Friday, June 25, 2021

Broken and Poured Out

 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. 

-Mark 14:3 (NIV)

I heard someone tell a story once about locking her child in the back seat of her car. She had parked, gotten out of the car, closed the driver’s side door — and then realized her keys were lying on the front seat. 

     Well, she panicked a little. The kid was very young, still in a car seat, and she saw little hope that she’d be able to teach her how to unlock a car door through the closed window. Her mind started racing, her heart started pounding. Should she call the police? A locksmith? How long would it take? Would her child start crying? She started to feel a knot in her throat and tears started stinging her eyes. What should she do?

     Then she saw the rock in a median in the parking lot. Just the right size to hold in her fist. She picked it up, thought about it, just for a moment, then swung the rock against the glass. It broke into a zillion pieces, as safety glass does. The kid immediately started wailing, but she could see that she hadn’t been injured and was only scared. Breathing a sigh of relief and a little prayer of thanksgiving, she reached through where the back driver’s side window of her car had once been to unlock the door — and discovered, of course, that the door wasn’t locked.

     The front doors both were. The back, not so much. She’d smashed in her window for no reason at all.

     But broken is broken. There’s no going back.

     Don’t you love when you notice little things in the Bible that you never paid attention to before, but which can’t be unintentional? Here’s one of those, and I think you’ll see quickly enough what it has to do with a broken car window.

     In Mark 14, Mark tells the story of Jesus in Bethany at Simon the Leper’s house. A woman enters the house and walks up to the table with a very expensive jar of perfume (bet you never paid a year’s wages for perfume). She breaks the jar and pours the perfume on Jesus’ head. “What a waste,” the people around Jesus are whispering. “Think of how many poor people that amount of money could have taken care of.” Don’t make extravagant sacrifices in front of some religious people. They’ll suck all the life out of it.

     Anyway, Mark tells us this happens two days before “the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread” while the religious leaders were making quiet plans to arrest and murder Jesus. That’s more than just a time note, as will become apparent.

     Notice what the woman does. She breaks the jar. She doesn’t open it. She breaks it. Then she pours out the perfume on Jesus. Not a little, all of it. Because she broke the jar. And broken is broken. There’s no going back. Once she broke that jar she determined she was going to pour out all of that perfume. She left nothing in which to hold anything in reserve.

     Jesus is touched by what she does. He connects her act with his death. He promises that people will hear about her act of extravagant love “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world.” And, in fact, some version of the story is told in all four Gospels.

     Interestingly, it’s only Mark who tells us that the woman broke the jar. 

     “So what?” you may well ask. Well, I’m glad you asked. 

     It seems like this event is the one that pushes Judas over the edge, because the next thing that happens is that he goes to the religious leaders to arrange the arrest and execution that they’re looking for. That will happen, we know, right after Jesus and the disciples eat a Passover meal together. And it’s that Passover meal that Mark goes on to describe next. 

     At that meal, of course, Jesus breaks the bread, gives it to his disciples to share, and says, “This is my body.”

     And then he tells his disciples that the cup is his “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

     Broken and poured. It isn’t just that the woman’s story is told as a point of interest wherever the gospel is preached. Her story is the gospel.

     She didn’t give a little. Or even a lot. She gave everything. The bottle was broken and the perfume was poured out, and nothing was held in reserve. Broken is broken. There’s no going back.

     What she did prefigured what Jesus was about to do, and he knew it. When Jesus gave himself “for many,” he didn’t leave an out. He didn’t give a little, or even a lot. He held nothing in reserve. “This is my body,” he said of that broken piece of bread. He poured out his blood to create a New Covenant. 

     Broken is broken. There’s no going back.  

     I imagine you get the point Mark is making. We who have received Jesus’ gracious offering of himself and are reminded of it and renewed by it each week at the Communion table, we have a responsibility as well. We learn to give by watching how our Lord did it. That unnamed woman* provides an example for us: to give of ourselves extravagantly, in a way that some might even consider irresponsible because they don’t understand the way our Lord has given himself for us.

     Reading this story makes me think of what I hold back. Sure, I give some. A drop or two here or there. And it makes things smell nice, faintly of the gospel for a little while. But I hold some things in reserve, too. Some time. Some energy. Some emotional investment in people that just seems too exhausting. Sometimes I hold back some of my best because it’s just easier to give less. Some money, some possessions, some difficult choices that I don’t want to make. And so I give a little, and maybe now and then even a lot. But I keep a little something to fall back on. I hold back because breaking yourself open and pouring yourself out is hard. It’s scary. But of course there’s nothing to be afraid of, because whatever we give we’ll receive back exponentially from the Lord himself.

     May God give us the strength to break ourselves open and pour ourselves out the way that woman did, the way that Jesus did. 

     Broken is broken. There’s not going back. Be broken and pour yourself out for the gospel of Jesus.

*I’m aware that John says it was Mary, Martha’s and Lazarus’ sister. Mark doesn’t say that, though.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Social Media for Christians 101

  And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

-Philippians 1:9-11

I don’t remember for sure when I started on Facebook. It’s probably been 12 years or so of fairly sporadic-to-light posting. (There’s probably a way to tell, but I couldn’t find it in about five minutes of looking and didn’t care to spend any more time on it.)

    In the last couple of years, we’ve tried to do more on social media at church. My son has been the main driver of that, and I see the value of it, I do. Once a day or so, I usually look at Facebook and Twitter, “like” and “share” a couple of things, and that’s about it. Once or twice a week I’ll post something. 

     When I started social media, it was to try to get back in touch with a couple of old classmates I’d lost touch with. I think that’s what most everyone used it for back then, at least the people I knew. In the years since, it’s become…something else. It’s become argumentative. Angry. It’s become a platform for venting fury and basking in self-righteousness. Many of us use it largely as an easy way to share opinions about, well, everything — often uninformed, often void of nuance, and rarely useful for actually changing differing opinions. It’s usually worst in an election year, and last year, with the election and the pandemic — man, I don’t mind saying I almost gave up on it entirely.

     I’ve been shocked by the posts of people I respect — not their opinions themselves so much, but the caustic, ugly, belittling ways in which they share them. There are exceptions, of course. There are some people posting some great stuff that’s well-researched, well-written, fair, and encouraging even when it’s challenging. But then I see some of the responses to some of those posts, and they turn my stomach. And from Christians. People who claim to follow Jesus and should know better than to post like they do.

     So I’ve been thinking about how Christians should use social media. I guess with every technology there’s a learning curve as the church figures out to use it, and how to use it, for the work of Jesus in the world. Social media, though, is unquestionably the first tech development that places so much influence in the hands (or fingers or thumbs) of individual Christians. Via a social media platform, anyone, anywhere, anytime can make any of their opinions known about any subject. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it’s really, really bad.

     Not everyone reading this uses social media. But I think what I’m going to say will mostly translate to other interactions, whether in-person, in emails or letters, or what have you.

     And, of course, this is all my opinion. Hopefully well-researched, well-written, fair, and encouraging even if challenging. But my opinion nonetheless. I can’t give you book, chapter, and verse on how Jesus used Twitter, or what Paul would Instagram. But here we go nonetheless.

     Whatever you do on social media should glorify God. “Well, duh,” you say? Sure it’s obvious. And yet, there is plenty of evidence on my own social media feeds that not everyone gets this primary and most obvious rule. Maybe we actually convince ourselves that our sarcastic post savaging a political party’s leaders and everyone who voted that way actually does bring glory to God. Maybe we tell ourselves that he needs us to defend his honor or something. Please notice in the text at the top of this post, the progression is love, then, as love abounds, knowledge and depth of insight, then discernment, then purity, blamelessness, and righteousness that glorifies God. A good way to gauge whether a post glorifies God is whether you start it to show how much you know, or to show love.

     You’re not going to win arguments on social media. You’ve seen posts go off the rails in the comments as commenters stake out their positions and defend their ground. It’s not a good format for breaking loose hardened opinions. It’s just going to escalate until it gets ugly. People can disagree with you, it’s OK. Don’t post something that’s intended to start an argument, and don’t continue an argument when it occurs. If you really want to continue the discussion, pray for opportunities to do so in a less public setting when the stakes are lower.

     Please remember that you represent Jesus and the church when you post. How many people have lost  respect for Christians because of the things they’ve seen us post? I wonder if the gains we make on social media offset the losses we’ve suffered because of our posts. At the very least, if you’re going to post ugly, angry, untruthful, insulting stuff on social media, do the rest of us a favor and delete your Bible verses, evidence of your church affiliation, and other religious posts. You’re sending a mixed message that hurts us all.

     Post words of comfort, peace, joy, and hope in Christ. Ephesians 4:29 applies. It doesn’t mean you can never post anything negative or critical, or that you shouldn’t ever call out injustice or unrighteousness. It doesn’t mean you should never curse the darkness. Just don’t forget that we have a fairly significant candle to light in the gospel of Jesus. Consider the effects your posts can have, for good and bad, on your audience.

     Never resort to name-calling, insulting, or belittling others. There’s never a good reason, and it means you’ve run out of things to say. First Peter 2:21-23 applies to social media too.

     Limit your time. How much is too much? I don’t know, but if you’re on social media more than you’re reading the Bible or interacting with the members of your church, it’s too much. Try this, if you think you might be on too much: delete the apps from your phone. Or tell your phone not to notify you every time there’s a new post. Those apps make it too easy, sometimes. Having to sit down with a computer when you have a wifi signal and open a browser to get to your social media will impose some limits on the amount of time you have to spend with it.

     Look, none of us is perfect. We all make mistakes in the things we say and do, and our use of social media will be no exception. So let’s be sure to own up to it when we do. Apologize to those we might have hurt. Resolve to do better. Ask God to help us, the Holy Spirit to guide us, and the life of Jesus to come through in our lives — including our online lives.

     To God be the glory. And may those who interact with what we put on social media give praise to him. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Opening Up

 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest and repent. 

     Here I am! I stand at the door  and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,  I will come in  and eat with that person, and they with me. 

-Jesus, Revelation 3:19-20 (NIV)

It’s a big weekend in Chicago. As I write this, Wrigley Field is full for a Cubs game since 2019. Shops and restaurants are at full capacity too. Masks aren’t required for those who have been vaccinated in most settings. If the traffic is any indication, people are leaving work early to take long weekends. Things are opening up.

     The same around church, too. Oh, we like to say that we never closed, and we didn’t. But there was a long while that we couldn’t get together in person. There was a long while that we were masked and distanced when we were together, waving at each other across the room but unable to shake hands, hug, or put a friendly hand on a shoulder as we talked. 

     Now we’re taking down signs around the building. We’re opening up pews that haven’t hosted a body in over a year. Hymn books and Bibles are going back in their racks. (A year ago, taking them out seemed like the smart thing to do.) Things are starting to look more like they did before we had ever heard of COVID-19. Oh, some of us will wear masks for a while yet, maybe a lot of us. Still, there’s a feeling of celebration in the air that I haven’t really felt in a while. 

     Things are opening up. 

     And we should celebrate. I’m happy for the business owners who have had to ride out something that they never imagined they’d have to deal with. I’m happy for families who can take long-delayed trips. I’m happy that there will be reunions, and that we can go to movies and restaurants again, and that homers will raise up cheers that only a crowd of 40,000 can create. 

     I’m happy that maybe our church is turning a corner too, that maybe some of us will take the opportunity to be present at worship physically for the first time in a long time. I imagine I’ll go to bed Saturday night wondering who I’ll get to see Sunday for the first time in a while. 

     Things are opening up. We should celebrate.

     So the last thing I want to do is pour cold water on this whole celebration deal. But then, isn’t that what preachers do? Isn’t it kind of in my job description to be a buzzkill?

     No, it just seems that way. Still, Jesus has something to say about opening things up, doesn’t he?

     While we celebrate — OK, maybe right after — let’s think about opening what Jesus most wants us to open.

     Revelation 3:20 is one of those verses that finds its way to our social media a lot. Taken by itself, it calls to mind pictures of a friendly Jesus who’s all smiles as he waits for us to open the doors of our hearts or whatever so that he can come in eat with us (whatever that means). In its larger context, though, Jesus has something very specific in mind. First of all, he’s speaking these words to a church that has some problems. It’s the last church on the list of churches that Jesus is speaking to in the second and third chapters of Revelation, seven churches in what was known as Asia at that time — now what we’d call Turkey. To most of those churches, Jesus has something good to say, in addition to some criticisms. But to the last church on the list, the church in the city of Laodicea, he can’t really find anything positive. They’re lukewarm, probably meaning that they hold to a weak version of faith while in many ways ignoring the obligations it places on them. They’re wealthy, which has given them the sense that they’re the masters of their own destiny, that they’re self-sufficient, that they have the world in the palm of their hand. They’re dealing with what’s almost always the dark side of wealth and prosperity: an overdeveloped sense of independence and underdeveloped sense of our own need. 

     “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked,” he says to this church.

     Church, the past year should have been a slow-motion reminder of our own wretchedness, pitifulness, blindness, and nakedness. 

     Just like everyone else, we’ve suffered sadness and depression at what we’ve lost.

     Just like everyone else, we’ve seen how inadequate we really are.

     Just like everyone else, we’ve been shown how blind we are to issues of race and class as fault lines that have opened in our country threaten to tear apart churches as well.

     Just like everyone else, we’ve seen — or should have seen — how much of the culture we’ve built and have placed such value on is worthless, turned to rags by one microscopic organism

     As we get back to normal, well, let’s not go back to normal.

     As we reopen our restaurants, our shops, or ballparks, our homes, our theaters…wait, what’s that knocking? Why is that one door over there still closed?

     “I stand at the door  and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,  I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Jesus’ words to us are as relevant as they were to this church half a world away from us over two thousand years ago. As Jesus reminded that church, we need his riches so that we’ll stop being so hypnotized by our own. We need him to cover our shame, the shame of selfishness and greed and arrogance and immorality and injustice, of racism and sexism, the shame we’ve covered ourselves with by hating our political enemies and passing on lies that only serve those in power. We need him to open our eyes so that we can see our neighbor who we’re called to love, the hope of God’s kingdom, and the path that Jesus would have us walk in this world.

     These are hard words, as we’ve accomplished so much and been through so much: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” But Jesus speaks these words because he loves us. He wants us to be better, he knows we can be, and so he let us have it a little so maybe we’ll wake up. 

     “So be earnest and repent.” This is how we open the door. This is how we invite Jesus in to sit in our pews with us and change our lives. So as we celebrate reopening, let’s also take a moment to repent. Let’s lay before Jesus those things in our lives we’re not proud of, those hidden sins that have come out under the pressure of the pandemic. Say it with me, “We’re wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” 

     Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ that he shares his riches, clothes our nakedness, opens our eyes.

     Whatever reopening gains us, it’s more of the same if we don’t invite him in.

Friday, June 4, 2021

When We're Weak, Then We're Strong

      Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

-2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NIV)

I noticed an article in Christianity Today recently about a peer-reviewed study in a journal called The Sociology of Religion. One of the researchers associated with the study, Nilay Saiya, wrote the article, called “Proof That Political Privilege Is Harmful for Christianity.” Saiya begins the article with a provocative statement: 

“In our statistical analysis of a global sample of 166 countries from 2010 to 2020, we find that the most important determinant of Christian vitality is the extent to which governments give official support to Christianity through their laws and policies. However, it is not in the way devout believers might expect. As governmental support for Christianity increases, the number of Christians declines significantly.” 

He goes on to say this: “our numerous statistical tests of the available data reveal that the relationship between state privilege of Christianity and Christian decline is a causal one, as opposed to only correlation.”

     What that means is that their data is consistent enough and broad enough to show that there is a direct relationship between the degree to which a nation’s government is supportive of Christianity and declining numbers of Christians in that country. Here’s a graph of the data from the article:

The horizontal axis of the graph plots the degree of what the researchers term “Christian privilege”: the degree to which a given country’s government gives official support to Christianity above other religions through their laws and policies in the time frame of 2010-2020. The vertical axis plots the percentage of growth or decline in the number of people who identify as Christians in the same time period. The further up on the vertical axis you go, the more Christianity is growing. The further right on the horizontal axis you go, the more official support a government gives. The red dots represent where the countries they researched fall on both axes. 

     The conclusions their research leads them to is very simple: government support is detrimental to the growth of Christianity in a country. In countries that are pluralistic — open to many different religions — Christianity grows more steadily, and sometimes spectacularly. In countries that privilege Christianity through government support, Christianity declines. In some cases, persecution strengthens the church, and in no countries that persecute Christians is Christianity declining.

     This shouldn’t surprise us, should it? Paul heard from Jesus regarding his prayer that a weakness he was suffering be taken away: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And so he said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Peter told the churches he was responsible for, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Jesus said “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

     Why are surprised and shocked and surprised and hurt and outraged when people in our world don’t privilege Christianity? Why does it scare us? Why does it make us fear for the loss of “our way of life” or “our Christian heritage”? A country can’t be Christian, any more than a school or a company can. At most it can be founded by people who have a Christian perspective on the world and favor Christianity in its laws and policies. If it does, though, this study suggests that it isn’t doing the church any favors.

     Christianity does better when Christians have to struggle. The church grows and spreads the gospel best when we have to do so in an atmosphere of competing ideas and values and perspectives. Perhaps that’s because when we struggle we have to pray more. We have to be better acquainted with the gospel and how to communicate it. Maybe it has to do with the fact that we depend more on the Holy Spirit when the government isn’t our friend. Maybe — and I tend to think this is pretty important — when Christians aren’t favored, we learn to care more for others who are marginalized, different, and out-of-favor. And they see in us the love of Jesus.

     Maybe it’s just because, when we are faithful and full of the love and grace of God even when we’re misunderstood, mocked, and hated, we follow in the footsteps of our Savior and Lord. 

     So don’t be afraid. Don’t imagine that we need a favorable climate maintained by the government to communicate the gospel and widen the borders of the Kingdom. We don’t need that at all.

     We might even do better without it.