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Friday, July 10, 2020

Commandment-Keepers and Jesus-Followers

     As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

     “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’

     “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

     Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

     At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

-Mark 10:17-22 (NIV)



“Good teacher,” I ask Jesus, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” I know some people can’t imagine a life that they want to extend out to eternity, but I can. I believe that God wants to share his life with me, and I’d like to be in on that kind of eternal life. 

     I figure Jesus would know.

     So I ask, and he tells me: “You know the commandments.” I do, I know them, and I’ve lived literally all of my life believing that keeping them was important. Some other ones too. I was baptized in a church that gets baptism “right.” I share in the Lord’s Supper every week. I sing without instruments, just like Paul and Silas in prison. I put some money in the offering plate. I read my Bible. I help people. 

     And so I tell him that: “I’ve kept those (more or less) since I was a kid.” So is that it? We’re done? Just keep doing what I’m doing, is that what you’re saying, Jesus?”

     He looks at me, and there’s love in his eyes, and I’m starting to think I’m his prize student. But then he holds up a finger, and the love in his eyes doesn’t go away, but it’s joined by something else. They’re the eyes of my teachers, telling me I could do better if I’d just apply myself. The eyes of my parents when they were a little disappointed in me. “One thing you lack,” he says, and my stomach drops because I know this is going to hurt.

     “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

     I knew it would hurt.


     I’m convinced, church, that we need to have a conversation like that with Jesus pretty often. By our nature, we’re a people who do pretty well with commandments: “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” fits our collective personality. Commandments give us something to go on. They serve nicely as a scorecard. Commandments let me evaluate myself against you, against my own expectations, and even against what God wants. They can be useful sometimes. 

     But, hear me when I say this: If we never get beyond obeying commandments, we’re not following Jesus. 

    Look at what we’ve done with commandments. We’ve multiplied them. We’ve found commandments in the Bible for nearly every aspect of our lives, and when we couldn’t find them we pretty much created them from proof-text and syllogism. If eternal life can be had by keeping commandments, we all should be in fine shape. 

     But if we’re relying on knowing and keeping commandments, we’re always going to lack something. 

     Commandments, as important as they are, can be manipulated to fit our comfort zones. We’re supposed to love our neighbors, we know — but who are they? Literal neighbors? Fellow citizens of the same city or country? People of other faiths, or different tribes of the Christian faith? The church knows we should love our neighbors, yet sometimes we haven’t acted with love toward abuse victims, or undocumented immigrants, or black people, or gay people, or people who differ from us doctrinally or politically. We’ve usually found ways to defend our actions. After all, “We’ve kept these commands since childhood.” We couldn’t possibly be wrong: We’re the commandment-keepers.

     Sometimes we hear Jesus’ response to this man in Mark 10 as just another commandment to be kept, in which case we usually have to interpret it to death because how could the church afford to maintain the building and pay the ministers’ salaries if everyone gave away everything to help the poor? 

     This isn’t just another command to follow (or interpret around), though. Jesus is replacing this man’s vocabulary of commandment-keeping with the language of discipleship. What he’s saying to him — and to all of us — is what he says to everyone who comes asking him about eternal life: Give up everything to follow me.

     That isn’t a commandment to be followed as much as a life to be lived. We find such security in wealth, power, privilege, convenience, pleasure, comfort. The life he wants us to live, the one that will extend on out into eternal life, is one that finds security in him and nothing else. 

     Following Jesus, if I understand this exchange correctly, means giving something up. Many of us could stand to give up some possessions, for sure, so we could be more generous to those who are doing without. That’s hard, but maybe it’s even harder to give up our privilege — or sometimes even to admit to it. Maybe it’s harder to give up resentment, but it’s necessary before we can forgive. It’s hard to give up venting our anger so that we can turn the other cheek. It’s hard to give up the notion that winning an argument is more important than loving our neighbor. It’s hard to give up detachment from the pain of others so that we can follow Jesus in offering comfort and care. It’s hard to give up political parties. Nationalistic loyalties. Denominational identities.

     Commandments keep us content. They keep us lulled into believing that we’re doing everything related to eternal life. They keep us self-sufficient and sometimes even let us define what matters and what doesn’t, what’s kingdom work and what isn’t, so narrowly that no one in the world cares about any of it except for other Christians. They let us hold on to the things we trust while obeying the letter of the law.

     Maybe that’s why we prefer keeping commandments to following Jesus. Maybe, to the extent that the church’s response to our present crises is lacking, that’s why — because following Jesus in ministering to a broken, hurting, searching world requires us to give up more than we’re willing. 

     What Jesus wants is for us to give up everything — even our identities as commandment-keepers — to follow him in doing the work of God’s kingdom in our world. To use our privileged positions in society to speak and act on behalf of those who are discriminated against. To serve the sick and dying and poor and hungry. What we sign up for when we follow Jesus is nothing less than to live the kind of life now that he has gifted us through his own “giving up.” The life of the new age.

     The eternal kind.

     

Friday, June 26, 2020

"In Prayer at the Place of the World’s Pain"

     On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace  be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

     Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  

-John 20:19-22 (NIV)



     At my alma mater, Harding University, the largest building on campus (I guess?) is the Benson Auditorium. George Benson was a longtime President of the university, responsible for much of the growth of the school in the middle of the twentieth century. Before that, he was a missionary in China. For much of his tenure at Harding, though, Benson resisted efforts to desegregate the school. Disregarding student and faculty pressure to integrate (to be sure, there would have been some pressure from the same directions to hold to the status quo), he refused to admit black students until 1963, when the impending Civil Rights Act would have required Harding to admit blacks or lose federal funds.

     Benson was well-known, in those days, for a line he often delivered when discussing integration: “The blackbirds and bluebirds, the blue jays and mockingbirds, they don’t mix and mingle together, young people!”

     Earlier this week I received a link to a petition for taking Benson’s name off the auditorium. 

     I’ve expected that for a while now, actually. Benson did good in the world. But he’s also a cautionary story that we all have feet of clay, that there are ways in which we all need to learn and grow, and that none of us get out this world without wreaking some havoc. (Not to mention that maybe we should tap the brakes on putting peoples' names on stuff.) Whether or not I signed the petition isn’t material here, but I understand why it was circulated. Removing Benson’s name wouldn’t negate the good he did for Harding, in the world, and in God’s kingdom. And to have it in big bold letters on the side of a building where students of all races are required to attend daily chapel is probably just too painful and too lacking in compassion for those who were refused entry, or who would have been under his presidency, just because of the color of their skin. 

     Recently, I’ve heard Christians react in anger that their pancake syrup is going to have a different name. Maybe that’s because it’s just easier and more comfortable for us to get angry about perceived slights than actual injustice and inhumanity. Maybe that’s why we get hung up on the tearing down of monuments and the renaming of buildings while essentially shrugging off the institutional mistreatment of human beings as “history.” But history isn’t neutral, and how we affirm or challenge history today says more than we’d like to admit, maybe, about who we are and how the history we’re writing will be viewed by our children and grandchildren.

     Harding’s current president has responded to the petition to rename the Benson Auditorium by saying, in part, “It is important, as we wrestle with the difficult issues of our time, that we not forget ‘weightier matters’  like justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” He seems to equate the question of what name will be on the Benson with the small issues of rule-keeping that Jesus mocked the Pharisees for. He doesn’t seem to recognize that what name students going to worship see on the building has everything to do with justice, mercy, and faithfulness. 

     But I think it’s easy for all of us to shrug and say, “Who really cares what’s written on the building?”or “What does pancake syrup have to do with racism?” when what we mean is “Who are you to make me feel uncomfortable?”  

    That, of course, is the wrong question.

     This week I also got to be part of a Zoom meeting with N.T. Wright.

     You probably don’t know Wright, so I’ll put this in a way you might get. If you’re a Cubs fan, imagine you get to sit in on a Zoom meeting with Ernie Banks. If you like baking, imagine those people from The Great British Baking Show. Wright is probably the best-known and most-read New Testament scholar in the world. I’ve struggled through most of his books, even the big thick ones. It was the coolest Zoom meeting I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in one with Barack Obama. 

     Wright was addressing a group of ministers and elders from Churches of Christ on the theology of the pandemic and racial tensions in our world. He started by saying (much more eloquently than I will) that the church is filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can be a kind of a case study in what life as God intends it should look like. That being the case, the church should have been a role model and an example of racial justice all along, not playing catch-up with the rest of the world out of shame.

    And then he went on to say, in reference both to matters of race and the fear and loss brought on by the pandemic: The church’s mission is to “be in prayer in the place of the world’s pain.”

     Instead of that, sometimes we try to defend buildings and statues and pancake syrup.

     Or we pass along conspiracy theories about why businesses are closed and we have to wear masks.

     Or we think we have to defend God or win arguments.

     I love that story in John where the risen Jesus finds his disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear. They’re terrified. Thomas is doubting. They’re sheltering in place trying to wait out uncertain times. And Jesus comes to them. He offers them peace. He sends them out to continue his work with the power of the Holy Spirit. He even condescends to their doubts. 

     Jesus comes when we’re afraid and doubting, hiding, trying to keep our heads down and our profiles low.

     Like now, in this pandemic. 

     Like now, in this turmoil over racial injustice that should have been dealt with years ago. 

      He comes and he shows us his hands and his feet and his side. He reminds us that he’s the same Jesus who was crucified for our fear, our doubts, and for our unresolved sins.  

      And then he fills us with his Spirit and sends us out to do his work in the world.

     He’s at the place of our pain so that we can be in prayer at the place of the world’s pain.

     So the last thing we should do is cope with the discomfort and fear we’re feeling by holding onto versions of the past that crowd out God’s work in the present. I think that’s part of our struggle; many of us aren’t used to living with this much fear and uncertainty. Feel it. Own it. Recognize it as part of existing in a broken world. (There are many voices that could teach us much about living with constant fear, aren’t there?)

     But also recognize Jesus. See the wounds on his body that testify to his love for this world - and also that love and sacrifice go together. Receive his peace. Receive his Spirit.

     Then go out into the world to do his work. 

     You likely won’t get a building named after you.

     Maybe the legacy you’ll leave in our world will last even longer than that.

Friday, June 19, 2020

On Seeing Color

     Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body,  so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free —and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 

-1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (NIV)



“I don't see color.”

     There was a time when I would have said that about myself and thought that would close the book on racism. There was a time when I thought that if everyone would just stop seeing color (like me), racism would just vanish. And I really did hope racism would just vanish, but considerably more than that I wanted to justify that at least I wasn’t racist. After all, I didn’t see color.

     But then I started noticing some things. 

     I didn't care for the way some people of color spoke and dressed. That wasn’t about seeing color, though, I told myself. It’s just that it doesn’t look or sound good. (Completely ignoring the fact that “good,” to me in this situation, meant “more like white people speak and dress.”)

     I started noticing, too, that everyone was saying they didn’t see color. No one was saying the opposite: “Yes, the first thing I notice is another person’s color, and I’m prejudiced toward them.” Every time the subject of racism came up — in school, with friends, at home, at work, at church — someone could be counted on to say it: “I don’t see color.” And everyone else would smile, and nod, and we’d move on to something more interesting as though we’d solved the problem right there.  

     Thing is, though: If no one sees color, why does racism still exist? 

     Someone is lying (or at least not being honest with themselves), and they do see color and are perpetuating all the racism in the world, or…

     Racism is bigger than that. It’s entangled in our society so deeply that maybe not seeing color is part of the problem, or…

     “Seeing color” has nothing to do with racism, or…

     All of the above.

     I don't want to speak for anyone, and if I’m wrong then I hope someone will correct me, but those who are protesting right now over the treatment of black people aren’t asking that we stop seeing color. They’re asking that we’ll please, please see color. They're asking that we’ll see not only an injustice that’s been carried out against people of color in our country for centuries, but that’s baked into everyday life, and that we’ll finally do something to correct it. They want the rest of us to see that people who are black, brown, red, and yellow are often not treated as equal to white people and that the only basis for that inequality is the color of their skin. 

     They want to be seen for who they are — including their color — and accepted as equals. Can you imagine how frustrating it must be for them to hear the rest of us say “I don’t see color?”

     I get it: you mean well by saying it. But I’m afraid saying “I don’t see color” is just another way of dismissing the problem of racism, waving it away as though it doesn’t apply to me and there’s nothing I can do anyway. 

     But, sure there is. I can see people of color. I can see who they are, including their color and their culture, and affirm that God loves them as much as he loves me and that I should love them too. And then I can go about loving them the only way you can ever really love anyone — by acting in their interests, even to the point of sacrificing my own.

     In Luke 7, Jesus is eating at the home of a prominent Pharisee when a woman “who had lived a sinful life” interrupts the proceedings to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet. It’s an impromptu demonstration of love that the Pharisee, Simon, predictably looks down on. Jesus tells a parable about how a keen sense of being forgiven awakens a fierce love, but Simon doesn’t seem to get the point. So Jesus drives it home by asking him, “Do you see this woman?” What he wants is for Simon to recognize that he has something to learn from this woman, and that his disdain for her and how she’s behaving has made him blind to really seeing her.

     Perhaps that’s true for some of us. Perhaps we need to see the hurt and pain of people of color — hurt and pain that they suffer because they are people of color — before we can learn how to love them.

     It’s funny, I would have thought back when I was saying “I don't see color” that I got that from the Bible. I might’ve quoted something like Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I might’ve snapped the Bible shut with a “that-settles-it” finality. 

     And I would have snapped it shut on passages such as 1 Corinthians 12. That one isn’t as easy to memorize as Galatians 3, but it’s pretty relevant. In that chapter, Paul is building on his idea that the church is the body of Christ, his physical presence in the world. He dwells at length on the point that human bodies don’t work well when all of the parts are the same. He says, “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” — his point being that it’s the same in the church. The parts of Christ’s body vary. They specialize. They’re unique, but united around a common life and purpose. 

     But hear the implications of that. One is that some parts of the body aren’t allowed to say to or about others, “We don’t need you!” (In the human body, we call that autoimmune disease. The history of the church shows that the body of Christ often suffers from autoimmune disease, too.) Get this: he says that, in the church as well as the human body, the parts that seem weaker are indispensable, and the parts that are perceived as less honorable are treated with special honor. And then this: “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

     If I read that text correctly, it says that the church ought to see color. We should see each other, and especially see the ways that people of color are treated as weak, less honorable, and less presentable. And then we should treat them with special honor, have equal concern for them as we do folks who have the same skin as we have, and suffer with them in the hope that one day soon we can rejoice with them.

     The problems of prejudice and racism seem huge, I know. But there’s hope because of the gospel. And the church — gospel people who are the presence of Jesus in the world — can and should be the one place that can show the world what it looks like when we really see each other, and then treat each other with love.

     What a colorful world that could be.

      

Friday, June 12, 2020

A Revolution of Washing Feet

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. 

-John 13:12-17 (NIV)



     Several years ago — nearly twenty now, I guess — I saw something at a ministry conference here in Chicago that’s

stuck with me all this time. I was at a seminar or workshop or something on racial issues, and at the end of the presentation, several black church leaders came up onto the stage and were seated. Several white church leaders then came to the stage with basins of water. Each knelt in front of one of the black church leaders and washed their feet. If I remember correctly, someone read John’s account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet aloud. 

     It was, to me, a light bulb moment that I probably should have had years before that: racism cuts against Jesus’ example of loving service. If we’re his servants, then we can’t expect to avoid the kinds of sacrificial love that our Master literally embodied. We should do for each other what Christ has done for us, and having skin of a different color doesn’t exempt us from that requirement.

     And the blessing isn’t in knowing these things; the blessing comes in doing them.

     I had tears in my eyes, as did many of us who were watching, as did the ones doing the washing, as did the ones whose feet were being washed.

     But I vividly remember the conversation around me after it was all over. Far from being touched by it, some in the audience were furious. They felt that they were being made to feel guilty for racism that went on long before them, for being white, even. But their anger felt all out of proportion. It was just a simple ceremony, one modeled by Jesus. I wondered what was going on under the surface that called forth that level of hostility.

     I thought about that because of a story I saw on social media this week. During a demonstration in North Carolina, a group of white civilians and police officers got together to wash the feet of black religious leaders. They all joined in a prayer of repentance for racial injustice. (This is biblical, by the way — you might remember that Nehemiah prayed to God in repentance for national sin that was going on long before his time. It isn't about taking sole responsibility for that sin. It’s about dragging it out into the open and announcing before God the intention for change.)

     Anyway — like at the conference 20 years ago, I was impressed by the simple and profound display of love, compassion, and humility that demonstration signified.

     Also like at the conference — some people didn’t see it that way.

     I saw the story because a social media acquaintance posted it with this caption: “I'm gonna tell you right now...I won't wash the feet of anyone... I don't care what color you are or what you think I owe you. This is just disgusting.” The acquaintance doesn’t really claim to be a Christian, so I can’t really hold that statement against him. If anything, I think he kind of gets it. Washing feet, in Jesus’ day or in ours, is not the way to promote your brand or gain influence. It’s the act of a servant. It was a privilege the wealthy and influential enjoyed at the expense of the poor and powerless. For someone in a position of privilege to wash the feet of someone of lower status was to overturn class distinctions. The disciples likely had a very similar view — that’s why Peter is so upset about Jesus doing it. It’s upsetting in our world for some of the same reasons.

     The other responses to the post were, if anything, even more telling: “Insane,” one person wrote. There were some that were equally (and literally) dismissive. And then this one: “…(I)t should be the blacks who wash the feet of the cops since they are the ones protecting them from each other,” which is so blatantly racist that it makes the fact that he was also complaining about the demonstrators asking forgiveness for something they didn’t do just drip with irony.

     So judging by the reaction, I think the demonstration was a very effective symbol of what it will take to challenge the settled racism that is still so much a part of our world.

     If you’re a follower of Jesus, then make no mistake; Jesus expects from you a radical love that flouts convention, overturns social hierarchy, and that will sometimes make people downright angry. Washing the disciples’ feet was just a shorthand for what his whole life had been about. At the cross, he knelt and washed the undeserving. He ate with the sinners and touched the lepers and in doing so insulted the prejudices of the pious. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” When we see racism in action, we can’t deflect responsibility by saying, “but I’m not racist.” Neither are we allowed to tut-tut from the sidelines. His example calls us to be servants instead of looking for another way to be served, and to serve in ways that might make others turn their noses up. 

     If you follow Jesus in this way, it will expose the prejudices in your own heart. (Don’t look so shocked and insulted; we all have them.) If you move into the world in the posture of a servant, sooner or later you’ll hesitate because you’ll be asked to serve someone that you don’t think highly of. You’ll have to ask yourself why serving them seems so especially repulsive; what are your perceptions, where do they come from, and how does following the example of Jesus in serving help to dispose of them?

     No, you didn’t create the racism in our world. But you don’t get credit for that. You don’t get credit, either,  for the ways in which you’ve personally avoided wallowing in its evil. You’re part of a world in which it’s entangled in almost every subject, every institution, every topic of conversation. Go into that world as a servant, determined not to look for privileges and credit, but to extend love, compassion, and kindness.  

     And, yes, there are times when that will look insane to the people around you, and they’ll say so. It happened to Jesus; one of the disciples whose feet he washed that night left the table and betrayed him. You’ll offend their sense of order, or your example will make them see a little too clearly what’s in their own hearts or disrupt the tidy sense they have of themselves as somehow superior. That’s OK, though, servants don’t answer to anyone but their Lord. Continue to go about your business, quietly and consistently. Your job isn’t to win arguments. It’s to serve like Jesus served. That’s awfully tough to argue with for very long.

     In fact, you might just find that the Lord is calling you to serve your toughest critics. If so, do it joyfully. Do it the best way you can, as you imagine Jesus would if he were here.

     Serving like Jesus won’t make racism go away overnight. But it will begin to undermine it, as those of us who have enjoyed a privileged position in our world exchange that position for servants’ work.

     Jesus promises we’ll enjoy a blessing when we do what we know we should.

     Maybe that blessing will be a world in which no one is excluded because of the color of their skin.     

Friday, June 5, 2020

Lives That Matter

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. 
-Isaiah 10:1-2 (NIV)


An ambulance came to the house down the street this week. There were EMTs bustling in and out. Someone came out on a gurney. I’m wondering why they didn’t do wellness checks at every house on the block. 
     Isn’t our health just as important?
     A few years ago, the police were in our yard. My wife knew one of them, and asked him what was going on. There had been a guy at the park down the street showing off a gun, and they were trying to find him. They had chased him into our yard. They found him hiding in one of our trash bins. The people who live around us had to have been wondering why the police didn’t check their bins for hidden fugitives too. 
     They must have felt like the police were playing favorites.
    The Bible, especially the Old Testament, emphasizes over and over the importance of caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners. Doesn’t seem fair, does it, that God seems so much more concerned for a woman whose husband has died or a kid without parents than he does for married women or kids with loving parents? 
     Married women and parented children matter, too.
     Jesus told a parable about a shepherd with 100 sheep. While 99 of them were safe and content, munching grass and hanging out with the shepherd, one wandered off. The shepherd, bigot that he was, left the other 99 sheep standing around while he chased down the one that wandered off. And he was happier to have found the lost sheep than he was about the 99 that stayed close.
     How do you think those 99 felt? If, you know, sheep could feel. 
     Ninety-nine lives matter.
     Of course they do. And so do the lives of married women and parented children matter to God.
     And of course the police are just as willing to protect our neighbors as they were us.
     And of course it matters if other people on our block are sick.
     The reason it’s unnecessary in every one of those examples to point out that the “others” matter too is that the others in those examples don’t need attention. My neighbor down the street had a medical emergency — not the whole block. We had a fugitive from the police hiding on our property — our neighbors didn’t. Widows and orphans in the biblical world were far more vulnerable than the rest of society, so they needed extra care that someone with family to stand up for them didn’t need. And those sheep on the hillside were OK, protected by their location and the rest of the herd. That one that had wandered off was in serious danger.
     We get that, of course.
      So maybe we can also understand why, when someone holds a sign that says Black Lives Matter, it isn’t necessary or even very helpful for the rest of us to shout “All Lives Matter!”
     The returns are in. The statistics are clear. The anecdotes line up. Black lives, in America, are in danger in ways that white lives are not. Black people are incarcerated far more frequently than are white people. Blacks, by some accounts, are 50% more likely than whites to experience violence or to be killed in interactions with police. 
     Blacks are more likely than whites to attend under-performing grammar and high schools. Blacks, when they complete college, are more likely to do so at an institution that’s less well-funded, less selective, and less well-resourced, and are more likely to receive certificates instead of Associate or Bachelor degrees. All of which contributes to lower representation in post-grad programs and certain professional fields. 
     We could go on spouting statistics, but listen to your black friends and you’ll probably hear stories of unjust treatment — mockery and bullying, discrimination at work, at school, loans denied, white people crossing the street to avoid them. You’ll hear about family members buried before their time, and about their fears that the warnings and advice they give their own children won’t be enough to protect them. And, of course, you’ll get an education on the dangers of jogging, driving, traveling, shopping, and doing business while black.
     But you probably don’t even need all that to know that black lives are in danger in a way that white lives are not. All you probably need to do, if you’re not black, is to ask yourself one question: “If I could, would I want to become black?” Probably not, at least in part because we know that life in America in 2020, over a century and a half after slavery ended and over 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, is harder if you’re black. 
     To say “black lives matter” isn’t to say that other lives don’t. It’s to say, “Black people need allies.” They need the people who have oppressed them since their ancestors were brought to America against their will to stop. They need people who benefit from the injustices committed against them to see what’s happening and use their voices to speak up for black lives. They need to be given equal access to the benefits of living in America, equal respect as human beings, and equal protection from danger. That isn’t playing the victim — black people in America are and have always been victims of injustice. For all the wonderful things about our country, that’s the great sin of which we’ve never really repented.
     So if we need to be reminded to care for widows and orphans, then surely it isn’t too much to ask that those of us with the most privilege and power in our world would stand up for those with less. 
     Surely it isn’t too much, especially for those of us who are believers, to show that black lives matter to us by speaking out against racism when we see it — even when it’s in our own neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, families, and hearts. Even if it costs us professionally or financially, or loses us friends or supporters or clicks.
     That assumes, of course, that we can see it. Too often we can’t. We tend to look at racism as an individual matter, and it’s rare that someone comes out and admits their actions come from racism. That’s where we may have to trust our black friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. That’s where we’ll have to look more carefully so that we can see racism as an evil that’s entrenched in the machinery of our society. 
     Those who believe in the God who looks after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner can’t really think that he doesn’t see the ways in which laws and decrees that benefit some of us are unjust and oppressive to others of us. We can’t really imagine, can we, that he won’t hold us accountable for the ways in which we’re complicit in that injustice and oppression, even through willful ignorance?
     May we, those of us who worship the God who is a Father to the fatherless, be friends to those in our day who are most in need of friends. 
      May those of us who claim salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus, who came proclaiming a rival kingdom whose ethic was radical love, show that same sacrificial love to those who have most often experienced hate for nothing more than their race.
     And may those of us who say the Spirit lives in us be led by that Spirit to breathe his peace into our world.
     And may we finally, belatedly, believe that God treasures the black lives that we have callously thrown away.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Speaking Like Jesus

     Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another,  forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 
-Ephesians 4:29-32 (NIV)


Depending on whether I wear a mask in public or not, I might be a “sheep” or a “selfish jerk.” Which it is, of course, would depend on whose social media posts I was reading at the moment.
     Depending on whether I vote Republican or Democrat, I might be a fascist or a….well, I’m not going to use the term I’ve probably heard most frequently because it slurs a whole category of people unrelated to political debate. No discussion. No interest in hearing why I might vote a different way than someone else. My vote, my political orientation, makes me unworthy of a hearing. That’s what we do in our political culture: we dismiss whole segments of the population we don’t agree with by a word. 
     I have to be careful not to do it too.
     It isn’t just our political climate, either. In sports, economics, media, we reduce those who seem the least like us to a generalized “other” that we don’t have to pay any attention to. I’ve heard it, seen it, more often than I like to think about. So have you. “That’s how ______s are.” We assume the worst of those we disagree with. It excuses us, we think, for saying terrible things about them. Anything goes: character slurs, mockery of physical appearance, racist comments, etc. 
     We assume the best of those we agree with; their motives are pure, their character unblemished. Which excuses us blindly embracing everything they say and do.
     I'd like to think it’s only a “worldly” thing — and it is worldly. Unfortunately, we’re as good at it in the church as anyone else. Some of the most vitriolic words I’ve ever heard spewed have come in the context of disagreements between sisters and brothers in Christ, not in a hotly-contested election. Some of the worst examples of dismissive, hateful takes on politics or current events I’ve heard or seen have come from people who would say they’re Christians.
     Which might lead someone to ask the question, “Can you imagine Jesus calling someone a ‘moron’ because they believe a conspiracy theory about the pandemic? Or a ‘fascist’ because they believe in gun control?”
     I can’t, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that Paul can't either. In Ephesians 4, he’s writing to a church about living the kind of life they were taught when they “learned Christ.” English translations tend to smooth it out a little, but that’s what it says: “learned Christ.” Christians follow Jesus. We live the way we learn from him. And if you can’t imagine Jesus doing something, then you probably ought not to be doing it, either.
     If we’ve learned Christ, then, we’ll work hard to make sure that the things we say (and write, tweet, and post — I think social media has made us careless with our words) are helpful, that they build others up “according to their needs.” That is to say that our speech doesn’t serve our own interests. We shouldn’t be using our words to build a following, win arguments, vent our feelings, or impress others. We should be — as should be usual for followers of Jesus — thinking of those who’ll hear (or read) our words. Is what we’re saying helpful to them? Does it build up, or tear down? Do our words show that we’re looking for a fight, or do they demonstrate kindness, compassion, and forgiveness?    
     That’s not to say that we shouldn't ever speak words that are hard, critical, even cutting. Jesus could speak like that at times. While none of us have the perfect insight that he did, there will be times when it will be necessary for us to speak in ways that don’t sound so encouraging. Sometimes Christians use this text to try to censor unpleasant speech — especially if it makes our own lives easier in some way to do so. There are times when evil needs to be called evil. There are times when someone needs to be called to account. There are times when we need to speak up unequivocally for those who aren’t being heard. And there are times, when we do so, that it will sound as though we’re bitter, angry, and not very forgiving.
     Building up those who are beaten down might mean speaking against those who are doing the beating. Words that are helpful for the hurting might sting those who have caused their wounds. It isn’t that we intend for our words to hurt, necessarily. We certainly shouldn’t use words that hurt out of some desire for vengeance. We shouldn’t slander anyone, or provoke confrontation for the sake of confrontation. That’s why Paul says it’s essential that we “get rid” of motivations like bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice before we speak. That’s why we have to cultivate kindness, compassion, and forgiveness even for those with whom we disagree. But people who have been taken advantage of are not hearing the gospel if they aren’t hearing us speak against those who have taken advantage of them. We can’t use pseudo-Christian “niceness” as a hedge against our responsibility to call out evil when we see it. 
    I appreciate my brother in Christ, Eddie Reed, who is a black Chicago police officer. I won’t recall his words exactly, or do them justice, but this week he asked that we would pray for law enforcement officers to make good decisions, to have wisdom in the way they deal with the people they protect and serve, because of his concern that officers who do reprehensible things make it more difficult for officers who want to do right. I loved how his words acknowledged the pain caused by officers like the one who killed George Floyd, without attempting to defend his actions, while at the same time calling us to do the very Christian thing of praying that God will help other officers to be better than that. Those words weren’t easy for him to speak. That was obvious. But those are the kinds of words Christians should be speaking at such times. Full of compassion and love for the hurting. Ringing with justice. Realistic about the evil that can easily take root in our world and in our lives. And hopeful in God’s faithfulness.
     In this time of turmoil, be careful how you speak. As a Presidential election gets closer, be thoughtful and prayerful about what you say. Speak less, maybe. Be less certain that you’re always right. Be more willing to listen, even to those who disagree with you. And speak often of the gospel, Jesus, and hope.
     That’s what the people who will hear your words most need. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

Getting Back to Living

     Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 
     For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
     I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.
-John 17:1-4 (NIV)


I’m kind of in need of a haircut. I’ve been thinking of getting some clippers and just shaving it off, but I’m a little scared of what I might do to myself. Right now I’m holding off. But I’m definitely in need of a haircut.
     I’d like to watch some baseball. I’d love to see the NBA playoffs. Go to restaurants. See family and friends.
     My parents want to go to Florida. It would be nice if they could.
     I’d like to be with my church on Sundays. 
     I have it good, though. Some people — a lot — would like to be working, but don’t have a job to go to.
     Some would like to be able to feed their families, but have to rely on a food pantry.
     Some would like to be well, but are in hospitals, even on ventilators.
     Some are missing people they love who they know they’ll never see again in this life.
     In many ways, big and small, this pandemic has affected the way we live. It’s affected livelihoods, it’s bankrupted businesses, it’s ravaged health, it’s exposed the weaknesses and fault lines in our government and in our way of life, it’s interfered with our faith, it’s destroyed marriages. And so on, and so on.
     I get why everyone — and I mean everyone; I doubt anything has ever so united people worldwide — wants the stay-at-home orders to end. We want to get back to normal. I understand that, I do. I agree completely. We might disagree on how it should be done, and how quickly — where you live and how you’re personally affected has a lot to do with that, I’m sure. But I share completely in a desire to see this thing be over.
     But I’ve heard something since it started, really, and more frequently of late. I’ve heard it from people with a wide spectrum of beliefs and convictions, but it always goes something like this: “We need to get back to living.” Maybe you’ve said something like that yourself. Maybe you agree with it: “Yeah, that’s right. We need to get back to living!” 
     If you’re saying that, or affirming it, I just need to respectfully ask you a question.
     Who in the world ever told you to stop living?
     Maybe that’s the most devastating thing this pandemic has done to us: It’s exposed that our lives might be too shallow, too built on going to work and being surrounded by friends and watching sports and going to restaurants and coffee shops. It’s threatened our political beliefs and economic security and even what we thought the practice of our faith was all about. 
     But maybe that’s God’s gift in this, too. Maybe through this experience he is helping us all to better understand what living is.
     I see people around me living every day. My wife and son are living by showing love and care to each other, and to me. They’re living by serving the church, their parents and grandparents, and people in our community in need. They’re living by laughing together and encouraging each other.
     The church I’m a part of are living. Our leaders are making plans, trying to make sure we’re best positioned to help each other, our community, and even those far away to know the love of Jesus. We’re serving each other. We’re sharing what we have. We’re staying in touch by phone and text and video and letter. We’re praying and worshipping. Many are working at essential jobs — police, firefighter, postal service, retail workers, food workers, medical people — that keep things functioning as normally as possible. They’re lights in a dark place. Some have lost jobs. But they’re living by showing love to their family and friends and church. They’re volunteering. They’re staying in touch with the lonely and helping the at-risk.
     I’m surrounded, in short, by people who never stopped living. Some of them have been impacted by the pandemic as much as anyone, much more than I have, but they know that life was never about the things they’ve lost: neither the things lost temporarily nor the things lost permanently. 
     Jesus once made this startling claim: “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” We don’t realize how startling it is because we think it’s about going to heaven when you die, but what Jesus literally says is more like, “this is the life of the age to come…”. By knowing him, you connect with God and begin living the life that you’ll enjoy in heaven now. Even though the sorrows and struggles of life here don’t go away, we experience them in the light and strength and joy of the life to come.
     If you take Jesus seriously here, you start to realize that life isn’t about our jobs or our economic security or even our churches and institutions. Life is only found in connection with God through Jesus. But it’s found there in buckets, life everywhere you look, on into eternity.
     That makes sense, of course. It’s God who gives us life in the first place. Through knowing God by knowing Jesus, we have life. 
     So if you think you need for this pandemic to be over to get back to living, think again. Jesus thought life was found in finishing the work God gave him to do. To know Jesus is experiential and relational. You don’t know him by reading a few Bible verses. You know him by doing the work God gave you to do as well. You won’t do it alone; he’ll be there with you to help you. Whatever we may lose in this pandemic is not what life is about anyway. It’s about finishing the work God gives us to do.
     I assure you, God has work for you to do right now. While everything seems up in the air, while you’re worrying about what might happen, God has work for you to do.
     Who in the world ever told you to stop living?
     There is no better time than now to put your faith in Jesus by following him in doing the work God gave you to do. While so much else in your life is on hold, use the moment to open your eyes to what God’s up to all around you, and how you’re supposed to be a part of it.
     You don’t even need a haircut. Really.    

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