Friday, August 30, 2019

First Day of School

     Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.     
-Galatians 1:10 (NIV)

Like a lot of moms on the first day of school, Jill Falconer, of East Renfrewshire, Scotland, took a photo of her daughter, Lucie before she sent her off for her first day of Primary Two (like first grade in the States). Jill says Lucie “likes to be clean” and “loved having her new things on,” and she looks like it as she smiles cutely in the photo at home, perfect in the school uniform of black cardigan, skirt, knee socks, and shoes with a spotless white shirt and black-and-gold striped tie. She even has a black-and-gold bow in her perfectly combed blonde hair. 
     The photo looks like countless others I’ve seen on social media the last few weeks. Parents have always liked taking photos of their kids on the first day of school, I guess, but in the era of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. those photos get shared much more widely. Seems like a certain amount of competitiveness has grown up around it; parents feel the need to up their back-to-school photo game to keep up with the perfectly coiffed, styled, posed, and composed progeny of their social media friends. 
     One Facebook friend of mine even admitted recently in posting her daughter’s back-to-school picture that they’d staged the photoshoot a few days before the first day of school, to make sure they had plenty of time to create the perfect shot.
     So first-day-of-school photos have joined the long list of things (including vacations, meals, workouts, style, weight loss, political opinions, church, work, and pet hijinks) that we “curate” for an audience instead of just living. 
     Even that word, “curate,” is new — at least in that usage. It implies a self-consciousness about the photos we post (and don’t post), the words we make public (and don’t make public), even the food that we want people to think we eat and the places we want them to know that we’ve visited. (Seems like no one on Facebook ever eats a bag of Cheetos or vacations in Pittsburgh…) The word suggests an intent to create a posed, scripted, and sanitized life that’s safe for display, a life that we think others might enjoy, admire, and maybe even be a little bit jealous of.
     I know; not everyone on social media does it. But enough do that you know exactly what I’m talking about.
     Maybe you’ve even thought about why it could be a problem.
     Taken to an extreme, living your life for the admiration of other people leaves you empty, always searching for the next perfect thing worthy of sharing, always anxious that someone will see past the life you want them to know about and catch a glimpse of the less than perfect stuff in the storerooms and closets behind the scenes. We’re left forever looking for approval in the form of likes, upvotes, follows, and all the other ways we keep score. Beyond that, we start to lose the ability to distinguish between what’s real and what’s for public display, as seen most sharply in our tendency to compare our real lives with other peoples’ curated ones. (No one posts photos of a fight with their spouse or their kids’ behavioral problems or the way those pants fit after they’ve gained 10 pounds.)      
     That’s a perfect recipe for depression, anger, and despair. Especially for kids and teens who haven’t yet figured out that a convincing picture of reality isn’t the same thing as reality.
     All that is why I love what Jill Falconer posted alongside Lucie’s “official” first-day-school shot. It’s a much more honest photo of Lucie at the end of her first day. She’s walking up to the house, it looks like, and let me tell you she doesn’t really look like the same girl. Her hair looks impossibly tangled and matted, sticking in all directions like it’s alive and trying its best to climb off her head. Her tie is coming unknotted, her cardigan is unbuttoned and sliding off one shoulder, her shirt is coming untucked, and her socks are “knee” in name only. (More like mid-calf socks…) Her unicorn backpack, hanging in the crook of one arm, has its eyes closed as if it’s exhausted. 
     When Jill asked Lucie what in the world she’d been doing to get her uniform in such a state, she simply gave the standard response to parental questions about what happened in school: “Not much.” 
     The photos have gone viral, ironically enough. Lucie’s response to millions of people seeing her at, ahem, less than her best — “Oh, I’m famous.” May she never worry too much about what others think.
     The Bible tells us not to spend much time trying to impress others. In fact, Paul seems to suggest that at best it’s very difficult to be a servant of Christ and to please God if we’re preoccupied with the opinions of others. Those two centers of gravity will inevitably take us in opposite directions. If we get our self-image from what others think of us, we’ll sooner or later do what they expect instead of what God wants.
     I’ve wondered sometimes how we’d dress at church if we came in looking like we really felt. Maybe that would be better because then we’d know. We’d know our brothers and sisters were hurting, and we’d know that the people we were trying to impress are as messy and unkempt as we are. We’d know that we have nothing to gain from putting on a front for each other. We’d know that the only thing to do is come together in our shared brokenness and love and help each other. Maybe that’s why the Bible says we should carry each others’ burdens — so we know that everyone has them and that none of us are really all that put together.
     Like many struggles we have in our walk with Jesus, this one comes out of a failure to really grasp the gospel at heart level. Here’s what we have to know in our gut about ourselves, and about each other: “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags." Oh, we can make a pretty decent start of it. We can hold people at arm’s length enough that they don’t see much but the idealized picture we want them to know about. But by the end of the day, there’s nothing that looks too good about us. We’re a mess of conflicting motives, selfishness, weakness, and greed. That’s scary to admit, but it’s freeing. If anyone looks an inch below the surface when we’re tired, discouraged, angry, and afraid, they won’t see much there that’s admirable. Neither will we when we look at them.
     But the gospel says that’s not where God’s approval lies. God sees right past our carefully-curated lives. He knows that what we pretend isn’t remotely true. He’s very clear about the real picture. He knows all the ugly stuff that we keep hidden — and he knows the pain and fear that makes us want to hang on to it. 
     Here’s the thing: he still loves us. He loves us when we get ourselves all cleaned up and pose with a happy smile. And he loves us no less when we’re shabby, filthy, bedraggled, exhausted, and unable to pretend.
     The answer to the need we have to curate our lives is the wonderful news that God loves the real us, and that he loves us so much that he sent his Son into all our ugliness to save us — to save us by giving his life.

     Put your confidence in his love, right where you are, as who you are, and you’ll never feel the need to impress anyone else ever again.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Ties That Bind

    For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by  Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.    
-Colossians 2:9-12 (NIV)

I’ve been thinking about baptism lately. Baptism is something I’ve thought of almost exclusively in relation to salvation; in my way of thinking about it, it's the moment at which our sins are forgiven and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think that’s wrong now. I’m just not sure it’s complete enough.
     This has come up for me because a friend, a former minister, has announced to friends that he no longer considers himself a Christian in any real sense. He chooses instead to follow an ethic of love, disconnected from faith in God or Jesus.
     Around the same time my friend was making this announcement, a book exploring the reasons people lose their faith in the sense of walking away from Christianity entirely was released. In a nutshell, it suggests that people leave Christianity when they come to a crisis; something happens, and intellectually or morally their faith no longer makes sense as a guide for their lives. 
     That kind of begs the question for me, though: On what basis does a person decide that their own intellectual or moral compass, flawed even though guided by faith, is a helpful replacement for faith? Haven’t we all been intellectually convinced of something that turned out to be completely wrong? Haven’t we all acted on what our moral compasses said, only to later realize that we were really only acting in our own best interests?
     So what makes a person suddenly decide that his or her morality or intellect is to be trusted over God’s work of salvation as known through Jesus? And what ties others to Christianity even when it conflicts with their  intellectual and moral compasses? 
     American evangelical Christianity has spent the last 75 years or more downplaying baptism and  emphasizing intellectual belief. We’re saved by faith, right? Not by what we do? So many Christians, maybe most, have believed their way to salvation — that is, they believe their profession of faith in Jesus’ work on the cross is what saves them. Say some words or pray a prayer that affirm your belief in the gospel, and your sins are forgiven and you’re saved.
     Now I certainly don’t want to try to argue that we’re saved by anything but belief in Jesus. Neither am I questioning anyone’s salvation. (If anyone is saved, it’s in spite of the imperfections in our faith.) I’m saying it’s Jesus who saves us. Faith is putting ourselves in his hands, trusting his faithfulness over our own, and resolving to go anywhere as long as he’s there. Faith is Peter saying “You have the words of eternal life” even though he had every reason to follow the crowd in deserting Jesus.
      If faith is all about some intellectual affirmation of belief that Jesus did this or that and that it means this thing, then your faith will only last as long as it makes sense to believe. Maybe you’ll never get to a point in your life when it doesn’t. But maybe you will, and when you do you’ll walk away because your faith didn’t really rest on Jesus. It rested on you believing the right things.
      That’s what has me thinking about baptism again.
     As the Bible describes it, baptism is putting yourself in Jesus’ hands. Paul is told that by being baptized he’ll be calling on Jesus’ name to rescue him. In Romans, Paul reflects on the way baptism connects us with Jesus, putting us where he is — even when the “where” is his death, burial and resurrection! Baptism ties us to Jesus — to the sacrifice he made and to the post-resurrection life he lives. In baptism we receive that sacrifice, put the old life behind us, and begin to experience the new life with God that Jesus wants us to live. 
     What baptism winds up doing for us, then, is witnessing to that new life. It’s a way of enacting the gospel that through Jesus we’ve been made a part of another kingdom, a new reality. And this is the important part: it witnesses to our place in this new reality even when our intellectual and moral compasses are pointing a different way.
     Isn’t that what Paul is getting at in Colossians 2? He starts with Christ, in whom “all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.” He is the crux (literally) and catalyst of everything that Paul says has happened to us. The one in whom the fullness of deity dwells has filled those who have trusted in him (likely a reference to the Holy Spirit). As ruler over the other “powers and authorities” to which human beings might look for guidance, answers, and resources, he asks us to trust him explicitly over anything else.
     Our baptism, Paul goes on to say, acts as a kind of a circumcision — but not the kind done by human beings. Instead of the removal of a piece of flesh, baptism signifies that in Christ our reliance on things that are of the flesh is taken away, replaced with something that goes beyond trust in Jesus and arrives at something more like complete identification. He goes so far as to say that our “burial” with him in baptism has a corollary: our “resurrection” with him “through [our] faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
     The fact that Paul says these things about baptism to people who have already been baptized suggests that our baptism is meant to be a tangible reminder that we are connected to Jesus. When we’re afraid, or confused, or in doubt, or tempted to put our trust in any of the things that human beings tend to trust, baptism calls us back to him. Lost in the labyrinth of our own fears and faithlessness, baptism is the thread we follow to find our way out. It tells the story of what happens to us when we put our trust in Jesus when we most need it told. 
     So don’t think of your baptism only as something you did way back when. Let it remind you of who you are in Jesus. Let it settle your heart and mind when you’re disconcerted by fear, worry, and grief. Let it give you the certainty of God’s love, the confidence of his presence, the hope and joy of the life he promises, and the strength to rise above your own limitations and live in faithfulness to Christ. 
     Listen to its reassurance that in Christ you’re filled with the life of God. Even in those moments when you feel empty.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Thoughts and Prayers

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

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

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