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Friday, September 25, 2020

Blessedness

     Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, 

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, 

for they will be called children of God. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

-Matthew 5:3-10 (NIV)



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

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

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

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

     They’ll remember that they were blessed.

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

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

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

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

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

     And with it, the blessedness of the kingdom.

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

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

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

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


Friday, September 18, 2020

Casting Off

      If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,

Lord, who could stand? 

But with you there is forgiveness, 

so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 

I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, 

and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord 

more than watchmen wait for the morning,

more than watchmen wait for the morning. 

Israel, put your hope in the LORD,

for with the LORD is unfailing love 

and with him is full redemption. 

-Psalm 130:3-7 (NIV)




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 11, 2020

When Racists Write Our Worship Songs

      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.

-Romans 6:3-11 (NIV)




Rachel Martin has written a really interesting post for Oxford American called “Hoods in My Hymnal.” She writes about a Southern gospel music festival she attended last year in a little town in Tennessee, Lawrenceburg, whose claim to fame in the Southern gospel world was that it was the town where James D. Vaughan built a music-publishing business and pretty much invented Southern gospel music in the process. 

     By most accounts, Vaughan was a man of deep faith, good works, and constant prayer. His songwriting or publishing credits include God Holds the Future in His Hands, Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, and He’s My King, among others. Martin hoped to get, as she puts it, “a nostalgic essay,” out of her weekend. It was definitely not what she expected when, at the local library to get some information on Vaughan, the librarian casually mentioned, “I’ve always suspected James D. Vaughan ran the local Klan.” 

     “So much for my fun, easy story,” she wrote.

     The evidence certainly does show that Vaughan had some association with the Ku Klux Klan. In addition to the Southern gospel music for which he became known, Vaughan’s name appears on such ditties as “Wake Up, America, and Kluk, Kluk, Kluk,” which features such lyrics as “the right will surely win, we’re winning day by day, Each night thirty thousand put on the K.K.K.” She discovered that Vaughan moderated Klan rallies, that his quartets sang at them, and that he broadcast them on a radio station he owned. Several other songwriters’ names are on Klan-supportive songs that Vaughan published.

     Martin writes that she was “shaken” by her discovery that some of her favorite music was now tinged by racism. “What should I do with this knowledge?” she asked. The rest of the article describes her attempts to work through the implications of it through conversations with several other people who have musical, cultural, and faith connections to Southern gospel music. I highly recommend reading the post, but I’ll include her own summary of her conclusions here:


     We can’t jump to solutions because we have yet to find the right questions. We can’t trust the answers our guts give us because all of our guts—every last one—have been acclimatized to a world of inequality and injustice. We must be more interested in learning about the silenced parts of our history than in writing a cohesive narrative, more anxious to listen than to speak, more eager to give grace than to cast judgment.

     Only then can we begin to disentangle the hoods from the relics in our attics, the laws written by our governments, the lessons taught in our schools, and the songs of worship canonized in our hymnals. 


     The conversations we’ve been having aren’t easy, are they? Statues and flags that expressly prop up the legacies of folks who were fighting a war against our country in support of slavery are one thing. It would be nice if the cancer were so easily excised by dismantling a few monuments. What we learn, though, as we pay attention to our history is that racism can’t be carved away like that. It runs too deep and has spread too widely. 

     Martin points out what we should have known: Southern gospel music is a tainted legacy. John Newton was a slave trader before he wrote Amazing Grace. Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings almost certainly influenced further anti-Semitism, including the kind practiced in Nazi Germany. Most denominations are touched in some way by racism. You don’t have to kick over many rocks to find it.  

     So what do we do about that? Do we “cancel” songs and songwriters when we discover the racism in their pasts? Do we simply shrug and say “They were a product of their time”? Do we only embrace those, like Newton, who acknowledged and repented of their racism? 

     I don’t think the “product of his time” argument holds up to close scrutiny. While many influential people in the South in Vaughan’s day were part of the Klan, many were not. “Everybody was doing it” wouldn’t have been a good excuse when you were a kid, and it isn’t for adults. We’re all influenced by the times we live in, but we’re all responsible for our choices. It’s too easy to let bad behavior slide by as a product of the time.

     But the speed with which we cancel the good work of those whose pasts hold some reprehensible acts sometimes seems too easy as well. It lets us feel good about being on the right side without asking the really tough questions about our world or ourselves. We might very well choose not to use some music because of the racist views or actions of their creators, but let it be a community decision made of careful thought, with acknowledgement that our own hands are hardly clean, either.

     So what then? What do we do when we discover that more of our worship music is written by racists, or misogynists, or whatever? What if we discover that one of the editors of our favorite Bible translation has used racial slurs, or that a respected author has disparaged Asians? 

     It seems to me that we — and by “we” I mean white Christians — often are asking the wrong questions in circumstances like this. We’re asking “Should I feel bad about this?” Or maybe we’re asking, “Why should I have to give up something I like?” Paul reminds us that there are better questions to ask. He says that God gives “greater honor to the parts that lacked it” in the church. That is, he wants those in the church who through no fault of their own are disregarded and discriminated against to receive special honor from the rest of the church (and not merely equal treatment). We should have “equal concern for each other.” Most to the point, I think, for this discussion: we should suffer when another part of the church suffers (instead of disregarding that suffering), and we should rejoice when they receive honor (instead of resenting it). 

     We should be, in all our churches, confronting the legacies of racism. Our ancestors’ sins are not ours, but they often have much to do with the pain our sisters and brothers of color feel. We should recognize that suffering and suffer with them, knowing that if healing doesn’t come easily for them, it shouldn’t for us either.

     So here’s my thought: White Christians, who throughout church history in most places and times have had most of the power and honor, should simply defer to their Black sisters and brothers on questions like this. If using a song causes even one of my brothers and sisters of color pain, then how could I possibly feel good about singing it? Why wouldn’t I share their pain and offer them the “greater honor” of hearing them and giving up something — even something important to me — for them?

     Martin is right, I think, when she says, “all of our guts—every last one—have been acclimatized to a world of inequality and injustice.” Not by our choice, perhaps, or not completely by our choice, but acclimatized nonetheless. It takes love to instead condition our guts to share in the suffering of others, and rejoice when they receive long-overdue honor.

     It takes love. Thankfully, we follow the one who loved us to the point of death.

     May we love in the way we ought to have learned from him.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Saying Yes to the Lord

      …Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

     Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

     In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

-Romans 6:3-11 (NIV)




Maybe you caught the story of Father Matthew Hood last week. Father Hood is a priest in the
Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit who stumbled upon an uncomfortable revelation: while watching a video of his own baptism in 1990, he discovered
that the deacon who performed the baptism got the words of the liturgy wrong. 

     I suppose that would just be a little unsettling, exceptfor the fact that the mistake made Father Hood’s baptism invalid according to the Church.

     Which meant his ordination as a priest was invalid.

     Which meant that any sacraments he has performed were invalid.

     Thankfully, I guess, he’s only been a priest since 2017. In addition, baptisms in the Catholic Church don’t have to be performed by a priest (just as long as the words are right!), so the baptisms he’s done remain valid. But there are some people in the parishes Father Hood has served whose marriages, confirmations, and so forth may have to be revisited. The Archdiocese in contacting those folks who might have been affected. Matthew Hood has been baptized, confirmed, and re-ordained to the priesthood. So all’s well that ends well.

     Oh — he words the deacon who baptized Matthew got wrong? He said “We baptize you…” instead of “I baptize you…”

     I know, that seems kind of picky. “We” sort of takes in the family and friends present, doesn’t it? It includes the community in what is very much a community event. When I first read the story, I as a non-Catholic was thinking something very close to what you might be thinking: Why in the world does one word said 30 years ago make such a difference as to invalidate a priest’s baptism, ordination, and ministry?  

     So I did a little research, and it turns out — as you might have guessed — that the mistake isn’t so innocuous as it seems. The position of the Church is that “When a man baptizes, it is really Christ himself who baptizes.” (Second Vatican Council) Baptism is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, by which they mean that God actually does something when the rites are carried out. The “I” in the baptismal formula isn’t the one physically administering the water and saying the words. It’s Jesus himself. That being the case, there isn’t much wiggle room in the wording of the liturgy.   

     “So what?” you say. Understandably so. Unless you’re Catholic — and maybe even if you are — all this seems like much ado about nothing. As a non-Catholic, this story too easily confirmed my prejudices and assumptions about Catholicism: that it’s bound by tradition, that it cares more for its traditions than it does Scripture, that it values its institutional identity over people. Those prejudices and assumptions have been proven wrong every time I’ve ever researched some Catholic doctrine. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that I often don’t agree with their conclusions, but the Catholic Church has reasons for everything they do, reasons that go back much farther than some of the reasons my tribe of believers does what we do. Prejudices do nothing to contribute to understanding, appreciation, and dialogue. Instead of finding fault and looking for the worst in those we disagree with, may we instead assume that they want to please the Lord too, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

     The story also reminds me that actions, even small ones, are important. I share the belief of the Catholic Church that baptism matters, though my fellowship of churches practices the total immersion of adult believers. We don’t really talk about baptism — or anything — as a sacrament, but if you pin me down I think I do have a sacramental theology about it. It seems to me that in that small thing of a believer being immersed in water — an act many dismiss as symbolic of something that already happened when a person “asked Jesus into their life” or whatever — that God does something. He sends his Spirit. He shares his life. He forgives sin. He adds us to the church. Though our cultural tendencies these days lead us to dismiss the importance of religious rituals in favor of being “spiritual,” things like baptism, communion, church attendance, and so forth — and the words we say about those things — matter. They can be the means by which God pours his grace into our lives. He certainly can and does work through other means too, but we cut ourselves off from acts like these at our peril. While I don’t worry a lot about the words used in baptism because I don’t have centuries of tradition to defend, I do believe that if God really does something in it then it must matter.  

     I also appreciate from this story that the rituals we practice have importance to the whole community of faith. My baptism isn’t just about Jesus and me — it’s about Jesus and me and all the members of the church or churches that have formed me in Christ and helped me to come to the point of faith. It’s about my connections to the body of Christ worldwide. It’s about my place in the ancient story of God’s salvation, and those who came before me. It’s about those who will continue the story after I’ve gone to be with the Lord. The individualistic ways we tend to celebrate and think of baptism, communion, church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, and so forth need to be challenged by ways that are more based in community, in sharing with each other, and in listening to each other.  

     Finally, I was so impressed with Father Hood’s reaction to all of this. He had nothing but grace-filled words to say about the “pastoral care” and reassurance he received from the Archdiocese. When he was asked whether or not he’d had any thoughts before his reinstatement that this might be an opportunity to rethink his vocation, he said no. “The grace and freedom to say ‘yes’ again was a joy. It was a grace the Lord gave to me, being able to say ‘yes’ to the Lord again, in some ways for the first time.”

     Every day, we get opportunities to say “yes” to the Lord: to bless the community of faith and to live out the new life to which our baptisms have opened us. May we all be as eager as Father Hood to accept our vocations as priests, along with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

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