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Friday, January 25, 2019

Salt

     You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
-Matthew 5:13 (NIV)


If you don’t live in Chicago, then brace yourself; I’m going to tell you something about this city that you might not know.
     Sometimes it snows here.
     No kidding. That’s the price we pay, I guess, for excellent pizza, a beautiful skyline, and two Major League Baseball teams that have rolled up a grand total of two championships between them in the last century. 
     Yes, sometimes it snows. Sometimes it even snows a lot, and when it does being a good neighbor takes on a very practical dimension. In Chicago in the winter, good neighbors keep their sidewalks clear. 
     The sidewalks in front of my house and my church, for instance, are part of a popular path to and from the Montrose Blue Line station. (That’s the commuter train, for those who don’t speak Chicagoese.) If our sidewalks aren’t clear, people start to notice. I go from being “that nice guy on the corner” to “that idiot who doesn’t clear his sidewalk” in about two days’ time. 
     Clearing sidewalks, though, is pretty straightforward. All you need is a good shovel. A snow blower helps if there’s a lot of snow or a lot of sidewalk, or both. One other thing: you need some salt. Most people use calcium chloride these days, but that’s a salt too. Throw down a little salt and the leftover snow and ice will melt right off.
     I know Jesus didn’t live in a particularly snowy latitude. Still, almost every time I toss some salt on my sidewalk, I think of Jesus’ words: “You are the salt of the earth.” 
     Jesus said those words to people who wanted to be his disciples, who wanted to apprentice themselves to him and learn to see and relate to the world the way he taught. His “salt of the earth” metaphor was, I guess, a way to stress to them that in following him they would make a difference in the world. He wasn’t really telling them to go figure out how to be the salt of the earth. He wanted them to know that if they did what he did and said what he said, their influence would be significant. The difference they made would be tangible and observable. But there’s also a warning there, right? If his followers were to go out into the world without any intention of doing things his way, they would be worthless for the work of the kingdom in the world. 
     People used salt for flavoring food in Jesus’ day, the same as we do. But they also used it — and maybe even most frequently — as a preservative. For us, the preservative nature of salt is sort of behind-the-scenes and not something we pay much attention to anymore. But we have this other use for it that resonates with me, and maybe it will with you as well.
     I was thinking of it this way recently: we live in a world where relationships between people seem frayed, broken, and adversarial by default. We’re divided along most every line we can imagine. But even those aren’t enough; we even create other lines, other barriers, other reasons to be divided. We’re so divided that our government can’t even function right now. We’re so divided that we have a hard time listening to positions and opinions that differ from our own. We’re so divided that the sight of a red baseball cap or a yellow vest can create pandemonium. We’re so divided that people routinely feel threatened or feared because of the way they look, speak, or dress.
     How to be “salt of the earth” in a world like ours? 
     Well, seems to me we have a couple of options. One is to cluster in our churches and congratulate each other on our saltiness. We can stroke each others’ egos, massage each others’ wounded pride, join our voices together in chorus to condemn our world and bemoan the fact that we can’t all get along. “If only they’d come and be salt with us,” we can commiserate. “If only those folks out there would see that we have the answers.”
     Most of the time, I have bags of salt stockpiled and ready to go. You know what? I’ve never heard them saying anything to each other. When I open the bags, the salt inside isn’t much to look at. But as soon as it gets in contact with the snow and ice, things start happening. You can hear it first: loud cracks and pops as the ice starts thawing and fracturing. Then you start seeing pools of water. As soon as that salt gets out onto the sidewalks, it starts to have an effect. That effect isn’t in the salt itself, but in the interaction between the salt and the ice.
     If it’s true, as we sometimes say, that our churches aren’t having any effect in our world, then that’s a problem that I know how to solve. It’s really very easy and straightforward: get out on the sidewalk. That’s our second option: let’s get in contact with the world around us, with all its hostility and anger and fear and downright hate. Let’s put ourselves out there. Salt has an effect on ice and snow, and if we’ll follow Jesus out into the world I can promise you that we’ll have an effect, too. 
     But maybe the problem is really that we’re just not having the effect we think we’re supposed to have. Listen to me now: Jesus doesn’t make it our responsibility to “convert” people, to “win souls,” to rack up baptisms or commitments to Christ or whatever terms we want to use. When we think that’s the effect we’re supposed to have, we’re going to be disappointed when things don’t work that way. And we’re likely to make the mistake of thinking that we have to be smarter or more persuasive or more attractive, and suddenly it’s all about us. It’s up to us to draw them in, to convince them that we’re right, to win the arguments. And it’s a short hop from there to being just another voice raised to defend just another ideology.
     Jesus said that salt that loses its saltiness isn’t good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Thing is, of course, that being trampled underfoot is the point for the salt I throw out on my sidewalk. That’s what it’s for. And if we learn anything from following Jesus, it’s that being trampled underfoot might be the point for us, too. That’s frequently how we do what we’re supposed to do in the world: by sacrificing ourselves. By loving those who rail against us, by serving those who see themselves as our enemies, and by responding to hatred, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation with the grace, forgiveness, and compassion we’ve learned from Jesus, we start to thaw the hostility in our world. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Why should our world ever believe that “God so loved the world” if they don’t see his kind of love in us?
     Remember our function as salt for the earth when you go to work or school. Remember it when you deal with your neighbors. Remember it at church, at community events. Remember it when you post on social media. When you follow Jesus, the energy of the gospel is freed and focused by your loving interaction with the world around you. You can’t help but make a difference in your world, because when you follow Jesus you are the salt of the earth.

     And through you, Jesus will show the people around you the way to walk. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

All Things to All People

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible...I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
-1 Corinthians 9:19, 23 (NIV)


I was a rebel, and the nice lady at church was just concerned about me.
     This was about 1984 or ‘85, and the life choice I had made pushed firmly against the way things were and the way things were done at the mostly white, suburban, upper-middle-class church I had been a part of for most of my life. I was baptized there, was involved in the youth group, and beginning to – mostly – take my faith seriously. But what I had done threatened to compromise all of that. This lady saw it and was only trying to spare me from the dire consequences of my backsliding.
     That’s why she wrote the letter.
     Her tone was earnest. Her words obviously chosen carefully. She made it clear that her concern came out of love for me and my family and a desire to see me make the changes in my life I needed to make. But she was unequivocal and bold about telling me what those changes were. I was compromising my faith and my standards, not to mention bringing disrepute upon the church and being a bad example to others.
     The earring had to go.
     Perhaps you’re disappointed. Perhaps you were looking forward to some scandalous details about the preacher’s teen years. While I won’t say there are none, the scandal this lady’s letter was concerned with was my choice a few days or weeks before to get my ear pierced. (At the mall, as I recall. I tried to do it all hard and tough at a friend’s house, but the girl who volunteered to run the sewing needle through my earlobe lost her nerve about halfway through and I almost passed out. You know who you are, Tiffany.)
     I started thinking about that letter because of a new survey done by Lifeway Research that has some interesting things to say about young adults and church.
     The study is a follow-up to one released in 2007. In both, young adults who had attended church regularly in high school were asked if they had stopped attending for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. In 2007, 70% stopped for a year. In the study released this year, 66% had stopped. 
     In both studies, those who said they had stopped attending were asked to choose from a list of reasons why they stopped – as many as they wanted.  The top reason chosen was simply the fact of moving away from home (34%). But almost as significant statistically were the reasons chosen second through fourth most often. They were, in order: “Church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical” (32%), “I didn’t feel connected to people in my church” (29%), and “I disagreed with the church’s stance on political/social issues” (25%).
     In short, three of the top four reasons young adults stopped attending church had to do with their perceptions of the people at church around them.
     The reasons people have from walking away from church always have been and I guess always will be hard to pin down. But it’s kind of undeniable that the way the believers in the pews around them treated them, or their perceptions of that treatment, had a lot to do with why the young adults who responded to this survey walked away, at least for a while.      
     Now, I seriously doubt that there are too many people at any church who have made it their life’s mission to run young adults out the door. But it’s clear that at least some young adults are perceiving that their churches are more interested in looking down on them and correcting them than they are in connecting with them and being their family in the faith. One way to respond to the data in this survey might be to resist the tendency to get defensive and start asking ourselves what young adults in church are seeing in our interactions with them. 
     Paul talked about his missional mindset in extreme terms, didn’t he? I have made myself a slave to everyone. I have become all things to all people. He thought that way because to him the most important thing in any interaction with anyone was that he might win a hearing for the good news of Jesus. He had beliefs, opinions, and convictions. He had specific expectations for the way a person who’s walking with Jesus should live, and certainly was willing to spell those expectations out. But I read his statement about becoming all things to all people is to say that his first impulse was to start where people were and that getting a hearing for the gospel was more important than his own beliefs, opinions, convictions, and expectations. 
     So why does it seem like the church sometimes loves its own way of doing worship more than it loves its young adults?
     Why does it seem like the church thinks its own political opinions are worth sacrificing a few of the next generation for?
     Why do we expect our young adults to just be quiet and do things like we’ve always done them instead of making ourselves slaves for them? Why do we expect them to look like us instead of becoming all things for them?
     What do young adults in our churches see in our social media posts? I saw one post recently from a Christian in higher education I know ridiculing college students as “snowflakes.” What ideas do you think young adults at his church might have gotten from that about his opinion of them? In our world, we need to think harder about the image even our most unguarded words and actions project.    
     There is room for discussion and debate. There is room – and it’s indispensable – for older Christians to share their wisdom with younger. But the most important thing you can do for young adults in your church is to come alongside them and love them and welcome them and let them see you following in the steps of Jesus.
     That lady in 1984 didn’t push me away from church, even for a little while. (I believe my mom did have some words with her…) But that’s largely because I knew that I was loved and welcomed and appreciated there – even though a lot of folks probably thought like her about the earring. 
     But what damage can be done by adults who think our opinions should be gospel and our conclusions accepted without debate. How we can hinder the first faltering steps of faith. How we can discourage young believers who are still figuring out who they are and what following Jesus looks like for them. How badly we can hurt the church. How easily we can come between a young man or woman and their Lord.
     Even ear-pierced rebels can grow up in the Lord, if we’ll let them.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Making It Count

     Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
-1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)


Cody Parkey made a 43-yard field goal with five seconds left in the Chicago Bears’ Wild Card playoff game against the Eagles last Sunday. Parkey, who’s been under some fire this year, especially after hitting the upright four times in a game earlier in the year, trotted out onto the field and calmly nailed the field goal, giving the Bears a 17-16 lead and an almost certain win. 
     Except it didn’t count.
     Right before the ball was snapped, Eagles coach Doug Pederson called time out. Because he cut it so close, the ball was snapped anyway and Parkey went ahead and kicked. The ball sailed through the uprights, but it didn’t count.
     It’s referred to as “icing the kicker,” and most coaches do it as a matter of course before a big field goal attempt. If they have a time out, they’ll call it to let the kicker think about it a little longer. They usually do it exactly the way Pederson did it, too; they let the kicking team get set up, let the kicker get ready, and then right before the snap they call time. It’s a mind game, and kickers expect it.
     It’s not always in a win-or-go-home game, though, like it was for the Bears Sunday night.
     The TV camera caught Parkey on the field during the time out, taking a few deep breaths to calm himself down. That’s when I thought to myself, “We might be in trouble here.”
     When the ball was kicked again, it bounced off the left upright, dropped down and hit the crossbar, and then fell to the ground on the wrong side of the goalposts. No good. Eagles win. Bears go home. 
     Replays show the ball was tipped by an Eagles’ player near the line of scrimmage. That might have knocked it off course just enough. In fairness to Parkey, he made the kick. But not when it counted. When it counted, he might as well have had the holder pull the ball away and fallen on his rear end like Charlie Brown
     I think we can all probably relate to the way Cody Parkey must be feeling, if we care to try. We’ve all had efforts that fell short. We’ve all had moments where we put it out there, but it doesn’t count. You didn’t get called back for that job interview. You tried to help a friend solve a problem, only to have your words fall on deaf ears and your actions go unacknowledged. You’ve done favors that weren’t noticed, spoken truth that wasn’t appreciated, given advice that wasn’t heeded. 
     You gave your best effort to a project at work, only to have it shut down around you.
     You put your heart into a marriage, and it ended anyway.
     You’ve tried changing a habit or overcoming an addiction, and it seems to always get the best of you.
     You’ve tried to pray more, love better, serve more willingly, give more generously, and find yourself falling back into the same old ruts. 
     There’s a myth in our world: “Your best is good enough.” You’ve heard it said. Probably you’ve said it yourself. The point behind it is a good one: If you give your all to something, you’ve done all you can. But it’s simply not true that your best is always good enough; there are countless people every day who could witness to that. They did their best, and they failed. For every person whose Herculean effort is rewarded and noticed and praised — and who we look to for evidence that our best is good enough — there are how many whose best efforts end in failure and are forgotten? Or worse, remembered. Did they just not really do their best? 
     No, they did. It’s just that, by the standards of our world, their best efforts didn’t count.
     Only success matters in our world. Nothing else counts. That can be exhausting. Discouraging.
     I don’t mean to depress you, though. I want to give voice to this distressing thing that we all know to be true so I can remind you that God doesn’t see things that way.
     In the part of the Bible we call First Corinthians, Paul spends a lot of time and ink writing about the hope of resurrection. He draws a line from Jesus’ resurrection to our own, and emphasizes how important that belief is to our faith. In fact, he says that without Jesus’ resurrection, our faith is “futile.” It’s empty, vain. It doesn’t count.
     But, he assures us, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,” and he goes on to promise that his resurrection is a preview of our own: 

“…the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’”

     Anyone standing at Jesus’ cross might have been forgiven for thinking that the whole enterprise was an abysmal failure. On Friday, not one of his followers thought that his teaching and healing counted for anything.
     On Sunday, they were starting to believe again.
    And, you know, there will be times in your life — as there are in mine — when you wonder if anything you’ve done matters. You’ll wonder if you’ve accomplished anything. Guilt and shame over your failures will weigh on you. You’ll question if anything you’ve given your life to counts for anything.
     When you feel that way, please remember that “your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” When you make the Lord’s work primary in your life, then what you do matters. It counts. You won’t always be able to see how. It isn’t dependent upon your proficiency. It counts because God takes obedient lives and does unimaginable things with them. It matters because it gives him joy when his children give themselves to him, and he will not let us give ourselves in vain. He gives meaning and purpose to our work for him. If necessary, by raising the dead.
     I hope that gives you a sense of vocation: that whatever you get paid to do, or whatever your current calling is, that your real work is the Lord’s, and that whatever else you do is done with that in view. Your other work is made significant ultimately by doing it for him. Whatever else you may accomplish, what really counts is that you let God tell you what his purposes for you are, and learn to give yourself fully to that work.

     I’m pretty sure you’ll get a kick out of it.

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