Friday, November 18, 2022

The Boss' Five Best Songs of Faith

 My son and I were having a conversation about what we consider Bruce Springsteen’s best songs. After talking about some of our favorites, I started thinking about how he’s spoken about his (lapsed) Catholicism: he isn’t practicing, but he’s “still on the team.” He uses religious imagery pretty frequently. And he has famously said, of the way he structures his songs, “The verse is the blues, the chorus is the gospel.”

     It’s interesting how so much of popular music wrestles with, aspires to, and even embraces faith. I guess that’s  because those are themes common to humanity. 

     So, mostly for me and maybe a little bit for you, and in no particular order, here’s my list of Bruce Springsteen’s Five Best Songs of Faith. Try it with an artist you like. 

The Rising (from The Rising, 2002) 

    The title track from Springsteen’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks tells the story of a New York City firefighter who comes to the scene “carrying the cross of [his] calling” — his NYFD insignia, based on the cross of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. He ascends the stairs of the burning World Trade Center, surrounded by the “spirits” of those whose faces have “gone black” in the fire. “May their precious blood bind me,” he sings, “Lord as I stand before your fiery light.” 

     While the verse talks about fear, destruction, and death, the chorus invites us to resurrection: “Come on up for The Rising /Come on up, lay your hands in mine /Come on up for The Rising /Come on up for The Rising tonight.” Our firefighter sees “Mary in the Garden” — maybe Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, maybe a wife named Mary. Or maybe both.

     Author Jeffrey Symynkywicz calls the song "a national Good Friday experience if ever there was one.” In a moment of darkness for all of us, Springsteen called us to believe in “The Rising” — the hope of resurrection.

My City of Ruins (from The Rising, 2002)

    Springsteen wrote this song about his hometown, Asbury Park, New Jersey, years earlier, but included it on The Rising for obvious reasons. The lyrics tell of a city in decline, with “boarded-up windows,” “empty streets,” and “young men on the corner like scattered leaves.” In a particularly poignant line, he sings, “The church door's thrown open / I can hear the organ's song / But the congregation's gone.” “Tell me how do I begin again?” he asks.

     The answer comes in a refrain: “With these hands.” He intends to rebuild. He repeats that line 20 times, alternated with another: “I pray.” He prays for the strength, love, and faith to use his hands to rebuild what’s been ruined. The song captures the sorrow of loss and the hope that with faith in God human beings can rebuild what’s lost. It reminds me that God often does his reconstructive work with the hands of the faithful.

Badlands (from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)

     This one is sneaky of me. It’s one of my favorite songs, period. It sounds at first listen like a typical Springsteen rocker about a guy who finds himself discouraged by his situation in life, who’s had his “back burned” by “working in the fields” and has his “facts learned” by “working beneath the wheels.” 

     But in the anger and disappointment, you might miss these lines: “I believe in the love that you gave me / I believe in the faith that can save me / I believe in the hope and I pray that someday / it may raise me above these badlands…”

     Faith, hope, and love. These three remain. 

Rocky Ground (from Wrecking Ball, 2012)

     This song is probably the most overtly religious of any in Springsteen’s catalog. It a line from a gospel song, “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” looped throughout the refrain. From the opening lines, “Rise up shepherd, rise up / Your flock has roamed far from the hills,” and “angels…shouting ‘Glory, Hallelujah,” the song calls for those who would shepherd the wandering flock to listen. “Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land,” Springsteen sings, referring to the financial injustice that Wrecking Ball addresses, but “Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand.” “Find your flock, get them to higher ground,” he urges (political leaders, maybe?). “Flood waters rising and we're Caanan bound.” Maybe we all have responsibility as shepherds: “Tend to your flock or they will stray / We’ll be called for our service come Judgment Day / Before we cross that river wide / Blood on our hands will come back on us twice.”

     The song wants us to be soldiers, shepherds leading those who are struggling to safety over “rocky ground,” believing that “a new day’s coming.” But there’s doubt still, as captured in a rap section by Michelle Moore:

You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best

That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest

You raise your children and you teach them to walk straight and sure

You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more

You try to sleep, you toss and turn, the bottom's dropping out

Where you once had faith now there's only doubt

You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayers

The morning breaks, you awake but no one's there.

Jesus Was an Only Son (from Devils and Dust, 2005)

     This is just a pretty little ballad in which Springsteen has said he wanted to “reach into the idea of Jesus…as somebody’s boy.” It begins with Jesus walking up Calvary, with Mary beside him. It flashes back to him laying at Mary’s feet, reading the Psalms as a boy “in the hills of Nazareth.” She remembers her own promise that she’ll be “at his side” to keep away “shadow,” “darkness,” and “tolling bell.” But then in Gethsemane he “prayed for the life he'd never live” — maybe one in which he could comfort his mother as she had comforted him. It ends with these lines, a little stab of hope for everyone who has to watch their children suffer: “Jesus kissed his mother's hands / Whispered, "Mother, still your tears / For remember the soul of the universe / Willed a world and it appeared.” God brings something out of nothing: that’s what he did at Creation, that’s what he did at Calvary, and that’s the promise still when we trust in him. 

     Some honorable mentions have already come to mind, but I’ll just say that I think it’s good for us as believers to look for the ways God is working in our world. Sometimes we’re inclined to think popular culture is Godless — and sometimes it is. But human beings, Christians believe, have a need for God whether we admit it or not. Let’s look for the ways that need shows itself, thank God for it, and ask how we can help people answer it. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

Bible Study

      But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

-2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV)

The church has always valued the Bible. We’ve always been rooted in and formed by it. Oh, we’ve sometimes disagreed among ourselves on how Bible authority works, but we’ve pretty much always agreed that it is our authority.

     Increasingly, though, we live in a world in which the Bible’s authority isn’t taken for granted. Few outside the church — and even some inside it — see the importance of it. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you don’t think the study of the Bible is for you. You don’t teach Bible classes or preach. Maybe you don’t even like to read very much. Maybe there are some things in the Bible you’ve had a hard time understanding. 

     Or maybe it’s not so much understanding but acceptance: You’re wondering what millennia-old documents from ancient cultures, filled with fantastical and incredible events, offer to me as a guide for my life? 

     If any of that sounds like you, then I want to tell you that the study of the Bible is most definitely for you. Maybe you just need a little help. I’m not the last word, you understand, far from it, but I do preach and teach from the Bible every week. I’ve studied it really all my life. And maybe I can offer you some thoughts on how to make studying the Bible more profitable for you. I’m going to start by pointing you to 2 Timothy 3:14-17, which is one of the places that the Bible has something to say about the study of Scripture. It’s part of a letter from Paul, the apostle and missionary, to Timothy, a younger co-worker of his who he had left in charge of a church in the town of Ephesus. 

    The first thing I’d point out is that the Bible is “inspired.” Maybe you’ve heard that before, and even believe it. But most of us are dealing with all kinds of extra baggage when we hear that word. Lots of adjectives have been added to what Paul says about Scripture: “inerrant” (there are no mistakes), “infallible” (it cannot be wrong), and “literal” (it should always be interpreted at face value). Sometimes those adjectives have been made into a litmus test of faithfulness; if you don’t affirm them, you aren’t committed to biblical authority. But when Paul said that the Scriptures are “God-breathed,” he wasn’t saying that you have to believe in a literal six-day Creation or that God and Satan literally had a conversation about Job. (Nor was he saying that you shouldn’t believe either of those things.)

     Paul was talking about the origin of the Scriptures, that they come from God, that they’re infused with God’s voice and vibrating with his life. That being the case, God can communicate in metaphor. He can speak to us through parable and even myth. Sometimes in the Bible he even speaks through the godless, faithless words and actions of those opposed to his purposes in the world. As we read the Bible, let’s leave off the extra adjectives we might want to attach to it and just go with “inspired.” Breathed out by God. When you read Scripture in all of its diversity and variation and eclectic kinds of literature, you’re hearing God’s voice. 

     Related to that, knowing the Bible isn’t the point. A lot of damage has been done in the world by people who know the Bible well. Much evil has been done by men and women who have studied the Scriptures and use them to justify and hide their misdeeds. Maybe that’s one of the reasons you don’t care to read it — you’ve been put off by the hypocrisy of some of those who have. Don’t read the Bible to win arguments or prove a point or assemble list of “gotcha” verses. Paul told Timothy that the Scriptures made him “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” The point of reading the Bible is to know Jesus. To see God’s work of salvation in the world. To consider how we can be a part of it. Knowledge of the Bible won’t magically save you. But taking it into your heart and mind will point you toward the God who loves you and has already done his work of salvation in the world. It will lead you to faith in Jesus. It will rebuke, correct, train, and equip you to serve God and do good in the world. 

     Like Timothy in the letter, we should “know those from whom [we] learned it.” For us, that might mean being aware of the fact that none of us approach the study of Scripture with a blank slate. We’ve had people who have either encouraged or discouraged us. Some of us have families who modeled Bible study for us; others don’t. Some of us have been taught some unfortunate and untrue things regarding the Bible: that it’s riddled with “mistakes,” that it glorifies violence, slavery, and rape, that it’s responsible for a great deal of the evil in the world, that we don’t even have any idea what the Bible originally said. Others have been taught that it has authority, but have also learned some unhelpful ways to read it. Some of us want to hold on to interpretations of some parts of the Bible, correct or not, because we learned them from people whose experiences we value. All of us are affected by what we’ve already been taught about the Bible. But we still have the ability to distinguish those voices from Scripture itself, and determine for ourselves if what we’ve been taught is useful or not.

     The very first thing Paul tells Timothy about Bible study is that  he should “continue in what [he’s] learned.” That’s important, that we should continue in what we learn from our study of the Bible. In that way, learning the Bible isn’t like memorizing trivia or picking up a new skill. It’s more like learning a new language, or a musical instrument; what you learn can only be realized in practical, everyday conduct shaped by this new thing. What’s in the Bible is intended to be practiced. Lived. To study the Bible is to recalibrate. It’s to change course. It’s to let the voice of God sink so deeply into our hearts that it changes our direction and helps us to live new lives. 

     If the Bible only confirms what you already believe, then I wonder if you’re really studying it and trying to continue in it. If you think there’s nothing more to learn there for you, then I think you may be skipping over the parts that challenge your convictions. Read it with the intention of bringing your study out into the reality of your day-to-day life. Live in your Bible study. Work out its implications, even the tough ones, in the way you conduct yourself in the world of work and school and neighborhood and home and church that you inhabit.

     Of course, reading the Bible assumes that you’re using a translation that’s understandable to you. If you’re having trouble understanding yours, try a new one. There are many excellent English translations, and probably several choices if your first language isn’t English. I make some suggestions here, if you’re looking for any.

     I’d also suggest that you study the Bible with other people. It’s a community book, not an individual one. We learn much when we hear it read and interpreted by others. Surely your church has some Bible classes available. If not, you can find them online, like these or these.  

     Whether any of this makes sense to you or not, I hope you’ll make sure that regular Bible study is a part of your life. 

     And may God bless you through it.

Friday, November 4, 2022


  You have searched me, LORD,

and you know me.

  You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

  You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

-Psalm 139:1-3 (NIV)

My father-in-law passed away this week. He had been sick for a long time, “gone,” in a lot of ways, for a couple of years. We have faith in Jesus, as did he, so we don’t “grieve like those who have no hope.” We know that “to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord,” and so we view his death as a home-going. Still, even though Christian mourning is tinged with the hope of resurrection, it’s still mourning. My wife has lost her father. My son has lost his grandfather. Laura’s mom has lost her husband of 56 years. Friends and extended family have lost someone they enjoyed spending time with. That’s a lot of loss. 

     Laura said tonight as we went over his obituary that some of the people who are caregivers at the facility where John lived for the last few months “don’t know who the people they’re caring for were.” I think that was really profound. Everyone has history. They came from somewhere. They loved, they laughed, they cried, they had careers, they made mistakes, and they did good. Sometimes we tend to freeze people in the moments of their lives that we know them, and for most people we know that doesn’t do them justice. I have no doubt that if John’s caregivers could have somehow been implanted with the memories that Laura has of her dad or Edith has of her husband or Josh has of his grandfather, or even I have of my father-in-law, they’d probably go about their jobs in a different way. Guess that’s not possible, though.

     All that’s possible is to tell the stories of the people we love.

     So, maybe you’ll indulge me if I tell you who John Blount was. At least as I knew him.

     John wasn’t the kind of guy most people would think of as adventurous. Still, he moved to Chicago from Henry Country, Tennessee (not exactly a major metropolitan area) when he was just an 18-year-old kid fresh out of high school and renting a “sleeping room” (his term) across the street from his uncle’s apartment. 

     John was the kind of guy who’d go pick up two elderly ladies from church who were getting kind of forgetful and take them to the grocery store. And then smile when they came out telling him about how they had “run into” each other in the store. The store that they had just ridden to together. In John’s back seat.

     John was a guy who was asked by a dying member of his church to take care of his financial matters, mostly meaning to search his house for the cash he had hidden all around. He told his family members, “You can trust John.”

     John was an electrician who was willing to make the one-hour round trip to his daughter’s and son-in-law’s house for any repairs without showing frustration or dismay (for the most part) at said son-in-law’s cluelessness. That includes the time he came over to repair their dryer, took the thing apart and tested every circuit, and then discovered that the dryer wasn’t getting hot because it was set to “air fluff.”

     John was a guy who, along with Edith, joyfully spent time with his grandson, teaching him about stock car racing and having “adventures” with him. He was also the kind of guy who sent that grandson off to college with a tool box in his car, assembled from his own collection and now a treasured keepsake. 

     As long as he could, John went to every funeral of family and friends, whether in the Chicago area or in his home state of Tennessee. Those relationships meant the world to him, and even when he forgotten much he still remembered those names from long ago.

     John got a job at the old Oscar Mayer plant at North and Sedgwick in 1955 — by getting off a CTA bus when he saw a “now hiring” sign — and then gave that job his best for the next 30 years. He knew when he had what he needed. He wasn’t always looking for more and better. 

    When the church he and his family were a part of moved to a “better” building in a new suburb, John, Edith, and Laura and a few other families decided to stay behind and start a new church in the suburb they were leaving because they thought there should still be a church there. They sacrificed to buy and renovate a building. John taught classes and did maintenance. That church is still there today.

     And he was also willing, when it seemed like it would be better for his teenaged daughter, to move to that other church and serve there.

     He was the kind of guy who, when his daughter had narrowed her college choice down to a Christian university and another school closer to home, just wrote the check for the Christian university. (His son-in-law is especially glad that he did.)

     John didn’t finish college — his “summer job” in Chicago turned into a 30 year career — but he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known in all the ways that matter: relationally, emotionally, ethically, morally, and spiritually.

     I could say a lot more. And you could say a lot more about the people in your life too, and you should. Everyone deserves to be known and appreciated for who they are and were, for the paths they’ve travelled, the joys they’ve seen, and the struggles they’ve endured. 

     We live in a world that reduces people: to characters on a screen, an identity in a computer, a set of financial transactions, a political opinion, a medical diagnosis, an obituary. As Laura noticed, that’s no way to know who people really are. 

     In Psalm 139, the psalmist celebrates that God knows him. Knows everything about him, what he’s going to say before he says it, what he thinks, what he treasures deep in his heart. God has known him, in fact, since before he was “knit together” in his mother’s womb. The psalmist can’t escape God’s knowledge and, here’s the thing, he doesn’t want to. He welcomes God’s knowledge of him. It’s “wonderful” to him. In fact, he wants God to know him even more deeply, if that’s possible, so that anything “offensive” in him might be found out and eliminated. I don’t know, maybe we don’t really welcome that level of God knowing us. But we should. 

     We should because it’s part of love to know the beloved. Matter of fact, you can’t say love exists without that knowledge. God knows us because we matter to him. We should, like the psalmist, celebrate that. We shouldn’t want to keep anything from him because the God who knows us loves us deeply. 

     And we should do people the honor of loving them like God loves us: by knowing them. Be willing to know their pain and sorrow as well as their joy. Know the things that make them delightful, but also the things that make them difficult. Be willing to know them and accept them as they are, without doubting that they can change, grow, and improve. Let them tell their stories. Take the time to know them.

     I think you’ll find that people are more fascinating and multi-dimensional than you imagined.    

Friday, October 28, 2022

How Long?

  How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?  

-Psalm 13:1-2, NIV

Sometimes it’s an everyday, mundane kind of question: “How long?”

“How long until you can get that document to me?”

“How long until we have to leave to make it on time?”

“How long until you can get home for a visit?”

And, of course, the basic question of every childhood car trip: “How long ’til we get there?”

     But even in those everyday kinds of “how long” questions, there’s often subtext:

“I need that document now.”

“You haven’t been home for a while, and we want to see you.”

“It feels like I’ve been in this car forever.”

     “How long” is one of those loaded questions, isn’t it? It carries more freight than you might realize. Or, sometimes, maybe, what it carries is actually the whole point of asking the question.

“How long does he have, doctor?”

“How long do I have to wait until my country treats me like a full human being?”

“How long will this sin torment me?”

“How long will I be alone?”

“How long do I have to live with mental illness?”

“How long will this war go on?”

     None of those questions is really about time frame. There’s much more to them. There’s longing. There’s regret. There’s hope — maybe a little — but it’s fading fast. There’s resentment, frustration, even anger. There’s what Jesus called in the Sermon on the Mount a “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” a burning desire to see justice done, evil beaten down, and righteousness triumphant. But it clashes with the way things are right now. And so, sometimes, all you can do is ask, “How long?” 

     You might wish you didn’t, but you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve asked your own “How long” questions, too, right? Maybe even today? Maybe even right in this moment. Well, you know, as long as human beings can hope, dream, aspire, and work for something better than the way things are, we’ll ask that question. It’s inevitable.

     I’m so glad the Psalmist, David, asks it. This isn’t the only place in the psalms the question is raised, but it’s one of the most prominent. I’m glad he asks it, and I’m glad he asks it in a compilation of texts composed especially for use in worship. More than any other book in the Bible, maybe, the Psalms acknowledge that sometimes human beings ask “How long?” Even human beings of faith.

     “How long will you forget me?” David asks. “How long will you hide your face from me?” That’s David saying that it feels like God won’t even look his way, won’t even acknowledge his suffering. Whatever his circumstances specifically, David is “wrestl[ing] with his thoughts” and is filled with grief  and sorrow. Whoever his enemy is, David feels like he’s already lost. “How long are you going to let my enemy rub my nose in it, God?”

     It’s good that David asks that question, “How long?” It gives us permission to. Don’t worry, when you ask “How long” you’re not implying that God has caused whatever it is that you’re suffering. You’re not blaming God. “How long?” is a question motivated by faith. You don’t ask it if you don’t believe God is there, listening, or that he can’t or won’t do anything about it. David asks the question because he believes in God’s faithfulness, he believes that God can be trusted to come to the aid of his people. He’s just asking why God hasn’t come to his aid yet. He knows God is there; what he doesn’t know is why God hasn’t come to his rescue. 

     Look at the last two verses of the Psalm: “But I trust in your unfailing love; / my heart rejoices in your salvation. / I will sing the LORD’S praise, / for he has been good to me.” Most of the time, we ask a question like “How long?” because we believe. It isn’t a crisis of faith, not really. We know God has been good to us. We know that he has acted to save us — through Jesus, especially. We know that his compassionate faithfulness  never fails. So we wonder: “How long do I have to live with this until you come to do what you do?” 

     That’s why this question belongs in worship; even in asking it, we’re affirming God’s love, power, and compassion. This is worship in real life, where things are messy. Our worlds aren’t beautiful church buildings filled with smiling faces and uplifting music. Sometimes the music we hear in our daily lives is full of minor chords. The faces aren’t smiling, and there’s as much ugliness as beauty. “How long?” is the question believers ask in times like these. 

     We see an answer to it in the book of Revelation. It isn’t always a very satisfying answer — though maybe it ought to be more satisfying than it is. There, John sees a vision of the souls of those who have died for their faith in Jesus, crying out to God: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” God didn’t intervene, and they died. And they just know that God, who is “holy and true,” will one day vindicate them. And they want to know — “How long?”

      John’s not really interested in ghostly souls crying out for vengeance — this vision is for very much alive believers who are suffering persecution and the loss of sisters and brothers in Christ who really were martyred. They want to know “How long?” as well, and in the next verse of Revelation we have an answer: “wait a little longer.” 

     A little longer, because Christ is coming and bringing redemption and judgment with him. That may be the only answer we get, too: “wait a little longer.” That’s enough, though, because it rests on the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. What we wait for is as sure as his empty tomb, as sure as God’s love for us displayed on the cross.

     So if, like me, you find yourself asking, “How long?” — can you wait just a little longer? Just until God, in his wisdom, compassion, and grace, shows us that he’s never far from his people’s suffering? Until his patience outlasts the stubbornness of those who are his? Until we see the face of Jesus and know that through him God’s face has always been turned toward us? Our enemies, especially sin and death, will be destroyed forever, and the sorrow will be gone forever from our hearts. And then our question will change: “How long, Lord, will we share in this joyous life with you?” And there won’t be an answer. 

     After all, how do you put a time frame on forever?

Friday, October 21, 2022

Going to Church with Saul

  Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?”     (Acts 9:19-21, NIV)

Growing up, I remember many times driving past a church near my house; not quite as close as the church our family was a part of, but not much farther. It’s name was even similar to the name of our church. They both had “Church of Christ” on the signs. So eventually, I asked Mom or Dad why we didn’t go to that church. I wasn’t looking to move, you understand. I was just curious.

     What I was really asking, I guess, was why two very similar churches literally a five minute drive from each other both existed. 

     At some point, someone explained to me that our church and this other one differed on some specific practices, the details of which I won’t bore you with now. I’ve since been in many places where similar churches existed just minutes from each other. It’s not my job to evaluate the validity of those disagreements that created two churches where there needed to be or had been only one. Some disagreements can’t be worked out, I know. Believers today shouldn’t be held responsible for decades-old divisions that they might know nothing or next to nothing about. Plenty of good has been done in the name of Jesus by churches that originated in a contentious, angry split from other churches — just one more example of God’s redeeming power. 

     But the fact of division raises a question: If well-meaning churches before us have divided over issues that no one today remembers or cares about, then how do we maintain unity? 

     You probably know the name Paul; one of the great early missionaries and theologians of the church. Saul is a name not as many people know, but before Paul was Paul he was Saul, a persecutor of the church. He met Jesus, famously, on the road to Damascus, and from then on he was a proclaimer of the gospel.    

     What a great story, right? Well, when Saul tried to go to church after his conversion the believers in Damascus were, not surprisingly, a little wary. They asked two solid questions: “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name?” And, “Hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” In short, “How do we know this guy is who he says he is? How do we know he’s OK?” 

     Those are fair questions. As much as the church should be open and accepting, there are times when we have to shut the door in the faces of wolves. There are people who will steer us away from the gospel if we let them. There are people who, in the name of Jesus, will take advantage of others. In cases like that it’s necessary for a church to divide.

     But how do we know when? More to the point, how do we maintain unity when we shouldn’t divide?

     Sometimes we base unity on agreement about “essential matters.” Trouble is, no one agrees on what’s essential. Most of us might think Sunday school is a good thing. Most of us might say that the number of cups used in communion is a matter of indifference. But for Christians bothered because they find no authority in Scripture for having divided Sunday school classes or more than one cup in communion, those things are absolutely essential. And sometimes “essential” doesn’t include that things it should, like justice and integrity. “Essential” can mean so much that it means nothing.

     So, on the other hand, we sometimes base unity on a least common denominator approach to Christianity. I think every person who calls themselves Christian thinks that there was a person called Jesus who lived in the first century and who taught some things. Does that work? Thomas Jefferson literally cut his miracles out of the gospels, but he believed that Jesus lived and taught. Some would say that his resurrection was a metaphor, but they believe in a person named Jesus who said at least some of the things attributed to him. Some stick the face of Jesus on their political rhetoric. Muslims venerate him as the greatest of Allah’s prophets — at least up until Muhammad. So I don’t think a least common denominator approach to unity covers enough to be useful.

     From the way the early church handled “the Saul situation,” we get some better answers about what to do when we have questions and wonder if unity is possible. Their example says a lot about making it a priority.

     We see in Acts that Saul “at once” started preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. He “baffled” his opponents by “proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” Through the Scriptures, no doubt, Saul made a compelling case for Jesus. 

     So that’s a good place for us to start, too, in maintaining unity. What’s the message? Too often, I think, churches divide when the message gets foggy. There might be a lot of things that make your church very interesting, unique, and special. But those aren’t the message. You might have some fascinating and controversial takes on this issue or that text of Scripture. Those aren’t the message. You might disagree with another church, but that isn’t the message either. There are other things worth talking about sometimes, of course. But Jesus — who he is, what he did, what Scripture says about him — that’s the message. Don’t let the message get foggy. Don’t get distracted. Go “at once” and start preaching Jesus. And when you see other people preaching Jesus — well, at the very least, they aren’t your enemies.

     Things got tougher for Saul, though. His Jesus preaching upset folks so much that they wanted to kill him. Saul had to sneak out of Damascus with the help of “his followers.” Saul’s preaching had been so convincing that he was mentoring a group of Jesus-followers by this time. 

     If someone’s faithfulness to Jesus holds up through difficulty, what you have there is a fellow believer. Someone who carries their cross — endures hardship for their faith — is in Jesus’ words a disciple of his. This one might take some time to know, but if you’re seeing someone who lives by and proclaims the gospel even when it causes them problems, that’s a sister or brother in Christ.

     When Saul snuck out of Damascus, he went to Jerusalem, where it started again. “Can we trust him?” I’ve seen a lot of church leaders in my lifetime who would never have accepted Saul. I pray I’m not one of them.

     But Saul has an advocate, a man named Barnabas. Barnabas goes with him to Jerusalem and vouches for him. He told the apostles about the message Saul had preached, and about the fearlessness with which he endured hardship. And because they trusted Barnabas, they accepted Saul.

     Let’s be advocates. I saw a website this week on which a church I’m familiar with was attacked for a change in practice on Sunday mornings. Let’s be the opposite. Let’s be advocates. Notice people and churches who preach the good news of Jesus. Note those who endure hardship and persecution with love. And tell someone, “That’s my family.”

     Preach Jesus. Endure hardship. Be advocates for those who do. If we can take these things seriously, then there might be fewer churches. But they’ll be stronger and more united, and a much better witness to the gospel.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Like Scarlet

  “Come now, let us settle the matter,”

says the LORD.

“Though your sins are like scarlet,

they shall be as white as snow;

though they are red as crimson,

they shall be like wool.”

-Isaiah 1:18 (NIV)

We got tagged this week.

     Sometime in the night, someone sprayed graffiti on the walls of the church, and on our sign. It was only the second time it’s happened in 28 years, and by far the most extensive, so we can’t really complain. I do wish it had at least been a little more artistic — I’m pretty sure an 8-year-old with a spray-paint can could have done as well as our “artist” did. Maybe what bothered me most is that one of the tags obscured the “Christ” in our sign.

     In the grand scheme of things it’s no big deal, but it was a little jarring. And not just for me: Some neighbors were more upset than I was. More than one worried that it would take a long time for the city to remove it.

     Thankfully, I know someone who was able to help, a community liaison officer with the Chicago Police Department named Deanna. She’s volunteered at our food pantry before, so she knows us well. I reached out to her. I don’t know exactly who she spoke to, but by the end of the day there was a guy outside blasting it all off our walls. Fifteen, twenty minutes later you couldn’t tell it had ever been there.  

     And this verse from Isaiah came to mind. 

     For context, God says through the prophet that he hasn’t been listening to their prayers. What? Could that be right? Yep, there it is: “even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.” God says he “hates” Israel’s religious observances, their assemblies and offerings and festivals, that he’s “tired” of them. He tells his people that when they come to the temple for worship, all they’re doing is trampling his lawn. Even though the Law tells them that they need to do these things, God wishes they wouldn’t. Why? 

     Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Their religion has lost its meaning because it hasn’t affected the way they treat each other. The same Law that required them to make sacrifices and observe Passover and what have you also required them to treat each other the right way. “Your hands are full of blood,” God says. “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

     And that’s where our text comes. “Let’s reason together,” God says. He and Israel have a problem to solve. A good translation actually might be, “Let’s consider your options.” God isn’t going to compromise on this. He expects justice and righteousness. He expects that those with power and resources and leverage should come to the aid of those who lack them. So Israel has some choices to make.

     One of those is that their sins, scarlet and crimson and out of place like graffiti on the side of a church, can be washed away. They can be “as white as snow,” as clean as newly-shorn wool. The other option isn’t so good: “if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” They need to “wash and make themselves clean” by learning to do right, seeking justice, defending the oppressed, and advocating for those who have no one else to advocate for them and could be easily taken advantage of. 

     Here’s what came to mind for me as that city worker blasted the graffiti off the side of the church: “Well, that was easy.” And it truly was. I didn’t have to do anything but reach out to my friend. She took care of everything. 

     And I wonder if, as believers in the good news of the gospel, sometimes my attitude toward the cleansing of my sin isn’t the same? That was easy. Someone else did the work and, presto, I’m as white as snow. Jesus died for my sins and makes me clean. I’m like those folks in Revelation who “washed their robes and made them clean in the blood of the Lamb.”

     Well, John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Paul does say that Jesus was“made sin” so that we could be “made righteousness.” He wrote, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” He tells us that “works of the Law” can only make us aware of sin, not make us righteous, that righteousness only comes by God’s grace through Jesus’ death, and so there’s nothing for human beings to boast about. We’re only clean because we know who to call on.     

     That’s all true, and I would argue that with my last breath. A hundred other texts, at least, say the same thing. 

     Still, I think we get it wrong sometimes.

     Peter told his listeners on Pentecost that they needed to “repent and be baptized.” Not just be baptized. In baptism, we identify with what Jesus did to take away our sins. But in repentance, we make clear our intentions not to be controlled by sin anymore. God brings us to the place where we’re able to repent. He fills us with his Spirit so that we can, in Isaiah’s words, “learn to do right.”  

     When we say Jesus “takes away the sin of the world,” don’t think of how easy it was for me to sit back and watch that city worker blast spray-paint off brick. Think about following Jesus into that same work, starting with your own heart and mind. 

     Don’t misunderstand: We can’t save ourselves, not even through repentance. We need Jesus because none of us are able to escape sin on our own. We’re too deeply marked by it. Our world is too deeply marked by it. What Jesus did broke the power of sin over us. Through his sacrifice, he buys us out of slavery to it. 

     So what I mean is that what Isaiah said to Israel is still true for us: Jesus can make us clean. He can take the stain of our sin away and make us “white as snow.” And in doing that, he makes it possible for us to “stop doing wrong” and “learn to do right.” He invites us into the lifelong task of pushing back against the power of sin, in our own lives and in the world around us, by doing good. Seeking justice. Taking care of those on the margins. 

     Sometimes we seem to think that God suddenly changed his expectations between the Old Testament and the New, that he lowered the bar. The truth is that through Jesus God made it possible for us to be the people he always intended for us to be. He brought into being Jeremiah’s “new covenant” in which God’s Law could be in our hearts and we could all know the Lord. 

     It’s a cheap grace that doesn’t change our hearts and minds and bring us to repentance. That makes us care only about my sins being blasted away, and not at all about how I live in the world around me. If we don’t get that, then maybe we, too, need to take some time to reason with God, to hear that God is tired of our prayers and our religious piety because it does nothing to make us compassionate for those around us.

     That’s hard to hear. But it’s what we need. May we all receive the cleansing we need through Jesus.

     And may we repent of the scarlet sin that keeps on obscuring that we belong to Christ.

Friday, September 30, 2022

"That All of Them May Be One"

 I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one,  Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me,  that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity..

-John 17:20-23 (NIV)

Like many of you who read this blog, I belong to a church that calls itself a “Church of Christ.” I’ve spent my entire life in Churches of Christ, and though I know something about our weaknesses and failures I have no regrets. (I imagine that’s largely because of the particular congregation I’ve spent almost 30 years of my life with.) There are things I love and deeply appreciate about our fellowship: our insistence that baptism and Communion matter, our willingness to let the Bible be our authority, our eclectic music tradition, our tendency to push against authoritarianism. But my favorite thing about us, I think, is that we are at heart a unity movement — even though we too easily forget it.

     Without going too deeply into history you can dig up elsewhere, we came about after a wild collection of Presbyterians, Baptists, proto-Pentecostals, and who knows what else with a desire to just be Christians dared to imagine that they could jettison their denominational baggage and unite around Scripture. To me, it doesn’t matter that we haven’t always been true to that vision, and in fact some of us have been about as sectarian as anyone in Christendom. It doesn't matter that, to some degree, it was a naive hope to imagine that we could ever arrive at perfect unity based on the Bible. That impulse to be united was a noble one. It still is, even if we're a little more cynical than our forebears that it can be achieved.  

     Jesus’ prayer before his sacrifice was that those who believed in him would be one, just as he and the Father were one. That unity, he said, would come not from everyone agreeing about everything but from the glory of God that Jesus places in us. It would come when “the love [the Father has] for [the Son]” is “in them so that [Jesus himself] may be in them.” God’s glory and love — that’s where unity comes from. The reason we haven’t gotten there yet is because God’s glory and love are ever in need of renewal in us.

     Unity’s hard, but it isn’t only up to us. That’s why Paul wrote that we should “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” The Spirit creates that unity, the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but we have to maintain it by keeping the bonds of peace strong. That work never ends.

     So if you believe, like I do, that unity among believers is important, then let me suggest some tangible things you can do to help keep that Spirit-created, love-infused unity.

     1. Pray for unity. Jesus did. Pray for people you know from other groups, denominations, and tribes, people you know who love Jesus but might see some things differently from you. You can pray for them to see the light, fine — but not before you pray that God will help you love them just as they are.

     2. Repent of pride. If we don’t watch ourselves, we can really get proud of how we have “it” — whatever “it” is — right while everyone else has “it” wrong. If we do, it’s because of God and not our own righteousness. And “they” — whoever “they” is — probably have some things right that we have wrong. And having “it” right or wrong means nothing anyway without love, grace, and humility.

     3. Refuse to caricature anyone else. Sometimes we aren’t fair to other groups, to their intentions or their efforts or their authenticity. We tend to compare the best examples of “us” against the worst examples of “them.” I grew up hearing  that Catholics don’t care about the Bible, for instance. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Catholic Bible scholars! I learned too-simple criticisms of Calvinist teaching that never acknowledged how Calvinists themselves discussed and worked through those problems. Paul reminds us to give each other some grace and assume that others want to please God as much as we do. Let’s do that.

     4. Look for evidence that God is working through others who aren’t in “your” group. Jesus seemed genuinely shocked to find his disciples stopping someone from casting out demons in his name because they weren’t part of their group. “Why would you stop him?” he asked. You know why, don’t you? Sometimes we don’t want to admit that God might be doing something through this other group of Jesus-followers that aren’t much like us. But if God can use imperfect “us,” surely there are some imperfect “thems” he can use, too. Affirm it when you see it. Join in if you can. 

     5. Focus on Jesus. Read the Bible to see the story of God’s salvation as it narrows down to the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not to learn how to win arguments and correct others. If you learn Jesus, you’ll start to look, sound, and act more and more like him. And then you’ll know how to discuss differences and help others grow through love and service.

     6. Take small steps. Unity doesn’t just happen, especially where it’s been absent. I’ve been a part of an ecumenical Thanksgiving service in our neighborhood. I’ve been talking with some church leaders in the neighborhood about a regular “clergy” breakfast. Our church will be the meeting place for a group of religious leaders and police to discuss community needs. Maybe you’ll find common cause with members of other groups in a community food drive or a Bible study group. Maybe it’ll just be a friendly conversation with that other person at work who reads their Bible every day. Maybe you’ll read a book by someone outside of “your tribe.” Don’t cross any lines that you can't feel good about. But take a step toward understanding and appreciation. 

     7. Hold on to your convictions. Authentic unity isn’t least-common-denominator Christianity in which most every truth is relative. It happens when we love one another in spite of our differences, and begin to learn from each other. The differences that matter to us can help us to see how multi-faceted the kingdom of God can be. And how little of God’s truth any of us grasps by ourselves. Unity, contrary to what some might have you think, doesn’t require you to give up any convictions. It only requires that we give up pride, hostility, and arrogance.

     8. Don’t let yourself be bullied into intolerance. Sometimes when you extend peace to someone who differs from you, others will say you’ve compromised. They’ll try to force you into line. That’s their fear talking, fear that in unity something is lost. Resist that. Truth has nothing to fear from dialogue and collaboration. Ignore your critics. Don’t let their fear turn you away from the unity Jesus prayed for. But do pray for them. Include them in your efforts for unity. The kingdom is big enough to encompass them and the people they can’t accept.    

     Again, none of this requires that you let go of any of your convictions, that you change anything that’s important to you. It only requires that you have a view of the world that allows for the possibility that you and the followers of Jesus you identify most closely with might not have cornered the market on truth, nor are you the only recipients of God’s grace. We are united with others who have put their hope and trust in what God has done for us through Jesus. Thinking alike about everything else is not possible, and not required.

     May we look to the Father, Son, and Spirit, and find there a model for unity.

     And may our unity be a witness to the world of what Jesus can do.