Friday, May 28, 2021

A Lump of Clay and an Hour and a Half

      As you go, proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven  has come near.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,  drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

-Matthew 10:7-8 (NIV)

On a trip to the Art Institute this week, I ran across a sculpture I had never really noticed before, a simple clay bust of a young man. His eyes and mouth are expressive, you can see the curls and waves in his thick hair, he has almost a bewildered expression on his face — it looks like a candid snapshot captured in clay. 

     The artist was a sculptor named Aime’-Jules Dalou who lived and worked in the last half of the nineteenth century. He was French, but because of his participation in the Paris Commune of 1871 he was exiled and spent a decade in London teaching at an art school.

     Dalou didn’t speak English, which would’ve been a problem except that his classes weren’t  lecture-based. They were, really, a performance. While his students watched, he would spend the class period actually sculpting, and invite his students to follow along with him. British sculptor Édouard Lantéri later said that Dalou “completely carried his students away with him…and succeeded in awakening an extraordinary enthusiasm where all before seemed dormant.”

     The bust at the Art Institute was of some young man who’d been paid or otherwise coerced to model for one of his classes.

     Yes, one. Dalou did the entire sculpture in one 90-minute class period. 

     There’s something that sounds right about that, isn’t there? Teaching by doing. You can teach the principles of sculpture in a lecture, I suppose. I could read some books and have some information to share with people who wanted to learn to sculpt, but all it would take to ruin the illusion that I knew what I was talking about would be for me to actually attempt to sculpt something. That’s when I’d be exposed.

     Meanwhile, give someone like Dalou a lump of clay and an hour and a half, and he could teach a master class without saying a word.

     Seems like the news is full of stories about well-known church leaders whose talk isn’t backed up by their walk. Or who could stand to say a little less. Or both. Look, none of us is perfect, and I know something about the pressure — even if it’s self-inflicted — of having to have something to say to the church every week. But if you aren’t teaching by what you do, then what you say isn’t going to make much of a difference, not in the long run and not even in the short term. That’s true for church leaders, but it’s true for the rest of us too.

     It was true for the disciples. Matthew shows us Jesus sending his disciples out on this mission to “the lost sheep of Israel.” He’s given them authority to heal diseases and drive out demons and he dispatches them to the different towns of Israel. He doesn’t send them out with sermon outlines or Bible lessons or tracts: he sends them with a message: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” They’re to announce that God’s kingdom is dawning in Jesus, and that anyone and everyone who put their faith in God can be a part of that kingdom. But they’re also to do. They’re to take what they’ve received generously from Jesus and be just as generous with it by healing the sick and even raising the dead. Sure, they’re going to talk about God’s kingdom coming. But they’re also told to show what it is about that kingdom that’s attractive. Their words and actions will work together to demonstrate what is and what is not a part of that kingdom. What they do is to be as much a proclamation of God’s kingdom as what they say.

     We’ve gotten used to thinking of sharing the gospel as primarily a transfer of information. We know something that people who aren’t Christians don’t know, and it’s our job to get that information into their brains. To that end, we’re told, we need to memorize Bible verses and package the message as slickly as we can. We need to be persuasive and convincing and compelling to convince their minds and move their hearts to believe the information that we’re presenting to them. 

     When we aren’t able to, we tend to believe that we’ve failed. And so we don’t want to try it anymore because who wants to keep plugging away at something that you’re clearly no good at? 

     Do we ever stop to wonder why none of us is any good at it? It’s because we have at least two problems.

     The first is that they don’t speak our language. The church has created quite a specialized vocabulary in two thousand years. We use that vocabulary to talk about things that no one but us is very interested in, to answer questions that no one else is really asking. We can try to make an argument as to why everyone ought to be as interested as we are in the things we’re talking about, but in the end it’s like we’re having to teach a new language just so someone is equipped to begin to hear what we’re saying. That’s tough. It makes things difficult right from the start.

     Our second problem creates even more of an obstacle, though. People may not be able to understand our church language, but they can see how we live. And they may just not be seeing much that’s worth imitating. 

     I can’t raise the dead. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could, but I can’t. Jesus, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to have given his church the authority to do that. He hasn’t given us the power to heal diseases miraculously — at least not most of us, and I’ve never seen it demonstrated unequivocally. But we can sit with and love and serve people who are sick. We can be involved in their healing by praying for them and with them, by taking them to the doctor or picking up their prescriptions. We can grieve with those who are grieving, and we can serve them and take care of some of their needs and help them bury their dead, and we can by doing those things earn the credibility to tell them about the hope we have in Jesus’ resurrection. But I think too many of the people we’d like to convert to Jesus don’t see much in his church that they can learn.

     Jesus said not to worry about money, and sometimes it seems like we worry about nothing else. Jesus told his disciples to bring peace, and too often we bring more strife. He said to speak what the Holy Spirit leads us to say, and many times we prefer a political party’s talking points. He said not to be afraid, but his church too often is cowed into silence by a little disapproval from those around us. He said not to love our lives more than him, and yet it seems so often that we do.  

     So let’s try this: If you aren’t sure what to say to someone, try living authentically like Jesus so they can see.

     Build a life like his in their view. Create a sculpture of him out of the medium of your words and actions.

     Speak less, and when you speak, speak like Jesus. Teach by doing. Invite those watching to follow along.

     You might be surprised at the work of art God creates.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Wonderful Things

     Open my eyes that I may see 

    wonderful things in your law.

-Psalm 119:18 (NIV)

I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had recently with someone who asked me how to go about reading the Bible. She was not all that familiar with it, and wondered how she should begin. As I thought for a quick second about how to answer her, I realized it isn’t an easy question to answer. It struck me that it might depend on how a person was reading it. Is she reading it as literature, to appreciate its style and structure and grammar and syntax? Is she reading as an academic? Is she reading it to compare to other religious texts? Is she reading as a person of faith?

     To a person of faith who wants to get more familiar with the Bible in order to grow in faith, love, and obedience, here’s how I’d answer the question:

     First, I’d say that the Bible is a huge part of what makes us a faith community. The biggest mistake we make in this era of online Bibles and specialty Bibles is reading it too individualistically. Sure, we have to apply it to ourselves. But it’s best understood when we read it with others. Try to find — or create — a reading group in your church. Get together regularly just to read Scripture together and talk about what you’re reading. You’ll benefit from the points of view of the others in your group.  

     This is important: in a lot of the Bible, you’re privy to only one side of the conversation. God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute, but that’s not a command you have to follow too! If you find yourself wanting to know more about why Paul writes this thing to the Corinthians or why this thing happened the way it did, that’s where academics can be helpful. Historians, linguists, and theologians shouldn’t interpret the Bible for you, but they can help you understand what was happening on the other sides of the conversations. Sometimes.

     Most of us, when we start reading the Bible, start in Genesis with the intention of reading right on through to Revelation. That’s how we read most books, after all — beginning to end. That’s great, but a lot of the time we run out of steam about the middle of Exodus or early in Leviticus. (If the Bible were written today, I’m pretty sure Leviticus would be in a reference section stuck in the back.) While stuff about the priesthood and the sacrificial system in ancient Israel can be helpful in understanding the rest of the Bible, it doesn’t have a lot of direct applicability to us. In other words, you might not want to start there.

     Another thing about reading order: The Bible wasn’t written from Genesis to Revelation. Its “books,” or sections, were written separately over thousands of years. The order the books of your Bible appear in today came later, and for somewhat murky reasons sometimes. There are chronological Bibles available, or you can find  chronological reading schedules online, if you're so inclined.

     But here’s a thought about reading order, borrowed from a Facebook friend of mine, Patrick Mead: start by reading the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and read them again and again over a few months. Soak in them. Let them soak into you. That’s how the early church would have done it: they told people about Jesus and taught them to pattern their lives after his. Once that’s starting to happen, once Jesus and his words are in your heart and mind — then you can branch out, because Christians need to read the Bible with Jesus in mind. Maybe read Acts next — better yet, Luke and Acts together, since they were written by the same person with the same purpose. I’d suggest James, Galatians and Romans next, in any order. As you read, dwell on the question of how the rest of the New Testament interprets the story you’ve encountered and internalized in the Gospels.

     As you read the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, you will probably notice in the translation you’re using references to sections of the Old Testament. Take a few moments to look those up. What you’ll be seeing are snapshots of how the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in fresh ways because of Jesus. It’ll also help you get familiar with the Old Testament. 

     Because that’s next. By now you’re getting pretty familiar with the story of Jesus and the early church’s interpretation of that story. Now go back and read the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis - Deuteronomy. That story of the family of Abraham and the formation of the nation of Israel is the story that Jesus came to fulfill. His faith as a Jewish person rested in that story. He said that not the least stroke of a pen from “the Law” would pass away until it was all fulfilled. He thought it mattered. It matters.

     Next — or maybe at the same time, to break things up — spend a lot of time in the Psalms and Proverbs. The Psalms were Jesus’ hymn book. The Proverbs are wise sayings he would have lived by. The Proverbs are in no real order, and the chapter divisions don’t mean much — just pick a saying or two each day to think about, meditate on, repeat to yourself. Use the Psalms as Jesus would have — to help lead you in worship. Notice, too, how they refer to the story of Israel that you’re already familiar with, but also point beyond it with grief, sorrow, and struggle that remains unresolved. You will probably find a lot that sounds familiar.  

     Jesus also referred to “the Prophets” a lot, so maybe now is a good time to start reading them. Isaiah is long, but many of his prophecies seemed to point to Jesus. (You’ll probably already have encountered parts of Isaiah if you were taking the time to check out the Old Testament references in your reading of the New Testament books.) Jeremiah and Ezekiel are other very long prophetic books. They can be tricky, but remember that they’re calling God’s people, Israel, to justice and righteousness as the path to a better world. The Minor Prophets, Hosea through Malachi, are shorter — it’s in the name. When the longer prophets start to wear on you switch over to one of the Minor Prophets. 

     By this time, you’ll have made a lot of progress, and some of the more difficult books of the Bible will start to make more sense. Don’t worry, though, if there’s still a lot that you don’t quite understand. After you’ve spent a lifetime reading the Bible, you’ll be astonished to find that there’s still a lot you don’t know. Don’t get impatient. Remember that you’re not saved by your familiarity with the Bible, but by the work of Jesus.

     May God bless you as you begin the journey of reading the Bible.

     May he show you wonderful things.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Entry Points

 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

-Luke 15:1-2 (NIV)

A few years ago now, I attended Friday midday prayers at the mosque in my neighborhood. The group I was with was expected, and we were treated with hospitality and friendliness by members of the mosque. Even so, it was a slightly uncomfortable experience — not because of anything the members of the mosque did or didn’t do, but just because I was out of place.

     The chief thing that made me uncomfortable, I suppose, is that we were dependent upon our hosts to tell us what to do. As we came in, we were asked to take off our shoes. The women in our group were expected to keep their heads covered, and they were taken to a place where they would be out of sight of the men in the congregation. The male members of our group were shown to a bench in the back of a large, mostly-empty  room that gradually began to fill up with worshippers. Each worshipper had his own mat, which he unrolled on the floor. At noon the prayers started, and in unison 100 or more Muslim men made the correct movements and said the correct words to express their prayers to Allah. It was an amazing thing to witness. The sounds of all those worshippers moving in unison and speaking those Arabic words in unison was indescribable. 

     I couldn’t participate, of course. I was only there as a spectator.

     I did understand the sermon, and could even agree with a lot of what the Imam said. I was treated with respect and kindness, and that made the whole thing easier to navigate. But the fact is that what went on in that mosque was clearly not for me. I was allowed to look in on it, but I was in no way a real participant.

     Since then, I’ve often thought of that experience in reference to the worship services that I’m a part of and help lead each Sunday.

     I’ve tried to imagine myself as a visitor with no direct knowledge of what church is like, only what she’s maybe heard from other people or seen in movies or TV or read in books. Is she going to know where to sit? What to do when she comes in? If she should speak to anyone or not? Should she pick up a Bible from the pew? Will she know which one the Bible is, and when she should use it? And what’s she going to think when (in normal times) metal trays with juice or crackers are passed to her?

     Or I’ve tried to imagine myself as someone whose experience of church is very different from what happens in our service. How strange is it going to sound to not have musical instruments? Is he maybe confused because no one who leads in any aspect of worship is wearing distinctive clothing? Does he wonder why no one gets up and goes to the front to receive communion?

     We’re used to it, of course, so we don’t feel this, but the worship services at your church are just as weird to someone as that Muslim prayer service was to me. 

     There’s no doubt that church attendance is down across the board, in all denominations, sects, and tribes of Christianity. I don’t think that’s because church services are weird. But the more attendance declines, and the longer the decline goes on, the more people are going to stay away for the same reasons I haven’t been back to the mosque: it’s unfamiliar, I don’t know what to do, and it really has nothing to do with me.

     All that to say that if we want our churches to grow, we’re going to have to put a little more thought into it than just inviting people to come to church.

     Hey, do that, OK? Definitely invite people to church. But keep in mind that a lot of people aren’t going to accept the invitation. And many who do are going to feel uncomfortable, even if we make every effort to make them comfortable. And many are going to come once and wonder, like me with the mosque, why I should go back.

     So if we want our churches to grow, we have to create Entry Points.

     It’s just what it sounds like; Entry Points are the places where we make church accessible to those who just want to check things out. It used to be that worship services were excellent Entry Points, at least in some churches. Unless we’re going to drastically change our worship services, though, the time has passed when they’ll be the primary Entry Points for most churches.

     So what new Entry Points will we create in our churches?

     How about service projects and social activism? A lot of people would feel strange in a worship service, but would love to serve in a food pantry or build a house with Habitat for Humanity or be part of a school supply drive for kids. And as they work in their community alongside Christians, they start to see your church as a group of people whose faith calls them to love in concrete ways. They have opportunities to talk to you and get to know you and hear what you believe. Look for ways to serve as a church, and invite others to join you.

     Or how about small groups? Groups that get together in homes or coffee ships to discuss a book, read the Bible, share prayer needs, or talk over problems can be just what someone is looking for in our hectic, online,  relationally-illiterate world. Once someone has heard about your kids and prayed for your needs, they’ll likely be much less resistant to being in church with you.

     Baby boomers are aging into retirement, and also into some of the health problems of advanced age. Ministries to seniors and their family members who care for them could be an amazing Entry Point to your church. Ministries like these for elder care have been a blessing to my family recently. They tell the elderly and their caregivers that they are welcome in you church.

     I’ve heard it said that your church’s online presence is its front door. Well, think of how most of us check anything out. Before we go or call, we check a website. Make sure your website has content on it that people who know little or nothing about you will find helpful. Use social media as a window through which “strangers”  can see what life in your congregation is like, and maybe start to get the idea that they just might be welcome.

     You can likely think of many more Entry Points. When you do, share it with someone. Ideally, a church would have many Entry Points, many places where someone who doesn’t know you can find their way to you. And, through you, to Jesus.

     May we imitate Jesus by being welcoming churches.