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.    

Friday, May 8, 2020

Loving More Than Our Own People

     If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:46-48 (NIV)

     Maybe you’ve heard about the death of Ahmaud Arbery. I have to admit that I missed it for a while. A video of the incident went viral this week, though, and it’s been hard to miss. And I want to make sure my white friends don’t continue to miss it like I did.
     In February, Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead in Brunswick, a small town in south Georgia. Ahmaud didn’t die in a shootout with police, or a drug deal gone wrong, or even as an innocent bystander in a gang killing. When young black men die in those circumstances, it’s easy to put an asterisk by their deaths in our heads — something along the lines of “well, they were asking for it.” There are lots of problems with that, but one of them is that it breeds a jaded disregard for the shooting deaths of young men of color in general. And, in some circumstances, creates the deaths of other young men of color.
     That’s what happened in this case. Ahmaud was 25, not much older than my son. It’s pretty unlikely, though,  that my son would have been killed for jogging through a neighborhood on a sunny Sunday afternoon. 
     The men who killed him, Gregory and Tracis McMichael, saw Ahmaud running through their subdivision and apparently thought he matched the description of a man who had been breaking into houses in the neighborhood — at least to the extent that he was black. That was enough to compel McMichael and his son, Travis, to grab a .357 Magnum and a shotgun and chase after Ahmaud in their pickup, intending to make a citizen’s arrest. That, by the way, is legal in Georgia. Two armed men can legally chase down another man in the state of Georgia — if the offense was committed in their presence or within their immediate knowledge. 
     The problem with that, of course, is that Ahmad committed no offense, other than being a young man of color jogging through a neighborhood — a neighborhood where he had jogged before and was known. Had he been white, it almost certainly would have been assumed he was jogging. He would have received the benefit of the doubt.
     A video shows the McMichaels and Arberry meet on the street. While Gregory is standing in the bed of his pickup, Travis and Ahmaud fight for control of Travis’ shotgun. Shots are fired. Ahmaud starts to run away, then staggers and falls to the ground. Travis turns him over to see if he was carrying a gun.
     Ahmaud did not have a weapon. At no time in the video does he pull a gun or a knife. He does seem to initiate the altercation, but only after he apparently turned and jogged away from the McMichaels when they blocked his path at another location.
     I know, it’s tempting to say things like, “We don’t know it was about race.” I don’t know the McMichaels’ at all. I can’t say what was in their hearts and on their minds. But as to whether or not it was about race: Do we really imagine that a young white man running by in workout clothes would have drawn the McMichaels’ attention — even if the description of the burglar included that he was white?
     If you think so, you might want to listen to some stories of friends who are people of color. They might not like to tell them much, but they have them. Their stories will probably sound like some of the things that have happened to my friend, my brother in Christ, who happens to be a big black guy. There’s the time he was pulled over on his way to a wedding, made to lie on a dirty street in his tux, handcuffed, while the police ran his license plate and ID. There’s the time he was pushed against the hood of a police car, handcuffed again, and made to sit in the back of the car — in front of his wife and daughter — because a police officer saw him toss a burned-out light bulb into the back yard of an apartment building he owned. My friend isn’t belligerent. He’s well aware of how he looks, and even though he shouldn’t have to he tries to speak and act in ways that offset his appearance. 
     Do you really think I would have drawn that kind of attention? Any other white man?
     I’m not saying being white is a moral failing. I’m not saying that if you’re white you’re personally responsible for every wrong ever done by a white person to a person of color. 
     I’m saying don’t give in to the impulse to rush to defend what shouldn’t be defended.
     I’m saying don’t disregard the stories that people of color tell about the injustices done to them.
     I’m saying that, if you’re a white person, be sure that people of color find in you an empathetic friend who will listen to their stories, take them seriously, and be as much a part of the healing of racism as you can possibly be.
     See, the McMichaels’ aren’t the real problem. The problem is that we live in a world where racism can be found tangled deeply in the machinery of society. Sometimes it doesn’t sound like overt racism. It sounds more like, “I know them, they wouldn’t do something like that.” Sometimes it sounds like, “That’s just the way things get done around here.” Sometimes it’s more like, “We shouldn’t rush to judgment” or “Well, if he wasn’t guilty he wouldn’t have run.” 
    Jesus reminds us that it’s no trick to “greet our own people.” It’s no trick to love those who are like us (even though we have some trouble even with that). His best test of love is whether or not we can show it to those who are not “our own,” who are different, whose interests don’t line up easily with our own interests.
     You know, the way Jesus loved us.
    Jesus makes us his own by sacrificing his life for us. The expectation, of course, is that our love won’t just  follow the channel of those who are like us, who we understand, whose interests coincide with ours. It’s that our love will overflow the banks and flood our world with the kind of life-giving love that comes from God.
     That we’ll love people who aren’t “our own,” and in doing so widen our circles to include them.
     That will mean speaking out when we see something unjust. It will mean calling out racism and discrimination wherever we see it, even if it’s uncomfortably close to home. It will mean listening to people of color tell their stories, without defending or excusing, and it will mean weeping with them and being angry with them. And then it will mean standing with them and asking them how we can help to change the world.
     And ourselves.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Missed Graduation

     Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.
     We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
-Romans 5:1-5 (New Living Translation)

This weekend, we were supposed to be in Tennessee. We were supposed to be on the campus of Lipscomb University as our son graduated from college, celebrating with him and with other family. We made those plans months ago. We were looking forward to marking this important milestone in Josh’s life with plenty of joy and festivities. 
     Instead, the three of us will be home watching some sort of online graduation. There are vague promises that he can walk in December if he wants to. 
     Not exactly what we planned for.
     Understand, our “problem” is such a minor one that it requires quotation marks. We’re able to be home, together. We’re all healthy. Josh has been able to finish his classes online, Laura and I are employed but able to mostly stay home and practice social distancing. It isn’t like Josh doesn’t get his degree. Having a graduation ceremony canceled is a disappointment, not a catastrophe. And, as disappointments go, this one doesn’t hurt too much. Others have much bigger problems.
     I’m not writing this to complain, that’s what I guess I’m saying. I’m making a point.
     Disappointments happen.
     You probably know that by now. We learn pretty early in life that things don’t always go the way we hope that they will. Hope: disappointment is often tied to hope, isn’t it? Hopes get dashed, people let us down, events don’t unfold as we’d envisioned. Sometimes the disappointment we feel is fairly minor, on the order of a canceled ceremony. Sometimes it’s life-changing: a marriage ends, a job offer falls through, someone we love lets us down, a promising treatment doesn’t work. Disappointment is varied because the things in which we put our hope are varied, and I don’t suppose there’s anything in which human beings put their hope that won’t at least sometimes fail to deliver. 
     The word most often translated “disappoint” in the New Testament has to do with feeling shame or embarrassment. In fact, in a lot of English translations you’ll see something like “put to shame” instead of “disappoint.” I guess that comes from that feeling we sometimes have when we’re let down, that sense that we’re stupid or naive or gullible for having put our hope in this thing or that person. 
     The Gospel of Luke tells the story of two followers of Jesus traveling between Jerusalem and a town called Emmaus on the Sunday after Jesus’ death. As they travel, they meet up with a stranger and begin telling him about Jesus. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people,” they tell him. They go on to explain to this stranger how the leaders of Israel handed Jesus over to the Romans for execution. And then you can almost hear the disappointment as you read their next words: “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
     No doubt they had that feeling of shame for having hoped, that sense that they were the world’s biggest dopes. It can make you angry to have your hopes crushed like that. It can make you bitter. Enough of that, and out of self-defense you might just stop allowing yourself to hope at all, in anything or anyone, just to avoid that terrible feeling of disappointment. 
     The thing is, as much as disappointment can hurt, I think human beings need some kind of hope. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why we come back to hope again and again. As Springsteen sings, in a song about disappointment piled on disappointment from the day we’re born until the day we die: “at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.”
     That stranger on the road to Emmaus in Luke? Turns out he’s not so much a stranger at all. They’d been walking with the risen Lord while they talked about their disappointment, and they had no idea. Isn’t that a lesson for us? Even as we feel our hopes crushed, even as we feel shame for having hoped at all, even as we swear we’ll never hope again — the risen Jesus walks beside us. And, if we listen, maybe we can hear him say gently, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe.”
     Jesus comes to us in our worst moments of disappointment and reminds of what we should have already believed.  
     Oh, there will come times when you think Jesus has disappointed you. Those disciples on the road to Emmaus thought so. So did the ones hiding in Jerusalem. But after they knew he had risen from the grave, they never thought so again. They became world travelers to tell people about him. Some of them died for him, but went to their graves saying that they had hope. When your hope is in Jesus, not even death will disappoint you.
     If Christ is risen, if he has filled us with the Holy Spirit and the love of God, then it’s just kind of foolish to imagine that any disappointment is anything more than temporary.
    Paul says that what Jesus has done gives us peace with God and a place of “undeserved privilege” where we have the vantage point to “look forward to sharing God’s glory.” From that vantage point, the problems and difficulties we deal with in our lives just teach us how to endure, harden our resolve and help us to hope more firmly and certainly in the salvation God has for us. 
     So, if you’re feeling disappointed right now, then you’re just in the process of learning to endure and learning to place your hope more completely in God’s salvation. Disappointment can sting, and ache, and feel devastating. But one day we all will graduate. When we do, our disappointments will fade away in the light of God’s glory.
     In Christ, that’s a celebration none of us will miss.