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Friday, October 23, 2020

Churches That Burn

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

-Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Let’s burn.        

Friday, October 16, 2020

Who Counts?

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

-Matthew 10:29-31 (NIV)




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

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

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

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

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

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

     People count with God. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     And may you always know that you count with God.

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

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


Friday, October 2, 2020

All Things to All People

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

-1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     They wouldn’t, and they shouldn’t.

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

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

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