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Friday, April 16, 2021

On Some Bad Assumptions After a Bad Week

      When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

-Nehemiah 1:4 (NIV)




I’ve had one of those weeks when I kind of wish there was no internet.

     Early in the week, video came to light of Caron Nazario, a black Latino army officer in uniform, being pepper-sprayed by white police officers in Virginia as he returned home from duty. The officers had guns pointed at him, he had his hands out of the window of his vehicle, and they sprayed him anyway. Seemingly because he said he was afraid to get out of the car. He was being pulled over for not having license plates on his new vehicle, though temporary tags were clearly visible.

     Just a few miles from the Derek Chauvin trial, another white Minnesota police officer shot a black man, Daunte Wright, dead because she thought she had pulled out her Taser instead.

     Later in the week, I saw video of a white man in South Carolina, a big guy, telling a black teenager, not much more than a boy, who seems to be just walking down the sidewalk to “walk away” and that he’s “in the wrong neighborhood." Threatening him, looming over him, intimidating, telling him that his neighborhood is “a nice neighborhood” and that “we look out for each other here.” It seems pretty clear what his definitions of the words “nice” and “we” consist of.

     And then, yesterday, video was released in Chicago of the shooting death of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino, by a white Chicago police officer in an alley in the middle of the night. Descriptions of the video were that Adam had a gun when he was shot. So a lot of us were shocked when the video showed Adam turning toward the officer with his hands raised over his head as the officer puts a bullet in his chest.    

     It’s hard to watch a 13-year-old kid die in a dark alley in my city.

     I know, he was out in the middle of the night and he had a gun. I know, the teenager in South Carolina could have been doing something. I know, Daunte Wright tried to drive away from police. I know, Caron Nazario could have pulled over more quickly -- though just maybe you can understand his desire to drive to a well-lit place first. 

     I’ve had some pushback when I’ve written about things like this. That’s OK, I don’t want to make this about me. I’m certainly not above criticism. I do, however, wonder if people who have found fault with something or the other I’ve written about racism are aware of certain assumptions that they’re making. 

     I’ve been accused of hating white people. Well, quite to the contrary, the people I love most in the world are white people. But, that aside: To say that we have a problem in our country with racism is not hatred of white people in general. Paul asked the Galatians if he had become their enemy by telling them the truth; not to compare myself to Paul, but sometimes I’ve wondered the same. I’ve been told that there are good white people, that I should say more about what good white people do. There are. And I do. But, listen to me very carefully here: not being racist doesn’t make a person good. Not being racist makes a person…what they ought to be. If you don’t treat a person unjustly because of their skin color, that doesn’t make you a paragon of virtue. That’s just square one of being human. 

      White people need to get over the idea that if someone tells us that racism exists and that we benefit from it, that’s hatred. It isn’t. Hatred is what we’ve seen in some of those body cam videos. Hatred is that big guy using his size and strength to demean, intimidate, and threaten a teenaged boy for walking through his neighborhood. Hatred is what generations of people of color in America have lived with from their masters, their employers, their neighbors, and those sworn to protect them.

     To say that I and other white people in America have benefited from racism is not hatred of either white people or America. To say it is to believe that we can be better. It’s an act of faith in God, who helps us to repent of past sins and transforms us through the power of the Holy Spirit. To say it is an act of faith that people can change, and that they can change systems and structures. To say it is an act of faith that in Jesus our past failures don’t have to define our futures.

     A word about repentance: I’ve been told emphatically, “I don’t see color.” I’ve had people passionately tell me that they aren’t racist and have never been racist and so have nothing to apologize for. I’ve written already about the “I don’t see color” fallacy. And, you know what, I wouldn’t disagree with the people I know who have told me that they aren’t racist. But all of us are part of a culture that has allowed racism to take hold and thrive and bear the fruit that we see too often in our newsfeeds. Perhaps we’re too quick to give ourselves a pass, to absolve ourselves of responsibility. Are we willing to listen when people of color tell us of their experiences, or do we discount what they’re saying? Does a crowd protesting racism deserve less consideration, in our minds, than union members demonstrating against unfair labor practices or a largely white crowd demonstrating against a state government’s pandemic measures?

     Have we heard the stories that many people of color know well, but many white people have no understanding and maybe no knowledge of. What do you know about the Tulsa Massacre? The murder of Eugene Williams and the 1919 riots in Chicago — or the bigger picture of the Red Summer of 1919? What do you know about the practice of redlining, or the effects of gentrification, or the generational wealth lost in communities of color due to housing discrimination and unfair lending practices? It’s OK if you don’t know about them. But we can inform ourselves, and should before we have much to say about race in America.

     In any case, the big question isn’t “What’s my level of responsibility for the existence of racism?” The big question is, “What’s my level of responsibility for bringing it to an end?” Repentance, of course, always has an eye on the future. We can repent of societal evil: see Nehemiah’s prayer, where he repents of sins committed before he was born! We can determine that we will do what we can and use the influence we have to change things for the better. 

     I’ve been told that to write or speak about such things is to “reopen old wounds.” It’s easy to talk about “old wounds” if you’re not the one who’s wounded. Many people of color will tell you that their wounds have never healed. That they’re torn open again and again by repeated injustice, that they’re prodded every time another person of color dies or is injured or mocked or threatened in a grainy cell phone or security camera video. Many will gladly tell us about new wounds, if we’ll listen. To speak of these experiences as “old wounds” is to minimize the damage that the sin of racism does to it victims — and to its perpetrators. 

     It doesn’t matter if you agree with me. I’ve never said anything that I didn’t wish I could say more compellingly, more eloquently, more correctly. I know that I’ve been wrong before, and will be again, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been wrong in ways that I don’t even know about. But please don’t ignore the videos that seem to be everywhere. They’re not wrong. Please don’t ignore the voices of people of color trying to tell you what they’ve been living — and sometimes not — all their lives. They’re not wrong. 

     May God lead us to a new day.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Another Easter on the Road



How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?
-Luke 24:25-26



You could see it in their stooped shoulders, in the dark circles under their eyes, in the lines of worry on their foreheads and in the downturned corners of their mouths. You could see it in the shuffling way they walked, in their grave expressions and subdued gestures.

      You could hear it, too, in their vocabulary: “They crucified him, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. They had dared to imagine that God was going to bring about the long-anticipated freedom of Israel through Jesus. Whatever aspirations these two had - nationalistic, religious, political, economic - whatever aspirations they had were bound up with him. Tied to his fate. A week earlier, as crowds welcomed him to Jerusalem with waving palm branches and shouts of “Save now,” it must have seemed to them that all those hopes were on the verge of fulfillment. 
     Today, they're entombed with the body of their friend and teacher. Today their hearts are as empty as his tomb apparently is.
     “We had hoped.” I imagine you've walked where they walked. Bet you've even said the words, haven't you?
“I had hoped the treatment would give him a few more good years.”
“I had hoped we could work out our problems.”
“I had hoped to keep my job a little longer.”
“I had hoped to pay off this debt by now.”
“I had hoped I could reconcile with my child.”
     To live in this world is to travel roads that turn unexpectedly, that traverse places you'd rather not go, and that seem to end abruptly in places that were never your intended destination. It's really a testament to the human capacity for hope that we keep getting disappointed; it's such a common part of our lives that you'd think at some point if would stop surprising us. But surprise us it does, and when it hits us in the gut and leaves us gasping for breath, one of the first things we'll always wheeze out is that, often against all odds, we had hoped.
     Last year around this time, I wrote this
     “Rarely does something new come without trauma. That’s what unrelenting positivity sometimes overlooks. To get to Passover, Egyptians died. Egyptian parents, wives, and children mourned for the rest of their lives. As the Israelites praised God for leading them out of slavery, many Egyptians must have wondered what kind of God does that at the expense of so many lives.
     “To get to Easter, you have to go through Good Friday. “

     I wrote that when, I think, most of us still hoped that by this Easter, we’d be able to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection all together in our church buildings. That we’d be able to hide Easter eggs and have lunch with family and friends. Things are better, but we aren’t there yet. Some of us can be together, and that’s great and we’ll enjoy it, but inevitably some will still be missing. Some can’t be out yet due to their own poor health or the poor health of people they live with. Some will be missing due to other struggles that might have nothing to do with the pandemic. And there are some, of course, who have passed on since last Easter. We’ve spent our last one with them.
     It’s understandable if dashed hopes send us back home, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus. Whatever the reason they might have been going to Emmaus, one thing is clear: the disciples are in Jerusalem. The text doesn’t say it explicitly, but it certainly looks like they’ve given up. To be honest, it’s understandable. What’s left for them? The disciples were all around because Jesus was; now that he’s gone, what’s the point? Might as well go somewhere else. There are lots of other roads to walk.
     What do you do when hope is all in the past tense – when your present is bleak and your future nonexistent? One of the options, surely, is to give up hope, even to curse God. Who's to say that, pushed so far, they wouldn't do exactly the same? Not a claim I can make with complete confidence.
     There is an alternative. But it's not intuitive. It's not one that we can come up with on our own.
     It involves a change of heart, a widening of vision, and it requires the intervention of someone who sees things from a higher vantage point. “What are you discussing together?” a stranger asks the two discouraged disciples. And they tell him. They tell him about Jesus, and they tell him about their hopes, and they tell him about the cross and the tomb. But their hopes are so far gone that not even the fact that his tomb was found empty that morning can retrieve them. That's why they need him.
     That's why we need him too; without him, our ruined hopes are overwhelming. Jesus reminds these two disciples that nothing that has happened is outside the boundaries of what God has already said must happen. “Foolish,” he calls them, “slow to believe,” because they should have realized that God's plans would not be derailed by something as trivial as a cross and a sealed tomb. They should have recognized that God wouldn't leave them alone to pick up the pieces of shattered hopes.
     It takes a while, but finally their eyes are opened and they recognize the One who has been with them all this time. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?!” they exclaim to each other.
     All it takes is resurrection.
     Today is Easter, the day when the church especially recalls that Jesus' tomb was empty. But if today looks a little more bleak than Easter should, if it's hard for you to hear the shouts of “He is risen!” because of the incessant thumping of “I had hoped” in your heart, then I want this to be more than the usual Easter for you. I pray that it will be a day when you come face to face with the risen Lord. I hope that he will open the Scriptures for you and help you to see that your lost hopes do nothing to derail the work of God in your life, and even that sometimes lost hope is necessary so that you will have room for the new hopes he wants to give you. I pray today that you will recognize him as he breaks the bread, hear the reassurance of the church that Jesus is alive, and that your heart will be set aflame again with hope, joy, anticipation, and excitement.
      Jesus is risen, and that means that there is no place where God is not, no lost hope that cannot be restored or replaced, no discouragement that cannot be transformed into anticipation. Jesus is risen, and that means that sickness, sin, and death are defeated. Jesus is risen, and that means he walks with us in our discouragement and reminds us of the hope that because he lives, we live too. Jesus is risen, and in his empty tomb we see beyond a shadow of a doubt that wherever the road you travel might take you, he is never more than a step away. Jesus is risen. So hope lives, too.



Friday, March 26, 2021

The Foreigners Among You

      When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

— Leviticus 19:33 (NIV) 




Xiao Zhen Xie was attacked last week as she walked near 7th and Market in San Francisco. It happened in broad daylight, at around 10 AM. A man later identified as Steven Jenkins hit her 83-year-old companion and then her before fleeing. He was quickly caught and arrested. The attack left her with a swollen eye that she can’t see out of. It left her companion, Knoc Pham, with a broken nose and neck fractures. The attack was unprovoked, and a possible racial motive is being investigated.
     After the attack was reported nationally, someone started a GoFundMe to help with Zhen Xie’s medical bills and other expenses. Money started pouring in, and earlier this week the fund had accumulated nearly a million dollars. That’s encouraging. 

     You know what’s even more encouraging?

     Zhen Xie has refused the money. She is insistent that it be given to the Asian American community to combat racism, her family says."She insists on making this decision saying this issue is bigger than her," an update on the GoFundMe page read. "This is my grandma, grandpa, and our family’s decision. We hope everyone can understand our decision.”

     I think everyone does understand. We understand unselfishness when we see it. We understand a determination to not be made bitter and hateful after experiencing something so reprehensible. We understand when a person can see beyond their own pain to an opportunity to perhaps make a difference to someone else who’s suffering. We understand the difference it makes when someone sees herself as part of a larger community. 

     There are those in our country — hopefully few — who’ll tell you that immigrants are nothing but a drain on our resources. There are those in the church — hopefully even fewer — who’ll say it. Sometimes those attitudes even produce violence. As we look at the real issues going on at our southern border, at overwhelmed workers doing their best to deal with an untenable situation, some who would never say such things or act violently might wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to not have to cope with immigrants at all. They might wonder if it’s worth it.

     Zhen Xie gave away life-changing money. Clearly she didn’t come to America looking to get something for nothing. She gave it away to help the larger community because she wanted to contribute something to the city and nation that she calls home now. I have no idea what her citizenship or status are. She’s an American in the ways that matter, the ways that count.

     I hope you have the privilege of knowing a lot of immigrant families. I do. Immigrant families live in my neighborhood. They’re part of my church. Can I tell you about a few?

     There’s the husband and wife whose son died of COVID last year. She posted recently, “The more time passes the more I miss you son. It's a lie that time heal wounds. Simply with God's help you learn to live with pain.” Every day she posts prayers, Scripture, and encouragement for others as she learns with God’s help to survive and carry on. Her hope and faith shame me and strengthen me and show me how to trust God more completely.

     There are three of the guys I serve with as elders and ministers, three of the best guys I know. They’re devoted to the Lord, the church, their families, and their communities. I know very well what that devotion often costs them. They serve with compassion, with joy, with love, and with faith. Much of what I know about ministry and pastoral care I’ve learned from them.

     There’s another guy at my church who came to the US from a refugee camp in Guinea. He’s never expected help, but is always gracious and thankful if he receives it. He works hard and his contribution to the life of the church can’t be overstated. He has urged us for years to be mindful of others in faraway parts of the world who are in the situation he was blessed to be saved from.

     There’s the guy who came to the US to work so that he could send money back to the church that he planted in his home country. A church that his wife and children are tending to there while he lives here. He misses them deeply. What a sacrifice.

     And there’s the guy who’s come to my city to work for the Illinois Department of Health on COVID. His family is in another state; he’s only able to see them occasionally. He’s recently filed a waiver that would allow him to be fast-tracked for permanent residency since he has “exceptional ability” and is working “in the national interest.” He does, and he is, and we’re better because he’s here. I’m privileged to be able to pray for immigration officials to look favorably on his application.

     The thing is, I could go on and on. I could name many more without even straining, many more people who have come to American to build lives for themselves and those they care about and whom I’m better for knowing.

     God told his people in the Old Testament that they were to love the foreigners among them as they loved themselves, their own countrymen. They were supposed to be able to identify with foreigners, having been resident aliens in Egypt themselves. In fact, they were never supposed to feel like the Promised Land belonged to them: God brought them out of Egypt and gave the land to them, so they were to live there “like foreigners and strangers.”

      When the writer of Hebrews wanted a way to describe people who put their faith in God’s promises instead of what they can gain in this life, he borrowed that phrase aliens and strangers — meaning that Christians ought to be able to relate to and sympathize with the immigrants among us if for no other reason than we should  know what it’s like to be away from home.

     Maybe that’s sometimes our problem though: feeling like we’re away from home. The truth is that it’s easy to start feeling at home with our lifestyle, our standard of living, the way our neighborhood looks, our kids’ school, our property values. And then it’s easier to believe it when people in positions of power tell us that we should be afraid that these other people might take away what we love. 

     When you feel that way, remember that if our home is in heaven we have nothing to lose. That’ll let you concentrate instead on meeting all the wonderful people that could be a part of your life because they’ve come here from somewhere else.

     Trust me. You’ll feel like a million bucks.

     


Friday, March 12, 2021

What We Saw on Mulberry Street

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

— 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV) 




When I was a kid, Dr. Seuss was my jam. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was my
favorite.

     It’s true. My mom — and probably my dad — read it to me a lot. When I was able to read on my own, I read it a lot. There are still sections, to this day, that I have memorized. 

     So if you were following the news about Dr. Seuss this week, you can imagine that it sort of caught my attention.

     In case you missed it: Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the foundation which has continued publishing the good Doctor’s books after his death, announced this week that they would be pulling from publication six titles that contain images of a racist and insensitive nature. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong," Dr. Seuss Enterprises told The Associated Press in a statement. “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”

     The titles affected are If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot's Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat's Quizzer.

     Oh, and my favorite too. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street is on the list.

     Of course, the decision by a publishing company to no longer publish titles that it owns and with which it can presumably do what it wants has caused all manner of anger, cries of censorship (if so, it’s self-censorship), and long diatribes about the evils of “Cancel Culture.” To be clear: Doctor Seuss books aren’t going away. If you want to read Scrambled Eggs Super! to your kids or grandkids, no one is going to kick down your door and haul you off to some Seussian nightmare of a jail. The organization has made a decision to remove a few titles from publication after listening to feedback from teachers and parents and consulting with a panel of experts. With everything else happening in our world, it should have been a fairly minor piece of news that might have had a few people scratching their heads and wondering what about Dr. Seuss is racist. But somehow, in this polarized world, Dr. Seuss has become the latest hill to die on.

     I shouldn’t even dignify the whole thing by writing about it. But I’m already into it now.

     First of all, the anger and “outrage” over the decision is predictable. It really isn’t even about Dr. Seuss — it’s about our discomfort with a world that’s changing. Some of us, Christians included, are bumping up against the reality that “things that used to be alright” aren’t any longer. We don’t know where we stand in such a world. We don’t know how far those changes are going to go. We wonder what else that we used to do, like, read, watch, listen to, and participate in will one day be declared Not OK. Or even suffer the indignity of the dreaded cancellation. Somehow we’ve come to believe that our personal rights to have what we want, when we want, whether it bothers anyone else or not are superior to, well, everything else.

     When I read the news about Mulberry Street, I had a knee-jerk reaction that kind of went that way, “No, not Marco! Not Mulberry Street! 

     And then right after that, I remembered exactly which image is the one that’s in question. I’m not kidding; even before I read which one it was, I could see it in my mind. I might have read Mulberry Street a few times to my son, but I’m pretty sure I remembered it from when I was a kid. Which says something about how influential those books are to young readers, and why Dr. Seuss Enterprises is right to take this seriously.

     Look, the image in question doesn’t seem to be mean-spirited. You’d have to ask the Doctor about intent, and he’s not with us any longer. But it is an exaggerated caricature of an Asian person, with a bit of verse that reinforces a stereotype. I don’t think it contributed to prejudicing me against Asian people, but then again no one ever thinks they’re racist. 

     But this is the thing: What I think about Mulberry Street is irrelevant.

     This is, I think, what we don’t understand if we’ve never been part of a minority. What we think is always most important. The way we want things done is the right way. What we say is offensive is, and what we say is not offensive isn’t, and if people are offended when they shouldn’t be then they just need to have thicker skin. What we intended is what should be heard and understood, and if you hear something in a way we didn’t intend then you just didn’t understand it. I don’t mean to be a jerk. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. But it’s true. It’s the only way to explain why we can’t just hear it when someone who’s part of a minority says that something we’ve said or done is offensive. It’s the only way to explain why our knee-jerk reaction is so often to justify it and tell them why they’re wrong to be offended and even turn the blame around on them instead of just saying we’re sorry and doing what we can to remedy the situation.

     Mulberry Street, if you’ve never read it, is about a kid named Marco who’s been tasked by his dad to pay attention to what he sees on his way home from school. Thinking what he actually sees — “just a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street” (it was written in 1938) — isn’t interesting enough, Marco turns it into a huge parade. Maybe that’s a parable. Maybe we prefer not to admit what we see: that some things are insensitive, have always been insensitive, and should have been dealt with decades ago. Maybe it’s more fun for us, and less embarrassing, to create a big parade out of Cancel Culture, censorship, and faux outrage.

     I get it. I like Mulberry Street. But if an image in a kids’ book is offensive to a community of people, then I think we ought to call the plain horse and wagon what they are and get rid of that image. 

     If you’re a Christian, then I think we’d agree that we must deal with other people from an ethic of love. Let me just remind you of what Paul says about love. He says, among other things, that it’s patient. Patience is required to hear someone. He says it’s kind: What’s the kind response to this story? He says love does not boast and is not proud: In what ways does this story expose my pride? It doesn’t dishonor others — by demeaning them with an image, or by insisting that their offense at the image is misplaced. It isn’t self-seeking or easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs — so let’s drop the Cancel Culture misdirection. It doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

     Even when the truth stings a little.

     Christians, let’s not make this a thing. This isn’t about censorship or the limitation of rights or Marxism or whatever fever dream we’re taking shots at this week. This is about people trying to do a good thing by making the world a little more accepting, a little more loving for people of all races and ethnicities.

     Surely we can affirm that.      

Friday, February 26, 2021

Bearing With

     I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

— Ephesians 4:1-2 (NIV) 




Some years ago, my father-in-law told me about installing a new thermostat at church.

     There was nothing wrong with the old one, it worked just fine. And it got a workout. You can tell people must have felt right at home at this church, like they were with family. Every Sunday there was a constant stream of people sticking their heads into the area of the building where the thermostat was located to adjust the temperature. Sister Jones, who thought it needed to be set at 77. Brother Smith, who was much more comfortable at 68. Those who thought that the most important factor in deciding the thermostat setting should be cost-effectiveness (“It’s the Lord’s money!”), and those who thought that the Lord wouldn’t have given us air conditioning if he didn’t want us to use it. Everyone had an opinion, and apparently no one was comfortable at the same temperature.

     So my father-in-law put in a new thermostat. He put it in an easily-accessible place, right out in the open, where anyone who wanted to find it could. Everybody could adjust the thermostat to their hearts’ content. Everyone was much more comfortable. He made it easy for them.

     Because, of course, the new thermostat was just attached to the wall, nothing else. It controlled nothing.

     I don’t know, maybe you feel like that’s a little too deceptive to be done in church. (In fairness, I don’t think anyone ever said that the thermostat controlled anything.) The fact is, though, that wherever there’s a group of people there are disagreements, difficulties, frustrations. There are behaviors that have to be tolerated and eccentricities to endure. And if a dummy thermostat keeps the peace in a church divided by temperature preference, well, that seems like a small thing. 

     Paul, after all, says that sometimes the best we can do is to “bear with” one another. 

     I think it’s great when everybody down at church is feeling the love for everyone else. Maybe that’s kind of where a lot of us are these days. We don’t get to see each other much, the pandemic has changed the way we do church, and we’re missing each other. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. We don’t really think about the weirdness and petty annoyances that might wear on us at other times. We haven’t been together enough to have any real disagreements about anything substantial. We’re all looking forward to being together and hugging each other and seeing how much the kids have grown and getting reconnected.

     But there will come a time when we’ll have to bear with each other again.

     I’m glad Paul uses that phrase; it’s a tacit acknowledgement that relationships at church aren’t always easy or rosy. After all, we’re dealing with things that matter to us, that we often have strong feelings and moral convictions about, and so it ought to be no surprise when disagreements happen. And when they do, the Bible says we have to bear with each other. 

     The word Paul uses in Ephesians (and a couple of other places too) has to do with enduring and tolerating each other. It’s used in other places to describe someone persisting through suffering and difficulty. Maybe you have a higher expectation for relationships in the church than that, and if so I don’t want to discourage you, but…ha! Here’s a rule that I think probably holds true most of the time: if you’re not bearing with someone at church, then, brother, sister…they’re bearing with you!

     That’s all right, though. What kind of family gets along all the time? Never has a disagreement? Generally it’s the kind that isn’t doing or talking about anything important. If we’re trying to be who we’re supposed to be, there will be times when we don’t all see eye-to-eye on vision, strategy, goals, or what to do next — any number of things, really. 

     And in those moments, we’re to bear with each other.

     It’s not just endurance and toleration; Paul says we should bear with one another in love. What that probably means is that tolerance isn’t enough. Endurance isn’t enough. Just gritting our teeth and drowning out the one with whom we disagree isn’t the “bearing with” he’s talking about. When Christians — sisters and brothers in Christ — bear with each other, we’re still governed by the rule of love. Love tells us what our “bearing with” will look like. It won’t have any trace of hatred or mockery. It won’t make the person with whom we’re bearing feel overlooked, unheard, or devalued. “Bearing with” one another requires humility — a willingness to put aside for the moment our own feelings in order to attend to someone else. It requires treating one another gently. And the standard for it will be the love we’ve received from Jesus. 

     Jesus, by the way, knew the “bearing with” kind of love that we’re talking about. He knew it well. In three of the four gospels, in fact, he says some variation of this: “You unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” He uses exactly the same word that Paul uses in Ephesians. It’s a day when the demands are high, his disciples seem to have disappointed him, and he’s just heard God’s voice call him “Son.” His burden feels heavy and his Father’s house seems far away. So he wonders out loud, “How long do I have to bear with these people?”

     So it’s OK, sometimes, to wonder how long the “bearing-with” will have to go on. It’s OK, sometimes, to feel the frustration of it and the exhaustion of it. It’s OK, because it seems that Jesus did. It’s OK, as long as you come to the same conclusion he came to.

     As long as necessary.

     Because Jesus bore with us as long as he needed to. He bore with us through our failure, our faithlessness, our stubbornness, our selfishness, and our ignorance. He bore with us through persecution and hatred. He bore with us when bearing with us got him hung on a cross. He bore with us with humility, gentleness, patience, and love. He bears with us.

     That’s why Paul says that “bearing with” is the calling we’ve received. It is, quite literally, the way our Lord lived his life. It is not too much that he asks us to do the same.

     So who do you need to bear with? (I know, it’s “With whom do you need to bear,” but that doesn’t sound right.) Someone on the other side of the political spectrum? Someone who’s a little too legalistic or a little too libertine? Someone at work who’s struggling to keep up, someone at home who’s making life difficult? 

     Someone, perish the thought, who’s comfortable at a different temperature?

     How can you show them the patience, humility, and gentleness that Jesus has shown us. How can you bear with them in love?

     It might not be as simple as installing a new thermostat. But you’ll find a way.    

Friday, February 12, 2021

May We Be Trees

     Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 

-Luke 19:1-4 (NIV)

 



I’ve always liked the story of Zacchaeus. I don’t know what it is, there’s just something about his story that I find — maybe “winsome” is the right word? You have to love a short guy with initiative, right? (In the Greek, he’s described as micro; sorry, that’s just amazing!) I like the way Jesus makes everyone in the crowd uncomfortable by inviting himself to share a meal with the local traitor who’s so corrupt that his neighbors can only refer to him as a “sinner-man.” I like seeing their pompous self-righteousness offended — and I pray that by seeing it I can avoid it in myself. I wonder if, while they were eating, Jesus asked Zacchaeus about work — “So, tell me about tax-collecting” — and if so what Zacchaeus said. Of course, Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus coming into his house is encouraging and inspiring: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

     I think, though, that what I’ve loved about this story is the one thing I’ve known about it ever since I was a kid and heard it for the first time: this is a guy who’s so entranced by Jesus that he climbed a tree to see him.

     I’ve climbed a few trees in my day, but it’s not something I’ve done in a while now. Honestly, it’s something very few adults get the chance to do. Somehow, though, it was the first thing Zacchaeus thought of! It’s called a “sycamore” in some English translations, but it isn’t related to the sycamore we know in America, or even the sycamore of Europe and England. Zacchaeus’ sycamore is a species of fig tree, the kind the prophet Amos took care of when he wasn’t out prophet-ing

     Even though if you know anything about Zacchaeus you probably know he climbed a tree to see Jesus, I wonder if we give the tree enough attention. We sort of treat it like scenery maybe, just part of the set dressing in the story. Sometimes, though, I think it helps to look at familiar stories from a different perspective, and so I want to spend a little time with Zacchaeus’ sycamore-fig tree. 

     Zacchaeus has a problem when the story begins: he wants to see Jesus, but he’s too short to see over the crowd. Actually, the text doesn’t literally say just that he wants to see Jesus: it says “he wanted to see who Jesus was,” and I think that’s maybe a little different. Zacchaeus, as becomes clear, isn’t just trying to satisfy some curiosity or looking for a great story to tell about the time he saw Jesus. I think Luke chose the language he chose because what Zaccheaus thinks he has in Jesus is a guy who he might like to get to know. More than just laying his eyes on him, Zacchaeus is wanting to see if Jesus is who he thinks he is.

     And who does he think Jesus is? Well, reading between the lines, I wonder if Zacchaeus has heard some things about Jesus that make him think this is a teacher who might not necessarily make up his mind about him just because of the line of work he was in. Tax collectors usually made a very good living taking more money in taxes than they had to pass up the line to Rome. As long as Rome got their cut, they didn’t look too hard at how much extra a tax collector might make. So, obviously, you had a system that was full of corruption and favoritism. Zacchaeus is called a “chief tax collector,” meaning that other tax collectors further down the food chain might have had to cut Zacchaeus in on what they took, kind of an Ancient Near Eastern pyramid scheme. 

     So it’s probably no surprise they called Zacchaeus a sinner. At best, he would have been taking the money of his countrymen to give to an occupying nation. Even if he didn’t cheat them — a huge “if” — they would have assumed that he did. 

     Zacchaeus, though, has this idea that maybe Jesus won’t make that assumption. Or, at least, that maybe this is a guy who will care about him and believe that there’s more to him than the job he does.

     So he has a problem: he wants to see if he’s right about Jesus, but he’s too short to even lay eyes on him over the heads of the crowd. 

     Enter the solution to his problem: the tree.

     From the tree, Zacchaeus gets to see Jesus. But, more than that, from the tree Zacchaeus gets to see who Jesus is

     And it occurs to me reading this story for the umpteenth time: I want to be a tree. I want my church to be a tree.

     I’ve just finished reading a Vanity Fair piece about a well-known church leader, a pastor to celebrities, who brought turmoil to his church by a very public extramarital affair. His bad behavior goes back years, and it includes much more than just that. It extends to mistreatment of people who worked with and for him, and favoritism toward the wealthy and famous. 

     Reading about his failures reminds me to just be a tree. You too: just be a tree. Just be there to help people when they’re ready to really see who Jesus is. Be there to boost them up when they can’t see past those who despise them and look down on them for the less-than-honorable things they’ve done, be there to raise them up so they can at long last get a good look at Jesus. Trees don’t convince. They don’t argue. They certainly don’t flatter or manipulate or abuse, and they don’t need to have their egos stroked. Trees, like Zacchaeus’, are even OK with being stepped on a little if it means that people get to see who our Lord is. 

     I really don’t think most people who reject Jesus do so because of Jesus. I’ve heard very few people say that they don’t want to be Christians because of anything they’ve seen or heard from Jesus. Sure, sometimes people might not want to accept the demands he puts on their lives. And there might be some who cover that by blaming the church or their family or something some pastor somewhere has done. But Jesus said that his yoke was easy and his burden was light, and he meant it. Most often, it isn’t Jesus who weighs people down. 

     It’s his church. 

     That ought to make us concerned. It’s why we need to think of ourselves as trees. Too often, we hold ourselves up before the eyes of people who are looking for Jesus. What if Zacchaeus’ tree had done that? “Hey, Zacchaeus, check out my nice leaves, man. Look how delicious my figs are. My bark is faultless, my limbs are strong. Come see me. Come hang out with me.”

     We’re not the ones people need to see. To promote ourselves to people who are wanting to know who Jesus is — that’s malpractice and it borders on heresy. We’re only useful when we’re helping people to see who Jesus is. When we don’t do that, we’re like that other tree Jesus talked about in his parable: “Cut it down. Why should it use up the soil anymore.”

     But if we’ll help people see Jesus? Well, look at what Zacchaeus’ tree accomplished: “Today salvation has come to this house…For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus came to save the lost. May we help them really see who Jesus is so that he can come to their houses too.

     May we be trees.


Saturday, February 6, 2021

Everything I Ever Did

      “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!” 

-John 4:29 (NIV) 



I was reading the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 recently, and something caught my eye in a way that it never had before. It comes late in the story, and maybe that’s why I’ve overlooked it. Jesus and the woman have had this conversation about living water, and worshiping in spirit and in truth. He’s shown her that he knows all about her scandalous marital history, and she’s tried to deflect him with the theological dispute between Jews and Samaritans over where they should worship. He’s even told her, plain as day, that he’s the Messiah. They’re interrupted by the disciples, but the text says the woman became the first evangelist for Jesus; she goes back to town telling people to come and meet Jesus. 

     But it’s what she says that has stuck in my head: “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!”

     Information is power, right? We’ve seen many people in our world, in all walks of life, done in by scandalous information someone had about them. Accused criminals don’t invite prosecutors to come talk to the witnesses to their crimes. Politicians and actors with skeletons in their closets pay people money to keep their mouths shut; they don’t call up the media and say, “Come interview this person, he knows everything I’ve ever done.” Just finished reading an article about a celebrity pastor who tried to pay hush money to a woman and her husband, and later took them to court — all to try to save a public image. He’s gone now, but the ministry organization he founded and his family left behind are having to grapple with the effects of hearing about his sins and crimes.

     So it’s striking to me that this woman wants so much for her neighbors to come meet this man who knows everything she’s ever done.

     Maybe you explain it by saying that what really impresses her is the fact that he knows these things he should have no way of knowing, like he’s wowed her with a magic act. Well, OK, maybe there’s something to that. If that was all this was, though, then there were any number of less uncomfortable nuggets of information he could have used. He doesn’t have to get deep into her sexual history.

     Maybe the neighbors already knew all about what she’d done. You’d probably expect that, actually. If they did know, and if because of that she was an outcast (as is usually assumed, though the text doesn’t say so), then I’m not sure that changes anything. How would you like to talk to people who treat you as an outcast about the very thing they’re treating you as an outcast for?

     I exchanged emails with a friend recently, and we were discussing Jesus’ attitude toward sin. Sometimes that’s a tricky subject because there are a lot of moving parts. I mean, we have Jesus on the cross praying that God would forgive the people who put him there. The woman caught in adultery (who Jesus defended even though she was guilty), Zacchaeus (who repented after Jesus ate at his table), the woman who crashed Simon the Pharisee’s party to honor Jesus (because of the forgiveness she’d received); sometimes his grace and forgiveness makes us uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing. If we’re comfortable with it, it’s not the unlimited grace of God, is it? It’s something else, something less — something that we can quantify, categorize, and evaluate. 

     While God’s grace is unlimited, though, there’s still more to it than just unquestioning acceptance of sin. That’s too simplistic as well, to just wave away human selfishness and pride as though it doesn’t really matter. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” He welcomed Zacchaeus as a full “son of Abraham” and said salvation had come to his house after his repentance. His death “for sins” certainly suggests that sin isn’t to be taken lightly. 

     Maybe the way to resolve this tension — if it exists — is to say that, for Jesus, sin matters but it isn’t the whole story. In his eyes, a person is much more than her worst acts. Sinful behavior should be stopped, repentance and restitution should be made. The price for the forgiveness of sins is high — but he pays it. A person’s sins don’t annul God’s love for her. We sometimes struggle to continue to love someone who has done wrong; God doesn’t seem to have that problem. 

     I think maybe all that explains the unconventional evangelistic message of the Samaritan woman at the well. “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!” Come see a man who knows who I am and where I’ve been and what I’ve done and who I’ve done it with — and yet doesn’t turn his face away in disgust. Come see a man before whom all my most shameful secrets are laid bare — and yet somehow he doesn’t make me feel worthless. Come see a man who knows who I am and doesn’t treat me as damaged goods, who feels sorrow for the turn my life has taken but not hatred for me, and who’s aware of the wrong I’ve done but unwavering in his belief that I can be better. Come see a man who knows I’ve been defeated by the Enemy, but doesn’t consider me an enemy. Come see a man who would give his life so that I can be the person God always intended for me to be. 

     A man like this is, of course, the Messiah: God’s love and grace and hope embodied, God’s future made flesh.

     If a person is getting the impression from us that their sins lower their value as a person, like a house that has foundation issues, then we aren’t representing Jesus well. People will do anything — including holding on tenaciously to some destructive habits and behaviors — to keep from feeling like they’re worthless. We’ll find community where we can, including with others who share those same destructive habits and behaviors. We’ll defend ourselves, call ourselves misunderstood, and deflect attacks by others back onto them. It’s self-preservation. 

     So attacking someone for their sin isn’t evangelism. It isn’t “speaking the truth in love” because the love isn’t there, or at least not being heard. You probably didn’t come to Jesus because you were convicted of your sin — even if that’s how you remember it. On some level, your experience was probably that of the Samaritan woman: “Jesus knows what I’ve done and loves me anyway.” Maybe you were convicted, and afraid of hell, and feeling bad about what you’d done, but I bet you wouldn’t have come to Jesus if you hadn’t known that he loves you anyway. And if you hadn’t felt some kind of acceptance, however imperfect, by the church.

     I’m saying, then, that we should do our best to give others that same experience of Jesus and the church. Not everyone will believe, of course, but let’s do our best to let people know that they are accepted as they are and that they can worship in spirit and in truth regardless of the sins that have scarred their lives. Let’s let them know that we’re so sure of that because we can say, like that Samaritan woman, “Come meet a man who told me everything I ever did.”

Friday, January 22, 2021

Make Room

  “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.… Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.”

-John 8:36-37 (NIV) 




I know you don’t want to read more about what happened at the Capitol two weeks ago. I don’t blame you. But what happened was historically significant, and culturally so, too. So please excuse me for mentioning it, if only to get to what I really want to talk about.

     Room.

     At least some of those present at the Capitol…protest?…unrest?…riot?…sedition?…I guess history will decide at some point what to call it…at least some of those present, at least the ones who forced their way in and endangered lives and roamed the halls with zip ties and weapons looking for members of Congress, were there because there was no room in their world.

     No room for other ideas. No room for alternate points of view. No room for different experiences that might lead someone to a different perspective on the world. No room for the idea that seven million more Americans prefer, at this point in time, a different President in the White House. No room for lawmakers and judges and election officials who won’t support the world they want. And, make no mistake, no room for fellow Americans who don’t have the same view of America that they do. 

     People who have no room in their worlds for people who are different from them and from the norms they expect will not stop at forcing their way into government buildings. They’ll force their way into workplaces. Mosques, synagogues, and churches. Schools. Even private homes. Given enough resources and emboldened enough, they’ll crash the gates anywhere to find anyone who disagrees with them and silence any critique of the world they want to build. If you think I’m overstating the case, stop and consider. It’s happened everywhere there has been a large segment of society that had no room for an alternate view of the world from theirs.

     In fact, that’s where the line has to be drawn, right? People can have different views on any number of issues and work together, serve together, learn together, worship together. They don’t have to compromise their convictions, They don’t have to pretend that disagreements don’t happen. They do, however, have to allow room in their lives — or at least in their worlds — for each other. You’re entitled to your beliefs, and to defend them passionately. But if you lose that ability to allow room for other points of view, you no longer deserve a seat at the table.

     An old line, attributed to Voltaire by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I may not like your views, or even you, but there’s room in my world for you. And I’ll do what I can to make sure others give you room, too. 

     It’s funny — well, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word — but the church has often been accused of not having room for differing points of view. Sometimes, of course, we’ve earned that reputation. But to the degree we’re actually following Jesus, we’re perhaps uniquely qualified to offer room to those who see the world differently. That’s because, theologically, there’s nothing about Jesus that demands we exclude anyone. If you have a different view of Christianity you might be inclined to argue that, but you’d be mistaking what some of us have done with Jesus for the actual Jesus. It’s a fact that some of us have used Jesus to defend our own inability to allow room in the world for people who are different from us, but we didn’t get that from Jesus. That came from our own self-centeredness, our own fear, our own anxiety about change. We just found in Jesus — a radically edited and altered Jesus — a convenient spokesperson. 

     Jesus, you might remember, is the one who said

     “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” 

     He also said

     “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you…. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 

     I didn’t even have to go out of one chapter of Luke to find those quotes. Later in Luke he told his followers to love their neighbor, and then defined neighbor as the one who needs help, whoever he or she is. Make room for human beings in your world, even inside the boundaries of who you call “neighbor.” Even those who are different from you, even those who at first blush you’d say have no business in your world. Jesus calls us to make room for them and for the needs that they have, and to treat them with care and compassion.

     Jesus, in fact, was only really hard on one group of people: those who wouldn’t make room  at their tables, in their world, and in their hearts for someone who was different. He had harsh words for those who would require complete adherence to their view of the world, who would only give acceptance and love in return for total obedience. “Whitewashed tombs,” he called them, because however good it may look on the surface, their way is the way of death. “Hypocrites,” because everything they did was for the applause of the crowd and their own self-interest.

     Our world has always been a place where the powerful fail to make room for the weak. It’s always been a place where the privileged refuse to allow the needy the room they need to make their situation better. The pious have not often made room for the sinners. The native-born have often behaved as if there was no room for the immigrant. Whites continue to balk at making room for people of color. And, of course, the point of every election seems to be that one political party crowd the other out of as much room in the halls of power as they possibly can. 

     But Jesus told his followers to refuse to play by those rules. He said, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And shortly before he gave his life to show that there is room for everyone, he prayed that his followers “may be one as [he and the Father] are one," that “they may be brought to complete unity.” In that, he believed, the world might see and believe in him and know the love of God. They might know that there is room in God’s love for them, too.

     So, see? To the extent that we really follow Jesus, we will show the world what it means to give room to those who are different, to love those with whom we don’t always agree, and even to show the love of God to those we might consider reprehensible. We’ll reject the importance of winning and holding on to power or being more aggressive or stronger or more ruthless than anyone else. We’ll love each other as Jesus loves us. We’ll make it our life’s purpose to show those around us that there’s room for them among us.

     May we make room.

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