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.