Friday, September 27, 2019

A Mindset for Withering Grass and Falling Flowers

“All people are like grass,
     and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
     because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
     Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
-Isaiah 40:6-8 (NIV)

The Mindset List is the creation of Beloit College Professor Tom McBride and former Beloit administrator Ron Nief. It was originally created to keep faculty members aware of how quickly “contemporary” references in lectures can become dated. Now associated with Marist College, each year a new list for the entering freshman class is created. The lists have become a yardstick for the passage of time and the changing world we live in. Mostly, it'll just make you feel old. To wit, some excerpts from the Mindset List for the class of 2023….
     Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 2001. Most of the class have never shared the earth with Joey Ramone, George Harrison, or Timothy McVeigh.
     For students in the class of 2023, 9/11 is as much a historical event as the Kennedy assassination was for their parents, or Pearl Harbor for their grandparents. Nearly half of their generation is composed of people of color. They have witnessed two African-American Secretaries of State, the election of a black President, Disney’s first black Princess, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
     Entering freshmen have always used a flash drive, rarely a CD, and never a floppy disk. They've always had the option to use PayPal for online purchases. As far as they know, news headlines have always been crawling across the bottom of TV screens. For them, there have always been smartwatches, and taking photos has always been a primary use for a phone. Facial recognition technology has always been used at public events. Bad hearts have always been replaced by self-contained, battery-powered artificial ones.
     The year they were born, the number one draft pick in the NBA came straight from high school for the first time. As far as they’re concerned, Pittsburgh’s Steelers and Pirates have never played at Three Rivers Stadium. Troy Aikman, as far as they know, has always been a football analyst. Cal Ripken, Jr. never played a baseball game in their lifetimes. Sporting events have always included honor guards, flyovers, and God Bless America.
     Students entering college this year have always known what “If you see something, say something” means. Passengers have always had to take off their shoes to get through airport security. Oklahoma City has always had a national memorial. They have grown up with the Patriot Act.
     For them, Monica and Chandler have always been married on Friends. Alex Trebek has never had a mustache. When they pulled themselves up off the floor for the first time, they may have been hanging onto their parents’ brand-new Xbox. Heinous, sexually-based offenses have always been investigated by the Special Victims Unit on Law and Order.
     You get the point. A decade or two can make a world of difference in your frame of reference. When I was a college freshman, no one imagined Berlin without a wall. It's been a while, but not that long. The fact is that the world changes around us. We're young, and then one day we're not so young anymore. One day we're welcoming a child into the world, and it seems only the next that we're sitting across a table with someone who's getting frighteningly close to adulthood. One day we're talking with friends about who we're dating or what career path we're on, and the next the topics of conversation have changed to mortgage rates and our parents' declining health.
     It seems that we instinctively freak out about change and the passage of time. (“Freak out” - I don't think anyone says that anymore, do they?) We don't like it when things change around us. Hang around an office one day when they upgrade the computers and you'll see it. Or a church when they change – well, pretty much anything. As a rule, change makes us uncomfortable. We develop certain little shortcuts in life, certain little routines that revolve around things staying generally the same. It can be downright unsettling when things change and those little shortcuts don't work anymore.
     And, of course, the most unsettling changes of all are the changes that we see in the mirror. A few more lines in the face. A few more gray hairs. A little more width around the middle. The inability to hold what you're reading far enough away from your face to get it into focus. All evidence of the one change in the world that affects all of us most deeply: that one day we won't be here anymore.
     Our world screams hysterically that we have to resist the passage of time. It sells us creams and dyes and exercise equipment and clothing and surgeries that will make us look – more or less - like the passage of time isn't affecting us. But that's an illusion, of course, as evidenced by the fact that it gets harder and harder to pull off as the years go by. However loudly our culture screams that we must look untouched by age, you can still hear the rush of the river of time. 
     “People are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,” the prophet reminds us. It's a good thing he does; otherwise, we might forget what really matters. We're not built to resist the passage of time, any more than the grass and flowers in a meadow are. We navigate a changing world in dying bodies, and all the hair coloring and pilates in the world won't change that. Oh, in some cases we can improve a little on Job's “three score and ten,” but not by much. “The grass withers and the flowers fall,” the prophet says. “Surely the people are grass.”
     Our world calls that depressing, but it isn't. Depressing is people going about their lives like they're going to be anything but a hazy memory a mere century from now. Depressing is not being able to read the writing on the wall. Depressing is living for wealth and influence and control. Depressing is forgetting that we are mortal. And forgetting what does last.
     “The word of our God stands forever.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, what God says is true. What he speaks, exists. Isaiah's point in reminding us of our mortality is to remind us of God's glory. “The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it,” he says. “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:5) 
      And this God never forgets his people. That's our hope – not in holding on to our youth, because “even youths grow tired and weary.” (Isaiah 40:30) “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.” So while our world changes around us, we trust in the God who never does. When our strength fails, we trust in the God who renews our strength. And when our bodies fade and die like a flower dropping its petals, we trust even then in the God who lives. And who gives life.

      So bring on your Mindset List, Marist College. You don't scare me. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Homelessness Problem

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 
     The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 
     Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
     “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.” 
     Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.    
-Matthew 20:29-34 (NIV)

Like most every other city in the world, Chicago has a homelessness problem.
     I chose that word carefully: “homelessness.” Three syllables, not two. It’s easy to skip over that last syllable, just as easy as it is to believe that it’s people who are homeless that are the problem in Chicago and cities like it. People who are homeless, though, are first and foremost people. They’re people like me and you. The degree to which we find that hard to believe is the degree to which we’ll tend to think they are the problem. 
     We don’t, after all, have a cancer patient problem, or a heart disease or stroke victim problem. It’s the diseases with which they suffer that we want to cure. The faces of real people with those diseases remind us that the fight against them is real.
     When it comes to homelessness, though, we don’t want to see it. We have a homeless problem — two syllables. And if it’s a homeless problem, then we solve it by keeping the homeless where they can’t be seen or make anyone uncomfortable. 
     It was announced this week that the Environmental Protection Agency will cite the city of San Francisco for environmental violations because of the “tremendous pollution” — used needles and “other things” that supposedly make their way into the ocean through storm sewers  —  which the government says is caused by the homeless in the city. (The mayor of San Francisco points out that debris that gets into storm drains is filtered out at the city’s water treatment plants.) All this concern for “The homeless problem” despite the fact that funding for homeless shelters and mental health continues to be cut.
     The EPA notice is a political move, of course. It illustrates that “the homeless problem” is addressable at most levels of government only from a political perspective. Too often, though, the government’s perspective on “the homeless problem” is only an echo of the electorate’s perspective: “We have people living in our ... best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings and ... people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”
     So “the homeless problem” is a problem because it represents a loss of “prestige.” 
     But you can’t really fault the government for considering homelessness a prestige problem when the people who put them in office see it the same way.
    And the evidence suggests that’s exactly the way we see it. There are places in Chicago, as there are in most cities, where homeless people aren’t allowed to stay. You won’t see a lot of them along the Magnificent Mile, or around Wrigleyville on game day. You won’t see them in the winter enjoying the warmth in Water Tower Place, asking shoppers for change in the food courts. In the less prestigious neighborhoods, in the spots where there are fewer tourist attractions, you’ll see them and their camps under viaducts, in parks, in alleys. In the “nice” parts of the city, though, they’re kept as invisible and inconspicuous as possible. 
     Chicago people talk about homelessness in terms of prestige, too, even if we don’t recognize it as such. We worry about our property values if the visibility of the homeless increases in our neighborhoods. As though homelessness is primarily a problem because it decreases the value of a homeowner’s investment. 
     Not to mention our discomfort about the whole issue. People without homes find it hard to blend in, don’t they? Their hair and makeup games aren’t on point. Their beards tend to be kind of wild. Sometimes they don’t smell very fresh. Sometimes (though not as often as we remember) substance abuse and mental illness make them act strangely. They don’t fit well with the stories we like to tell ourselves and each other about success and affluence. They don’t have a place in the pictures of our cities and neighborhoods we like to show visitors.
     That’s what ought to make the homeless priority recipients of the church’s love, mercy, and compassion.
     I don’t know if those blind men by the side of the road in Jericho were homeless or not. They were certainly beggars. That suggests that they didn’t have much of support structure — no family to give them food and shelter and not many options for employment. Their situation has homelessness written all over it, and if so they’re in that situation for the same reason many of the homeless in your city are; they have a disability or disease that makes them unable to care for their families and themselves.
     They aren't the kind of folks the crowd around Jesus want to hear or, God forbid, see. So when the two call out for help from Jesus, the crowd tries to shut them up. The crowd rebukes them, tries to silence them. But they shout “all the louder.” 
     Don’t you like that? I do. But I don’t think we would if it happened in our neighborhoods. In our neighborhoods, we don’t want homeless people making much noise or being too visible. It makes the neighborhood look bad. Somehow it reflects on our prestige. 
     But Jesus turns that crowd’s self-interest on its head, doesn’t he? “What do you guys want me to do for you?” What you take away is that, in contrast to the crowd who wants them to be quiet and disappear, Jesus hears them and has compassion. 
     For the church, the “homeless problem” is a homelessness problem. The problem is not people who are homeless, so it isn’t a problem that goes away if we don’t see any homeless people. The problem is that there are people in our city, in our world, who have no place to stay tonight. They’re begging for money and food. Some of them are living in cars, or sleeping in parks or alleys or under bridges. Some have families who are worried about them. Some have children living with them. Some need medical or psychiatric care. Some need rehab. Some go to sleep each night praying for help and safety. Some have given up praying.
     This is a problem the church can begin to make a difference in because the church begins with compassion. We start with the love of Jesus. But the love of Jesus is an intentional act to do good. To help. To serve.
     We can’t let the crowd silence those who are homeless. We can’t let those who are mainly concerned with prestige, perception, and politics keep us from hearing their cries for help. We have to stop looking away. We know Jesus, after all. And he would like for homeless people in our city to know him.
     Let’s introduce them. Or remind them of his love. But not by lessons or sermons or Bible studies. By embodying his compassion. By refusing to let their voices be silenced. By seeing and hearing them, by asking them to tell us their stories, and by acting in love on their behalf. 

     That’s how we begin to make a real difference in the homelessness problem.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Of Robots and Clay Jars

     For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. 
     But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.    
-2 Corinthians 4:5-7 (NIV)

Our robot overlords are coming.
     At least our robot pastors are. That according to an article at Vox by Sigal Samuel, in which she advises that “AI (artificial intelligence) religion is upon us” and reassures us that “robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral.” The article describes a robotic Buddhist priest in Japan that delivers sermons and interacts with worshippers at a temple in Kyoto. “[The robot] is not AI-powered,” Samuel tells us, and in fact is only programmed to deliver one sermon. Its creators are planning to give it machine-learning abilities that will enable it to “tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.” 
     There’s a robot in India that performs a Hindu ritual over and over. (Wonder what the monks who used to take care of that are doing now?) There’s a freaky-looking robot called BlessU-2 (I couldn’t make this up) that gives pre-programmed blessings to worshippers in the Protestant Church of Germany, and a 17-inch robot that looks like a figurine of a saint can recite Bible verses to people who come to it with problems.
     There’s even a Japanese robot named Pepper that performs Buddhist funerals. Pepper has one major advantage over his human counterparts: he works significantly cheaper than the cash offerings usually made to Buddhist priests. Well, there’s that, and also he can live stream the service.  
     While none of these robotic ministers are actually AI-powered, Samuel quotes experts who claim that robotic priests, pastors, and ministers with artificial intelligence are coming, and that these “free-willed beings that we’ve made” will force us to rethink our theology and even ask questions about what it is that makes up a human “soul”.  
     There are some in my church who might prefer artificial intelligence to what I bring to the table. They might also say that the same sermon preached over and over is preferable to what I manage some Sundays. Still, I need answers to a few questions before I can sign off on robotic ministers in Churches of Christ:
  • Can they be made waterproof? We baptize by immersion, you know. It could be bad if RoboPreacher shorted out just as he got a new convert under the water.
  • Would he come with an attachment for filling tiny communion cups? And maybe a grape juice reservoir?
  • Would there be a Non-Aggression Module that would keep him from responding to random criticism with laser fire from his eyes? (I guess I’m just assuming they’d put lasers in these things.)
  • Finally, if RoboPreacher comes with music, would it be a cappella?
     All right, maybe those aren’t really the most pressing questions I can think of. I guess the one that really occurs to me is, “Why?” What values are driving even the notion that robotic ministers, priests, and pastors might be useful or even preferable to human beings?
     One possibility that comes to mind is that a robot can provide the consistency, perfection, and predictability that human beings never can. It’s nice, isn’t it, to imagine clergy that will never make a mistake, never get tired or impatient, never make a wrong decision, never give bad advice or a wrong answer, and never commit a sin? The Lord knows that sometimes ministers try to look like robots instead of the messy, confused, struggling human beings that we know we are. Sometimes we try to make our churches think that’s what we are. Though I suspect most of the time our churches see right through that act. 
     Sometimes, truth be told, we do the work of ministry like robots: performing the actions, going through the motions, but with our hearts not truly in it. When we’re like that I suppose we might as well be robots. 
     But, here’s the thing: God didn’t call perfect people to minister to others on his behalf. He didn’t create a flawlessly consistent clergy who would never struggle or doubt or be hurt or get sick or hurt other people. God has entrusted normal people with ministry from the days he called a shepherd to be King, a vine-dresser to be a prophet, a carpenter’s son to be Messiah, and a group of fishermen, tax collectors, and terrorists to follow him. None of those people — save one — embodied perfection. All of them — save one — messed up, failed, acted selfishly, compromised their integrity, lost hope, struggled with sorrow and doubt, and made enemies. 
     God was surprised by none of that, of course.
     If God didn’t create a perfect race of clergy, then neither should we. We shouldn’t hire other people to do ministry for us, and we should especially not create other beings to do ministry for us — even if they could do it better. It’s in our imperfections that our faith is deepened. Maybe machine learning can teach robots to respond to the questions of believers with nuance and sympathy, looking for what they’re really asking. Maybe robots will one day even be able to come to something like faith on their own. But I doubt artificial intelligence will ever be able to replicate the lessons learned through struggle, failure, and weakness. Faith grows when we’re pulled past the limits of our own capabilities so we can learn to put our trust in God and not ourselves. 
     Faith grows, in short, through messiness.
     That’s Paul’s point about the clay jars. We’ve been given this wonderful treasure of the gospel of Jesus, a treasure that we’re supposed to share with the world in its fullness. And we’re tempted to think that we need to be adequate containers for this treasure. We need to be elegant vases, hand-carved, jewel-encrusted chests, ornate display cases. We’re painfully aware of what we are, though: clay jars. We’re the Tupperware of the ancient world: functional enough, maybe, but not much else. Certainly not worthy of containing such a treasure. Wouldn’t it be better to build a robot that would better represent the value of that treasure?
     Paul points out, though, that God’s power is most clearly shown when it comes through unremarkable, uninspiring, imperfect vessels like us. Robots, to use Paul’s terms, don’t have the capabilities to feel crushed, to despair, to feel abandoned, or to fear destruction. We human beings can. But that doesn’t make us inferior for God’s purposes; in fact, it makes us superior. By faith, we can choose not to be crushed. By faith, we can look into the pit of our own darkness and not despair. By faith, we can experience persecution and yet know that God hasn’t abandoned us, and even when we’re struck down and looking our own destruction in the face, we can instead look to God’s face. And our world can see the treasure of the gospel shining out of the cracked, worn, chipped, broken clay jars that we are.    
     God doesn’t need robot ministers. He just needs us. He just needs you, clay jar though you are.

     Run that through your processor, Pepper.

Friday, September 6, 2019

How a Church Can Change Without Killing Each Other

     It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…    
-Acts 15:28 (NIV)

My friend and brother in Christ Mark Love consults with churches as a side gig to his main job teaching at Rochester College. A couple of days ago, Mark wrote a blog post that started this way:
     In my consulting work with congregations, I’ve learned a few things about the capacity of a congregation to make significant changes. I am of the mind that a hopeful future for most congregations will require deep, adaptive change. All congregations can make an adjustment here or there, typically of a “technical” nature. They can change or add programs, in other words. But when they’re done, they’re still fundamentally the same. The moment we occupy, however, as congregations in a world of discontinuous change, requires more. It requires “adaptive” change–not just that we do something different, but that we become something new.
     Mark goes on to say that he isn’t optimistic that most congregations are capable of the kind of “adaptive change” he’s talking about. He says that people usually “do not authorize people to make them face what they do not want to face” — which is a helpful insight that touches on a lot of our relationships. Most churches don’t have a high tolerance for conflict, either — and conflict is pretty much a given when you’re talking about significant change.
    Change is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard in most aspects of life. Most of us like it when things remain on a pretty even keel. Many of us don’t even like it when we have to update our phone or computer operating systems — never mind how we feel about change at church.
     Well, listen: there may have been a time at your church when people were convinced that it was a sin to use the Lord’s money to pay for air conditioning. Some would have been convinced those Bibles in your pews right now compromised the word of God. There might have been a time when someone thought it was immoral to desegregate your church. There might have even been a time when some matter of teaching that you take for granted would have been considered heretical by a significant segment of your church.
     You know what happened, though? Change happened. Someone proposed something, or taught something, or started something. There was disagreement. Debate. Cases were made, meetings were held, there may have even been a few horses traded. Hopefully, in all of it there was prayer and an openness to the Holy Spirit. Over time, changes were made. Maybe even fundamental ones.
     Of course, there’s precedent for fundamental change in churches from the very beginning. Take a look at Acts 15 sometime if you don’t believe me.  What you see there is a church in the middle of adaptive change at a very basic level. The question in front of them is, “Who’s in, who’s out, and how do we know?”
     See, at first the church was Jewish. That’s strange to say, and my Jewish friends might even take issue with it. Still, the early Christians thought of themselves as Jewish. The Jews did too: the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, for example, ordered Peter and John to stop talking about Jesus. That they felt they had the authority to order them to do anything assumes that they still saw the Christians as Jews who needed straightening out. The book of Acts says that believers in Jesus were first referred to as Christians in Antioch — a Gentile city. That’s because there was already a name for them in Jerusalem and other predominately Jewish places: Jews.
     So Acts 15 tells us about a meeting held in Jerusalem and attended by all the leaders of the church. The original apostles were there. So were Paul and Barnabas, who had been planting lots of new churches in Gentile country. James — Jesus’ brother — was there too. 
     The meeting had to do with some Jewish Christians who had been teaching Gentile Christians that Jesus only saves those who are circumcised. Think about it for just a second and you’ll understand why they felt that way. There was not one verse in their Bibles that told them circumcision had been displaced as the sign of the covenant. There were plenty of Biblical texts that commanded circumcision. Until Paul and others like him started inviting Gentiles into the church, there probably wasn’t one Christian man who wasn’t circumcised. To change, in their view, would be to compromise. Violating one of God’s direct commands was too large a price to pay so that a few non-Jews might be more willing to believe in Jesus.
     Skip down to the end, though, and you see that the debate went in a shocking direction: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” This from James, a leader in the Jerusalem church and a Jew. 
     They decided that circumcision wouldn’t be required, and in fact only minimal fidelity to the Jewish law. It’s how they get there that’s interesting to unwind, though.
     First of all, they listen to each other. We’re not good at this as a society, and I’m not convinced it’s better in most churches. When we do listen, we’re mentally preparing to shoot holes in what’s being said. Here, though, the church actually listens to each other. They listen to the experiences of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, who have already been preaching Jesus to the Gentiles. They know that these guys who have been living in Gentile country have been working out the theology. They hear their conviction that reaching out to the Gentiles is the will of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.
     After they listen to each other, they allow what they hear to inform their reading of Scripture. I think that’s pretty important. Sometimes people who take Scripture seriously shut down personal experience that doesn’t match their understanding of Scripture. “What you’re saying has happened or is happening can’t be valid,” we argue, “because it goes against what we think the Bible says.” Except we sometimes leave out that “we think.”
     The verses James quotes could have probably been understood any number of ways — even as supporting the more restrictive Judeo-Christianity. But James mentions Peter’s experience with the Holy Spirit first, and he says that the prophets agree with that experience. James doesn’t use the Bible to evaluate Peter’s experience. The Bible is read through the lenses of Peter’s experience.
     Maybe we need to do more of that. Maybe our churches would be more able to change if we could let the experiences of our members — all of them, not just those of a few — inform the way we read the Bible. That’s not giving up on biblical authority. It’s just admitting to ourselves the way biblical authority works. I can tell you this: my reading of the Bible, and thus the way I live, the way I preach and teach, all of it, has been changed by listening to the church. Your reading of the Bible has been affected by listening to others too, whether you recognize it or not. We can’t escape having our reading of the Bible altered by the people we listen to. What we can escape is only listening to people like us, who don’t force us to hear the Bible in different ways. 
     Change will never be easy. But it doesn’t have to be traumatic if we can listen to each other, recognize the work of God in each others’ lives, and then allow what we hear to affect the way we read the Bible. 

     If God wants change in our churches, do we want to be the ones standing in the way?