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.”