and that his kingdom is even now upsetting the rules and priorities and loyalties of the world we live in, it tends to upset things.
     Selling antiques never upsets things. People love antiques.
     People don’t always love Jesus. They don’t always love what he does to their lives, to their worlds, to their prejudices, to their self-centeredness, to their certainty that they have the world all figured out. But that’s why we need him; he tells us when we’re depending on the wrong kings and investing in the wrong treasures.
     And that’s why the church can never stop calling out the names of false emperors and unworthy treasures. More importantly, it’s why we can never stop announcing that there is another king. One called Jesus.  
     We’re no good to our world if all we’re doing is peddling antiques. We’re no good to them if we’re replacing Jesus with a quaint, nostalgic “gospel” that locates salvation in the Christianity or the America or the economy of times gone by. Our king is Jesus, and if our churches are looking more and more like antique shops then the answer is for us to remember the name of our king and to lose our fear of speaking it to our world. 
     Not in arrogance, hatred, and superiority: those are the tactics of other kings and other kingdoms. 
     In love, and with grace, and accompanied by the acts of kindness, mercy, and generosity that are the marks of our king.
     It will cause trouble; then again, our brothers and who are being persecuted sisters all over the world will testify to the fact that Jesus has always caused trouble.

     Still; it’s better than selling antiques.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Love the Family

Love the family of believers. 
-1 Peter 2:17 (NIV)


Imagine a family where being together isn’t prioritized. Where other responsibilities — or maybe just a preference to spend time doing other things — crowd out family time. Imagine a family that trains its younger generation to put other things first as well.
     Imagine a family where cliques and factions become more important than the family as a whole, where the family name is brought into disrepute by all the squabbles, infighting, and division. Imagine a family that thinks its differences are more important than its shared bloodline, history and values as a family.
     Imagine a family that thinks success for one part is failure for another. Imagine a family that thinks every member must hold all the same opinions and convictions and do everything in the same way in order to remain a part of the family.
     Imagine a family in which the vulnerable are preyed upon while the predators are protected.
     Imagine a family that crushes members who are in pain under the weight of expectation, guilt, and judgment. Now imagine that same family celebrating the success of its most manipulative, deceitful, and abusive members.  
     Imagine a family where there is no expectation that members will be truly a part of family life. Imagine a family in which family members only share in the life of the family when they’re nagged, cajoled, and guilted into it.
     Imagine a family where a few people do everything. The other members of the family stop by now and then and enjoy the benefits of the others’ work. Imagine a family where the people who do most of the work simmer in resentment of the others instead of encouraging and helping the others to take responsibility as well.
     Imagine a family in which every person expects that everything in the family’s life together will be done to his or her liking. Imagine a family in which everyone considers him or herself an expert on every topic.
     Imagine a family where problems and disagreements are addressed, not by communication, but by avoidance. Imagine a family where members simply choose to not be part of the family anymore rather than deal with those with whom they don’t see eye-to-eye.
     Imagine a family that’s segregated by race, ethnicity, and language. Imagine a family in which those with money or education look down on those without, and vice versa. Imagine a family in which differences provide lines for division instead of opportunities for learning, understanding, and growth.
     Imagine a family in which there’s no concern for the younger generation, the future of the family. Imagine that the children aren’t taught the family’s values or instructed in treasuring what the family calls important. Imagine, if you can, a family that routinely stifles the passion and potential of young adulthood, that constantly requires the up-and-comers to earn their place at the table through years of silent service to the agendas and whims of their elders. 
     Imagine a family where there’s no respect for ancestors. Imagine a family where the younger generation demands that their voices be heard by denigrating and devaluing the experiences and earned wisdom of the older. Imagine a family in which those who are older are consigned to the trash heap because they aren’t as hip, exciting, or energetic as they used to be. Imagine that they’re mocked because they refuse to embrace the latest and greatest. Imagine a family in which the younger generation demeans the hard work and sacrifice of those who have come before — the hard work and sacrifice that has built the family as they know it.
      A family like the one I’m describing wouldn’t remain viable very long. It wouldn’t do a very good job of providing safety and security for its members. It would be no surprise if its younger members didn’t learn the lessons they needed to learn to thrive, and if they passed on the pain they had suffered to future generations. It wouldn’t be unexpected if members didn’t grow bitter, angry, and suspicious as they got older. Dysfunction like I’m describing would reproduce itself from generation to generation until it erased anything healthy, constructive, or life-giving.
     When Peter tells us to “love the family of believers,” he doesn’t mean that the church ought to talk a lot about being a family. He doesn’t mean that we should call each other “brother” and “sister” at church and then go about the rest of our weeks as if our sisters and brothers don’t exist. Those words come shortly after he demands that we “live such good lives among the pagans that…they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” How we treat each other in the church is part of the kind of life that should build a bridge between this world and the world God is creating for us to enjoy with him forever. How we live together in church, in short, ought to be a teaser for what life together will look like then, when Christ returns and abolishes everything that causes families to implode and collapse.
     Too often, perhaps, it’s just the opposite. Too often, the way the church has treated one another has done nothing to give “the pagans” hope for a different kind of world, a different kind of life, a different kind of family. At times, we’ve even topped the pagans in family dysfunction.
     The good news is, your church can be different. The failings of the historical church don’t have to be the failings of each individual local expression of the church. Your church can love one another. Your church can be the family that it ought to be. You can take care of each other. You can respect each other. You can disagree without diminishing each other. You can solve the problems that come up in every family by working together and affirming what holds you together. You can see diversity in age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, and economics as a good thing that will better help you understand one another and the world in which we live. You can create together a place of safety, joy, and peace. You can be a family in which every member does the work God has called them to do in the world, encouraged and equipped by every other member.
     Your church can be that kind of family, and it can begin with you being that kind of family member. You don’t need your leaders’ permission to love the family of believers. You can start right now.
     Imagine what kind of family you can create.



One New Humanity

…[H]e himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
-Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV)


Angela came to North America in the same way millions of people have through the centuries: against her will. She arrived in 1619 at the Jamestown colony, already the victim of war, a miserable transatlantic crossing, and an attack by pirates. She seems to have been the first, or at the very least one of the first few, Africans brought as slaves to what would become America.
     Angela isn’t her real name, of course; only her Anglicized one. She was taken during a war in Kongo, in West Africa, part of the “cargo” of Portuguese slave traders intended for a colony in Vera Cruz,  Mexico. More than 120 Africans died on the ship from the overcrowded conditions alone. The Portuguese ship was attacked en route by British pirates on two ships, The Treasurer and The White Lion. Angela was taken aboard The Treasurer and eventually to Jamestown, where she was traded for food.    
     We know from census records that she ended up in the household of Captain William Pierce. She survived a Powhatan attack on the colony that left 347 colonists dead, and a famine that followed. So far, we don’t know much more about Angela. 
     We don’t know anything about her life in Kongo. Presumably, she was treated like a person there. In North America, she was treated as currency. Or property. Here, her value was determined by her labor or her equivalent in food. As a person, innately, she had no value. 
     The same year she arrived in Jamestown, 1619, was also the year of the meeting of the first General Assembly in Jamestown. That assembly has been called “the oldest continuous law-making body in the western hemisphere.” So, literally, slavery in America is as old as democracy. 
     On this year's 400th anniversary of the arrival — the forced arrival, lest we think they had a choice in the matter — of Angela and those like her in America, researchers are hard at work trying to reconstruct all the historical facts they can about her capture, her voyage, and her life in America. James Horn, a historian and president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, explains his interest in Angela as “being able to put a name to her and identify her in a place.” 
     I think that’s commendable, of course, and I do hope we learn much more about Angela.
     I just wish it hadn’t taken us as long as it did to care about her, and people like her.
     If someone had put a name to Angela long ago, maybe she wouldn’t have been traded as currency for food. Maybe she would never have been ripped out of her homeland, away from family and friends and the only life she had ever known. Maybe she would have built a life for herself there, married and had children and grown old and been buried there like her ancestors had been. Instead, she was forcibly relocated to a place that would never be her home, forced to redefine her life as the possession of someone else.
     That’s the only way, of course, a normal human being can mistreat other human beings: forget they have a name, forget they have intrinsic value, forget they have a past and a family and hopes and dreams for the future. 
     Slaveowners were able to tell themselves that they were bettering their slaves’ lives; after all, they taught them to read (sometimes), taught them the Bible, taught them to dress in Western clothing. The inherent bias that the way of life they forced on those slaves was an improvement — even in captivity — over their previous lives is breathtaking.
     We still do it, of course. We convince ourselves that some people are “other”. The non-working poor are lazy parasites. Immigrants are invaders threatening our way of life. Muslims are radicals looking to subvert our laws with Islamic Sharia. Democrats are socialists, Republicans are fascists, homosexuals are perverts laying in wait for our children. It seems the rule in our world is to dehumanize people who are different from us. Even, maybe especially, in the church.
     But we didn’t learn that from Jesus. What we learned, Paul says, or should have learned, is that in Jesus God wasn’t trying to separate good from bad, sinner from saint, right from wrong, approved from non-approved. Though sometimes we use Jesus in that way, that wasn’t God’s intent. Paul uses one of the most complicated social distinctions the church could wrestle with, Jew vs. Gentile, to show that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God was actually creating one, new united humanity. He intended to erase the things that keep us separated — not the things themselves, but the “commands and regulations” based on those differences that keep us from making peace. He set them aside “in his flesh.” “In his body,” he reconciled all people to God through the cross. As he died, so was human hostility intended to die, the kind of hostility that denies someone a name and a right to self-determination. 
     If we all need the death of Jesus to reconcile us to God, maybe we aren’t all that different. Jew/Gentile, white/black, gay/straight, sinner/saint, Democrat/Republican — at the level ground around the cross, it’s hard to tell us apart, isn’t it? We’re all people in need of God’s grace.
     So as we enjoy God’s grace, may we show it to others who need it too. As we are reconciled to God through Jesus, may we try our best to be reconciled to other people. As we do, we’ll become what we were intended to be: a holy temple  in the Lord” and “a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”     
     We’re all people who matter enough to Jesus that he died for us. We’re all people with names and stories that God cares deeply about, names and stories too holy and too important to be lost. Let’s be sure that we put names to each other. 

     And let’s never forget that, whatever other names we may be called, the goal is we will all be called by Jesus’ name one day.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Church Building

      …[S]ince we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. 
-Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)


Like most everyone, I guess, I watched the fire at Notre Dame cathedral early this week with a mixture of shock and sadness. I thought back to standing in that magnificent building with my wife and son a few years ago, and about how that experience affected me in a way I can't really articulate or explain. As the week went on, other voices reminded me of churches built by black Americans burned intentionally in our own country. I thought of Pilgrim Baptist Church in the Bronzeville neighborhood of my own city, a church that was central to the Civil Rights Movement and that also burned accidentally in 2006. 
     In truth, I’ve always been interested in churches. I was saddened by those racially-motivated burnings, and by the loss of so much of the history of both gospel music and the Civil Rights Movement at Pilgrim Baptist. I can’t deny, though, that the Notre Dame fire seemed “bigger” to me, somehow. I wondered what it was about an ancient cathedral on the other side of the world that caught my attention so dramatically. 
     It’s strange that churches interest me. There’s a section of our Christmas tree every year reserved for my church ornaments. I like visiting churches when we travel — historically significant ones, and not so much. I know, I’m a minister; it might not seem like that big a stretch that I’m interested churches. I grew up, though, hearing over and over that “the church is not a building; the church is people.” We didn’t meet at a church; we were the church. We met at a church building. (I still have this compulsion to add the word “building” any time I refer to a structure as a “church.”) The joke was that if you were in a strange town and you wanted to find a Church of Christ, just drive around and look for the ugliest building in town. That would be us. (That’s just as often not true, however.)  
     I still agree that the church is people. (Not, however, in the same way that Soylent Green is people…) The church in the New Testament, of course, didn’t even own buildings; it doesn’t seem like that happened much for 300 years or so, until Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. I’ve met with the church in homes, schools, and funeral homes. I do believe that it’s a mistake to associate the church too closely with a building, and indeed sometimes it feels like we’d be better witnesses for Christ if we’d just do away with owning buildings entirely. (They certainly cost a lot of money.)
     So why in the world did I care about the Notre Dame fire? Why do I run my family ragged visiting churches when we travel? I’ve been thinking about that all week, and I think I’ve figured it out.
     Churches — the buildings, I mean — are the history of the church’s — the people, I mean — engagement with the world. People of faith built those structures to say something. Look at the way Notre Dame’s bell towers raise the eye upward, above the life bustling around them. Or the way the bells have drawn the attention of generations of Parisians to the things of God. The art housed in churches reminds us of what earlier generations of believers thought was important enough to be memorialized. The crypts preserve the remains and the names of some of those believers. I think maybe it’s appropriate that one day, when Jesus returns and the graves are opened, a lot of those who died in Christ will awaken in church. 
     Churches remind us that the church — the people — is a spiritual body that exists in a physical world. They remind us that we follow a Lord who lived in a physical world, and that in fact that’s where our salvation lies. The “pioneer” of our faith blazed the trails and laid down the foundations for us in this world. Our hope isn’t that one day we’ll be delivered from this world. It’s that we’ll be part of a redeemed and restored creation. Building churches seems to be one of the ways we acknowledge that hope, one of the ways we anticipate that day’s coming. 
     Building a church reminds me a little of Jeremiah’s message to Israel that they should build houses in exile and settle in and be good neighbors. God promised them they’d be going back to the Promised Land eventually. Until then, he wanted them engaged in the world they were part of.  
     Building churches — buildings — is one way the church — the people — through the centuries has tried to engage with the world around them. Even those of us who look at “the church building” with a utilitarian frame of mind recognize that. As simple as it may be, we still have a building. We still want a building. We still believe that a physical location helps us in proclaiming and living out the gospel of Christ. 
    As we celebrate Easter this week, we will more than likely meet with other believers at a brick and mortar building. We’ll proclaim our belief again that Jesus was raised from the dead, that his flesh-and-blood body was given life, that a physical stone was rolled away, and that he walked out of a real tomb. We’ll say again that our faith is in a Savior who lived among us, died for us, and was raised to life for our redemption. 
     And people can come to our buildings and hear us say this. They can hear this story rehearsed again sitting in seats, surrounded by walls and windows, sheltered by a roof. Our voices will echo off drywall or stone or acoustical tile. They’ll see us, real human beings who suffer what they suffer and yet find strength and hope in a Savior who suffered too. And they’ll see, hopefully, how we live among them in the way Jesus did, and that even though our hope is not in this world, we are here in words and acts of grace, mercy, and love. 
     We’re not somehow more the church when we’re at the building. Neither are we less a church if we don’t have one. God’s work is certainly not confined to “the church building,” or even happen primarily there. Of course, we have the responsibility to be more in our world than caretakers of the edifices we construct.
      But let’s be reminded by our Lord’s resurrection that we’re people of the resurrection living in a world of death. Let our presence be real. Let’s not pass through our neighborhoods; let’s build and settle down and be a part of those neighborhoods. May our neighbors know what the insides of our buildings look like. May they feel at home in those buildings, and may they experience there real love and hospitality. 

     For their sake, may we be the church in our churches.

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