Friday, April 24, 2020

No, Don't Sacrifice the Weak

     Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
-Ephesians 5:1-2 (NIV)

Having, as I do, Tennessee roots, I tend to want to believe the best of Tennesseans. So I’d love to think that the sign seen at a rally last week in Nashville was photoshopped. (It was not.) I’d love to believe that it was political satire of those who want to remove coronavirus lockdown restrictions immediately and completely (possible, but seems unlikely). Absent those two conditions, the sign has to be taken at face value, I guess: 
     I don’t know what this protester intended by this sign. I don’t know what she was thinking, or what was going on in her life. I have no desire to vilify her for a sign she held for a few minutes at a rally. I’m sure if I ever met her I’d think she was a delightful person. I’m going to assume that she wouldn’t advocate:
  • taking her mom or dad with COPD off a ventilator.
  • letting a child of hers with leukemia be exposed to the virus.
  • being careless about passing the virus to a spouse who takes a medication that compromises their immune system.
  • getting  her favorite stores and restaurants reopened by letting a friend with high blood pressure die.
     Sacrifices are easier to talk about hypothetically than specifically, for all of us. And, for all of us, “sacrifices” that don’t cost us anything personally are best.
     I know that most people who would like to see the country go back to normal aren’t of the opinion that we should sacrifice the weak to get there. There are differing viewpoints that ought to be heard. People I love disagree with me, and maybe they’re right about some things. Maybe, since I live in a city with over 25,000 cases and 1200 deaths and counting, some of them might accept that I see it differently. We all agree that we’d love to get back to normal as soon as is safely possible.
     I think that we’re hearing the old American debate about individual rights vs. the common good recast. There’s a sense, of course, in which those things aren’t opposed at all; all else being equal, it’s best for the common good when individual rights are protected. Maybe, though, the “fire in a crowded theater” argument holds here. All of us, whatever our politics, can think of situations in which the government must absolutely make tough decisions about limiting individual rights for the sake of the public good. 
     The stay-at-home orders in our nation (passed by individual states, by the way, not the federal government) touch on things that matter a lot to Americans: our livelihood, our right to assemble for worship, our rights to determine where we go, and when. It’s probably true that state governments have occasionally overreached. But the orders are akin to evacuation orders issued when an area is threatened by storms or floods, or the security measures put into place in airports after September 11th, or wartime restrictions for the sake of national security. Most of us don’t love those limits on our freedoms, but they aren’t intended to prevent any one person or group from doing anything. They’re to give a framework by which we can see how to give up some of our individual rights for a while in order to help take care of the public good, especially, in this case, the weakest and most vulnerable. 
     History is pockmarked with civilizations built on the sacrifice of the weak, the marginalized, the powerless and voiceless. Against ancient pagan cultures, the Old Testament sacrificial system explicitly disallowed human sacrifice, especially of children. Greco-Roman culture allowed for unwanted children to be left exposed to the elements. The Nazi party rose to power in Germany promising prosperity and security by removing the weak links: the sick, the handicapped, and those of “impure” heritage. Not to mention that Western culture was built on the enslavement of blacks and the disenfranchisement of indigenous cultures. 
     The tendency to think that we can fix our problems by sacrificing the weak is always there, isn’t it? It doesn’t take much for it to come bubbling, noxiously, to the surface. Sacrifice the weak, and whatever gods we worship will be appeased and we’ll all be prosperous and happy again.     
     Well, except for the weak. They can’t ever be prosperous and happy in a culture that requires their death.
   Christians, of course, don’t worry about appeasing other gods. We want to obey Jesus. And what we learn from Jesus is most certainly not that the weak should be sacrificed for the strong.
     What we learn from Jesus is that, to change the world for the better, we should sacrifice ourselves.
     We learn from Jesus that, if a life needs to be on the line, then it should be mine. We learn that if someone needs to give up some rights for the sake of others, then I should be the first to give them up. We learn from him to give what we have when it’s needed. We learn to consider others more important than ourselves. 
     And we learn, especially, that God is especially concerned with the way we treat those who are weak, that in Christ he is inverting our ranking systems so that the first will be last and the last will be first. We learn it, of course, not because Jesus pointed his finger and said who should die for the kingdom of God.
     We learn it by seeing him give himself to die for us.
     Paul tells us to “walk in the way of love,” and the examples he gives us set a very high bar. “Follow God’s example,” he says. And, if we need help knowing what the way of love looks like, he says we can look at the way Jesus “gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
     So there you go: if you want an example for how to behave in this difficult time for everyone, you have it. Love like God. Love like Jesus. Give yourself up as a sacrifice.
     So yes, let’s sacrifice during this pandemic. Let’s sacrifice ourselves: our time, our energy, our resources. Let’s die to impatience and fear of loss. Let’s die to selfishness and greed. Let’s give ourselves in service of our neighbors who are in need. And, please, let’s give up our individual rights to help keep those among us who are in the most danger as safe as possible.
     Yes. The weak. Let’s sacrifice ourselves for them.

     That is, as we’ve learned from our Lord, the way to change the world.

Friday, April 17, 2020


Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
-1 Corinthians 10:14-17 (NIV)

Wes McAdams posted this on his blog, Radically Christian, this week: Five Tips for Participating in Online Worship. Here are his five. His comments on each are worth reading: 

1. Don’t Be a Spectator, Be a Participant
2. Don’t Criticize or Compare
3. Limit Distractions
4. Take Notes
5. Discuss Key Takeaways

     I thought McAdams' thoughts were obviously very timely; many Christians, probably most, will be participating in some sort of online worship this Sunday. For some, it'll be their preacher or main teacher sitting in front of a computer. For some, it'll be a multi-camera blockbuster shot with professional equipment. For most, it'll be something in between. The majority of us, though, will have the experience of picking up a tablet, phone, or computer and settling in for a prerecorded or live-streamed worship service. 
     Every week since most churches suspended Sunday gatherings at their buildings, I've had conversations with church leaders about that very thing. We ask each other how we're doing it. We share things we've learned. Some of us have maybe even compared our final products. I think most every church leader I know -- especially those whose churches haven't already been live-streaming -- is trying to learn on the fly how to do online worship.
     There are how-to videos available. (I saw one where the video went to black for about 3 of its 7-minute runtime. I didn't take much of that guy's advice.) Companies who would love to consult with us on how to do online worship better. We're thinking now about how what we're wearing will look on camera (solid colors are best), how not to look shifty-eyed (look as much as possible straight at the camera), how to frame a shot (rule of thirds), and what the background should look like (simple, with nothing that could look like it's coming out of your head). 
     Until a month ago, I never gave anything like that a second thought.
     What I haven't seen is much help for those who will be participating in these online worship services that we're all blundering around trying to create. Which is why I appreciated McAdams' post so much.
     Here's a fact: when we watch videos online, usually it's as consumers of content. I'll sometimes watch something funny someone's posted or sent me. Sometimes I'll stream an episode of Clone Wars or something. I like watching musical performances on YouTube, or maybe a clip from an old Tonight Show. (Yes, kids, it existed before Jimmy Fallon. Or even Jay Leno.) 
     I do occasionally watch a how-to video, but that's still as a consumer. I'm trying to learn a new skill, something I'll try to do for myself later. Sometimes I'll watch a video of a sermon, but it's still not the same as participating in a worship service online. I'm still consuming. 
     So what we're doing on Sunday when we watch our church's live stream is different. We're not even just watching. Or, at least, we shouldn't be. 
     It's easy enough to think like a consumer when you get in the car or hop on public transit and go to a building with other people for worship. But when all you have to do is grab the device that you usually watch The Bachelor or cat videos on, or play Candy Crush on, and you don't even have to comb your hair or change out of your pajamas -- well, it's not surprising that might not feel like worship.    
     McAdams uses the word participation in the title of his post. That immediately made me think of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10 -- that when we share in communion, we're participating in the blood and body of Jesus. It's a case where looks can be deceiving, right? At first glance, we're sitting in a big room together. Yes, in some churches participants (there it is again) get up and go to the front, but it still seems passive. You're receiving something. Someone hands you a tray, or you receive a wafer or a cup. But Paul says we're active. We're participating -- with other believers, and even with the Lord himself. 
     Paul makes this point because he sees a connection between participation in worship and fleeing from idolatry. Some in Corinth who thought eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols meant nothing weren't taking seriously enough the power of participation. Paul, in effect, asks them if eating and drinking the Lord's Supper means nothing as well. "You know it means something," he says. 
     It's in participation, in other words, that we show what we worship.
     That takes discipline, whether we're worshipping at church or at home. That's why McAdams' five suggestions sound kind of like work. Taking notes sounds a lot like school, doesn't it? But it will help you take a more active part. Talking about the worship with others both connects us and makes us accountable. Limiting distractions takes some planning and self-control. It's kind of automatic to criticize the production values of whatever we see on a screen, and compare it with other stuff we've seen. 
     Worship is active. It's participatory. So Sunday, when you're sitting in your living room or at your kitchen table or wherever and it's time to sing, then sing. Think of brothers and sisters from your church singing, and sing with them. God hears your voices blended with others. When you share communion, remember that others are sharing it all over the world. When it's time for prayer, lift up your prayers too, knowing that they are blending with the prayers of all the saints. When it's sermon time, dig into the text as well. Trust me: your preacher is hoping and praying that you will.
     Worship, right now, takes some sanctified imagination. I love the imagination in Hebrews 12:22-24: 
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all,  to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator  of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 
     The writer's point is that, where Jesus is involved, worship is always more than what we see. It's a trip into the city of God. In worship, we unite with angels. And we share in worship with those whose names are written in heaven as we come to God through Jesus and the new covenant he brought about with his death. "Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe," he concludes. "For our God is a consuming fire."
     May we all worship acceptably, wherever we find ourselves. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

Smiling on Good Friday?

     I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. 
-Exodus 12:12-13 (NIV)

For I guess the first time in my life, this Easter Sunday I won’t be in church. Well, that's not exactly true: I’ll be there, but the church won't be there with me. This Sunday, for the fourth straight week, the church will be “gathered” virtually, if at all. Because of the coronavirus, we’ll have to settle for being together in spirit. 
     That’s, apparently, a real thing. But, I’m sorry, it isn’t nearly the same as being together in body.
     My son mentioned this week that this would probably be the first Easter Sunday in history that most Christians wouldn’t be together. He might be right about that; certainly, there haven’t many. After all, Easter is the one Sunday a lot of folks who don't make it to church the rest of the year show up. 
     We’re not alone, of course, in “skipping” church this Easter. Most Christians are, the few churches that are insisting on having some sort of service notwithstanding. Most churches, I guess, are doing some kind of live stream or prerecorded service. The ones I’ve seen have been pretty good — especially considering churches are just figuring it out using equipment they happen to have laying around. 
     Still, it isn't the same. Putting together a sermon or lesson and some prerecorded music only highlights how little “church” actually has to do with the “show”. It’s the people, and when the people aren’t together it doesn’t feel much like the church.
     Look, I’ve tried to be pretty positive in this coronavirus disruption. Partly that's a theological conviction: God brings light in darkness, creates life where there’s death, and brings about good from evil. Partly, being positive is something I’ve been taught to do. Somewhere along the line, I’ve learned that most people prefer to be around someone who’s positive. Somewhere I've learned that it's preferable to be silent about suffering.
     But, it's Good Friday.
     At first blush, Good Friday sounds like a stupid thing to call the day on which many Christians reflect on Jesus’ death. “Good,” in this case, doesn’t mean positive, excellent, or something to be desired. It means “holy,” “pious.” It’s Good Friday because Jesus’ suffering was a holy thing that completed the work of God in redeeming human beings from sin and death. 
     In a lot of churches, the tradition is that the night before Good Friday, all color is stripped from the furnishings and decorations. The normally ornamented communion table/altar is left bare. Black is the only color used in the worship space.
     Well, in my tribe of believers, the communion table is normally pretty bare. But maybe Good Friday is a good time to strip away a little of the positivity that sometimes we Christians prefer.
     Good Friday — and Easter — are forever linked in the biblical accounts to another holiday: Passover. Jesus was murdered in Jerusalem because he was there to celebrate Passover, the day that Jews remember the events of the Exodus, when God delivered them from slavery in Egypt.
     The Bible reminds us of the importance of what happened on that night in Egypt. From then on, the Israelites would literally reset their calendars so that their new year would begin with a celebration of what God had done. When something happens to reorient the way we look at time, we know it's significant. The night of the Exodus was an event like that.     
     But notice that reorienting time doesn't come without a struggle. It's horrific. All across Egypt, eldest sons die. But God "passed over" the Israelites' homes, with the promise "No destructive plague will touch you." Only -- there has to be death there, too. A lamb is killed, its blood sprinkled on each doorway. 
     Rarely does something new come without trauma. That’s what unrelenting positivity sometimes overlooks. To get to Passover, Egyptians died. Egyptian parents, wives, and children mourned for the rest of their lives. As the Israelites praised God for leading them out of slavery, many Egyptians must have wondered what kind of God does that at the expense of so many lives. 
     To get to Easter, you have to go through Good Friday. 
     Luke tells us that the Last Supper was on "the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed." And so it's no surprise when Jesus tells his disciples at that meal that one of the cups should remind them of "the new covenant in [his] blood, which is poured out for [them]." His death would be the horrific event that reset our timelines and changed our calendars. Through Jesus, God passes over our sins and failures, and promises to give us life instead of giving us up to the plague and slavery of sin and death. 
     But that doesn’t come cheaply or easily. God only passes over our sins because of the blood of Jesus on our door frames.
     Since Josh was a kid, we’ve loved that TV show, Dirty Jobs. This week we watched an episode we hadn’t seen before. Mike Rowe, the host, was working for a day with the school of forensics at Purdue University. Purdue has a “park” on its campus, but it’s not the kind of park you ever want to visit. Laying around the park, in various situations and in various stages of decomposition, are dead pigs.
     You can apparently learn a lot about a corpse based on the kinds of insects that are, well, attracted to it. But we all know that a decaying corpse doesn’t smell good. Mike, the host, kept gagging from the smell. The students he was working with gave him some interesting advice: if you feel like you might throw up, you can apparently hold it off by smiling very widely. Which led to all kinds of visual gags of Mike “smiling” while doing very dirty jobs with dead pigs.
     This Good Friday — or just Friday, if you prefer — know that it's OK if you aren’t feeling very positive. Jesus wasn’t either. He cried out in pain and suffering. He suffered the mockery of the crowd. He felt far too distinctly the limits of his humanity. He even felt as though God had turned his back on him. 
     What we’re going through is hard. There’s sickness and death around us in numbers we’re not used to seeing. We’re cut off from friends and family. We’re saddened by canceled events. Some of us are dealing with lost wages and the ripple effect of that. 
     Our faith doesn’t require that we smile wider when we feel sick. Jesus, certainly, never asked anyone who was suffering and hurting to pretend that everything was OK. He’s the one, you might recall, who said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” He’s the one who stood at a friend’s tomb and wept. He’s the one who asked God why he’d turned his back on him as he died on the cross.
     Here’s what our faith does insist on: Easter is coming. The calendar has been reset. The sickness and death and sorrow around us is not the last word. It’s real, and because it’s real you may not feel like smiling today. But know that Easter is coming. Darkness gives way to light. Live gives way to death. Good Friday ends, and a new day dawns, a new year begins.

     Christ is risen. Say it with me. Say it through tears, but say it. Christ is risen.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Having Church

     God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 
-Acts 2:32-33 (NIV)

Last week, someone contacted our church wondering if we would be having services at our usual time. This person, who as far as I know has never worshipped with our church, just couldn’t believe that we didn’t trust God enough, or love God enough, or something, to remain open during the pandemic and in spite of Illinois’ stay-at-home order. 
     We’re far from the only church that’s had those interactions in the past couple of weeks. A pastor in Florida was arrested this week for continuing to keep his church open for Sunday services. “We’re going to have church,” he insists.
      Never mind all the evidence that the best thing we can do to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ease the burden on our health care system is to stay at home. Never mind the doctors and nurses fighting this thing, never mind the many, many people who won’t get the medical help they desperately need if we don’t slow this virus down.
     We’re going to have church.
     Look, no one thinks meeting together matters more than I do. No one dislikes having to suspend gathering for worship any more than I do. But it wouldn’t be right for us to meet right now. It would create an obstacle for the gospel with our neighbors, who are expected to stay away from their offices, schools, gyms, friends, and family. It would endanger people. It does not show love for our neighbor to insist on a course of action that will ultimately cause much more suffering.
     The longer this goes on, though, I  wonder if it’s all bad.
     It’s hard to argue, when we look at the church in America (and elsewhere too) in 2020, that we’re very much focused on our buildings. Last year, our church spent 20% of our budget on our building: maintaining, improving, heating, and air-conditioning it. I think that’s probably a fairly conservative number; our building is relatively small, relatively old, and not exactly state-of-the-art. Still, it was more than we spent on missions and benevolence combined.
     Thing is, I’m not sure how to change that number much. To own a building is to incur expenses. I guess what I’m saying is that, with the building such an important part of life for most churches, it’s easy to see how we’d leave the impression that we can’t “have church” if we’re not at the building on Sundays.
     As an exercise, I’d like to list below all the Bible verses that mention the church owning a building:

     Now I’d like to list all the Bible verses that indicate that church life is all about showing up at a building at a predetermined time on Sundays:

You get the point, right?
     There are problems that start to arise whenever we too closely connect “having church” with a building. For one thing, worship becomes an appointment instead of a lifestyle of offering yourself. Taken to its extreme, you can never miss a “Sunday worship" and still never know what it’s like to give yourself sacrificially to honor God.
     In addition, the worship service becomes all about receiving something. “Going to church” and “going to Wal-Mart” don’t just sound the same; they’re about the same thing. You go and pick up what you need, and think little about what you give to others.
     That’s because of the third big problem: you start to imagine that everything God is doing revolves around being at the building. If we can only “have church” in a particular location on Sunday, then we don’t give much thought to “having church” anywhere else: at our offices, our schools, our neighborhoods, even our homes. 
     The early church’s experience, though is that the Holy Spirit was poured out on a people, not a location. When people repented and turned to God through faith in Jesus, he enabled them to do wonderful things. They met together when and where they could. They took care of each other. But they weren’t rooted in a place. When they were persecuted in Jerusalem they scattered and preached the gospel wherever they went. 
     Wherever the Spirit took them, they had church.
     That makes all the sense in the world, given the subject of Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost of the church’s existence. Peter told them about Jesus being raised from the dead. He told them that the Lord wasn't in the tomb, but alive and active in the world. It only makes sense that his church should be too. We aren’t dead and confined to our ornate, comfortable, and fashionable tombs, but alive and bursting with the Spirit’s energy. 
      The church has never been about the building. If you’ve been thinking of the church in that way, then you’ve been thinking of it wrongly and this is an excellent opportunity to change your perspective. Being together is good. It’s necessary that we gather together for encouragement, to worship with one voice, to pray for each other, and to teach each other and proclaim the gospel. But being together isn’t how we have church.
     We have church because of our Father who loves us. We have church because of his Son’s faithfulness. We have church because God raised him from the dead, and we have church because of the Spirit who lives in us.
     Maybe, through the disruption of this pandemic, we’ll learn new ways of having church.
     Maybe we’ll be more engaged with each other, even though we see each other less.
     Maybe we’ll be more thankful for the opportunity to interact with each other, even though those opportunities are fewer and farther between.
     Maybe, as work, school, kids’ activities, and friends have left our calendars, the Lord’s work will find more of a place. 
     Maybe this crisis will create opportunities for us to live out what we say we believe. People are anxious. They’re in need. If the Gospel is real and relevant, and the church is truly bigger than our buildings, now is the time to show it!
     When the stay at home order is lifted, when we can leave our homes, let it not be to just rebuild our church life around a building. Let it not be just on Sundays at a building, but sharing each others’ lives. 
     I miss all of you. I look forward to seeing you on Sundays in a few weeks. But in the meantime, we’re still having church. Let’s be Spirit-filled people in our world. Preach Jesus wherever you are, in whatever way you can.

     I can’t wait to hear about it when we get together again.