Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Celebrating New Creation in the New Year

      For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

     So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:14-19, NIV)

Maybe we need reminding. Another New Year’s Day has come. COVID is still in the news. Vaccines. Political turmoil. War. So maybe we need to hear it again. 

       We’ve lost or changed jobs in the last couple of years, or we're doing them in ways we’ve never done them before, for companies and organizations that have changed drastically. 

     The economy has changed. Supply chain and staffing issues have affected how companies we deal with work, what’s available to buy, how we travel. We’re budgeting differently, planning for a different future than we’d envisioned. 

     We need reminding.

     As always, world events worry us. But this New Year maybe they seem a little more frightening than usual, a little closer to home. 

     Some of us start a New Year missing family and friends who we’ll never give Happy New Year wishes to again. And we wonder how any New Year from here on out will ever be a truly Happy one.

     Even church has changed; the schedule, the way we do things, the time we spend together. Some of us have traded in-person presence for online. Those of us who haven’t worry about where everyone is.  

     We’re stressed. It seems like there’s bad news everywhere. 

     Yes, I think we need reminding.

     Right in the middle of that reading up at the top of the page is what we need reminding of. You see it?

     If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.

     A lot of English translations have there some variation of “that person is a new creation.” But this is a good example of why translation matters, and how sometimes it takes a translation a few tries to get it right. The Greek Paul uses here would be literally translated something like, “If a person is in Christ — new creation!” It isn’t wrong, of course, to understand that a person who comes to faith in Jesus is made new. It’s just that he or she is made new because they become a part of God’s new creation.

     See, it’s not just that in Christ you’re made new in the forgiveness of your sins and the presence of the Holy Spirit to help you and the new purpose you have. It’s that you become a part of what God is doing to make everything new. The old has gone. The new is here.

     That idea of “new creation” is from the part of the Bible we call the Old Testament, but that Paul would have just called “the Scriptures.” In Isaiah 65, for example, the prophet looks ahead to a time past the exile, the loss of the Promised Land and the temple and national sovereignty, to a time when God’s people will “be glad and rejoice forever” in what God will create, a time when “the past troubles will be forgotten:”  

“See, I will create 

new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

nor will they come to mind.”

     “Heavens and earth,” of course, are a summary of God’s created universe, as in Genesis 1:1. Paul isn’t coming up with anything new in 2 Corinthians. What he’s saying is that the centuries-old hope that God will remake creation is finally coming to fulfillment, that it’s happening all around and in the church to which he’s writing, that they’re being made new individually and that they’re being made new as a community, that the whole heavens and earth are being made new, in fact. And that it’s happening through Jesus. God is “reconciling” human beings to himself, he’s wiping away all the devastation caused by human sin and selfishness and replacing it with his love as seen in Jesus. And he’s saying that this will quite literally change the world.

     We need reminding right now that God’s purposes in Jesus aren’t diverted in the slightest by a pandemic or political instability or anger or hate. “Christ’s love compels us,” Paul says. It compels us to see each other differently, not as adversaries but as human beings loved by God. It compels us to choose to live for others, and not ourselves. It compels us to stop copying the world’s ignorant, stupid, self-absorbed ways of seeing and dismissing one another. It compels us to accept the ministry he has given us — the ministry of taking the message of his reconciliation to a world that’s going on as if God hasn’t made everything new in Jesus.

     I know, it’s hard to see sometimes. That’s why we need reminding. 

     See, though, to really grasp this and take it seriously is to see that, as sure as we’ve been made a part of God’s new creation in Christ, we’ve been given a job to do. A responsibility. We’re representatives of that new creation to the world around us. 

     So we must actively push back against our tendency to see others “from a worldly point of view”. Instead of giving in to the habit of dividing ourselves and the people around us into categories, tribes, allies, enemies, people like us and people not like us, we see every person as a creature of God, made to bear his image, and  as a possible location for his new creation. We must act in such a way as to demonstrate and advocate for each person’s dignity and value, simply because they are human beings. We must develop the new habit of seeing them through the lenses of the new creation brought about through Jesus’ incarnation as a human being. In Christ, God is showing that he is not inclined to count peoples’ sins against them. How can we?

     The message we are to carry to the world is not a message of judgment, disregard, contempt, or anger. We aren’t called to give voice to the politics of fear. We certainly aren’t to be spokespeople for the powerful, the corrupt, and the privileged. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” — that’s our message. New creation — that’s the world in which we live now.

     New creation has something to say about the pandemic in which we find ourselves. It has something to say about the threats to human worth and freedom and flourishing that even some of our political leaders are willing to tolerate or even perpetrate. It has something to say about our life goals, the purposes for which we live, and the way we interact with those around us. May our lives always be labs for that new creation, and may it spread everywhere and influence everything it touches through us.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Christmas for Misfits

      And Mary said: 

“My soul glorifies the Lord....

        He has performed mighty deeds with his arm…

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 

  He has brought down rulers from their thrones 

but has lifted up the humble. 

  He has filled the hungry with good things 

but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46, 51-53, NIV)

I was reminded this week of the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials I used to watch as a kid. You might have seen them, too — if you’re around my age, I’m almost sure you did. (I don’t know if kids watch them now; they’d probably look pretty weird to kids used to computer animation.) They were stop-motion animation, with wood puppets, bright scenery, and catchy music. My sister and I looked forward to them every year, and 45 years later or so the titles have stuck with me: The Year Without a Santa Claus. (Heat Miser. Snow Miser.) Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. The Little Drummer Boy. And, of course, the undisputed king of the Rankin-Bass specials: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. 

     You might remember that Rudolph isn’t just about the shiny-nosed misfit reindeer. There are other characters as well: an elf named Hermey who doesn’t fit in with the other elves because he wants to be a dentist, an Abominable Snowman who doesn’t fit in because he’s, well, abominable (but a very sweet guy once you get to know him), and a prospector, Yukon Cornelius, who doesn’t fit in I guess because he hasn’t found any gold? Anyway, all these misfits through a series of misadventures end up in a place called the Island of Misfit Toys. There, they meet toys that haven’t found homes because they’re defective or out-of the ordinary. There’s a train with square wheels, a squirt gun that shoots jelly, a “Charlie-in-the Box,” a spotted stuffed elephant, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a stuffed bear with a feathered tail, and a bird with a fish tail. Every year, Christmas comes and goes, but these toys stay on their island, unwanted. Misfits. Rudolph and Hermey, of course, fit right in with the misfits — even it they aren’t toys.

     Eventually, of course, Santa shows up and loads up the misfit toys to take with him — whether to give as gifts or repair, I was never quite sure. In any case, the show ended with them getting off their island and finding their place in the world.

    This time of year seems custom made for people who have somewhere they fit. Parties, family gatherings, gift-giving — it seems like Christmas is the time of year where everyone sort of returns to the places they know they fit best. We go “home for Christmas.” We eat with family or friends. We reminisce about shared memories. We laugh at inside jokes. I still have a stocking with my name on it at my parents’ house, even though I rarely am there on Christmas Day and, oh yeah, am 54 years old!

     I wonder how many “misfit” kids watched Rudolph and found some hope in seeing other misfits find their place? 

     Of course, it isn’t just kids who feel like misfits. I think one of the skills many adults learn is the ability to hide it when you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, just to smile and fake it and pretend you’re on the outside looking in because that’s where you want to be. Seriously, I think offices and schools and factory floors and boardrooms and homes and organizations must be absolutely full of people who if they felt they could be honest would tell you that they identify completely with those misfit toys, and maybe even wish sometimes that they could go somewhere everyone was a misfit. 

     I think even churches are full of people who feel like misfits. 

     I know of a church in my neighborhood who had a service last week they called “Blue Christmas.” It was intended for the misfits. It was for people who are estranged from family, or alone. It was for those who are grieving a loss. Who are celebrating Christmas with a medical diagnosis hanging over their heads. Who are going through a divorce. I think that’s a great idea. Not everyone is feeling celebratory just because December 25th rolls around. 

    Maybe though, we should remember that, when Mary sang about the first Christmas, and the baby already growing inside her, she sang about how through her God had “lifted up the humble” and “filled the hungry with good things.” I think she was singing about the fact that, though God knew of her “humble state,” he had “done great things” for her by choosing her to bring Jesus into the world. Her, of all people; a young girl in a tiny region of the greatest Empire the world had every known, a poor, unmarried, uneducated girl. 

     But she was also singing about how Jesus’ way of coming into the world was also how he would live in the world, and die — lifting up the humble and filling the hungry with good things. 

     Something Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians comes to mind:   

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise  by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose  the foolish  things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus,  who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness,  holiness  and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

     Paul’s pushing back there at the very human tendency to seek to be well thought-of, loved, influential, smart, competent, powerful, and wealthy. He asks the church at Corinth to be honest about themselves and recognize that most of them are Exhibit A that God chose the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised to be his people and to know him through Christ. He didn’t choose by human standards; if he did, most of them would have been out of luck.  “God chose the misfits,” he says. God chose the misfits.

      It’s OK to be a misfit. That’s what Rudolph taught us; misfits can be loved, valued, honored. They can fulfill their purposes in the world. And the gospel teaches us the same thing. God didn’t bring Jesus into the world through a wealthy, noble, powerful woman in Rome; he sent him through a peasant girl in hillbilly country. Because he came for the misfits. He came to show them that they were loved. That they mattered. That they had a place in God’s kingdom and that they could make a difference in the world if they would trust him.

      So, please — be a misfit. Misfits, see, have nothing to boast about except for what Jesus has done. We can’t fall back on our talent, our brains, our money or our charm or our good looks. Misfits can only say, “Look what Jesus has done for me. He’s taken me off my island and given me a place and purpose. And he will for you too.”

     Have a Merry Christmas, misfits. 

Friday, December 9, 2022

Going to Church

      I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”  (Psalm 122:1, NIV)

I went to church Sunday. That’s nothing new; I’m a minister, I preach every Sunday, so of course I went to church. I have to tell you, though, that going to church is different when you’re preaching, and not just because you don’t have to sit through a boring sermon, you get to stand. (Rim shot)

     It’s different because you’re thinking about how your sermon’s going to go until you preach it, and then you’re thinking about how it went. Then again, that’s probably not different from most everyone else there, people who have an important meeting on Monday, a medical test on Tuesday, people who had a fight with a spouse or a kid Saturday night or Sunday morning. I guess we all are distracted when we come to church. I used to think that being distracted would put me off worship, but now I realize that distractions can help to shape our worship, if what we’re thinking about and worrying about becomes what we’re praying and hearing about.

     The song leader Sunday had done a good job choosing songs that built on the theme of expectation. We sang “Where Could I Go?” leading into “Unto the Hills” (“O When for me, shall my salvation come?”) into “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (“that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear”). We sang a few more songs that reminded us that Emmanuel has come, that when we don’t know where we can go and are wondering when our salvation will come or even mourning in lonely exile, that we can know that God has chosen to be with us in Jesus and knows those feelings and has ransomed us. 

     We heard from Isaiah, who reminded us of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” that he knew was coming, who would be full of the Holy Spirit and would bring righteousness, justice, and faithfulness and “slay the wicked,” and I allowed myself a little feeling of triumph, even though I know that absent God’s grace I’m among the wicked. But there are people who take advantage of the weak and marginalized who deserve what’s coming to them, and I say that without any feelings of superiority. 

     To tell us about that new world, Isaiah paints a powerful word picture of wolves lying down with lambs and a kid leading a lion and a calf and a yearling in an animal parade, and another kid over there sticking his hand into a viper’s nest, all to make the point that in the world that the Messiah brings into being the vulnerable don’t have to worry about being hurt. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” God says through the prophet. After a month when my wife had to bury her father, I’m down for some Isaiah.

     After we heard from Isaiah, we sang “Peace in the Valley,” and it was hard for me to sing it because every time I sang, I teared up, and I had to sing that song facing the congregation and I don’t want them to think I’m a big crybaby. That’s one of my favorite songs, and I think it was one of my grandfather’s favorites (Jack, my mom’s dad), even though he wasn’t much for going to church. It starts off, “Well I’m tired and so weary, but I must go along,” and you have to appreciate that kind of stoicism, right? It’s like, “Yeah, I’m pretty worn down, but there are things to do.” You have to admire that. It made me think of everyone I know there at church with me who are tired and weary but go along anyway, hopefully with visions of Peace in the Valley on their minds.

     The song was written by Thomas Dorsey, a Black songwriter and musician who had a lot to do with fusing blues and gospel music, his two favorite genres, which come to think of it, “Peace in the Valley” is all about blues and gospel rolled together. Dorsey grew up in the Jim Crow south before moving to Chicago, so I can take a guess at some of the things that made him tired and weary. He also lost his wife and son in childbirth. Tired and so weary indeed.

     But only until “the Lord comes and calls me away.” And then after that “the morning is bright, and the Lamb is the light, and the night is as fair as the day.” There’ll be “peace in the valley,” no sadness, sorrow, or trouble. I like that it’s a valley that Dorsey looks forward to — maybe because he’s already struggled over all the mountains. The third verse borrows Isaiah’s menagerie of bears, lions, wolves, and lambs, along with little children leading beasts, and even his own tendencies toward beastliness will be gone as he is “changed from this creature that I am.”

     We turned our attention toward Communion with this odd little hymn based on an Appalachian folk song, “I Wonder as I Wander,” in which we “wonder” with the songwriter that Jesus came to die for “poor ornery sinners” like us. (The song says “like you and like I,” and one of our members is a retired English teacher and cringes every time we sing that line.) It’s good to admit that we’re all three: poor, ornery, and sinners. It’s especially good to admit it when we’re together at church, because we need to hear that others are poor ornery sinners too, that it’s not just us, and also because there are a lot of people who think Christians think they’re too good for everyone else. Well, if we believe what we sing, we know too well that we’re not what we ought to be, either.

     I was thinking as we sang this time that I’m not sure if the songwriter was saying that he wonders why Jesus came, or wonders that he came. Does he wonder about it, or at it? I think I finally decided that it’s both. The communion leader reminded us to think of our attitudes toward those sitting around us, and as I shared communion with the “poor ornery sinners” around me and who have come before me, I wondered why Jesus would come to give himself for us, and of course the only answer is that he loves us. And that, in itself, is a wonder.

     As we left, we sang of the “beautiful star of Bethlehem,” the hope of the redeemed, and asked that his light would shine on us until “the glory come.” I think that’s similar to the sentiments of Peace in the Valley, that we know we aren’t there yet, but trust that we will be and just need some light in the meantime. I’ve thought about that a lot this week, and because of that I’ve prayed more for light, and I  hope that’s made a difference in the way I’ve conducted myself this week. 

     That’s what going to church can do, come to think of it. It can change your perspective: on yourself, on the people who live around you, and on God, who has answered our lost cries by coming to us in Jesus to offer us light and who will come back again someday when “the glory come” and bring us Peace in the Valley. And that I’m in the number of “poor ornery sinners” for whom he died, so maybe I can give other people, and myself, a little bit of a break when our ornery side shows. 

     I confess that I don’t always go to church as well as I did last Sunday, but I think that’s at least as much a “me” problem as it is a church problem.

     Oh, that phrase, “go to church”: I grew up hearing that “you can’t go to church, you are the church.” I believe that, I do, but taking exception when someone talks about “going to church” is a little silly. Even though I am the church — part of it — I’m not all of it. And church, as long as we believe meeting together matters, is always going to be partly a place and time. That’s OK, because we’re people who live in space and time. And I was reminded last Sunday how much I need to carve out space and time for going to church.

     Hope  you’ll go to church with me this Sunday.

Friday, December 2, 2022

The Jeopardy of Knowing All the Answers

      For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  (Hebrews 4:12, NIV)

My family and I like trivia. We may or may not have once put together a week-long reign of terror over a cruise ship’s trivia competitions to the extent that late in the week other contestants just shook their heads and looked dispirited when they saw us come in. (Pro tip: If you don’t drink on a cruise ship, you’ll have an advantage in the trivia competitions.)

     Since we like trivia, we like watching Jeopardy. Last week we were watching the Tournament of Champions. If you’ve never watched the TOC, the first thing you have to know is that the clues are hard: much harder than normal Jeopardy. Seriously, they’ll make you feel bad about yourself. 

     So I was excited when the Final Jeopardy category one night was “The New Testament.” I don’t know everything about the Bible, but I’m 95% sure that I’ll know the answer to Jeopardy Bible clues. Even during the TOC. That’s kind of my wheelhouse. So I was feeling good about it. 

     The clue was: “Paul’s letter to them is the New Testament epistle with the most Old Testament quotations.” 

     Now, the correct response to that clue is, “Who are the Romans?” Sam Buttrey answered correctly. Amy Schneider and Andrew He both responded with, “Who are the Hebrews?” Sam’s response, though, was ruled incorrect, while Amy’s and Andrew’s was accepted.

     Jeopardy got it wrong. It’s true that Hebrews contains more Old Testament quotes than Romans, but almost no New Testament scholar today would tell you that Paul wrote Hebrews. If you turn to Hebrews in the King James Version, you’ll find that it’s titled “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews.” That was Jeopardy’s explanation; they use the King James Version. Book titles, however, have never been part of the original text of the Bible, either Testament. And if you happen to have access to a 1611 King James Version, you’ll find that at the end of Hebrews is a line that reads, “Written to the Hebrewes, from Italy, by Timothie.” It’s been dropped out of more modern versions of the KJV because you can’t find a manuscript earlier than the 5th century that includes it.

     The book itself doesn't make an authorship claim. There is an ancient tradition that Paul wrote it. Many of the oldest Greek and Latin manuscripts and versions that have collections of Paul’s letters include Hebrews — at least three from the fourth or fifth century have it between the letters to Thessalonica and the letters to Timothy. But authorship was disputed even then. Paul’s involvement became important because the Western church debated whether to include Hebrews in the canon, in apostolic authorship was a criterion. It doesn’t seem to have been until the 5th century, about 400 years after it was written, that Paul’s authorship was taken as anything like a settled fact. And even then it wasn’t unanimous and was based on some pretty thin evidence. 

     Others have been speculated to have written the book: Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Luke, Apollos, even Priscilla, though no solid case has been built for any of those. Still, for the last 150-200 years, the letter’s anonymity, prominent style and vocabulary differences between it and Paul’s letters, and the difficulty of explaining why Paul’s name would have been removed if it had ever been attached have convinced the vast majority of scholars that Paul is not the author of Hebrews.

     None of that matters a whole lot, though; Hebrews has encouraged, challenged, and strengthened generations of believers before us. Its authorship likely doesn’t make much difference to you — unless, of course, it costs you a chance to win a quarter of a million dollars on a TV game show.  It’s just interesting. Bible trivia, if you will.

     I started thinking, though, after Sam lost the game with what was almost certainly the correct response: What do I take for granted about the Bible that just isn’t true? And is it less trivial than a Jeopardy answer?

     That’s obviously a hard question to answer; if I’m taking anything for granted, it’s probably not at the level of conscious thought that allows me to rationally consider it on my own. I do know that there were things I once believed the Bible said that I now don’t think it says. Things that I was once convinced of that I wouldn’t be able to affirm anymore. Sometimes that was because I misunderstood. Other times, it was because I just sort of took for granted something someone else said, without really considering it for myself. Given what I’ve done for almost 30 years, that’s likely caused me to mislead others. Maybe to get in the way of the gospel, even. When you preach and teach the Bible every week, you can’t afford to do that — that’s why James says those who teach are to be held to a higher standard. 

     I’ve also seen the tendency in others enough to know that I’m far from alone. I’ve seen people who, confronted by reasons to question their point of view about a Bible text or a belief, refused to consider that they may have been wrong. We all misunderstand Scripture at times. All of us misread it. But if the Bible in some way forms who we are, we have to let it speak to us. We can’t afford to mute it with our prejudices, our dogmas, our need to justify ourselves. We have to allow some uncertainty as Scripture, through the work of the Holy Spirit, does its work of  judging the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. We have to be able to admit it when the answers we think we have are wrong and when we need to back up and let Scripture have its way with us.

     And before we protest that our answers aren’t wrong, we need a dose of humility. Can’t you name some ways in which previous generations of believers got the Bible wrong? Using it to justify slavery, or segregation? To subjugate women? To choke off legitimate dissent against totalitarian governments? To defend a geo-centric model of the universe? Scripture has been used to perpetrate terror campaigns against Jews, Muslims, and homosexuals. It’s been used to defend and cover up ungodly behavior. It’s been used to draw unbiblical lines between well-intended followers of Jesus. 

     They got the Bible wrong. At least parts of it. Some were convinced they were right, and they got it wrong. They were good Christians, many of them, respected and loved by everyone, and they got it wrong.

     Isn’t it just possible that some of the Bible answers we come up with might be wrong, too? Even the ones passed down from the people we love and admire the most? “We’ve always believed that” isn’t the same as being right, not if the Bible really is alive and active. That makes it less a code chiseled in stone and more a live organism that wants always to do its work in our hearts, now. It’s not a collection of trivia to be memorized and regurgitated. Like the game show, its answers are often about knowing how to ask the right questions. 

     One of the ways we avoid getting stuck in our own little understanding of the Bible is by reading it with others — preferably people as different from you as possible. With all the resources at our disposal, there’s no excuse for reading the Bible in a little personal devotional bubble. That might shake you a little. You won’t always agree. But it will keep you from getting locked into your own reading and understanding of Scripture. 

     There’s nothing trivial about growing in your knowledge of Scripture. Don’t take it for granted. Let its sharp edges cut you where necessary. And don’t be afraid to find your answers in the questions it raises. 

     Even — especially — about things you thought you already knew. 

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.