Friday, November 27, 2020

Christmas With the Gospels: Mark

 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

     They replied, “Some say John the Baptist;  others say Elijah;  and still others, one of the prophets.”

     “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 

     Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 

     Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.    (Mark 8:27-30, NIV)

As we wait for Christmas, I thought I’d take four weeks here to take a wide-angle look at each of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. 

     It’s interesting that we have four. A bias in our understanding of story and information is that multiple accounts that differ in some of their details can’t possibly be accurate. We’ll look a little more closely at the process through which our Gospels came to be in later posts, but for now it’s important to note that the church has long accepted four accounts of Jesus’ life that differ in many details and have been shown to be notoriously difficult to harmonize. Beyond those details, though, each Gospel seems interested in its own themes and presents Jesus in different (though complementary) ways. Part of the value of taking a long view of each Gospel is to note some of these themes and ways of presenting Jesus that can get lost.  

     The Gospel of Mark is probably the earliest written of the four. Mark moves — the author frequently uses the word euthus — “immediately.” It starts off at a sprint, no birth story here — “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” From the jump, Mark wants his readers to know who he thinks Jesus is. We’re moved quickly through Jesus’ baptism by John (where God calls Jesus his Son), his time in the wilderness “being tempted by Satan” and attended by angels,  to his dramatic return to Galilee preaching that “the kingdom of God has come near” and that his hearers should “repent and believe the good news.” Fifteen verses in, and we already know who Jesus is and what he wants us to do! Mark moves us along quickly; he doesn’t editorialize much, and even Jesus’ teaching is scarce.

    There are many allusions to and even quotations of Scripture, but they’re rarely highlighted. One exception is the first one, the quotation from Isaiah (with a pinch of Malachi and Exodus), which concludes,  “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” Mark is doing far more than just introducing John the Baptist; he’s announcing in Jesus that exile is finally ending. Jesus is building a highway in the desert along which his people can march to freedom. He’s re-establishing God’s rule over his people, in full view of the nations that at present dominate and oppress them. From his baptism, through Galilee and eventually Jerusalem, Jesus is entering hostile territory — healing disease, casting out demons, withstanding Satan’s temptations — and announcing the presence of God’s kingdom. In doing so he’s bringing hope, but also judgment. Thus, “repent and believe.”

     We’re made to identify with the first disciples Jesus calls, following Jesus enthusiastically because we’re sure of who he is. His miracles, laid end-to-end through much of the first part of the book, overwhelm us. He heals a cross-section of sick people, many of whom the religious leaders offer no solace to. Sometimes his healings clash with their expectations about acceptable conduct.  

     While we begin the Gospel with the other disciples following enthusiastically, as the roller-coaster ride continues we also share in their increasing confusion. This guy isn’t who we thought he was. Maybe the best (worst?) example is the response of the disciples to Jesus’ question about his identity. They can answer who people say he is, but their understanding of who he is is hazier; Peter, their spokesman, gets one of Mark’s two titles right (“Christ” but not “Son of God”), then rebukes Jesus when he explains that being the Christ involves suffering, rejection, and death. "Get behind me, Satan," is Jesus’ response to Peter’s big revelation. He also tells his disciples that they shouldn’t tell anyone what they think they know of who he is.

     In contrast to Peter, the rest of the twelve, and the religious leaders (who say Jesus is of “Beelzebub”), the demons know him, obey him and are subject to his authority. Those outside Israel confess him, though they re less obedient than the demons and testify to who he is even though he says they shouldn’t. In fact, in the scene in which Peter confesses Jesus to be Israel's messiah, Mark tells us that Jesus "sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

     Scholars who study Mark sometimes call this the "messianic secret." While the other gospels often feature Jesus being pretty open about who he is, in Mark he’s more coy about it. It seems that this has something to do with the importance given in Mark to Jesus’ death as a necessary part of his identity as Christ and Son of God. Chapters 8-10 provide a pivot point for the gospel; there, Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection three times (8:31-9:1, 9:33-37, 10:32-45). After each prediction, the disciples demonstrate how little they understand and Jesus teaches them what it really means to be a disciple. They will have to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow” instead of being concerned with preserving their lives (8:34-35). After the other two predictions, they show their ignorance by arguing about who is the greatest and seeking positions of power in God’s coming kingdom, to which Jesus says things like "those who would be great, must be the least," and "those who would be first, must be last.”

     In Mark, Jesus’ death is not principally about the forgiveness of sins. (Jesus has the authority to forgive sins apart from his death.) It’s the expected outcome of living a Kindom-centered life in a world that honors other kings — for Jesus and for those who would follow him. Christ’ blood in Mark is less about the sacrifices of the Law and more about the Exodus story in which the blood of the passover lamb painted on the door posts serves as a sign of God’s covenant. Jesus offers his blood in the last supper as the blood of the new covenant (14:24), reaffirming the theme of a second Exodus we saw in the opening lines of the gospel.

     Unlike the other gospels, Mark gives us no resurrection appearances. There’s nothing at the end except an  empty tomb, a young man in white robes who tells the women about resurrection, and a planned meeting with the disciples in Galilee, where the story begins. (In other gospel accounts they’re told to wait in Jerusalem.) The gospel ends with the women saying nothing to anyone "for terror and amazement seized them" and "they were afraid" (16:1-8). 

     The only human voice in the gospel to confess Jesus as Son of God is a Roman centurion (15:39). At the heart of the new Exodus is the Christ’s death, and Mark doesn’t let us hear him confessed as God’s Son until that moment. Jesus lives up to his identity as the one who brings about God’s deliverance of his people at the moment of his death. God shows that this mission of Jesus’ is still right on track by raising him from the dead and calling his disciples to meet with him to find out how to be a part of it. 

     May we hear Mark clearly on this point, and may we live with the expectation of meeting with the risen Lord and allowing him to teach us how to be his followers in proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.


Friday, November 13, 2020

Toward an Unbiased Reading of the Bible

 “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.     

Luke 24:25-27(NIV)

In the early 19th century, a Bible was published in England for use in the British West Indies (the British territory in the Caribbean). Maybe it would be more accurate to call it a “Bible,” because it actually contained about 10% of the Old Testament and about 50% of the New. Even its title acknowledged that, if this was the only Bible the reader had access to, they wouldn’t be getting the whole story. That was intentional, you see.

     The title of the work was Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands. The parts of Scripture that weren’t included, of course, were left out in case they might cause the readers to get the idea that no human being should be considered as having lesser value or should be held in captivity by another. That couldn’t be allowed, of course. 

     The existence of that “Bible” would be merely interesting if it hadn’t been used by Christians to put a religious veneer over a horrific practice. It illustrates the extremes to which people will go to find in Scripture confirmation of what they already believe. Thomas Jefferson famously cut and pasted (literally) a “New Testament” out of the teachings and life of Jesus — without any of his miracles or his resurrection. At a church I worked with years ago, a friend once answered my objections that a text he was using to support a position didn’t mean any such thing with, “I know, but I like to use it that way.” Well, sure. A Bible that supports what we already believe to be true is much to be desired.

     Of course, as I point fingers at others, I have to admit the likelihood that at one time or another I’ve come to the text expecting to find what I was looking for, which is frightening since every week I stand before a church and speak to them what is supposed to be the word of God. 

     But here’s what I’ve come to realize: We all tend to see what we want to see in the Bible. If you want it to be a “love letter” from God, then you’ll be inclined to see those things in the Bible that emphasize God’s love and overlook the parts that don’t seem to be about that. Ditto if what you expect from the Bible is a pattern to follow. Same if you want reinforcement for your political agenda, or your sect’s doctrinal peculiarities, or confirmation that your list of sinful behaviors is the same as God’s. We all tend to look at the Bible as a magic mirror, reflecting back what we imagine we look like. None of us — not even preachers — are exempt.

     That’s because of something called confirmation bias. Simply put, we have a tendency to see what we expect to see. We believe what we already think is true. We doubt anything that doesn’t fit within our already-settled beliefs. We dislike being wrong. We subconsciously want to protect our self-esteem from having to admit we may have something more to learn, so we’re always motivated to prove our opinions and our tribe’s positions to be correct. Combine that with our talent for finding faults in others while overlooking our own, and you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to discussion, dialogue, or collaboration. Frankly, it’s amazing we can ever get anything done together, as convinced as we all are that what we already believe is the unvarnished truth.  

     Conspiracy theories and fake news are confirmation bias at work, by the way. We amplify, exaggerate, and even create “evidence” to support what we already believe. The more emotionally charged or deeply entrenched the belief, the more likely it is that confirmation bias will occur. That’s why our social media pages turn into flame wars, or more likely echo chambers where we surround ourselves with people who think just like us, ingest only sources that support our opinions, and conveniently, feed our confirmation bias.

     So don’t imagine for a moment that anyone simply reads the Bible and does what it says, as we’d sometimes like to believe. It’s never that simple. As surely as Jefferson or the publishers of the “Slave Bible,” there are parts that, for all intents and purposes, we take a razor blade to. There are parts that we inflate beyond all sense of proportion to become Doctrines of Extreme Importance. And then there are whole themes in Scripture that we can just cast aside in pursuit of evidence for what we already believe to be true.

     And if we find some other people whose confirmation biases more or less look like ours — well, we call that a denomination, and we buy a church building and slap a sign on it, and spend our time raging about how wrong everyone else is and congratulating ourselves for being right.

     So, it’s hopeless, then? We’re doomed to never learn anything new from the Bible? To never be challenged because of the unassailability of our confirmation biases? No, I’m still somewhat confident that we can read Scripture without our confirmation biases calling all the shots. For starters, we can be self-reflective enough to see that tendency in ourselves and know that what we believe about this or that text in this given moment may or may not be absolute truth (and probably is not). We know to be suspicious of ourselves and our motives, especially around a text or an issue in which we’re emotionally wrapped up. Before you settle on something you’re sure is right, let someone poke holes in it — preferably someone who’s different enough from you that they might not share your confirmation bias.

     That’s the second thing: the Bible is supposed to be read in community. Our ability to own private copies (sometimes specialty Bibles that make sure to feed our confirmation biases) and enjoy “quiet time” alone with God can make us forget it, but the Bible is for the church together, and we haven’t read it until we read it that way. Others in the community will call your biases into question. They’ll challenge what you assumed to be true. They’ll make you think about the lenses through which you read the text. If you can go into those moments with enough humility and trust that God loves you and thinks you have great worth whether you have the Bible all figured out or not, your confirmation biases will be stretched and ruptured. (And that’s a good thing!) Church should be (though it sometimes isn’t) a really good and safe place to confront biases. If you can’t listen to a sister or brother in Christ who sees things differently from you, who are you going to listen to?   

    Connected to that, we need to give those who disagree with us about this text or that one the love that God requires. To paraphrase Paul, our Bible reading is clanging gong and crashing cymbal without love (and at least as annoying). Are people who believe differently from me really as stupid or ungodly as I’m making them out to be? Knowing and loving people who see things differently can help us overcome our biases.

     But that’s only if we love the truth more than winning arguments, even if it means being corrected, even if it means having a different opinion than people you love and respect. 

     Don’t forget, though: It isn’t entirely up to you. God’s Spirit is in you and with you as you engage with the Bible, opening your eyes. Read with your heart open to him and expect his guidance. The same risen Jesus who helped open the Scriptures to his disciples on the road to Emmaus is still living and will open them to you on the roads you travel. Be ready when he does, because that kind of experience, so I’ve been told, tends to set your heart on fire.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Watching and Working

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

     You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,  that they may see your good deeds  and glorify  your Father in heaven. 

-Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV) 

Our Father in heaven, let your name be revered. Let your kingdom come. Let your will be doneas in heaven, also on earth.

-Matthew 6:9

 In America, we wait for a President to be elected. 

     Really, we’ve already elected him. It’s just taking a while to find out who we’ve elected. When the counting and legal challenges are done, I hope anger will cool and disappointment will settle. I’d like to believe, at least, that we’re still a country that can elect a President without coming apart at the seams. We always have been, at least in my lifetime. Some of the rhetoric, though, makes me wonder a little if we still are.  

      In the middle of all the politics and legal maneuvering, I ran across a story that I think we all need to hear. Maybe you missed it, but I think there’s something in it that’s important for us to remember. Especially those of us who are believers in Jesus.

     Robert Carter is a young man who grew up in the foster care system in Cincinnati, Ohio. In that system, he no doubt learned some hard lessons about government. There are lots of kids growing up here in America right now who are learning the same kinds of lessons: that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, they’ll still be poor. That their schools will be underfunded. That when they get to school they’ll be hungry, unless some of those school meals that they hear some of their classmates complain about and make fun of are available. That they’ll be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. That they won’t be able to get medicine when they’re sick. That their parents, if they know them both, will work like slaves and they might still have to leave their apartment in the middle of the night because they’re behind on the rent. Or maybe that their parents won’t be part of their lives because of addiction or the legal system or the violence in their neighborhood.

     Robert learned some of those lessons. In the foster system he was separated from his 8 siblings, one of whom he didn’t see for 14 years. So last December, even though he’s single, he took on the responsibility of being a foster parent to three boys: Robert Jr., Giovanni and Kiontae. That’s quite a responsibility in itself for a single parent, but Robert believed that his background made him uniquely suited for fostering the boys.

     It wasn’t that simple, of course.

     As he got to know his foster sons, he learned that they had two sisters, Marionna and Makayla, who were also in the foster system. They’d meet up from time to time, and all of them would cry when they had to go their separate ways. 

     So Robert worked, and saved. 

     He bought a bigger house.

     And just this week, with Robert and the five kids in their finest coordinated outfits, they listened to a judge tell them they were, all six of them, officially a family. Robert has legally adopted them all. Just so they don’t have to be apart again.

     Now, I think a feel-good story is much needed in 2020, and especially in the middle of a contentious election held during a raging pandemic. But this is more than a feel-good story. It’s a prescription. Better, it’s a mission.

     Kingdoms usually don’t come without struggle. They don’t usually come without there being winners and losers, trials, hardship, and strife. Kingdoms come only after a lot of waiting, a lot of patience. Kind of like this election, right? With a lot of waiting and watching.

     While we wait for an announcement and watch election returns, let’s not forget what we really ought to be watching and waiting for. And praying for. God’s kingdom. To be a believer is to want God’s kingdom to come.

     Some of my social media friends have reminded me of that this week. Their posts have said, in effect, “Whoever wins the election, I’m going to keep loving my neighbor and believing that it’s really God who’s on the throne.” That’s a good reminder. I would hope every Christian would affirm those words. We watch and pray for God’s kingdom to come.

     Maybe it isn’t quite enough though. See, there are real people whose lives are drastically affected by political events like an election. Businesses — and livelihoods — can be lost. So can health care. Tell the people who come into our church's food pantry that politics don’t matter when they’ve lost a job due to increased health care costs, or when the program that keeps them from having to choose between buying groceries or prescriptions is cut.

     Tell people lost in a foster system that politics don’t matter.

     Whoever wins the election, there will continue to be people who are utterly failed by those in power. 

     And so we must do more than watch and pray for the kingdom of God, because Jesus makes clear the kind of kingdom he means. This isn’t a kingdom where we’re all taken to heaven to avoid the messiness the world. The kingdom Jesus announced was coming, the one he told us to watch and pray for, is a kingdom in which God’s will is done — in which conditions on earth mirror what life is like in heaven.

     That’s why Jesus says we’re to be salt people and light people whose influence for good is noted and in whom God is glorified. People like Robert Carter, who promised to be a dad to five kids who desperately needed him. People like friends of mine who have fostered and adopted children of their own. People who serve our world in ways that perhaps make a more lasting difference than a Presidential election. People who love like Jesus did: who love those who are most in need with a self-giving, sacrificial abandon.

     People who watch and pray for the kingdom of God, but who work for it too.

     As you watch and pray for God’s kingdom, then, find ways to work for it. We don’t create it with our actions. We don’t qualify for it with good deeds. It only comes at all in Jesus, and will only come fully when he appears. Still, when you find ways to create space in which his will is done, you give our world a glimpse of what that kingdom looks like.

     And you might just get a few others to believe in that kingdom and to watch, pray, and work for it alongside you.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Churches That Burn

      You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,  that they may see your good deeds  and glorify  your Father in heaven. 

-Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)

Last Sunday, demonstrations against the government of Chile, corruption in the national police, and economic inequality turned violent in Santiago. Protestors set fire to two churches in the parish of the national police, cheering and recording while the spire of one of them collapsed. The two churches are possibly burned beyond repair. As the images were shown on TV, the Archbishop of Santiago, Celestino Aós, said, “Violence is evil, and whoever sows violence reaps destruction, pain and death. Let us never justify any violence, for political or social purposes.”

     Protestors had something of their own to say. One said it succinctly by posting a photo of herself inside one of the churches, with what looks like a pulpit on fire behind her. The photo is captioned with these words, from Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti: “La única iglesia que ilumina es la que arde.”

     In English, “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”

    I don’t really know why the protestors chose those two churches, though being known as the parish of the national police might have contributed. I know there is an ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal in Chile in which 360 accusations have been made against Catholic officials, leading to the 2018 resignation of every Chilean bishop. A recent study shows that the percentage of Chileans who say they trust the Church has dwindled from 51% to 13% in 20 years. It seems like a sure bet that the Catholic Church in Chile has been a part of the problem as much as they’ve been a part of the solution. Whether or not burning down a couple of church buildings is appropriate justice I leave for others to decide — and, ultimately, God.

     I’m interested in the slogan on that photo: “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”   

     It seems to me that the church — the institutional church, I mean — in a lot of places is completing a journey. At one time, the church was at the center of a community, a city, even a country. The church had leverage, influence, even power. It functioned as a fortress for the status quo and as a gateway for change.

     Eventually, though, the power of the institutional church started to wane. People began to look elsewhere for counsel, guidance, and leadership. Churches became known as quaint organizations that upheld a past that was seen as more and more irrelevant. And easier and easier to ignore.

     The church pushed back against this. They discovered political power. In America, what’s today known as Evangelicalism is more political now than ecclesial and bears little resemblance to the term evangelical. In hitching our wagon to political influence, though, the church compromises our identity. And, not incidentally, make ourselves a target for the anger of those on the other side of the political spectrum. 

     And so the church is increasingly perceived as part of the problem. Protestors believe that the only way for the church to have any relevance is as an effigy for the corrupt society they think we’re an essential part of. That we’ll only illuminate when the property that we own goes up in flames as an example to the rest of society. 

     Thing is, I don’t think Jesus would disagree with those words, “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”

     It’s right there in Matthew, isn’t it, in that famous “sermon on the mount?” “You’re light for the world,” he tells his disciples. But they own no property. They have zero political influence, zero connections in high places. They aren’t famous, or influential, or even very persuasive. They’re a motley little assortment of regular guys (including a few fishermen, a bookkeeper, a tax collector for the occupation government, and a terrorist who’d have liked to stab some government guys in the back) following an itinerant teacher and healer on a decidedly low-budget mission. Yet he calls them light for the world.

     “You can’t hide a town built on a hill,” he goes on to say. The spiritual descendants of those disciples have tried, though. We’ve formed corporations and bought property and built impressive and beautiful structures all over the world — and then turned all our attention to filling them and maintaining them. “You don’t light a lamp and then cover it up,” he says. I wonder, though, if what we own and the shortcuts to influence we’ve sought haven’t become gilded bowls that hide our light instead of allowing it to be enjoyed by everyone in the house. 

     Even as I write that, I know it’s unfair. I know it doesn’t take into account the uncountable churches and disciples of Jesus who have done faithful and wonderful work for the Kingdom. Still, it’s hard to deny that the world is having a hard time seeing the church’s light. If we’re hiding it, if we’re covering it up, that’s on us, not them.   

     So how do we let that light be seen? It’s easy, at least in the conception: “let your light shine before others,  that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” That’s how it’s supposed to work. Good works done faithfully by disciples of Jesus should lead to people glorifying God. In that, we’re pretty much just following Jesus, who “went around doing good.” He announced that God’s kingdom was brushing near to us and that it was a kingdom for all of us. But he also showed what that kingdom looked like: no more sickness, no more death, no more hatred or fear or sorrow or sin. And he wants his disciples to do the same.

     Jesus wants burning churches — disciples burning with the fire of good works who can light up the world around us. It isn’t our nice buildings that will bring glory to God (though we can use them in ways that do). It isn’t political power that Jesus wants the world to see (though we should use our votes to do good for those around us, not just ourselves). It isn’t influential, well-known preachers or membership rolls full of the most impressive names or doctrinal correctness or even evangelistic zeal that Jesus says will set us ablaze with a light that our world can’t deny. It’s good works. Simple. Obvious.

     How are we supposed to be the church in a world in which churches are seen as part of the problem? Same way we’ve always supposed to have been the church. 

     Let’s be known in our communities for good works. If our buildings are burned, may our communities miss us — and may we continue to show love, grace, compassion and kindness. May we get out from under our bowls, may we be a city on a hill whose lights no one can miss. May we be known for good works done with smiles and the name of Jesus on our lips — may we be known for good works and not the scandal, corruption, manipulation, and hunger for power that many people in our world think of now when they hear the word “church.”

     Not everyone will glorify God because of it, I know. But if they don’t may it never be because of us.

     Let’s burn.        

Friday, October 16, 2020

Who Counts?

       Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. 

-Matthew 10:29-31 (NIV)

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2020 Census could end on Friday. The effort to count every person in the country, required by the Constitution, had already been delayed by the pandemic. The new deadline, set for October 31st, was deemed too late for the Commerce Department to deliver the results to the President by the deadline required by law, so the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., ordered the deadline moved to September 30. After legal challenges, the Supreme Court ordered the count stopped at the end of this week.

     The Census, of course, is essential for determining representation in Congress and the distribution of government funds. Many experts worry that ending the count early could cause “irreversible damage to efforts to achieve a fair and accurate census.” Justice Sotomayor, the lone dissenter in the Supreme Court decision, wrote, “the harms associated with an inaccurate census are avoidable and intolerable.”

     The problem is that it takes a while to count everyone. It’s possible to respond to the Census online, by phone, or by mail, but not everyone does. So Census workers go out into neighborhoods and knock on doors and ring bells to fill in the gaps. Many of the people who the Census could most help — racial minority groups, poor people and young people — are underrepresented in the mail, phone, and online responses. Immigrants who are out-of-status don’t show up sometimes, whether by their choice or by being overlooked. So the need for an adequate timetable. 

     While the Census Bureau claims that they’ve counted 99.9% of households, most experts outside the Bureau seem to dispute that number. It does not represent the number of households that have competed the form. It probably takes into account any household checked off the list, even if it’s just on the word of neighbors about who lives at a particular address. The fact that the administration has already announced that it would try to exclude those who are out of status from the final count makes it additionally questionable that the report is actually intended to represent the actual number of people living in the United States.

     I don’t know, maybe you think that’s as it should be. I don’t, personally. One of the important things that I think living in this country should mean is that, quite literally, everyone counts. We haven’t always lived up to that ideal, of course. In our early years, only white men counted. Black men were eventually counted as ⅗ of a person, and in 1868 were finally told they counted as whole people. Women finally counted enough to be allowed to vote in 1920. It wasn’t until 1964, almost in my lifetime, that Federal Law finally came to reflect the ideal that everyone should count, whatever their race, gender, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation. And, of course, the fact that laws are on the books doesn’t mean that, every day, people don’t still get the message that they don’t count. We can, and should, do better. The Census should be one means of doing better, a strictly data-driven, non-partisan exercise to make sure that people are counted so that the government can, hopefully, do a more effective job of governing. 

     My conviction about people counting doesn’t come from my being an American, though. It comes from my being a Christian.

     People count with God. 

     I wonder if the group of enslaved people concentrated in Goshen, in Egypt, had been counted on the most recent Egyptian census before God told Pharaoh to let his people go?

     I wonder how the Babylonians counted the people they forcibly captured from Israel and dispersed in their cities? I wonder if they bothered to count them at all? Whether they did or not, God counted them and knew their number when he brought them home. He knew who didn’t make it, too.

     I wonder if Jesus was counted in a census? I wonder if the census-takers got the news that a baby boy had been born to Mary and Joseph? I don’t know if he counted to the Romans at his birth, or even to his countrymen. Yet God said “This is my Son.”

     I know at his death he counted only as a troublemaker, one more pretender king to be dealt with as ruthlessly and efficiently as possible. Only the few disciples and family members present at the cross seemed to care much about his death. Yet God raised him up.

     People count with God. Even the people who aren’t counted by anyone else. Especially them.

     Jesus, of course, pointed out that if God takes care of the birds, he certainly knows and takes care of us. “Every hair on your head is numbered,” he said. God knows us. We count with him, however unimportant the world might tell us that we are. He knows our failures, he knows our shortcomings, he knows the things no one else wants to know. And he chooses to love us and to be faithful and generous to us.

     I want you to know that because there are a lot of ways in this world that we can get the impression that we don’t count. Sometimes it’s because of the people we elect to represent us. Sometimes it’s because we don’t measure up in some way or the other to what everyone else seems to think matters. Sometimes the people we’re closest to give us the impression what we don’t count, and sometimes we even convince ourselves of it. But I want you to know, if you don’t already or if you need reminding of it, that you count with God. Whatever your skin color is, whatever your gender (and whether or not you feel confident about that), wherever you’re from, whatever your bank balance says, wherever you live, whatever you wear, whatever your sexual orientation or political party or church affiliation (or lack of one). To God, you count. You matter. He cares about you: what you’re going through, where you’ve been, where you’d like in your wildest dreams to go.  

     I want you to know as well that because you count with God, you count with me. Oh, I’m not going to be perfect at that, I’m fairly sure. Still, that’s my aspiration. It’s the church’s aspiration too, and sometimes we even get it right. We want to reflect the way God cares about people in the way we care about people. We don't think we deserve any credit for that — it’s just what God expects of us. 

     May you always count, and always know that you count, in the eyes of the people who matter most to you.

     And may you always know that you count with God.

     And may we as God’s people always show those we know and come in contact with that they count. That they matter. That they’re seen and heard, that God knows them and cares about them, that he’s shown it in Jesus and through his church.

     Whether our government acknowledges that all people count or not, we know what God thinks.

Friday, October 2, 2020

All Things to All People

      Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law  (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

-1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)

A friend shared with me this week a document he put together for his church on systemic racism. 

     My friend, Greg, is a husband and father of adult children. He’s a former Marine helicopter pilot. He retired a couple of years ago from a career as an executive of a Fortune 500 corporation. He was an elder at the church I serve. For his next act, he intends to begin formal study of the Bible so he can more effectively help people come to know Jesus. 

     And he would hate it that I just felt compelled to list his qualifications so maybe you’d listen to what he says.

     Because that’s part of the problem: Black people and other people of color are often required to demonstrate that they’re “one of the good ones” before their voices are heard when it comes to racism. Greg related to me in a conversation we had recently that seemingly innocuous questions that they were asked as they visited churches trying to find a home after their move — “What do you ?” “Where do you live?” — can for people of color carry with them  a subtext — “Are you one of us?”

     That’s something I don’t think I’ve consciously intended when I’ve asked those questions — though, maybe, sometimes. Usually, in that situation, I’m wondering if this person lives in the neighborhood and therefore might potentially come to be a part of my church. And so I relate to the question you might be thinking right now: “Well how would I know that? How would I know how someone else might hear that question?” 

     The answer, of course, is that Greg just told us. 

     See, white people like me tend to get defensive when we hear someone talk about systemic racism. We come at it thinking we have to defend our own record on racism. We come at it feeling like we have to defend our country, or our race. At worst, we accuse our accusers of being racists themselves because they bring up the subject to begin with. At best, we throw up our hands in frustration and ask how we’re supposed to fix the problem if we don’t even see it. We need to stop it. When Blacks and other people of color tell us about their experiences of racism, they don’t need us to fix it or tell them why they’re mistaken. They need us to listen, sympathize, show compassion, and do better.

     Greg pointed out in the document how Black people in our world are “always on guard” and “always understanding vs. being understood.” Think about that for a moment. At work, at school, at a store, taking a walk in your neighborhood, even at church — think about having to always be on guard because of your skin color, knowing that someone might be watching you, wondering about you, questioning your qualifications to be there, maybe even with their hand in a pocket on a phone with the “9” and “1” already dialed. 

     Imagine always having to work to understand other people and behave in ways that will steer you around conflicts, with no confidence that those same people understand you.

     Earlier, I shared Greg’s “qualifications” in part because I want you to understand that this is a guy who has worked hard, served his country, been educated, was successful in his career, has a strong family, and has shepherded a church. He’s a guy who seems to have a big chunk of the American Dream. Still, he sees the racism that’s deeply entangled in our American Dream.

     This is why he sympathizes with athletes who kneel during the National Anthem, knowing that it isn’t about the military but about those for whom the promise of America is still denied. That’s why he points out that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” should be affirmed by all, without qualification — and that to push back against it without trying to understand where it comes from is part of the systemic racism that it challenges. 

     Greg writes: “Fifty-two years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched with black sanitation workers holding signs that read, I Am A Man. Did that mean that white men were not men? Of course not, but racism was preventing the sanitation workers from living their version of the American Dream.”

      A couple thousand years ago, a guy named Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people.” He wrote those words in a world in which the big racial divide was between Jew and Gentile. The church of his day was divided as well, between the Jews — through whom Jesus came, and through whom God had initially revealed himself through the Scriptures and through the Law — and the Gentiles, who were coming to Christ at an increasing rate and who might not have the same inborn reverence for the Scriptures. Jewish people were the early leaders. There was discrimination against the Gentiles. But Paul, a Jew, said he would become “like one not having the Law” in order to help the Gentiles hear the gospel of Jesus. He’d go out of his way to understand them. Listen to them, hear them. Sympathize with them. Speak up for them with the leaders of the church. He didn’t do this because he had suddenly developed an ambivalence toward his own people. He did it because that what was necessary for the gospel to he heard, for healing to begin, for God’s work to be done in the world. 

     What is necessary for God’s work to be done in the world today isn’t any different. We — the church, especially — need to hear what Black people and other people of color in and outside of the church are saying to us about racism. We need to respond to this moment in history in the right way. We don’t need to be defending ourselves, our country’s history, our political system, or our churches’ records. That doesn’t get the work of God done in the world. That doesn’t communicate the love of Jesus or open our communities, our nation, or ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

     Instead, may we commit ourselves to being “slave[s] to everyone, to win as many as possible” — not to our politics, or our way of seeing the world, or to our way of thinking, but to the gospel. May we bend over backward to hear what people of color are saying about justice. May we listen carefully to those who don’t have the confidence in the rule of law that we might have. May we listen with compassion when Black people talk about the times they’ve been made to feel weak and powerless, and may we lift our voices with them.

     If we can’t do that, why would anyone want to hear the gospel from us? 

     If we can’t do that, why would anyone believe words about the love of Jesus from our lips? 

     They wouldn’t, and they shouldn’t.

     May the church always be a place where no one has to be on guard because they’re safe in Christ. May the church always be a place where every race can know they’re understood because God knows them.

     And may we, finally, share together in all the blessings of the gospel.

Friday, September 25, 2020


     Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, 

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, 

for they will be called children of God. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

-Matthew 5:3-10 (NIV)

There are a couple of houses in my neighborhood, in the next block over, that have looked like the houses to be at this summer. They’re twin houses, built side-by-side on what used to be a single lot. Young families have moved into both of them, and this summer the front yards of those houses, and the apartment building next door, have been filled with kids.

     I walked by there today and counted 10 kids running around these small city lots. Two were on a swing suspended from a tree. A few were playing hopscotch or something on the sidewalk. A couple of boys were chasing each other with water guns. A group of older girls were standing around giggling about something. Three parents lounged on the front porches, talking and loosely supervising. 

     What it looks like is that these parents, facing a long summer of social distancing and working from home, decided just to turn their houses into an informal summer camp. Every time I walked by there this summer, the kids were out playing. The parents were talking. In the absence of other demands, other appointments, they were all taking the time to get to know each other, enjoy being together — to, surprisingly enough, have fun.

     While many of us will remember 2020 as a long slog through uncertain times, I think those kids — and maybe even their parents — will remember a summer spent enjoying sunny days and good friends. 

     They’ll remember that they were blessed.

     Funny thing about blessings: they often seem to come when you’re not looking for them, in the places you don’t expect to find them. Maybe that’s because blessing and expectation seem to be inversely proportional. By definition, blessings are unanticipated. The more we look for them, the more we try to organize our lives to produce them, the more they elude us. Even when good things might happen, they don’t feel so much like blessings. Just the expected outcome.

     Maybe that’s why Jesus said that, in the kingdom of God, blessedness is for the poor in spirit, or the grieving, or those who have no standing to advocate for their own interests, or those who need justice so badly that they can taste it. Blessedness is for those who care enough about others’ hurt to feel compassion, the uncomplicated who want nothing more than to see God’s face, and those who work hard for peace but who aren’t surprised or deterred when for their efforts they get insults, violence, and rejection. None of the people he mentions to open his Sermon on the Mount about life in God’s kingdom are looking for blessedness. None of them are expecting it in their current circumstances. Yet, he says they’re blessed.

     Blessed because God himself will comfort them. Blessed because they’ll receive his unexpected reward. Blessed because they’ll see the justice they hunger for, they’ll receive the mercy they offer, and because they’ll see God and be recognized as his children. They’re blessed because, as Jesus says twice in these verses, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

     He doesn’t mean that they just need to hang in there because they’ll go to heaven when they die. By “kingdom of heaven,” Matthew means what the other Gospel writers mean when they say “kingdom of God.” They’re blessed, Jesus says, because when God reigns, when his will is done on earth as in heaven, then they will receive what’s lacking and experience the blessedness of God. Of course, there’s a sense in which God’s will won’t be done on earth as in heaven until Jesus returns. Until then, there’s always an element of anticipation to our faith. We’ll always have a “looking-forward” orientation.

     But there’s also a sense in which God’s kingdom has already come. His second coming will complete God’s reign, but his first coming inaugurated it. That was his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” When we obey Jesus and turn our attention to the things of God, then he reigns in our lives. His will is done — imperfectly, inconsistently, in fits and starts — in the part of the world we inhabit and influence. As Jesus takes shape in our lives, so does the kingdom of God. 

     And with it, the blessedness of the kingdom.

     That’s what the church is — people in whom the kingdom of God is taking shape. And, together, as we treat each other as the King requires and get busy with the King’s business, the kingdom takes on more definitive outlines. Christ creates in us a community of people in which those who mourn are comforted, the meek are honored, those desperate for justice are satisfied, mercy is given and received, God is visible, and God’s children live together in peace.

    In times like these, our world doesn’t need another institution. It needs what my neighbors have created: ad hoc groups of people that live by the rules of the kingdom of God and offer its blessedness to all who happen by. In a world mourning the deaths of many in a pandemic, our churches can be communities of comfort. In a world fractured by political, ethnic, racial, and ideological conflict, our churches ought to be communities of peace. In a world where skin pigment and the chances of poverty, disease, going to prison, and dying early and violently are directly proportional, our churches ought to be communities of justice. Because of Jesus, we can create communities that are islands of joy, hope, and love.

    It isn’t child’s play. The work we have to do shouldn’t be trivialized. It requires swimming against the current. But we can do it, and in doing it make a difference in our neighborhoods and ultimately, the world.   

     In troubling times, may we be the place everyone wants to be.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Casting Off

      If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,

Lord, who could stand? 

But with you there is forgiveness, 

so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 

I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, 

and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord 

more than watchmen wait for the morning,

more than watchmen wait for the morning. 

Israel, put your hope in the LORD,

for with the LORD is unfailing love 

and with him is full redemption. 

-Psalm 130:3-7 (NIV)

This weekend, Jewish people the world over are celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah begins the “High Holy Days” of the Jewish calendar. It’s considered New Year’s Day for civil purposes (the name literally means “head of the year”). 

    The way 2020 has gone, between you and me I’m thinking that celebrating the beginning of a new year beside our Jewish cousins might not be a bad idea. Maybe it’s time for a hard reset.

     I discovered this week that one of the customs of Rosh Hashanah, at least in some Jewish communities, is a ritual called Tashlikh, or “casting off.” The custom comes from Micah 7, in which the prophet promises that God will “cast your sins into the depths of the sea.” Jews that practice Tashlikh usually do so on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. They gather by a natural body of flowing water to pray and symbolically throw the sins of the previous year into the water. Some symbolize this by tossing in small pebbles or pieces of bread. 

     The psalm above, 130, is one of the readings from Scripture that are often recited at Tashlikh. The psalm reminds us that, though none of us could “stand”  before God if he demanded an accounting of our sins, “with the LORD is unfailing love and…full redemption.” We remember from this psalm that God offers forgiveness.

     Notice, though, that there’s a purpose for this forgiveness. The NIV says, “so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” That’s actually a stretch of a translation: more literally, it says “that you may be feared.” The psalmist wants God’s generous forgiveness to awaken in us, not a sense of entitlement or a casualness about sin, but a sense of reverence, awe, and, yes, fear. “In his word I put my hope,” the psalmist says, because God is the most terrifying thing on the block. There’s nothing that ought to be quite as awe-inspiring as a holy God who knows our sins and yet doesn’t keep track of them, who could rightly visit judgement on every one of us and who instead disposes of our sins forever and comes to us with forgiveness, love and redemption that never fail.

     The fact that we’ve kind of forgotten this might have something to do with the reasons we struggle with the same sins new year after new year. We put our hope in many things. There are a lot of things, quite frankly, that most of us fear more than we fear God. We turn our attention to trying to stave off those things we fear, and to do so we put our hope in politicians and political parties, or money, or career, or education, or the numbing effect of any number of addictions and obsessions. Instead of beginning our years by remembering God’s love, forgiveness, and redemption, we begin them by manufacturing joy and resolving that this year is going to be so much better than last because we’re finally going to stop this thing or start that one.

     For the psalmist, though, the only hope is to “wait for the LORD.” God promises that forgiveness, love, and redemption are the default settings for his dealing with human beings. It may not always look that way, but that’s why we have to wait. Not with fingers crossed, though, hoping against reasonable hope for a miracle — we wait knowing that God will keep his word and intervene on our behalf. We wait with expectation. We wait with awe and faith and, sure, a healthy dash of fear. 

     Paul writes in Ephesians that believers in Jesus have been taught a new way of seeing themselves, others, and the world around them. He reminds the church in Ephesus that they have learned in Christ to “cast off the old person” and to “put on” the new by the work of Jesus in our lives. Paul argues that Jesus is our tashlikh, our “casting off.” It’s in Jesus, uniquely, that the psalmist’s hopes for God’s forgiveness and redemption have been fulfilled. It’s in Jesus, uniquely, that his promise of God’s unfailing love is kept. It’s in him that our sins are disposed of, once and for all, but it’s also in him that we can see that our only valid response is to fear God above everything else and serve him with all our hearts.

     Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah commemorates God’s creation of human beings. That is, on the first days of their year, Jews remember that human beings have a special place in God’s work in the world. We all know, of course, that human beings didn’t exactly live up to the high aspirations God had for us. But, as Christians, we believe that through Jesus God is making us fit for the place in the world he has created us for. He’s making us new people, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

     Whatever this current year has done to us, and whatever it has in store for us, we know that God is faithful. In Christ he is creating new men and women every day, new men and women who are able to walk in the world and do God’s work with faith, courage, conviction, and love. In Christ, through his death and resurrection, he has “cast off” everything that makes us afraid, everything that compromises our witness to the gospel, and everything that makes us hope in what will inevitably disappoint. He asks us just to trust him, to do some “casting off” of our own, to get rid of those last scraps and rags of our old lives so that we can live as the new people he has created us to be in Jesus. 

     We don’t need a new year to do that, to be those new people. We have what we need for that in Jesus. We can’t control what 2020 has brought us, and we won’t be able to control whatever may happen when we do cross into 2021. That doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that, in Christ, God has cast away our sins and is making us into human beings who will fill our world — whatever may come — with the knowledge of God’s glory.

     So maybe we should join our Jewish kin by the water this weekend, or by the water of our own baptism, as we recall that God has cast away our sins in Jesus. Let’s consider what we may need still to cast off from our old life in order to be the people he has made us to be.

     And may our lives be a new year, a new dawn full of hope in the Lord.

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