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Friday, September 17, 2021

Not Loved

      Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”

     Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.   

-Genesis 29:16-20 (NIV)


Rachel and Leah, by Abel Pain

It’s a painful thing to be not wanted.

     It’s something we start to experience at a young age. If you’ve ever been the last one chosen for a team, or if you’ve been the kid the other kids didn’t want to play with, you know what it feels like. Romantic rejection is such a part of the landscape of our lives as teenagers and young adults that every popular song, every movie, every standup comic in every comedy club in every city and town deals with it. We even have a TV franchise, The Bachelor and all its spinoffs, to allow us to feel better about our own rejections by watching others get rejected. 

     Of course, every time someone gets a job or a promotion, someone else doesn’t. Every time someone gets into a prestigious university, someone else goes to their fallback school. Husbands reject wives and vice versa. Engagements end. Even in families and churches, sadly, people find themselves rejected.

     You’ve probably suffered rejection a time or two in your life. Maybe you’re feeling its sting right now. If so, then you need to be introduced — or re-introduced — to Leah.

     Leah was the first wife of Jacob, but he didn’t want her to be. He had it bad for her younger sister, Rachel, who “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” Leah — well, it’s hard to know what to make of Leah’s description. Literally, the text says she had “weak” or “soft” eyes, but we don’t really know what that means. Probably, that Leah had pretty eyes. Nice enough but, up against Rachel’s description, it sort of feels like a backhanded compliment, something similar to “she has a good personality.” 

     So Jacob was really, really into Rachel. Rachel’s and Leah’s father, Laban, agreed to marry Rachel off to him. But the morning after the marriage celebration, Jacob wakes up, looks over, and finds that it’s Leah in bed with him. When he asks, understandably, for an explanation — after all, he’s worked for his new father-in-law for free for seven years to earn the privilege of marrying Rachel — Laban brushes him off by saying, “Around here, we don’t marry off the younger sister before the older.” Laban arranged it this way, you see. A heavily-veiled bride, a rowdy celebration, some wine, a darkened bedroom — presto-chango, Jacob is married to the other sister. 

     Laban suggests that, if Jacob still wants Rachel, he could work another seven years — and Laban will even marry her off to him in advance. Good arrangement for Laban. For Jacob, at least the situation is resolved.

     Not so good for Leah.

     So, a week after being foisted off on Jacob — which doesn’t say a lot for her father’s confidence that she could find her own husband — she’s now a co-wife of Jacob with her younger sister. (If you get irritated with your younger sister borrowing your stuff or tagging along with you and your friends — umm, it could be worse.)

     All of this is actually in the Bible, by the way. Genesis chapters 29 and 30. Next time you feel like watching The Bachelor, you might consider reading this story instead.

     These events all kicks off what a Sunday school teacher of mine when I was a kid called “The Great Baby Race.” Leah leaps out ahead with a flurry of little ones. She names the first three Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. There’s some sadness, though: the text says that God had something to do with making Leah the early leader in the race because he “saw that Leah was not loved.” 

     That’s the first thing to take away from this story: rejection by other people — however much their acceptance might mean to you — is not the same as rejection by God. To be “not loved” by other people is in some way or another to be especially loved by God. He sees Leah’s pain and offers a sign of his grace and acceptance to her. He notices and cares when we feel rejected as well, and if we’re open to it maybe we’ll see the signs of his care in those moments.

     Leah, admittedly, has some trouble with that. The names she chooses sound like the Hebrew words for look, hearing, and joined, and the explanations she gives all revolve around her hopes that God has seen and heard her rejection and that Jacob will love her and be joined to her because of these children. She’s harboring hope that maybe God’s plan for her will involve a husband who cares for her and dotes on her the way she sees Jacob doting on her little sister. 

     By the fourth son, though, look at the difference; she names him Judah — he will be praised — and explains her choice by saying, “This time I will praise the LORD.” It’s as though she finally accepts how things are, but also recognizes that she can still praise God even though her husband doesn’t love her and will never love her like he loves her sister, not even if she gives him a thousand sons. 

     Rejection by people, whoever they are, doesn’t negate the good God has done in your life. Sometimes we get stuck on winning the approval of that one person or those specific people who never gave it to us. We hope this accomplishment or that new circumstance will make it happen, finally. But maybe instead we should know that we can’t control whether or not people approve of us or reject us. At some point we have to come to the place where we can say, “I’ll praise the Lord. I’ll praise him for all the blessings he’s poured out on me, and I’ll stop looking for approval that might never come from someone who might not even be able to give it.” 

     One other thing. For this, you’ll have to go to the other end of your Bible. To the book of Matthew. Matthew begins his Gospel, his telling of the good news of Jesus, with these words: 

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…”

     Look, Jacob had eight more sons, two of them through Rachel. But he brings the Messiah, the Savior, the one who embodies the good news of God’s love, grace, compassion, and redemption, into the world through one of Leah’s sons. I kind of think of that as a final nod of approval for Leah, the wife who wasn’t loved. 

     Maybe to you this story seems hopelessly tangled up in outdated notions of what makes a woman successful. I get that. But I hope you can see that, whether you’re a man or a woman and whatever the nature of the rejection you might be feeling, God doesn’t reject you. Look for the signs of his love and approval all around you. I hope you can let go of the need for that approval you’ve never received and thank him for his blessings — especially the gift of his Son, Jesus. And I hope you’ll let your imagination run away with you as you think about the amazing things he will do in your life and the lives of those touched by you, down through generations.

     If you’ve ever been “not loved,” then be comforted in the deep and faithful love God has for you.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Heroes

 Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD. That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places  of the desert, in a salt  land where no one lives.

     But blessed  is the one who trusts  in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought  and never fails to bear fruit.”   

-Jeremiah 17:5-8 (NIV)




Growing up in a southern city near three Civil War battlefields, I lived with Confederate monuments all around. I remember vividly when I was a kid climbing on the cannons that (I guess?) marked gun emplacements on Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and Chickamauga battlefield. I recall statues too, though I didn’t pay nearly as much attention to those as a kid and couldn’t really tell you who they memorialized. (After I moved to Illinois, I did notice on a visit back to Chattanooga a monument honoring a company of Federal troops from Illinois that had served in Chattanooga, so maybe not all of the statues honored Confederate personnel.) There was a museum on Lookout Mountain that contained huge dioramas of the battles fought there; the museum was called The Confederama (the name has mercifully been changed to The Battles for Chattanooga Museum). I think my grandfather or someone once bought some imitation Confederate money and a gray military cap for me there.

     I also grew up hearing the set of myths called “The Lost Cause” that did their best to redeem those fighting for the Confederacy. In this telling, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but states’ rights. (I still remember my junior year history teacher, Miss Hodges, who was an amazing lady and usually on-the-money historian, insisting that slavery was just “the horse they rode into battle.”) Of course, the Lost Cause proponents never point out that of the states that seceded, exactly none of them listed any “states’ rights” issues other than slavery as their reason.

     I read books from my school library about the great heroism and character of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and, especially, Robert E. Lee. Lee — or at least the character named Robert E. Lee portrayed in those books — was something of a hero of mine for a while, even. I’ve since learned, of course, that admiring Lee requires a person to ignore or explain away all kind of unsavory details about his life. He refused to honor his father-in-law’s wish that his slaves be released upon his death. He finally released them when forced to by the courts. He wrote that slavery in America, while not ideal, was better for Black people than their homes on the African continent had been and necessary for their improvement as a race.  And, in spite of his stated belief that Blacks were better off in slavery, he allowed and even encouraged — and may have committed himself — atrocities against them as a General and as a slaveowner.  

    For many reading this, of course — most, I would hope — the idea that we shouldn't honor a man or a group of people who fought against our nation for the stated purpose of opposing the institution of slavery will not seem too revolutionary. 

     Still — the impulse to honor our heroes is compelling, isn’t it? 

     Then it’s all the more horrifying when our heroes turn out to be, well, human. And sometimes, pretty awful humans.

     How many movie and TV stars have we had to “cancel” in the last few years as we discover more about the mistakes they’ve made and the people they’ve been? And would that have been half as traumatic if we hadn’t glorified them for being attractive and entertaining in the first place?

     Political figures get the hero treatment, too, though we’ve seen over and over where that can lead us.What if we could see our elected officials as just that — people we’ve chosen to work on our behalf? What if we stopped putting them on pedestals, literally and figuratively? Maybe we could see their successes and their mistakes with more perspective.

     Sometimes church leaders undeservedly get the blame for our anger and disappointment, but just as often (at least) they unfairly get credit for a growing church or a thriving ministry. One after the other in recent years, we’ve seen booming churches led by outsized personalities come crashing down in scandal and corruption. But what if we could let go of the idea that our faith and the church’s health depends on any human being? 

      How many statues will we have to take down, how many names will we have to take off buildings, before we get it?

     Jeremiah reminds us that when we trust in human beings — any human being — we have to live under the “curse” of spiritual malnutrition. Treating people — any person — unreservedly as a hero is asking to exist in a parched and barren world. The people we put on our pedestals, that we build memorials for and name buildings and highways after, are just people, after all. They will disappoint us sometimes. They will fail us. They will do wrong, and hero-worship will make us blind to the fact that they are fallible and that they aren’t always heroic, any more than we are. We’ll be left defending and excusing horrific behavior. It’s time to let go of the adolescent idolizing of celebrities, politicians, athletes, business leaders, and church leaders that’s rampant in our society.

      The prophet reminds us that we already have someone in whom we can trust, and that he will never fail us. We’ll never be disappointed by his sins. He’ll never overlook us or ignore us. When we trust in him we’ll never be without nourishment. What we’re looking for when we turn wrongly to our “heroes,” God will give us generously and fully. We won’t have to fear the things that cause even our heroes to wilt and dry up. 

     As Christians, we have a hero who never sinned, who never failed, who never brutalized anyone and never used power to control and manipulate. In fact, he sacrificed his life for us. He’s the one in whom we ought to trust. He should replace all our other heroes on the pedestals we’ve erected for them. 

      That will free us up also to not hate our heroes when they do let us down. We’ll see that we all have feet of clay, that there are ways in which we all need to learn and grow, and that none of us get out of this world without wreaking some havoc. We’ll be able to forgive those who let us down, and hope and pray for recovery and repentance and redemption for them.  

     As Richmond, Virginia, removes a huge statue of Robert E. Lee that’s witnessed to the persistence of the Lost Cause myths for over a century, maybe we can all learn to tap the brakes on building monuments to human beings — on our streets, in our parks, on our mountainsides, and especially in our hearts. May the only monument we raise be the cross. May our hero be Jesus. May the world see only him when they look at us. May they hear only his name on our lips. 

     If he’s our hero, we will never fail to flourish.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Curious, Not Judgmental

 Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 

     Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  

-Matthew 7:1-5 (NIV)




Lately, I’ve been watching the TV show Ted Lasso. Now, let me tell you up front that the language is rough. With a capital R-O-U-G-H. Very salty, to the extent that I hesitate to recommend the show to anyone. Having said that, it’s maybe my favorite show to watch right now. 

     Ted is an American football coach hired by Rebecca, the vindictive owner of an English Premier League football team, to get back at her horrible minority-owner ex-husband by running the team he loves into the ground. In a scene late in season one, Ted is playing darts in a pub with said ex-husband, Rupert. If Rupert wins, he can set the starting lineup for the team’s upcoming game. If Ted wins, Rupert isn’t to go anywhere near the owner’s box when Rebecca is there.

     With Rupert ahead, they come to Ted’s final turn, and he asks the pub owner what he needs to win. “Two triple-20s and a bull’s-eye,” comes the answer — three incredibly difficult shots. As Ted lines up his first toss, he says this:  

"You know, Rupert, guys have underestimated me my entire life and for years I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw a quote by Walt Whitman. It was painted on the wall, and it said, 'Be curious, not judgmental.' I like that.”

Ted throws a triple-20.

"So I get back in my car and I'm driving to work and all of a sudden it hits me. All them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out, so they judged everything and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me -- who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious, they would have asked questions. Questions like, 'Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’"

Ted throws another triple-20.

"To which I would have answered, 'Yes, sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age 10 until I was 16 when he passed away.’"

Ted then stares at the board for a second and, of course, throws a perfect bull's-eye to win.

     You know, all my life I’ve known that Jesus said we shouldn’t judge or we’d be judged. I’ve thought about that text a lot. Wrestled with it. I’ve gotten frustrated at the way church people ignore those words, and then realized that of course in getting frustrated I might be guilty of ignoring those words myself. I’ve struggled with how to call out evil for what it is — as Jesus did — without getting into the judging business. 

     What I’ve never considered, in all this time, is what I just learned from Ted Lasso (and Walt Whitman) — that the opposite of judgment is curiosity.

     That episode made me go back to the Gospels to check on how many of Jesus’ words end with question marks. Not counting rhetorical questions, here’s a partial list:

Who do you say that I am?

Do you believe?

Do you want to get well?
Why are you so afraid?

Are you going to leave?

What is written in the Law? How do you read it?

Who touched me?

Do you love me?

     Maybe you can come up with others. Now, you might argue that Jesus already knew everything he needed to know, that the questions he asked were just set pieces designed to elicit a response. I don’t know that I agree with that — there are certainly at least a few events in the Gospels that seem to surprise him. But even if that’s so, two other things are as well. One: He still asked questions.

     And, two: You and I aren’t Jesus.

     Because we aren’t, we need to ask questions. To people who haven’t come to the point of belief in Jesus, we need to ask who they think he is — and really be interested in the answer. Not so we can dismantle it and “prove” to them why they’re wrong to not believe, but so that we can understand where they are, and why. Maybe we need to ask if they believe, because maybe they do and we just haven’t seen it.

     To a sister or brother in Christ who disagrees with us about something the Bible says, let’s remember that question, “How do you read it?” Again, not so we can slam them as heretics, but so we can begin to see their point of view and understand how they got there. Maybe we’ll learn from them. Maybe they’ll learn from us. Likely both. But neither can happen if we’re so set in our judgment that we lose our curiosity.

     “Why are you afraid?” “Do you want to get well?” Those are questions that get to a person’s motivations and deepest hidden feelings. They’re much to be preferred over statements like “You can’t live in fear” or “Do what I tell you.” You ask those questions because you want to know why a person is where they are in their lives, what’s got them frozen or stumbling in the dark. Questions like those invite conversations and help us get to know one another better.

     “Who touched me?” Questions like that one help us to uncover the people in our lives who brush up against us in the crowd — people we might easily overlook or pay little attention to. We need to be willing to look with curiosity into the eyes of the people around us, wondering who they really are, what makes them tick, and why they do and value and prioritize the things they do. Much of the time, what you’ll probably find is that they aren’t as strange or repulsive or evil or unpleasant as you may have thought at first glance. You might even begin to understand them and even, as Jesus did, to like them. 

     Oh, not always. But you won’t know if you aren’t curious, genuinely curious about them. One thing’s for sure: if you’re curious about them, you’ll begin to see them as people God loves. And who knows what might happen then?

     Be curious, not judgmental. The next time you have an impulse to make a pronouncement, ask a question instead. It just might help you to see the speck in your brother’s eye and the plank in yours with greater clarity.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Good Trouble-Makers

 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. 

-Jesus, John 16:33 (NIV)



I’ve been thinking lately of a quote I heard sometime or the other by the late Congressman

John Lewis. Lewis, who served as a Representative from Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020, was a leading voice in the fight for civil rights for Black people in the 1960s. As chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helped organized the 1963 March on Washington and the first of the marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. There, Thomas suffered a fractured skull after the marchers were ordered to disperse by State Troopers and instead stopped to pray.

     Lewis continued to lead protests during his time as a Congressman, and was arrested at least three times: twice while protesting the Darfur genocide outside the Sudanese embassy, and once at a sit-in at the Capitol in support of immigration reform.

     The quote I’ve been thinking of is this one:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day a week, a month or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

     It’s hard to deny that there’s trouble in our world, our country, our city. You don’t need me to catalog all those troubles for you, I imagine. There are a lot of people in a lot of trouble. We’re all, I suppose, in some trouble. But the trouble I see in our world, most of it, is a product of our selfishness, our shortsightedness, our stubborn refusal to listen and see and care. It’s the result of corruption. It’s the result of the strong running roughshod over the weak. In my view, the trouble I see around us by and large is caused by a lack of love, a lack of grace, a lack of compassion, and a lack of will to see justice done. The trouble we have has come about because we’ve made essential things expendable and trivialized truth, honesty, kindness, peace, patience, faithfulness, and righteousness as unrealistic and unattainable. 

     It isn’t, in short, Good Trouble. 

     Good Trouble is the kind of trouble Jesus was in for when he spoke up at the house of Simon the Pharisee in defense of a woman everyone knew was “wicked.” Or when he told the religious folks of his day that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them. Or when he made them the bad guys in the parable of the tenants. Or when he drove the money-changers out of the Temple courts.

     It was Good Trouble when he ate with Zaccheaus, when he touched a leper, when he opened his mouth and said “Blessed are the poor….”

      And it was Good Trouble when he poked his nose out of his own tomb.

     Jesus made some noise. He was a troublemaker. A good troublemaker. A Good Trouble-maker.

     Maybe we forget that about him. Maybe that’s why, with exceptions here and there, the church doesn’t seem to be in the business of making Good Trouble anymore. More often we want to fit in. We become very chameleon-like, just copying the patterns and colorations of the world around us so that we don’t upset anyone. We must always own up to the fact of history that, in many of the worst atrocities our world has known, the church has been complicit, at least as the silent partner of those in power. And, still, the pressure is strong to toe the line and not make trouble. 

     Now, if when we’re opening our mouths all we’re saying are church-ified versions of the same words that have brought all this trouble on the world, then staying quiet is the right choice. But we have other words in our lexicons, Spirit-inspired words, gospel-colored words that bring healing and hope and grace. And Spirit-inspired, gospel-colored actions. And we ought to be speaking those words and doing those things and embracing the “necessary trouble” that it causes for us. 

     Good Trouble.

     The early church, I guess, hadn’t had the time we’ve had to forget that Jesus promised us trouble in this world. In Acts 17, Paul and his colleagues are in the city of Thessalonica, where they’re dragged before the city officials and accused of “caus(ing) trouble all over the world“ and “saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.”

     Would that it could be said that the church was causing trouble all over the world: 

     In Afghanistan, where a two-decade war has apparently accomplished nothing and a humanitarian crisis looms.

     In every country, where a year and a half of pandemic has destroyed lives and wasted economies that will continue to destroy lives for years to come, while politicians grandstand and use the crisis to compete for votes.

     At our borders, where human beings continue to gather to take a shot in the dark to escape from the poverty and violence that threaten their families, while the loudest voices raised cast them as villains out to destroy “our” country.

     Within our own cities and towns, where we’re mortgaging future generations to pay for our own excesses in violence and corruption, and where people of color aren’t sure they can rely on the people sworn to protect them.

     We ought to be causing trouble in those places and many others as we tell everyone who’ll hear us about another, King, Jesus, and show them what his kingdom is all about by creating among us communities of peace, service, compassion, grace, righteousness, and love. All things that will cause trouble in a world that runs on their opposites. Those who cling to power never want to hear about another king.

     If you’ve been with us on Wednesday nights, you’re familiar with Amos 5:13, where God says of the Northern kingdom of Israel, “the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” I don’t think the prophet was saying that’s what should happen, just that it was happening. It is tempting to keep quiet in evil times. I know I’ve been guilty of it. It’s just easier. Or maybe, as Rep. Lewis warned, it’s because we despair of making a difference.

     Instead of thinking how to make life easier for us and for ours, instead of being preoccupied with not making waves, what if we just accepted that being a follower of Jesus in such times will cause trouble? That, if we’re like him at all, we will be Good Trouble-makers.

     But never forget that the trouble he caused, he caused by giving himself: by serving the poor and marginalized, by loving his enemies, and even by giving his life to break the power of sin and open the door to another way, another Kingdom.

     Don’t be afraid of a little Good Trouble. Serve someone no one else is. And tell them Jesus sent you.


Friday, August 6, 2021

An Alternative to Living in Fear

 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (Jesus, John 16:33, NIV)




Fear is easy. Far too easy. 

     Let’s count the things we’re supposed to be afraid of. Violence in my city: over 1800 shootings in the first half of 2021. Maybe you’ve heard, there’s a virus going around, and misinformation about it that’s maybe even more deadly than the virus itself. Oh, and we don’t know what subsequent elections are going to bring, since a significant number of people seem to actually believe the last one was stolen (despite being one of the most scrutinized in history) and even invaded the Capitol to try to stop its approval by Congress. 

     Those are just the first three things to come to mind. In every life there are things to be afraid of. In every home, in every family, in every heart. Whether a medical issue or a lost job or a financial catastrophe or the loss of someone we love, we all feel our skin crawl and the pit in our stomachs from time to time.

     Jesus had a lot to say about fear:

“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”  

“Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” 

“Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

“Do not be afraid…for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”  

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you….Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Sorry, my mistake. Jesus really only had one thing to say about being afraid.

     Don’t.

     I know, I know. Easier said than done, right? I don’t mean to come off as sounding dismissive of your fears. I don’t mean to trivialize what you might be going through in your life. And I certainly don’t mean to sit here and pretend that I’ve never felt fear. More importantly, I don’t think Jesus means to do any of that either. 

     Jesus was facing a cross when he said those things: a very public, very painful, very fatal ordeal. To manufacture some steely-eyed, fearless action hero who ain’t got time to bleed out of Jesus is to take away his humanity and, by the way, drift into heretical waters. Scripture is clear that Jesus was fully human, and that his humanity is the basis for our hope. 

     What I think Jesus was getting at, more or less, is that we can’t let fear drive the bus. Fear — that feeling of unease and dread in the face of the unpleasant, unexpected, and unknown, that fight or flight reflex — it’s baked into all of us as human beings. Like all of our feelings, fear is part of how we’re made. And, by the way, it can serve some very useful purposes. It can make us hyperaware of dangerous surroundings and immediate threats. It can increase our reaction times in potentially harmful situations, making us ready to lash out in self-defense or run away. It even keeps us out of some of those potentially harmful situations to begin with. Fear is a great servant. It’s just a terrible master.

     In telling us not to be afraid, he wasn’t giving us the impossible command to never feel fear. He was telling us that fear shouldn’t drive our values and priorities.

     Look again at what Jesus says about fear. He tells us not to be so afraid of those who can at the worst hurt us physically that we don’t obey God when push comes to shove. He encourages us not to be afraid by reminding us of how much we matter to God. He reassures us that God has given us a share in his Kingdom, and so we don’t have to be afraid and anxious over what and how much we have. He has left us peace, he says, and so we should anchor our lives in that peace instead of allowing fear to blow us around.

     The bottom line is this: We can choose to let fear lead us, or we can choose to live by faith in a God who loves us and is faithful to us and will bring us through whatever we might be afraid of.  

     A couple of things that doesn’t mean. First, it doesn’t mean that we should ignore dangers. It doesn’t mean that the threats and difficulties in our world are inconsequential. It isn’t fearful to wear a mask and get vaccinated or to try to improve the environment any more than it’s fearful to call 911 in a medical emergency or if you see a prowler in your neighborhood. Don’t act out of fear. But don’t ignore that there are fearful things that happen in our world, and don’t neglect to do what you can to help ease the fear around you.

     It doesn’t mean that we should judge others for acting out of fear. Every human being panics a little from time to time. When someone is living in fear and acting out of fear, they sometimes say and do things that they aren’t very proud of. Fight or flight, remember? If you’re honest with yourself, you can probably relate to that. What that person needs from you in that moment is not judgment, but a clear-eyed peace firmly grounded in Jesus. They need to see that there’s another way to respond to fearful moments. They’re sinking because they’re looking around at the storm too much. They need you to help them refocus on Jesus.    

     I remember my son’s first experience with the ocean. He was 3, I think, and though I think by then he had been in Lake Michigan, he had never seen the ocean. He was fearless. He went splashing right into the biggest body of water he’d ever seen. We were trying to keep him from going too far, but if we weren’t there I think he would have waded out until it was over his head and then doggy-paddled until he was exhausted. 

     Then a wave broke that was big enough to knock him down. We weren’t more than a few steps from the beach, but down he went, all the way under. For a second, I couldn’t see him, but I reached down and grabbed him and lifted him up. He came out of the water coughing, rubbing his eyes — and laughing. I thought that might end the ocean experiment, but it didn’t. He showed no fear, and I think the reason is obvious. His father was there to grab him.

     That’s how you keep from letting fear control you. When you feel it, acknowledge it. And then look around and find the hand of God reaching out for you. Let him lift you and hold you firm, and know that there is literally nothing you need to live in fear of. Rest in his peace, then face the dangers of life with the courage he gives you.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Why I Got the Vaccine (and I Think You Probably Should Too)

 I read this week about Stephen Harmon, who was a brother in Christ from Corona, California. I hope and expect that I might run into him in the New Jerusalem someday. Sadly, I won’t get to meet him here.

     Stephen died last week from COVID-19, like 4 million other human beings in the world over the last year and a half. Stephen, of course, died in a place and time in which he could have been vaccinated against the disease. It was his choice — and of course never should have been anyone else’s — to not be vaccinated.

     Stephen’s death attracted some media attention, I think, because of his faith and his outspokenness against being vaccinated. Seems like there was no small amount of schadenfreude in the coverage, to be honest. I don’t wish to pile on, or to reduce him to a caricature. To the extent that this might do so, I apologize. I can’t imagine the pain his family and friends and church are feeling. I didn’t know Stephen, and have no right to sit in judgement on him, nor any interest in doing so. 

     But I think I should say something about this.

     In the hospital, three days before his death, Stephen tweeted, “If you don’t have faith that God can heal me over your stupid ventilator then keep the Hell out of my ICU room, there’s no room in here for fear or lack of faith!” He seemed to equate treatment for COVID with fear and/or lack of faith. Six weeks earlier he had tweeted adapted Jay-Z lyrics: “I got 99 problems, but a vax ain’t one.” Before he got sick, he shared memes that he trusted the Bible over Dr. Anthony Fauci; the fact that he seemed to think that a person couldn’t do both is troubling and discouraging. He tweeted earlier this month, “Biden’s door to door vaccine ‘surveyors’ really should be called JaCovid Witnesses. #keepmovingdork.” 

     Listen, I believe as strongly as anyone that God can heal COVID, or cancer, or high blood pressure, or presbyopia. Still, I wear reading glasses.

     And I take medication for high blood pressure.

     And I got the COVID-19 vaccine as early as I possibly could. 

     I got vaccinated in February. I don’t believe I’ve told even one person since then that they should definitely get the vaccine. That’s a choice you should make in consultation with your doctor. But that’s just the thing — I also read this post last week by an Alabama doctor. In it, she writes about the things her patients who are dying of COVID say; that they read a post or a meme or heard something from someone they trusted that kept them from getting the vaccine. This doctor asks them, “Did you ever talk to your personal physician about whether or not to get it?” 

    She says that not one of them has told her that they did.

     So it’s your choice, but get the right advice. Not just partisan political statements or conspiracy theories or your second cousin’s pastor at The Church of Our Lady of the Aluminum Foil Hat. The right advice will come from someone who knows you and has a medical degree. The right advice will come from someone who ideally has treated you before and will know your medical history and will be able to advise you well. You won’t find it in some long-discredited social media post. It won’t be cute, it won’t be funny, and it won’t have a political agenda behind it. But it will be good advice from a doctor sworn to take care of your health and educated for that purpose.

     And, now, please hear me when I say this —

     Maybe you have good reasons for not getting vaccinated (though according to the medical community good reasons are few and far between). If your only reason for not getting the vaccine is that you think it means that you don’t have faith in God, then you do not have a good reason for not getting the vaccine. 

    I didn’t stop praying after I got the vaccine. I didn’t get the vaccine because I had a sudden crisis of faith that God could protect me from the virus. It seems that, most of the time, God works with our efforts. He usually doesn’t just miraculously feed the hungry. He doesn’t generally just implant the gospel in the minds and hearts of people. He doesn’t normally just instantaneously heal people with cancer. He could do those things. Apparently he does, from time to time. But mostly he works through people. 

     Caleb asked God to give him some hill country in Canaan — then he went out and took the hill country. David declined Saul’s armor before his fight with Goliath — but he did stop to pick up some rocks for his sling (and not just one rock). When Cornelius needed to hear about Jesus, God sent Peter to him. When Jesus wanted to feed the hungry, he asked the Twelve (and a boy with a boxed lunch) to take care of it. 

     James tells the elders of his community to “pray over” a sick person “and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” He says, “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” Anointing with oil was a standard treatment for many illnesses in James’ time. (Think of the way the Good Samaritan treated the man’s injuries on the road to Jericho.) Prayer, of course, asks God to heal. Does God heal through the prayer, or through the treatment? Isn’t the answer to that question, “Yes”?

     So why should it be tough to imagine that he might work through researchers and doctors and nurses and the vaccine they created (in a miraculous time frame) and administer to protect us from COVID?

     When that nurse stuck that first needle in my arm, I said “thank you” to God for the researchers who had worked so long and hard to develop it, for the government that paid for it and rolled it out, and for the medical people who until then had been treating so many people for so long without a vaccine. But I thanked God because I believe he was behind it all.

     And I want you to know why I got that vaccine. I got it because I wanted to be able to help take care of my community. I wanted to be able to minister to my church and not put them in danger. I wanted to be a responsible member of my community and contribute to its recovery. I wanted to be less likely to pass the virus on to someone whose health was already compromised. I wanted to give that virus one less host in whom it could mutate and become even more deadly. 

     None of this makes me a hero. It’s what’s expected when you're a part of a society. It’s part of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. 

     I can imagine someone who reads this getting mad at me right about here. Please just ask yourself: “What has he said that I disagree with?”

     Talk to your doctor. Discuss it with people whose spiritual judgment you trust. Pray. Then do what God leads you to do. And if you live close to us, you can register here to get your vaccine this Saturday.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Why Baptism Matters


     We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or 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….

     In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign  in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires..

-Romans 6:2-7, 11-12 (NIV)



Please forgive me for saying so, but baptism is kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?

     Oh, I still believe more or less what I was taught since I was a child: that baptism is important, that it “washes away sins” and connects us with Jesus and that it’s the place where the Holy Spirit descends on us like that dove did Jesus in the Jordan River. I’m definitely on board with the concept.

     It’s the execution of it that can be a little embarrassing.

     First of all, baptism usually necessitates a clothing change. Awkward. Then there’s the whole thing of dunking someone in a tank of water. (No one ever looks photo-ready when they first come up.) Not to mention that it has always seemed to me to be a little…anticlimactic. It’s a big moment, the culmination of maybe years of faith development and then, on the chosen Sunday — splash — it’s over in just a few minutes, counting the wardrobe change.

    In my last post, I mentioned an editorial by former Christianity Today managing editor Mark Galli, in which he suggests that baptism and communion — two things that Jesus explicitly tells us to do — have lost their importance in many segments of Christianity. He suggests that part of the reason for that is the discomfort I refer to above: outsiders, and, increasingly, even Christians, see baptism as too weird. We don’t see that it has much meaning to visitors. We even wonder what such a strange tradition should mean to us

     Galli goes on to suggest that baptism and communion are important precisely because they make us turn from contemplating our own feelings. He writes: 

“Rather than encouraging us to ponder the feelings that are going on inside us, the sacraments require us, however briefly, to focus on God and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.”

     I think that this might actually be the heart of the matter.  It seems to me that Christians today tend to think that what happens in a worship service is only significant and meaningful if it excites us, fires us up, fills us with joy and determination and peace. But is it really true that nothing of significance has happened when we’re together as the church unless we’re all feeling something?

    Look at Romans 6:1-12, for example. Paul has been wrestling with a conundrum, or at least what some people might perceive as a conundrum: if we’re saved by God’s love and grace, not by things we do to put ourselves in his favor, then where’s the incentive to live a godly life? He’s just written, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more”; so why not “remain in sin so that grace may increase?” There was probably no one who’d actually say that out loud, but some of Paul’s stricter critics were likely suggesting that as the logical outcome of his theology. If God really does save us by pouring out as much grace as necessary to forgive our sins, then what motivates us to change our lives?

     In answer, Paul points to our baptism.

     Baptism reminds us of some things we should know. Baptism is sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection: just like him, our old selves — the selves “ruled by sin” — have been done away with so that we can live a new life, a resurrected life in which we’re “set free from sin” and live to God as well. So you don’t offer yourself to sin; instead, you offer yourself to God as an “instrument of righteousness.”

     These are all things you should know, Paul says, from your baptism. You may feel at a given moment as though sin has control of you; your baptism should assure you that it does not. You may feel sometime as though you can’t be an instrument of righteousness; your baptism should tell you that you can. It may feel like you’re the same old person; baptism speaks a louder word that you are not. Baptism makes you turn from your subjective feelings of the moment to an assurance that is beyond you and outside you.

     But it’s not just about what you know, is it? Go back through those first verses of Romans 6 and notice that some things happened at baptism — not things you did, but things God did. The verbs tell the story: we were united with Christ. We were raised with Christ. We were set free from sin. We died to sin. Baptism reminds us of some things that we should know, but it also assures us of some things that have been done to us and for us. This is why baptism is a sacrament, not just an ordinance: it assures us of what God has done for us in Christ.

     We ask the wrong question, I think, when we ask if a person can be saved without baptism. What we ought to be asking is, “Do you ever need assurance of your salvation?” If the answer to that question is Yes — and I think every believer who’s honest would have to admit that at times they’ve needed assurance — then why would you not be baptized? 

     There will be times when your feelings will not line up with what’s true. That’s not a knock on feelings; God has made us feeling as well as thinking creatures, and feelings are an essential part of being human. But try to operate off feelings alone and you’ll find yourself grasping in the dark for anything that will make you feel the way you think you should.   

     When you’re in doubt about God’s love for you, let your baptism remind you that you’re united with Jesus. When you’re afraid of death, let it comfort you with the certainty that you’ll live with Christ. When the easy shortcut beckons, remember from your baptism that God has made you in Jesus an instrument of righteousness. When you’ve sinned, find hope in your baptism that you’ve died with Jesus to sin’s power and that you’re not its slave anymore.

     Baptism reminds us of who we are and what God has done for us. As strange as it might seem, it matters.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Why Baptism and Communion Matter (and Why We Seem to Think They Don't)

      Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

-Matthew 28:19 (NIV)


     This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.

-1 Corinthians 11:24-25 (NIV)




As I write this, I’m reminded of an old joke.

     There was a preacher who, every Sunday, preached on baptism. The correct theology of it, the correct practice of it, encouraging his hearers to be baptized: Every Sunday this guy was hammering baptism.

     The elders of the church had spoken to him about it a couple of times. They told him that they also appreciated the importance of baptism, but that there were also other issues and struggles that the church needed to hear him speak about. They couldn’t seem to get through to him; every Sunday the subject of his sermon continued to be baptism.

     Finally, they came up with an idea. They told him that, going forward, they’d be assigning his lesson text each week. He was free to handle it as God led him, but he must base his sermons on the text they’d assign him. The following week’s lesson, they told him, would be on the Creation story.

     So Sunday morning came, and the preacher stepped into the pulpit. “I’ll be preaching this morning from the Creation story. The text is Genesis 1:1-2: 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty,  darkness was over the surface of the deep,  and the Spirit of God  was hovering  over the waters.

     Then, giving the congregation a long look, and especially the elders, he hammered a fist on the pulpit and said, “Which brings me to my subject this morning…”


     OK, yes, that’s kind of a long way to go for a joke that’s not that funny. But, coming as I do from a church tradition that can find baptism in most any biblical text, it always kind of makes me chuckle. 

     A couple of years ago, while he was still Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today, and as dialed in to trends in the evangelical Christian world as anyone, Mark Galli wrote an editorial called Whatever Happened to Communion and Baptism? He included some anecdotal evidence that “[baptism and communion] are in a profoundly low state in many areas of evangelical church life.”

     He cited large megachurches in which communion “is something that is presented during the offering, at a small table holding crackers and juice on the side aisles for those who feel so led to partake. Sometimes this is accompanied by the words of institution, but sometimes it is not.”

     He mentioned his experience at his own church, which attracts many students from a prominent evangelical university nearby. He talked about how so many of these students — “no doubt some of the most earnest, devout, and intelligent young believers in the evangelical world” have not been baptized. “One would have thought that their churches would have attended to this matter long before they left home for college,” he says.

     Again, anecdotal evidence, to be sure. But I suspect he’s not far off in his assessment that the sacraments (or ordinances, if you prefer) of baptism and communion are seriously neglected in some parts of the Christian world. I think there are numerous reasons for this. One is that both rites would be perceived as a turnoff to unbelievers, that non-Christians who might be in the service would feel disconnected and out of the loop if they had to sit through them. That takes for granted, of course, that a church’s worship assembly should be treated primarily as an entry point for non-Christians. I’m not convinced, myself.

     But, I suspect, that another large problem with the observance of communion and baptism is that they’re considered by many Christians to be meaningless. And apparently to many Christian leaders, else they might say more about their significance. I think the struggle here is that so many Christians think that what happens in a worship service is only significant and meaningful if it makes us “feel all the feels.” If it doesn’t make me teary or fluttery or give me goosebumps or a shot of adrenaline, then nothing real happened.

     Galli makes the point, and I think it’s a great one, that baptism and communion are important precisely because they make us turn from contemplating our own feelings. He writes:  

“We are required to look outside ourselves, to the physical means by which Christ blesses his people. Rather than encouraging us to ponder the feelings that are going on inside us, the sacraments require us, however briefly, to focus on God and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.”

     We spend lots of time every week thinking about how we feel. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper or share in a person’s baptismal moment, we remember Christ’s death and his resurrection as the means of our own salvation.

     Now, I’m part of a church that continues to emphasize baptism; in fact, we see in Scripture that the moment of conversion to Christ and the moment of baptism are usually (though not always) entangled. We’ve even been accused of believing that baptism itself saves us; we don’t, but it illustrates how closely we hold baptism and salvation together. 

     We also continue to share in communion every week. We see in our Bibles — a little too woodenly, perhaps — a reason to believe that the early church considered weekly communion important. 

     Still, the fact that we practice both baptism and communion doesn’t guarantee that we don’t fall victim to the same sorts of problems as churches that disregard them entirely. Starting next week, I’ll make some suggestions about first baptism and then communion: How can we continue to observe both of these theologically and historically important acts in ways that cause us to “look outside ourselves” and fix our eyes on Jesus?

     May the acts of baptism and communion — acts that have blessed our spiritual ancestors for two thousand years — continue to be seen as a blessing by us as well.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Life is What Happens to Us

 A person plans his course,

but the LORD directs his steps. 

-Proverbs 16:9 (NET)




This year, I’ve gotten interested in a British TV show called Car SOS. Each week the show’s hosts, Fuzz Townshend and Tim Shaw, restore a broken-down, rusting-away classic car to factory condition for unknowing owners. The cars are chosen when friends or family of the owner contact the show. The stories are unique, but there’s a theme that runs through every episode: owner loves the car, has always intended to restore it, but circumstances have prevented it. Those circumstances are almost always a medical problem, the medical problem of a spouse or family member that has made the car owner primary caregiver, financial problems, grief and trauma, or some combination. Tim and Fuzz, with family’s or friends’ help, take the car away to their shop, spend a few weeks getting parts, repairing it, and restoring it to like-new condition, and then return it to the owner in a dramatic moment. 

     I really like seeing the cars, many of them not very common at all or never sold in the US. I’ve learned a little bit about how a car works. But the main thing I’ve taken away is best summed up by a quote I’ve heard all my life: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

     Haven’t you found that to be the case? How many people do you know who are working in a field far-removed from what they studied in college? How many do you know who have changed careers, gone back for another degree, or started their own business? 

     Do you live where you thought you’d be living when you were a kid and pictured the future? 

     Know anyone who swore they’d never get married or have kids, and they’re now taking care of bustling families? Or how about the reverse: Do you know anyone who always intended to get married and have a family, but never found that one they thought they were meant to be with? 

     I’ve done a lot of weddings and counseled a lot of couples; no one gets married intending to get divorced in a few years. No one thinks that they’ll be dealing with financial issues, or a child with a medical problem or substance abuse problem. No one plans to be financially unable to retire. 

     No one plans to contract cancer or some chronic medical problem. And no one planned to spend 2020 basically in their houses.  

     I’ve lived in my neighborhood for over 27 years. As long as I’ve been here, at least once a week I guess I’ve seen a woman and her son. Years ago, they walked together down the sidewalk, her holding his arm to help guide and steady him. In more recent years I’ve seen him on a three-wheeled bike, pedaling while she walks beside him and keeps a hand on the handlebars, helping him steer. The son’s obviously disabled in a profound way, growing physically but, it seems, not much mentally. She’s starting to get older now. He’s in his 30s. She clearly loves her son and is determined to care for him, and I admire her for it. But, I guarantee you, as a young woman looking ahead and imagining what her life would be, she never pictured this.

     An old Yiddish proverb comes to mind: a good English translation would be “People make plans, and God laughs.” Sometimes it seems so, but I don’t think I see God that way. That saying suggests that God frustrates human plans intentionally, in a capricious way, just to sort of entertain himself. Maybe that’s reading more into it than is intended, but it’s hard for me to imagine the God who sent Jesus, the God of the Bible, laughing as he maliciously frustrates the plans of that mother in my neighborhood faithfully loving her son just to prove a point.

     I think maybe the biblical Proverb above is better: “A person plans his course, but the LORD directs his steps.”

     The Proverb doesn’t suggest that it’s wrong or arrogant or pointless to plan your course. I mean, one way to react to the tendency of life to take us in unexpected directions is to expect nothing, plan nothing. That strikes me as careless, directionless, and just not very smart. “People make plans,” the Proverb says. That’s what we do. It’s spoken of like that because it’s a characteristic of human beings that we can all relate to. We keep calendars and save money and plan for college and retirement. We plot out the path we intend to take through life. That self-awareness and intentionality about our lives is part of what makes us human. 

     But. It’s not wise to see those plans as final. James takes issue with people who make plans without recognizing that those plans depend on “the Lord’s will.” “You don’t even know what will happen tomorrow,” he says. “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” So when we make our plans, we should understand — and maybe even say out loud sometimes — that our plans are only provisional. The final right of approval or disapproval is the Lord’s, and we must bow to his will.

     We have to admit, don’t we, that it isn’t always a bad thing when our plans don’t come to fruition. Can’t we all think of intentions that we’ve had that were, at best, ill-advised? Plans that might have been disastrous? God doesn’t frustrate our plans just because he can. When he does, it’s because he has something better in mind for us. Or it’s because he sees something that we don’t. Or it’s because he has need of us to go somewhere or do something that our plans weren’t taking into account.

     The LORD directs our steps. When you see “LORD” written like that in the Bible, it’s because the word used there is the name God revealed to Israel when he made a covenant with him. Through faith in Jesus, we are included in that covenant. So let that word remind you that God is faithful, that he can be trusted with the most sacred plans you make for your life. That he loves you. That he’s with you in whatever direction your life takes. That however your plans may change, he never will.   

      If life is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans, then maybe life’s greatest blessings are to be found, not in everything working out just like we intended it, but rather in seeing how God has been faithful to us through the unexpected twists, turns, and blind alleys.  

     The Psalmist reminds us that “[God’s] word is a lamp  for my feet, a light  on my path.” (Psalm 119:105) God can be trusted. He leads us and directs us through the gospel of Jesus, through revelation, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. He’ll shine light on your way, no matter how twisty the road gets.

     So plan your course, by all means. But don’t forget to let him direct your steps.