Friday, April 30, 2021

Wait Eagerly

      And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. 

-Romans 8:28-30 (NIV)

Just like that, people in Chicago are excited about Bears football again.

     There hasn’t been that much to be excited about the last few years, ever since the Double-Doink that cost the Bears a playoff win in 2018. Since then, they’ve gone 16-16 — pretty much the definition of mediocrity. Bad enough that they aren’t competitive against the NFL’s best teams, good enough that they don’t get high draft picks that could help them win.

     Last night, though, in the opening round of the NFL Draft, the Bears traded up to get a higher spot, the 11th pick. Meaning that, when they picked, there were potentially franchise-changing players still on the board. The Bears picked Justin Fields, a quarterback from Ohio State.

     A quarterback. Arguably the single most important position in all of professional sports. Since 1978, when the NFL began playing a 16-game schedule, the Bears have had a quarterback throw for 4,000 yards in a season…never. Just as a comparison, 12 quarterbacks did that for other teams…last season. Most Bears fans would probably say that the best QB in Bears’ history was Sid Luckman, who last took a snap in 1950. So there’s some excitement in Chicago about drafting a guy who a lot of analysts said would have been the best quarterback available in most years. 

     Of course, the player still has to produce. The coaches still have to coach. The General Manager still has to surround him with good players. He has to stay healthy. A lot has to go right for Justin Fields to end up being the player that fans who are buying his jersey hope he’ll be. The Bears haven’t exactly proven themselves adept at developing good quarterback prospects. (Mitch Trubisky, anyone? Jay Cutler? Cade McNown?)

     But, for now, there’s a lot of optimism, expectation, and hope. 

     As I said, that’s been rare in Chicago Bears football recently.

     It’s rare seemingly across the rest of our country and the larger world, as well. 

     Everyone says we’re more divided as a nation than we’ve ever been. Doomsday “sky is falling” scenarios dominate the news cycles of the newsertainment TV networks and websites with which so many of us while away the hours. We’re over a year into a pandemic that has brought life for so many to a drastic slowdown, if not a skidding stop. We hear news of racist acts from seemingly every state in the Union, and we also hear from   those who inexplicably try to excuse the worst of it. 

     Covid is taking a terrible, unimaginable toll in India. Countries in Asian and Europe threaten each other with troop buildups and stealth attacks. Seems like everywhere you look, there’s another reason to be resigned, hopeless, and depressed.

     That’s not altogether mistaken, either. Paul says it this way in Romans:  

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly… (Romans 8:22-23)

     We “groan inwardly,” he says. All of creation groans. That explains a lot, really. The world God created is full of frustration. What Paul says in this section of Romans is that the frustration we feel as a part of a broken creation is universal. When we groan, it’s an echo of the whole creation around us that wants to be better, wants to be whole, wants to be redeemed, that’s waiting to be liberated from bondage to decay. Creation’s dying, Paul says, and so are we, and so it’s no wonder that it can be hard to get excited about our prospects.

     Or it would be, if God hadn’t stepped in.

     See, that’s Paul’s point when he says, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Sometimes we take that as sort of a garden-variety, warm, fuzzy Bible verse that you stick up on your mirror as some sort of daily affirmation that it’s all, somehow, going to be OK. In reality, though, what Paul means has a much harder edge. He’s saying that God has broken this cycle of frustration in Jesus. The frustration is real, no doubt about that — frustration we feel about the injustice in our world, or the logjam of politics, or the misunderstanding of other people, or even our own sins — but the work of God in Jesus is just as real.

     In Jesus, God says we’re his children, with a right to inherit what he wants to give us. We “groan” now because we’re still waiting for it, but one day our bodies will be redeemed, Paul says. He means that the time is coming when we won’t groan anymore, because the things that make us groan — sorrow, pain, anger, frustration, disappointment — will all be gone. Creation will be what it’s supposed to be. We’ll be what we were supposed to be.

     Until then, we “wait eagerly,” says Paul. We have more to do than just groan in hopelessness, expecting nothing to change and just living out our days resigned to eventual destruction. We look forward to the day of redemption, when we’ll live in “the freedom and glory” that as God’s children we have a right to. All of creation waits for this day, Paul says, waits in “eager expectation” — expectation because there’s no doubt about it. The reality of this hope lies in the fact that God has given up Jesus for us. If he died for our sins and was raised from the dead — and the Christian hope is that he did and he was — then we have every reason to wait for the day of redemption with anticipation and eagerness. 

     God is working everything out for good for those who love him and are willing to live for the purposes he has for us. God knew us before we knew him. He has always been making us look more and more like Jesus. He has called us and made us righteous and has glorified us — listen to all those past tenses! In other words, by the work of Jesus he has already replaced our reasons for groaning with reasons for hope and expectation. 

      So let’s bring that hope and expectation to our world and to our lives and to the people in our lives. When creation groans around us, let’s answer those groans with words and actions of anticipation. We aren’t locked in a downward spiral, not if we can trust what God is doing and has already done through Jesus.

     There’s reason for hope. There’s reason to wait with eagerness and anticipation for God’s future.

     Let’s bear down.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Rescue Boats

      Then Jesus told them this parable: 

     Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. 

-Luke 15:3-7 (NIV)

I saw a video a couple of weeks ago that’s one of my favorite things I’ve seen online. Maybe you saw it too; it’s a video taken by a tour group in a boat in Antarctica. When the video opens, they’re watching a pod of orcas — “killer whales” — hunting in the water off an ice shelf. The orcas peel off to chase some prey — a penguin — and everyone in the boat thinks they’re about to see a penguin get eaten. The penguin makes a good run for it; you see him skipping along at a pretty good clip through the water, breaking the surface over and over for breath as he tries to keep ahead of the orcas. You can hear someone in the boat saying, “Go, penguin!” But you know he can’t run forever. One time, in fact, it looks like he’s been caught, but then the camera picks him up heading off in another direction. 

     Unfortunately for him, the orcas see him too.

     At that point, the penguin seems to come to the conclusion that he’s cooked and he needs a new plan, and he starts swimming close to another Zodiac boat full of tourists. With the orcas hot on his tail, the penguin attempts an all-or-nothing leap out of the water into the Zodiac. 

     And he hits the side and bounces off, back toward the orcas.

     He has just enough time, though, to regather himself for one more leap. Again he pops out of the water, and again it looks like his leap is going to be just short.

     But this time, someone in the boat reaches out a hand. The penguin kind of kicks off the hand and finds himself in the Zodiac, surrounded by people. For a little while, he stands there in the middle of the boat, staring at all these people staring at him and seemingly a little bewildered. But he also seems to appreciate the rest.

     The orcas circle the boat for a little while. But, soon enough, they swim off to find other prey.

     After enjoying his sanctuary for a little longer, Mr. Penguin hops up onto the edge of the Zodiac and, with a wave of his flipper, dives back into the water. 

     OK, I may have made up the wave.

     It’s a cute video. But look around you. The people you work with are in danger of being eaten alive, swallowed whole, pulled under by what’s hunting them.

     They’re living with an abusive partner, an abusive parent, an abusive son or daughter.

     They’re being overwhelmed by an addiction that won’t let go.

     They don’t know which bill to pay next, and have started to think it doesn’t matter.

     They’re fighting chronic disease with subpar medical insurance, or none at all.

     They deal every day with discrimination because of their race, or because English isn’t their first language, or because of their gender.

     They’ve lost a job and have few prospects for a new one.

     They’re dealing with crushing depression.

     They don’t know if the relatively dry spot under the bridge where they’ve been sleeping will be available tonight.

     When it’s time to cook dinner for their expectant family, the cabinets will be empty.

     They’ve lost a spouse or partner and they feel like dying, and wonder if anyone will notice.

     They don’t know where their son or daughter is tonight.

     Or they know where he or she is, and it’s a cemetery.

     These are people you know. You work with them. You pass them on the street. You go through their checkout line at the grocery store. You’ve patronized their business, or they’ve patronized yours. You’ve sat beside them in class. Or maybe in church. And you didn’t know, but they’re like that penguin, swimming desperately just to stay afloat and ahead of that thing with sharp teeth coming up on them hard from behind.

     Jesus compared them to lost sheep, maybe because he hadn’t seen a penguin since creation. But the point remains. They’re helpless, they’re alone, and they’re no match for any of the things that want to kill them.

     And God cares. God. Cares.

     God cares enough to go looking for them. He went looking for them in Jesus, and every time Jesus brought another lost one to safety heaven celebrated. 

     But some of the religious folks were complaining. “This guy welcomes sinners. He eats with them.”

     And what they intended as an insult was the work of God, and it still is.

     Years ago, when I first followed this pretty girl to Chicago, I didn’t have a job. I had a Bible degree, so I had that going for me. But she was here, so I decided to figure the rest out later. So I was unemployed, and one Sunday I went to church. That pretty girl introduced me to a guy who ran his own business. I told him I was looking for work, and asked if he had any advice.

     “Keep looking,” he said.

     Now, I wasn’t without resources. Everything worked out fine. But I still remember at that moment exactly how I felt. May I never tell anyone who comes to me, to my church, looking for help to keep looking.

     When someone leaps into our rafts, let’s be for them a place to rest, to catch their breath, to feel safe. We can’t solve everyone’s problems. But we can show them what it’s like to be with people who care about them, who aren’t trying to eat them, and who are willing to help however we can. 

     Let’s share our Father’s enthusiasm for bringing lost people home. 

     Look for the people who need a place to be safe, and reach out a hand to help them into your boat.

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.