Friday, February 22, 2019

Under the Sun

    I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun. 
-Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NIV)

Early this month, I completed my 25th year at the church I'm a part of.
     When I came to that Northwest Church of Christ, Bill Clinton was in the White House. The Bulls had only won three championships. O.J. Simpson, still a few months from his infamous slow-speed chase, was just a former football player. Ace Ventura, Pet Detective was the most popular movie in the nation. The song you were most likely to hear playing on the radio was I Will Always Love You. You were most likely reading The Client, The Bridges of Madison County, or maybe Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus. On TV, you probably caught Home Improvement, Seinfeld, Northern Exposure, or maybe Homicide: Life on the Street or Murder, She Wrote. Tom Brady was a high school senior still deciding whether to play pro baseball or go to college on a football scholarship. (He eventually decided on football.) A New York real estate company had acquired and was refurbishing the Gulf and Western building on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, which they would later rename Trump International Hotel and Tower. 
     I don’t know how significant my being at the same church for 25 years is for anyone else. Probably not all that, considering there are people there who have been around for twice that long or more. For me, though, it’s pretty significant. I’ve spent half my life there, literally. It's has been my church family for much longer than anywhere else. What I know about ministry, I learned there. What preaching voice I have, I found there. Many of my role models of faith are men and women I first encountered there. My son was born there, and came to his own faith in that community. I’ve been around for new births, baptisms, graduations, and weddings. I’ve also been around for funerals, grief, illness, lost jobs, moves, and divorces — though not always like I should have been, I know.
     That’s the thing, I guess; you don’t get points for just being around. I don’t know, maybe you get a few. But we sometimes celebrate longevity as though just staying in one place for a length of time is a big achievement. I still remember something someone who’s always been honest with me said, years ago, at a time when my being at my church for a long time wasn’t yet an accomplished fact, and was maybe even a little hard to imagine. He told me he hoped I’d stay…"not that someone else couldn’t do as well or better.” I’ve thought about that clause a lot over the years — “not that someone else couldn’t do as well or better.” There have been times — not a few of them — when I’ve wondered if the best thing I could have done would have been to just get out of the way and make room for that “someone else,” whoever that might be. I guess God hasn’t been unequivocal about that, though, nor has anyone else, so I’ve stayed. 
     I’m reminded of something Harvey Dent says in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” I hope I’m not a villain, and I definitely don’t have a death wish, but I remember 25 years ago being impatient with some folks who were holding on to old ways that I was sure needed to change. I hope now that the focus of my impatience hasn’t shifted to those as sure that things need to change as I was back then. It’s so easy, when you’ve been around somewhere for a while, to get so invested in Things As They Are that it’s hard to see Things As They Ought To Be.
   The book of the Jewish Scriptures called Ecclesiastes is one of the more interesting books in the Bible. It’s also, oddly, one of the books you hear the least from in church. In it, the book’s writer (some say King Solomon, but the book itself never explicitly claims his authorship) turns his attention to the “meaninglessness” of life. “How do you live a life of faithfulness, productivity, and joy,” he wants to know, “when so much of life is random, arbitrary, and unfair?” The writer even has a phrase that captures life as he knows it: “under the sun.”
     That phrase literally has to do with life in this world; all of it is lived out “under the sun.” But there seems to be more to it in Ecclesiastes — or, maybe, less. “Under the sun” characterizes life as it is, divorced of things like context, meaning, transcendence, beauty, and so forth. Dolly Parton sang about working “nine to five,” and the writer of Ecclesiastes could probably relate. When we talk about “punching the clock” or “putting in our time,” we’re getting close to the meaning of “under the sun.” That big, bright, yellow ball rises and sets, day after day, and we get up and go to bed, day after day, and in between we live our lives and do our jobs, and time passes and maybe we get something out of it and maybe we don’t. In a 1988 Life magazine article that asked people from various walks of life to address the question Why are we here?, composer John Cage captured the essence of that phrase “under the sun:” “No why. Just here.”
     In the same article, though, Chicago writer Studs Terkel answered, “To make a dent.” The writer of Ecclesiastes definitely understands the John Cage view. But he wants — and he wants us to want — to make a dent. “If nothing else,” he says, “enjoy life, and do your work, and know that even if you don’t understand the whys of it, the days you’ve been given “under the sun” have come from your Creator’s hands. Given that belief, we know we aren’t just here to take up space and mark time. 
     Maybe we don’t say much about Ecclesiastes because the church has not typically been interested in teaching the enjoyment of life “under the sun.” Let’s be honest: we’ve tended to emphasize enjoyment of the life to come, with life “under the sun” being seen as something to grit our teeth and slog through until then. One of the reasons we need to know the Old Testament is to help us unlearn the prejudice that physical can’t be spiritual. Eating, drinking, and celebrating can be spiritual things, Ecclesiastes reminds us. So can showing up and doing our jobs. So can caring for your family, or playing with a child, or intimacy with your spouse, or sharing grief, or playing music, or pushing back against or even just enduring the injustices that we see “under the sun.” Life is transformed when we start trying to live as though all its moments have meaning — even when we can’t see what the meaning of a given moment might be. It’s in those moments, sometimes unforeseen and unplanned but lived well, that we do indeed find ourselves making dents.
     God has given you a certain number of days “under the sun.” Through Jesus, he has infused those days with a sense of meaning and purpose that the writer of Ecclesiastes couldn’t have imagined. Those days might be mostly spent in one place, with a relatively small circle of people. They might be divided up among many jobs, homes, and communities. Either way, it’s up to you to live them as if they have meaning: to enjoy them when you can, to spend them doing your work, to make the most of them, to sleep well at night, and to know that it’s finally only to God that you’re accountable for the way you spend those days. 
     “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” 
     Some of us want to be successful. Some of us want to live lives of significance. Some of us just want to survive.

     May all of us find what we want in living out our days “under the sun” with joy and faithfulness.

Friday, February 8, 2019

"What Is Sin?"

     …[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 
-Romans 3:23-24 (NIV)

Julie Scheeres wrote a piece for the New York Times last week in which she recalled standing in line with her 9-year-old daughter at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair near San Francisco. As they waited for meat pies, a band of temperance advocates walked by — I suppose contributing to the overall Dickensian atmosphere — with a sign that proclaimed Gin Is Sin. Scheeres said that her daughter looked at the knot of people and their sign, and then asked her mom a question: “Mama, what is sin?”
     Scheeres used the moment to reflect on her own upbringing as the child of what she refers to as “fundamentalist parents” in Indiana, a childhood in which she was kept very conscious of sin. Secular music and television, questioning authority, envying her friend’s’ Izod shirts; these were all sins, and were to be dealt with immediately and harshly. “God was a megaphone bleating in my head: ‘You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad!’” she writes. She describes recurring nightmares of “malevolent winds tornado-ing through [her] bedroom” that she would come to realize later represented to her “an invisible and vindictive God.”
     Scheeres writes of having little contact with anyone outside her church family, and that she came to fear non-Christians and atheists because “they had no reason to act morally, and were therefore…capable of utter depravity.” Caught, at 17, “fornicating” with her boyfriend, she was sent to what she refers to as a “Christian reform school where children were beaten in the name of God." She lost her faith “by fits and starts,” as she puts it, until she had children and started wondering how she’d teach them right from wrong without a church. She says this about where she came out, and why, at 9, her daughter was wondering what sin was:
Just as my parents’ approach to imparting their values was shaped by an effort to avoid the sins they feared, I am raising my two daughters according to my moral code. To me, the greatest sin of all is failing to be an engaged citizen of the world, so the lessons are about being open to others rather than closed off. 
She goes on to say:
We started taking our kids to marches when the younger one, Davia, was an infant perched on our shoulders and 3-year-old Tessa danced between the lines of protesters as if it were a block party. We’ve marched for racial justice and for women’s rights. Our church is the street, our congregation our fellow crusaders. We teach our children to respect the earth by reducing, reusing and recycling.
     Julie’s story really interested me, on a few levels. She hasn’t asked for my engagement, much less my evaluation, but here’s what came to mind for me.
     First, I’m really saddened and horrified at what Julie went through as a child in the name of Christianity. I grew up in church, in a home in which faith was taken seriously, but I was never told that God thought I was bad when I misbehaved. I wasn’t quarantined at home and church, away from other influences. I was taught to appreciate that beauty of the world, and to see in that beauty glimpses of its Creator. I was taught to treat people of all faiths (and none) with respect as God’s creation. I heard about sin, yes, but also about God’s grace. I was taught that Jesus’ death and resurrection overcome sin and death, and was given the freedom to make my own decisions about when and if to put my trust in him. 
     What Julie endured was not normal; it was manipulative and abusive and a far cry from the One who said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” who called himself “gentle and humble in heart,” who promised “rest for [our] souls, and who reassured those who would follow him that his “burden is light.” I’m so sorry that others piled heavy burdens on her in his name, so much so that she never found in him the gentleness and rest that he promised. I understand completely why she hasn’t taught her daughter about a vindictive God who thinks she’s bad. 
     It’s interesting to me that, though her daughter doesn’t know the word “sin,” Julie has definitely taught her the idea of it. She has, in her own words, taught her daughter that “the greatest sin of all is failing to be an engaged citizen of the world,” though, at 9, she’s still in large part mimicking the value system she sees displayed by her parents and the other adults in her life, just as Julie did with her parents. She’ll still have to wrestle with her own values and morality, quite possibly rejecting at least some of what she’s been taught. As children always have.
     I’m curious about what metric Julie is using to measure “the greatest sin of all.” One of the consistent teachings of Christianity is that sin is not just failure within ourselves to meet our own standards of right and wrong; rather, it’s a failure to be and do what God intends for us to be and do. If God doesn’t exist, neither does sin. Additionally, the sin in ourselves is just part of the greater complex of sin and death that has darkened and twisted our world. To define sin for ourselves is to make it manageable by ourselves: just go to another march, recycle a little more, use clean energy, vote for the right candidates. The Christian faith tells us that sin is real, that we can’t solve it just by being better people (however we define that), but that God in his great love for us has intervened in Jesus to break the power of sin and death over our lives and over our world.
     I’m also sorry that Julie was not taught that to follow Jesus is to be “an engaged citizen of the world.” Jesus touched lepers, ate with tax collectors, consorted with common people, surrounded himself with “normal” people who worked at real jobs and dealt with real problems. He would have heard rough language and seen seedy stuff. None of that seemed to surprise him.
     When he saw illness, he healed it. He opened blind eyes and deaf ears and loosed mute tongues. He fed the hungry. He offered grace to sinners. He wept with those who were mourning, even while he raised their dead. He sent demons running for cover with a word.
     How people who claim to follow Jesus can build gated communities for themselves to try to shut out the world is beyond me. Yet it’s a problem the church has had for a long time now. Instead of being engaged citizens of the world, salt and light as Jesus would have us be, we claim that “our citizenship is in heaven” as though that absolves us from caring about the world we live in. But, church, Jesus’ citizenship was in heaven too, and that didn’t stop him from engaging with the people around him and making the problems of his world his problems too. 
     Julie Scheeres’ story reminds me that, for those who follow Jesus, engagement with the world and struggling against the sin that touches us all is not just an option, but a necessity. It also reminds me that struggling in my own strength and power isn’t enough. I need Jesus. I need the love of God made flesh so that I can stand against the deceitfulness of sin, the power of death, and the schemes of the enemy to keep me in slavery to them. 

     I’m sorry that isn’t the Jesus that Julie knows. I pray that she and her daughter someday will.

Friday, February 1, 2019


     The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. 
-Leviticus 25:23 (NIV)

Chicago has a fascinating tradition that's in some ways a much a part of its fabric as the Cubs and Sox, deep-dish pizza, windy winter days, and skyscrapers. It's a tradition for snowy days during the winter months, when the combination of heavy snow, narrow residential streets, and lots of apartment buildings make parking a challenge. 
     It's the tradition of putting household items out on the curb to reserve parking places.
     It works like this. If you park on the street, when the snow plow comes through it pretty much buries your car. Armed with a shovel, you go out into the cold and dig your vehicle out, leaving a nice parking space carved out of the snow bank. The problem, of course, is that the shortest measurable length of time so far discovered by human beings is the time between the moment you pull out of that space and someone else pulls in. (Statisticians estimate that, at any given time, upwards of 20,000 people are driving around Chicago neighborhoods looking for parking. OK, I made that up; but I bet I'm not too far off.)
     So someone, sometime, came up with the idea of bringing out an old lawn chair to put in his spot until he got home. It's actually fascinating to notice as you drive through Chicago neighborhoods just what people will use to reserve their spots. I've seen floor lamps, couches, bar stools, bookcases, and old tires. Some folks go the utilitarian route and use orange traffic cones. Quite a few use sawhorses with No Parking signs hanging from them. I've seen chairs, coffee tables, and I read about a guy who scatters a couple of boxes of screws and roofing nails in his spot. (It takes him an hour or two to pick them all up — in which time, of course, he could drive around and find another place to park...) I've even seen an old toilet. Once, I drove by and saw a kid standing in a freshly dug-out space. I could only assume his parents didn't have a spare lawn chair or an old toilet. There's even a Wikipedia page about the practice.
     Despite the fact that it isn't legally possible to own a parking space on the street, no matter how much time you may have spent digging it out, to move someone's space marker and park in their space is to ask for retaliation in the form of a broken windshield, slashed tires, or angry confrontations. And that's just the elderly grandmother who lives down the street from me. People get possessive about those parking spaces they work hard to dig out. Psychotically so. Remember when you were a kid and would call “dibs” on something? It's like that, only more so.
     So I sometimes wonder what would happen if someone dug out a space in front of their neighbor's house, and then reserved it for him.
     That would just be weird, wouldn't it? It would fly in the face of everything we assume in our world to be right. If you doubt that, try it sometime. I'm guessing that your neighbor won't know what to say or how to respond. It's just too strange, just too opposed to the popular notion that says “What's mine is mine.” There are only so many places to park, after all. If you take my space, where will I put my car?
     You can be excused if you haven't heard much about the Jubilee year in the Old Testament. The Law of Moses decreed that every fiftieth year was to be a year of general amnesty and redemption. Specifically, any sale of property made in the previous fifty years was nullified and the property returned to the family that originally owned it. The purchase price for property, in fact, was supposed to reflect the number of years left until Jubilee. 
     Sounds pretty strange to us, doesn't it? Keep in mind, property in Israel was assigned by tribe and family, so for there to be equity those tribal possessions needed to remain fairly constant. That was the practical reason for it, but the practical reason rested on the theological one: the land on which Israel lived didn't belong to Israel at all. It was God's land, given to them because of his generosity and grace. Every fifty years, they had no choice but to remember it.
     I can't begin to imagine the economic implications of something similar to a Jubilee today. And, hear me now, I'm not advising you to help yourself to your neighbor's parking space this winter. Not everyone's ready to celebrate a Jubilee, you understand. I do think, though, that as God's people it would do us good to remember that what we own isn't as much ours as we tend to think, and to try to mold our attitudes about “our” stuff accordingly. 
     As the Jubilee laws of ownership remind us, though, our attitudes won't be molded if our actions don't change. Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also, Jesus said. If our habits in regard to collecting and keeping stuff look no different than the habits of those who don't recognize that God is ultimately the owner and bestower of everything we have, then we shouldn't be surprised when our attitudes begin to reflect theirs, too. In short, if you act like you have “dibs” and take special care to mark off yours from theirs, it won't be long until you start to believe it, and God is out of the picture entirely.
     Maybe what we need, in this land of affluence and opportunity, the birthplace of the American Dream, is a good dose of Jubilee. We who set such stock in titles and deeds and all the myriad ways we call “dibs” on stuff that we don't want to share might now and then need a reminder that God isn't necessarily impressed with the legal chairs and traffic cones and sawhorses we use to keep other people away from our stuff. In fact, in God's world it might just be that he makes us trustees of his resources so that we can be a blessing to those other people.
     So declare your own personal Jubilee. You're not allowed to declare your own debts cleared, you understand, but maybe God's calling you to free someone from a debt that they owe you and are having trouble paying back. Maybe you have something that someone else could use, and he's calling you to give it to that person. Maybe he's asking you to welcome someone as a guest in your home — the home he gave you. Maybe he's calling you to use your expertise to help someone without worrying about whether you get compensated or not. Whatever blurs the lines of ownership, reminds us that it's really God through whom all blessings come, and removes the markers that tell others that some of the things you have are off-limits —  that's Jubilee.

     All that old furniture in front of your house looks kind of tacky, anyway.