Friday, August 12, 2022

All Sin Is Not the Same

 Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves 

-Matthew 7:15 (NIV)

I’ve seen more stories the last few weeks, reports of churches responding to reports of abuse by trying to silence victims. Staff members forced to sign nondisclosure agreements — an increasing number of churches use employee NDAs to protect themselves from what former employees might reveal about what goes on “behind the scenes.” 

     At some point, you have to wonder what’s gone wrong. Even allowing for the fact that bad news gets reported while good news often doesn’t, there seem to be a lot of these stories. Too many. Of course, churches are made up of people, and people sin. But why do so many churches make the same mistakes of denying, ignoring, and trying to cover up unconscionable acts?

     I have a theory. Not even a theory. Sort of a notion. But I wonder if some of the problem comes from a mistaken idea many Christians seem to have and many churches seem to propagate: that every sin is equally reprehensible before God?

     Is this why women have sometimes been told to go back to abusive husbands and “be better wives”? If all sin is equal, then the sin of an abused wife who leaves her husband and the sin of her abuser is the same, right? Is that why churches have sometimes protected abusers when they’re found out, instead of the children they abused? Because we imagine, somehow, that sins that may be committed against the abuser are somehow equal to those he committed? Is this why so many churches, when misconduct is identified, insist on internal investigations in which, inevitably, a victim has to be in a room with his or her victimizer answering questions? Is this why churches often talk about “supporting all the parties involved,” as though no distinction needs to be made by those injured and their injurer?

     I understand what we’re driving at when we teach this idea. It keeps us from minimizing our own sin, which I also know is a problem. It’s true that jealousy, envy, selfish ambition, and rage are all listed next to sexual immorality, debauchery, and idolatry as “works of the flesh.” It’s true that Jesus links murder and adultery with the attitudes that lie underneath them.

     But that doesn’t mean that anger equals murder or lust is the same thing as adultery. If you think so, ask yourself if you’d rather have someone angry at one of your loved ones, or kill them. What Jesus is getting at there is that there are attitudes and thoughts of the heart that underlie our actions, and that the best way to change what we do is to change how we think. He’s saying that God knows those thoughts that we have, and that when we dwell on them and pull them around us like a warm blanket, we’re committing sin. But surely we don't think that God can’t tell the difference between thoughts and actions. Surely we don’t think he can’t see the distinction between your occasional thoughts about someone other than your spouse and a rapist’s act of violence. Surely you don’t imagine that God isn’t wise and just enough to see that a racist thought you had last week and a racially-motivated attack are not equivalent.

     If you take advantage of someone weaker than you, that’s worse than a lie to a work colleague. 

     If you cause a “little one” to stumble,  you’re into uncommonly dangerous territory.

     If you weigh people down in the name of God…woe to you.

      This idea that all sin is the same in God’s eyes too often serves the opposite end from what we intend. It doesn’t make us take all sin more seriously; it makes us take terrible wrongs less seriously because we equate them with the sin that’s common to all of us. If all sin is the same, then I can’t ever speak out against anyone else’s actions. We end up turning a blind eye to horrific sins because, well, we’re sinners too. As Paul writes, “there is no difference; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

     That’s true, of course. When we realize that’s our standard, the glory of God, then we all fall short. 

     But there are sheep, and there are wolves. Jesus says so. You can always recognize the wolves; eventually, they’ll try to eat the sheep. 

     There are people “whose god is their stomach.” Paul says so.

     There are those whose hearts are hardened. Those who will treat the gospel like pigs treat pearls. Jesus says so.

     The Law God gave to Moses on Sinai prescribed different punishments for different violations; seems that God didn’t think walking away with your neighbor’s cow was the same thing as killing your neighbor. 

     So if all sins aren’t the same, what makes one worse than another? It’s hard to answer that question objectively, right? Our own experiences — with sin and being sinned against — inevitably affect our answer.

     But I do think there are maybe three broad categories that will help us to understand the ways that some sins are different, more egregious, more reprehensible than others.

      One is to ask “Who does it victimize?” Think about David with Bathsheeba. When Nathan the prophet confronts David, he does so with a story about a man wealthy with livestock who took his neighbor’s single little ewe lamb to feed a visitor. David, rightly, is furious to hear about it. Consistently in Scripture, God takes the side of the powerless who are victimized by the powerful.This is why abuse of children is so sickening; they can’t fight back. It’s why, rightly, we’re angered when someone takes advantage of the elderly. Some sin by its nature needs a power imbalance. It’s wrong to rip off a guy looking to make his fifth million. It’s worse to defraud a retiree of their savings. 

     Another question to ask is “What is the intent?” Sometimes, human beings sin with good intentions.The Law made a distinction between intentional and unintentional sins. Ongoing, deliberate sins suggest a rebellion against God, an attitude that I’ll do what I want, no matter what anyone thinks. It’s not the same as a mistake, or a failure in the heat of the moment, or even peaks and valleys in our resistance to some sin.

     And the third category: What’s expected of you? Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” Those of us who know what following Jesus requires and have been doing so for a long time are held to a higher standard. A new or young Christian shouldn’t be held to the same standard. 

     There is one way that all sins are alike, though; through Jesus, they can all be forgiven. The worst sins we can imagine and the ones that we let slip by in our own lives can all be taken away through the cross of Jesus. And we all, every human being who’s ever drawn breath, need that.

     But, please; take note of the wolves. The flock needs protection. Please, don’t be afraid to shake the dust off your feet when the occasion demands. Call sin what it is, even though your own record isn’t spotless, and don’t allow serial victimizers to cheapen the gospel of Jesus while trying to hide their crimes behind it. Know that consistently bad fruit probably means that the tree is bad. 

     May God give us all his grace: Grace to overcome our own sin, and grace to speak against it when we see it.

Friday, July 29, 2022

God is an Encourager

 …God did not appoint us to suffer wrath  but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up,  just as in fact you are doing...
-1 Thessalonians 5:10-11 (NIV)

A large chunk of the Bible might not exist if someone hadn’t taken the time and made the effort to encourage someone else. 

     In the book of Acts, Saul, a Jewish theologian and leader, has a big problem with Christians. Has such a big problem with them, in fact, that he was involved in the lynching of Stephen, an outspoken believer in Jesus who really upset the religious and civic leaders of Jerusalem. Not content to work against them his own city, Saul traveled to other cities to arrest Christians and throw them in prison.

     The church seemed to be pretty wary of Saul. Understandably so. So when Saul met Jesus as he traveled to Damascus to persecute Christians, the man God sent to him to teach him the gospel, Ananias, was reluctant to go to see him. When Saul eventually had to sneak out of Damascus and returned to Jerusalem and tried to connect with the church there, they didn’t want anything to do with him. Everybody steered clear. I don’t know, he wasn’t invited to potlucks or to join a small group, maybe. They forgot to tell him that they changed the time for worship. In any case, no one believed that his conversion was real. The church all thought that it was some kind of elaborate ruse.

     Except one guy, Joseph. He believed in Saul all the way. He got him in to see the apostles, where he told them more about Saul’s conversion and Jesus’ words to him, and about how he had preached Jesus without fear in Damascus. While the apostles might have doubted Saul, they knew Joseph could be trusted. Acts 4, in fact, tells us that he had a nickname among the apostles. They called him “Barnabas” — “Son of Encouragement.”

     What they meant was that Barnabas pretty much exemplified encouragement. He was the epitome of encouragement. When they thought of Barnabas, that’s what they thought of. That’s certainly what he did for Saul by standing at his side when everyone else was holding him at arm’s length. That must have been what he did for many in the Jerusalem church.

     If you’ve ever been encouraged by someone when you needed it most, you understand why Barnabas was appreciated for his ability to encourage.

     In English, the word just says what it does, right? Encourage. To encourage someone is to help them overcome fears, transcend doubts that they can do what they need to do. When someone encourages you, they give you confidence and hope. They lift your spirits, they make you believe. If you want to change your life in some way, you need people to encourage you. If you want to accomplish something difficult, it helps to have encouragers around you. Encouragers — well, they give you courage.

     The word in the New Testament usually translated “encourage” has even more shades of meaning. It has to do with being near someone in order to give them help, comfort, or solace. While we usually think of encouragement as being unrelentingly positive, the New Testament word can also include urging, persuasion, and even warning. (I think of how a parent, in love, might “encourage" their child to change their behavior through threat of punishment.) Where that word overlaps with the English word “encourage” is in the idea of taking it upon yourself to help someone believe that they’re able to do what’s right and what’s best, even when it’s hard.

     Did you know that the same word that’s applied to Barnabas in Acts is applied to God in 2 Corinthians 1:3? There, he is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.” It’s translated “comfort” in most English versions, but it's the same word. God is an encourager!

     A related word is applied to the Holy Spirit in John 14, 15, and 16. There, Jesus refers to the Spirit as “the Advocate” — in some translations “the Helper” or “the Comforter.” The Spirit will come to Jesus’ followers and encourage them as they testify about Jesus. The Spirit will bring them peace by reminding them of Jesus. The Spirit will vindicate them by proving the world to be wrong in its opposition to Jesus. In these three chapters of John, Jesus is reassuring his disciples that the Spirit will encourage them in his absence in all these ways. God, through the Holy Spirit, is an encourager!

     How has God comforted you in the past? How is he comforting you now? There in 2 Corinthians, Paul says that we disciples of Jesus should “comfort — encourage — those in any trouble with the comfort — encouragement — we ourselves receive from God.” God is an encourager, but he doesn’t want us to be black holes of encouragement, receiving what he gives and letting no light escape. The idea is that God often encourages others through us. Encouragement is to be passed on. 

     Paul writes about encouragement in his letters at least 20 times. Wonder why. 

     I think it might have been because, before he was Paul, he was Saul. That converted fundamentalist terrorist that most everyone in the church was afraid of became Paul, the preacher who did the most of any single person to share the message of Jesus with the world. His letters make up half the books of the New Testament. Our Bibles would look very different today if Barnabas hadn’t encouraged Paul — and encouraged the church to give him a chance. What would Christianity be missing today if not for Barnabas and his encouraging nature?

     In our world as it is, people need encouragers. I don’t think most people will be talked into believing in Jesus; there’s just too much noise all the time. I don’t think most people will be informed into belief; information is everywhere. I don’t think most people will be argued into belief; there’s so much argument now that out of self-defense most people just hear what supports the beliefs they already have. 

     I think encouragement might be what makes the difference. If God is an encourager, we should be encouragers too. If the Holy Spirit comes encouraging and comforting, then we in whom the Spirit lives should be known as encouragers as well. 

     So who might be the Saul to your Barnabas? Who can you encourage? Who can you advocate for? Who’s had their heart taken from them and needs you to help them grow a new one? Maybe you know someone who’s young in their faith, or limping in their walk with Jesus. Maybe someone who’s burned some bridges and needs your encouragement because no one else thinks they’re worth the effort. Maybe you know someone who’s burning the candle at both ends and needs some kind words and helpful acts. Maybe there’s someone in your life who’s turned down a wrong path and needs some encouragement to turn around.

     Give them some encouragement, and they may just see God in that. They may just experience the Spirit.

     Never underestimate the power of encouragement. God has been known to change the world through just one encourager!

Friday, July 22, 2022

Love and Justice

 I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

-God (Hosea 6:6, NIV)

I saw a great quote from Cornell West recently, one I want to share with you: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

      We have a problem with defining justice, I think because when we hear the word we so easily associate justice with “the justice system.” While we need the justice system, I don’t think its primary purpose is to produce justice — at least not justice as the Bible defines it. The justice system exists to make up for a lack of justice. Sometimes it’s able to restore some semblance of justice. Other times, all it can do is to create a deterrent against others committing the same injustice, through penalties and punishment. And none of that, of course, even wrestles with the idea that our justice system is not always just.

     Justice, in the Bible, is a much more positive concept than that. It’s a way of treating each other with faithfulness and care. Justice requires that our own needs be subverted at times to take care of the more urgent needs of someone else. In biblical terms, widows, orphans, and foreigners require more concern and care than healthy, wealthy Israelites with networks of family and neighbors to help them. Justice requires those in power to take seriously their responsibility to guard the poor against mistreatment by the wealthy and to make laws that most zealously guard the rights of those who are most likely to lose them. 

     Point is, justice isn’t created by courts and police officers and jails and lawsuits. Justice is created by human beings recognizing our responsibilities for one another, being willing to acknowledge that my neighbor’s problems are my problems, too. Justice is, in the words of Jesus (quoting the Hebrew Bible), loving my neighbor as myself. And so Dr. West is right — Justice is what love looks like in public.

     I think this helps us. I’ve heard Christians say that justice is an Old Testament idea, that Jesus and the apostles didn’t speak or write much about justice. It’s true that the word “justice” doesn’t appear as much in English translations of the New Testament as it does in the Old Testament. Three reflections, though: one is that the word “righteousness” does exist, and that word is very close to the Old Testament ideas of justice.

     Two, Jesus’ teachings and probably every New Testament book contain detailed descriptions of how Jesus-followers should treat each other and the world around us. Those standards, including special concern for the poor, orphans, widows and the elderly, are exactly the standards a just society revolves around. The New Testament expects that we will be creating communities — churches — in which God’s justice can be seen in action.

     And, third, Jesus and the New Testament have a lot to say about love. In Christ, love is justice. 

     Problem is, in the American church we don’t make that connection between justice and love. 

     So we can talk about loving people we know, who we’re close to, who we care about, while forgetting that love goes beyond our immediate context. That’s why, for example, Christian slaveholders in the antebellum south could talk about “love” for their slaves while propping up an irredeemable, horrific system built on atrocities and disdain toward an entire race without seeing a contradiction. It’s how Christian leaders in the Jim Crow south could say with a straight face that love for Blacks demanded segregated schools and churches. It’s how church leaders today defend abusers as “men of God” while refusing to listen to their victims. It’s how we deny the poor, the lonely, the sick, and the prisoner the privilege of calling out to God on their behalf as a community of faith. It’s how some church leaders decry demonstrations against police shootings or misogyny while supporting or at least excusing an incursion into the Capitol intended to intimidate and perhaps even to kill or injure government officials.

     I did a quick, very unscientific survey of the songs we sing in worship at our gatherings. I recently heard one of our worship leaders say that we have a repertoire of around 2,000 songs. Of those, 9 contain the word “justice.” Two of those say that the cross is a reconciliation of God’s justice and love. (See how we’ve lost that connection?) A few refer to justice as either something Christ will return to bring to earth, or something that characterizes God’s kingdom. Only one actually asks God to bring justice to the earth. In only two are we led to aspire to be people of justice ourselves.

     In contrast, the word “justice” appears 128 times in the New International Version of the Bible. That’s just the times translators decided to render Greek and Hebrew words with that English word. The huge majority of those occurrences refer to the right, equitable, faithful treatment of human beings that God requires of his people.

     The closely-related word, “righteousness,” occurs over 200 times in the NIV. While in the New Testament it can refer to the righteousness of Jesus which faith in him imputes to believers, much more often in Scripture it refers to obeying God, being “clean” before him, having integrity, and often is a synonym for justice. 

    If we know the book of Hosea, it’s usually because we’re familiar with the prophet’s personal story: God told him to marry a “promiscuous woman” so that his life would be sort of a parable reflecting God’s relationship to Israel. (And you think the lines between your home and work lives get a little blurred!) The root problem is idolatry, the worship of other gods, but here’s how Israel’s “promiscuity” plays out: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.”

     No faithfulness, love, or acknowledgment of God, which means the brakes are off for every form of selfish behavior until “bloodshed follows bloodshed.” All my  life, I’ve heard the term “faithful Christian” applied to those who attend services regularly. It has more to do in the Bible, though, with faithfulness to our social contracts, to the imperative we have to care for one another. It has to do mostly with justice, righteousness, and love. 

     Hosea’s best known verse is this one: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” In his day, Jesus told the religious people to “go and learn what [that] means.” What it means is that we can have “religion,” “faithful” Christians attending worship services, without justice and love — but it doesn’t impress God very much. What it means is that we need to acknowledge the ways in which even the songs we sing, the sermons we preach and hear, and the prayers we pray can contribute more to unfaithfulness and injustice than to acknowledgment of God and the mercy and love he expects us to show to each other and the world around us. 

    At church we were praying for the refugees from Ukraine, and those still in places of violence, and someone asked, “Shouldn’t we sometimes pray that God will prevent those who are bent on doing evil from carrying out their plans?” There’s a good start: to recognize that our world is full of powerless people who need God’s protection from the powerful who would grind them under their heels. As God’s people, we should care about them, pray for them and against those who would hurt them, and show them love every way we can. That is the beginning of justice — love for those who need help born out of God’s love for them.

     Love is justice. Let’s obey Jesus and go and learn what that means. 

Friday, July 15, 2022

On Handling Conflict

 A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.

-Proverbs 16:28 (NIV)

By nature, I’m non-confrontational. I prefer to get along well with people. When I don’t, I tend to avoid the situation rather than deal with it — which sometimes makes it look like I’m avoiding them. But it’s not them, at least not usually. It’s the conflict I’m avoiding. I know people who seem to thrive on conflict, and I don’t get it. 

     Certainly, I think social media and echo-chamber news have helped to create an appetite for conflict in our world that is not healthy at all. But I’ve started to come to the conclusion that some conflict is absolutely necessary. Handled well, conflict creates new solutions. It pushes us to work out our differences in mutually beneficial ways that we never would have thought of without the conflict. Sometimes it forces us to admit our faults and grow as human beings. So the existence of conflict doesn’t represent a failure. Far from it.

     We should know that’s true anyway since, in all four of the Gospels, Jesus is constantly embroiled in conflict. It’s interesting that not one of the Gospel writers imagined writing about Jesus’ life without including the conflict he had with some of the religious leaders of his time: the Pharisees, the experts on the Law, and eventually the Sanhedrin. Jesus himself dealt with conflict.

     Not only that, but he told his disciples that those who hated him would hate them too. He warned them that they might be expelled from synagogues and even that their own families might turn on them. He even reassured them that they’d be blessed when everyone hated them — he didn’t mean by that what we sometimes think he meant, but it’s clear that he didn’t imagine that the lives of people who try to follow him will be absent a conflict or two. 

     So conflict isn’t a failure. It’s just that we so often flub the way we handle it that when it rears its head we tend to throw up our hands and give up. We either avoid, like me, or we adopt a scorched-earth policy and wade in fists flying, voices raised, red-faced and fiery-eyed.

     So I have a few thoughts on how to handle conflict. Again, these aren’t thoughts on how to avoid conflict, or win conflict. These things won’t always help to defuse conflict, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll help resolve it. But I think they will sometimes. And I think that if you try to follow these guidelines you’ll at least feel better about the conflict that you’re a part of.

     To begin, please remember: you’re not the good guy in the story. We so easily cast ourselves as the protagonist in most any conflict we’re a part of that we often see compromise as impossible. After all, you don’t compromise with the bad guys.

     This, by the way, is why it’s hard for us to look at Jesus as a model for conflict resolution. Jesus could call people who disagreed with him “offspring of vipers” or “whitewashed tombs” because when people disagreed with him, they were literally opposing the work and Word of God. However good a person you are, you’re not always on the side of the angels. You probably have a part in creating or escalating a conflict. (If you truly don’t, you might be in an unhealthy or even abusive relationship.) Own your part. Ask yourself from time to time what it’s like to be on the other side of your skin. You’re not the bad guy in the story either, probably, but neither are you the sole representative and defender of truth, justice, and goodness. Acknowledge that you might have some things wrong too, or at least that you don’t have a complete grasp of the truth. 

     Second, talk to people, not about them. This shouldn’t have to be said, especially to Christians, but it’s violated so often that I probably need to. James calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” because what we say can do so much damage — and we seem so willing to use it that way. What you say about people affects others’ opinions of them too. It can poison those who hear what you say against them. It can damage your credibility, too. And it does nothing to resolve conflict. So do what Jesus teaches: if you have a conflict with someone, go talk to them first, before you tell anyone else about it. 

     Third, believe the best about other people. Probably because of how quickly we make ourselves the heroes in the stories of our conflicts, we often attribute all kinds of dark, inaccurate, and unfair motives to the people we disagree with. Paul warns the church in Rome against judging their fellow Christians when they disagree, and reminds them that they answer to God and want to please him too. Now and then, maybe, someone will do something to confirm the worst. But, as long as you can, believe the best about them.

     This will help in dealing with conflict. You can tell someone kindly that their actions came across as insensitive while also assuring them that you know they didn’t intend them to come across that way. Nine times out of ten, they probably didn’t. If you genuinely believe the best about them, you’ll be less inclined to demonize them.

     Fourth, explain your position, don’t blame. Again, I think because of number one, we’re so quick to put the burden of the conflict on others. “Why are you always so angry?” “You never think about what you say.” “Why do I always have to clean up your messes?” Or this gem, often heard in church: “If you’d just read the Bible, you’d see that…”

     In marriage counseling, it’s sometimes helpful to have the spouses speak in terms of how their partner’s actions make them feel. That won’t always help with other conflicts, but it’s true that you’ll rarely solve conflicts by assigning blame. (Remember, whoever you have the conflict with probably thinks they’re the good guy, too!) So instead of “You’re always so angry,” try something along the lines of, “You know, it bothered me that you got upset during our conversation. It made me feel pretty uncomfortable. Could we talk about it?”

     Or, instead of “If you’d just read the Bible…” how about something more like, “I never really thought about that, here’s how I read that verse…” Or, “OK, I see what you’re saying, but have you considered how that relates to this other verse?"  

     You get the point. Most conflict isn’t strictly a matter of right versus wrong, but of interpersonal relationships and how we live and thrive together with our differences. Explaining without blaming focuses on improving those relationships.

     Fifth, let those you have conflict know that you believe things can and will improve. We tend to equate conflict with the death of a friendship. But if you let people know you expect to get through this conflict and remain close-knit and united, it tells them that you value them and that your conflict won’t change that. Paul tells the church in Corinth that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Love doesn’t give up easily, so when you have conflict with someone let them know that you aren’t giving up on your relationship.

     Finally, I guess I don’t even have to mention that you should pray for those you’re in some kind of conflict with. But, look at that — I did mention it. Prayer gives you empathy for someone else. It banishes hate and bitterness. And it places you on level ground with them: in need of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness.

     Which is right where you both need to be.

Friday, July 8, 2022

How to Change the World

 “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…”

-Acts 17:6 (NRSV)

I was sitting in a hospital room with my father-in-law Monday morning with the local news on TV. I wasn’t really paying attention, I had the sound turned all the way down, but I noticed out of the corner of my eye as the broadcast went to a shot of the anchors in the studio that they suddenly had very serious, somber expressions on their faces. Their tight mouths and narrowed eyes didn’t fit with the usual content of a news broadcast on a holiday morning. So I wasn’t surprised to see “Breaking News” across the bottom of the screen.

     I was surprised that it was breaking in Highland Park, a nice town on the shore of Lake Michigan about a 20-minute drive from my house.

     It was, of course, coverage of the mass shooting at an Independence Day parade that we would eventually learn left 7 people dead and 46 wounded. Kids were killed, paralyzed, and orphaned. This week, as a write this, funerals are being planned. People are shocked and grieving. Calls for gun laws are being raised again, as are the voices of those who insist that more restrictive laws infringe on the Constitutional rights of responsible gun owners. To that, I would just wonder why someone who might be inclined to boycott Disney wouldn’t also be inclined to boycott supporting a firearm industry that’s made billions of dollars selling guns like those used in Highland Park? Sure, the Constitution says you can own a gun. But should you? But that’s not what this is about.

     What it’s about is something a friend and member of my church in Chicago, Nicole Estes, said in a story by the Christian Chronicle this week on the Highland Park shooting. Nicole and Steve and their daughters live just a few minutes from Highland Park. They eat there, shop there. The shooter was arrested a mile and half from their front door. Nicole says in the story that Highland Park is “a somber place to be right now.” She says she’s been praying about all the mass shootings, and “it’s a comfort because I know that our God is more powerful than Satan.” But then she says this: “We’ve always been this nation that’s ‘under God,’ that everyone’s admired for the good that’s in America and the safety that’s in America. And now we have this happening. … It’s terrorizing to everyone.”

     Nicole’s words clicked with some things I’ve been thinking about this week. What I’ve heard from a lot of people after mass shootings, about violence in our cities, about police misconduct, about the events of January 6, is a sense of helplessness. We all know that these things are terrible, brought about by a tiny fraction of the American population who have found that acts of violent cowardice give them outsized influence. But we don’t know what to do about it. Or, maybe, can’t agree to make the sacrifices we may need to make. In any case, we lament the loss of our collective innocence that we’re this great nation in which these things shouldn’t happen. And we feel helpless to make a difference.

     What I want to say is that we aren’t helpless. We can change the world. Well, not us, but Christ in us. It was said of the church in the book of Acts, in the Bible, that they were turning the world upside-down. That’s exactly what we can still do, if we will. And here’s how.

     First: Model contentment instead of dissatisfaction.    Paul wrote to the church in Philippi that he knew how to be ”content in any and every situation.” His big secret was, simply, " I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” The writer of Hebrews warns us to “be content with what [we] have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” Contentment, then, is knowing that because of God’s faithfulness we have what we need. So much of the violence in our world, I’m convinced, comes from the fact that we’re never just…content. We’re always wanting, always aspiring, always conspiring to get more, more, more. We get angry when we don’t have everything to which we think we’re entitled, right now. A house. Cheaper gas. A better job. A better romantic life. On and on it goes. Our expectations have risen and our contentment has plummeted. Ray Wylie Hubbard says, “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations — well, I have really good days.” To be more content, practice being thankful. I think most of the other Christian virtues come out of this one. Develop the habit of giving thanks. Then we won’t add to the anger and frustration in the world, because we’ll be too busy discovering the depths of God’s faithfulness and all we can do through him.

     The second way to change the world: Always look out for those who don’t have enough. There’s a tension here that we’ll visit again. When it comes to your own situation, practice the discipline of contentment, whatever your circumstances. But don’t be content when you see others suffering from poverty, want, lack of resources or recourse, lack of love, lack of opportunity. Reach out to them. Show kindness and compassion. Offer what you have. People who are suffering lash out. They think they’re alone. They lose their connections to the rest of humanity because they think the rest of humanity has disconnected from them. Prove them wrong. Don’t let a child in your sphere of influence grow up thinking that no one loves them or values them. Don’t let someone miss a meal if you can do something about it. Don’t allow someone you can touch to get old and die alone. Do what you can to make sure people who need care get it. God has always expected his people to look out for those on the margins of society. You can’t help everyone, but most of us can do more than we imagine.

     The third way to change the world: Return love and peace for hate and conflict. This is, quite literally, the gospel. Jesus changed the world by absorbing hate, misunderstanding, violence, and murderous intent and returning love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace. It’s amazing how quickly even the church abandons this. This is how we “win.” This is how sin, evil, violence, and death lose. Not by being outfought, but by being outloved. We live in a world in which insults, barbs, threats, and even shots are exchanged at the drop of a hat. The way of Christ is always countercultural, but never more so than today. When we take people at their worst and show them the unshakable, uncompromising love of God, we stop evil in its tracks.

     But here’s another tension: the fourth way to change the world is to Never turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of others. When we can stop the abuse and neglect of others, we should. Even when we can just raise our voices for those who have no one to speak for them, we should. It is like Christ to endure mistreatment with love; it is not like him to stay quiet when others are being mistreated. Injustice is a corrosive influence in society. When the powerful abuse the powerless, the reasons for society to exist — protection, cooperation, interdependence — go out the window. Follow Jesus in insisting that those with power care for those who depend upon them. Never allow someone to be ganged up on or be alone. 

     Finally: Pray. Nicole is. So should we all be. God is more powerful than Satan. Sometimes we think of prayer as something done instead of anything else. But for us, it’s the starting point for all we do, because our power to change the world comes from what God has done for us in Jesus.

     This is why I remain optimistic. Not because people are smart — we aren’t — but because God is powerful and good. We can change the world. Now let’s do it.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Church and State

 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,

-Philippians 3:20 (NIV)

Last week — the week before Independence Day — an American politician announced at a rally that
she is “tired of this separation of church and state junk.” She argues that the phrase isn’t in the Constitution, and actually comes from “a stinking letter” — specifically a letter from Thomas Jefferson in which he wrote that the American public had built “a wall of separation between Church and State,” a metaphor that he borrowed from Roger Williams and John Locke.

     She can be tired of it if she wants, but the “wall” Jefferson referred to comes from the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the Bill of Rights expressly forbids Congress from creating a national Church, or interfering with the practice of religion in any way. A couple of centuries of American jurisprudence has applied that clause to various situations including school prayer, the use of religious symbols on public property, courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments, government-reimbursed busing or tax credits for religious schools, and so on. 

     The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli expressly states that America “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims]…” James Madison wrote in 1811,  "practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” While total “separation” has not always been practical, it has always been the goal of our country’s government to preserve the practice of religion — or no practice of religion at all — as a personal, individual choice not subject to the whims of those who have civil power.

     It’s easy to see why. 

    Our separation-of-church-and-state-fatigued politician this week went on to say, “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church.” But, historically, when government and religion get entangled, it’s not good for either. In John Calvin’s Geneva, the church had enormous civil power — the Reformed church. Those thought to be heretics — because they disagreed with some doctrine or practice — were exiled, imprisoned and sometimes executed. The church dictated attendance at worship, public life, what recreation was available, even who a citizen of Geneva could have sex with. 

     When the church gains power, it looks less and less like Jesus as its power grows. It begins to control, coerce, and command. It’s no coincidence, I think, that this same politician recently suggested that Jesus “didn’t have enough [AR-15s] to keep his government from killing him.” She needed to say that; the cross is an embarrassment to those who think the church needs more civil power, that Jesus should have fought back against an oppressive, tyrannical, unjust government.

     Please, let’s remember in a world that thinks power is the solution that we follow someone who “laid down his life” willingly.

     Let’s remember that we follow in the footsteps of someone who warned that those who draw the sword will die by the sword, who literally healed a man his disciples wounded trying to save his life. 

     Let’s remember that we follow the One who “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!”

     We follow the one who believed that only when God’s kingdom comes will things be “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

     To follow Jesus is to let go of the illusion that if we just had more power we could make things exactly as they ought to be. It’s to pursue his mindset of making ourselves nothing, serving those around us, and letting go of the temptation to use our power to our own advantage. It’s to give up on violence or intimidation as a way of self-preservation, and instead lay down our lives for others — even those who might oppose us.

     Let’s not be surprised when those who believe in power don’t understand this. Why would they?

     What’s more discouraging is when some of us who do claim faith in Jesus plaster his name all over efforts to disenfranchise voters, perpetuate injustice, and marginalize people for whom he gave his life.

     There’s a lot about America to love, and I’m thankful for the blessings of being an American.

     But one of those blessings is simply this: I don’t have to accept it when my country doesn’t live up to its ideals. One of the best things about America is that we, its citizens, can speak up when we see wrong. We can speak up for the wronged, even when they’re wronged by those in power. 

     And we can model an alternative. Another great thing about America is that loyalty to the nation doesn’t have to be our highest allegiance. And, as Christians, it can’t be. I saw a survey recently from Nationscape in which over 85% of Americans who claimed to be Christians said that being an American was at least as important to them as their faith. That’s a problem. Jesus, of course, said that we can’t serve two masters. Paul reminds us  that “our citizenship is in heaven.” The writer of Hebrews said we should aspire to be “aliens and strangers” in the world. We can, and should, show the world around us that there is another Kingdom, in which God is sovereign and in which the values of love, peace, righteousness, service, and sacrifice are primary. Our world should see in the church a colony of this kingdom in which we’re all busy making those values visible and influential in the world around us — not by dictating to others how to live, but by the way we ourselves live. They should hear us speaking up, not for ourselves, but for those who are hurting, those who are lost, those who are falling through the cracks and failed by the system and ground under the feet of the powerful. They should see us giving ourselves in loving service to our neighbors.

     One of the best things about America isn’t even found in the Constitution. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, and it goes like this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all [people] are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

     Those who came up with those words were right. By virtue of being God’s creation, no human being is greater than or less than any other. There is no exception to that. All have the same rights to live, to be free, and to have the chance to find joy and peace and security. May that truly be what America is about. But even when it isn’t, may it truly be what the church champions.   

     May we be grateful for the blessings God has given us as Americans. May we be thankful for the good in our nation, and just as honest about the bad. And may, always, our true citizenship be in heaven, and may we live out our lives as ambassadors of that kingdom.

Friday, June 24, 2022

That Supreme Court Decision

 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,

    is God in his holy dwelling.

God sets the lonely in families….

-Psalm 68:5-616 (NIV)

This isn’t something I really want to write. But I’ve been thinking about it for about a month now, and the events of today in Washington feel like they’re pushing at me. I have a feeling that what I write isn’t going to make anyone happy. But maybe if it helps us to find our way through a difficult subject with the light of the gospel, then it’s worth it. 

     This morning, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v Wade, as anyone who has been paying attention to the news since late last month knew was going to happen. Roe was, of course, the landmark  1973 decision by the Court that ruled that abortion was a Constitutional right. By overturning it, the Court has left decisions on the legality of abortion up to state legislatures, and women will now have widely-differing access to abortion depending on where they live and their financial means. In many states, as early as today most abortions are illegal. In others, laws will go into effect in the near future limiting or outlawing abortion. 

     I’ve already heard today from people who are filled with joy over this decision. I’ve heard from others who are devastated by it. I’m going to resist the urge to weigh in on which side I sit — or even if either of those positions adequately conveys my attitude. This is mainly due to my love and appreciation for people in my life who are very Pro-Choice and very Pro-Life. The talking points and political rhetoric over this subject don’t always allow for the fact that people of goodwill, even people of faith, might disagree on it. 

     On the one hand, people with strong Pro-Life convictions are sometimes ridiculed and hated as Stone-Age cretins full of hate and venom who want to control women and force religion down the throats of society at large. I’ve heard them referred to as fascists. On the other hand, people with strong Pro-Choice convictions are sometimes the recipients of hate and venom. It’s sometimes assumed that they hold those convictions because they want a world in which all that matters is their own personal freedom to do what they wish with few consequences. 

     In these stereotypes, I see no one I recognize. Oh, I understand the stereotypes, but no one I know on either side of this issue matches them. That ought to tell us something right there: When literally no one you know and love matches a stereotype, then maybe the stereotype isn’t all that useful. Whichever side of the issue you come down on, I promise you this; there will be a time when you’ll have to work with, worship with, serve with, talk with, or share a house with someone who comes to the opposite conclusion.

     There's a gospel solution to this issue, of course. That’s ironic, because some of us who know the gospel best inexplicably think it no longer applies if someone doesn’t get this issue right. Here’s what I suggest.

     First, the gospel tells us that a world in which children are unparented — whether through abortion, neglect, or being orphaned — is not the world God intended. God “sets the lonely in families.” God demands that his people care for widows and orphans. If it’s true, as studies say, that financial struggles and lack of help from a partner are two of the main reasons women seek abortions, then shouldn’t God’s people be all about helping women struggling with two terrible alternatives to see another option? Churches and organizations that work hard to offer solutions — adoption, medical care, family counseling, job skills, education, day care — are doing amazing work, and we should encourage them in that work in every way we can. 

     Second, the reason many Christians are against abortion is not that they want to control peoples’ bodies and reproductive choices — at least, that’s not the reason most Christians who oppose it do so. It’s that Christians generally — and there is variation in this — view life as something given by God intentionally and for a reason. Conception is a theological act, not just a physical one. We know that, all the time, God raises children born in difficult circumstances to do amazing things in the world. We know that life is to be valued and respected. This, or something like it, is the view of life that the Christian faith burdens us with.

     That being said, Christians aren’t always very consistent with that high view of life. If we were, maybe we’d be heard more readily on abortion. If, for example, we demonstrated that we thought the lives of poor women of color mattered, then maybe they’d believe that we thought the lives of their unborn children mattered too. If we value the lives of children and young adults enough to hear them when they try to tell us about the abuse and injustice they’ve suffered, maybe they’d be more convinced of the value God places on life. 

     Third, Christians need to have better conversations about freedom. Sometimes we buy too much into the notion that freedom is the radical individualism of American political rhetoric. For believers, freedom is about human flourishing. It’s about people having the opportunity to be the best God has made them. When the Bible talks about justice and righteousness, human flourishing is what it has in mind. That flourishing, though, only happens in community. The acrimonious debate over abortion is just one way we’ve shown that we’ve failed in creating the kind of community in which people can grow and mature and be the best they can be. On the one hand, we fail by treating abortion as nothing more than an individual right that has nothing to do with the larger community. On the other hand, we fail when we legislate against the one act and do nothing to remedy the very social problems that make abortion a real, viable solution for a fair number of people.

      Fourth, there is not just one “Christian” position on abortion. Sometimes our tribes of faith can be echo chambers. Christian denominations in America vary widely on the issue, from total opposition to abortion for any reason to the availability of abortion in a limited window of time for specific reasons to the availability of abortion at any time for any reason. Some have no official position at all. Within those denominations, of course, you would probably find opinions all along the same continuum, some shaped by personal experience. It might do us all good to try to figure out why other people who wear the name of Jesus as we do come to a different conclusion than we do about this topic. We might never agree, but it would do us good to listen. 

     Finally, there is an untold number of women and men who have checked out of the church, or are in the process of checking out, over just this issue. Maybe they’ve had an abortion, and they don’t know if they have a place with God’s people anymore. Maybe they’re just struggling to understand why believing in Jesus means that they have to let someone else make that decision for them, or for someone they love. Maybe the gospel they’ve heard sounds more like a political platform. How we respond to the overturning of Roe will speak volumes to them. May they find no blame if they look to us. May they find no pride. May they find us neither pounding our chests in victory nor tearing our clothes in mourning. May they find people who speak to them, as always, of the love of the Savior, the forgiveness of sins, the life of the Spirit, and the hope of eternal life. 

     May we be found faithful.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Good News That Breaks Chains

 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave,  but better than a slave, as a dear brother. .

-Philemon 15-16 (NIV)

If you’re like me, the holiday of Juneteenth has not always been on your radar. I was an embarrassing number of years old before I even heard the term. Juneteenth, I’m sure you know now, is a celebration of the date in 1865, June 19th, when Union Army general Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas — the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery. While the holiday has been celebrated in some form by Black people in the US — and even internationally — since 1866, it wasn’t made a Federal holiday until last year. 

     Growing up in the South, there were Confederate and Civil War memorials literally all around me — but no mention of Juneteenth in school or church or even by the local or Federal government. It just wasn’t on the radar of anyone I knew — at least not enough for them to ever mention it. This was no doubt partly due to the fact that, for decades, Black people in the US were denied access to public parks in which to hold celebrations. In many places, they pooled finances to buy land for the purpose of celebrating Juneteenth. Many parks that are now public in the southern United States originally were purchased by Black people for this reason. 

     This year, Juneteenth falls on a Sunday. I hope that churches everywhere will take at least a moment in their services to thank God for the equality under the law of every worshipper, Black or White, that is enjoyed today, to recall the sins of the past, and to ask for resolve, wisdom, and love to make the slavery of racism, hatred, and bitterness something unknown among us. Because I think we all know that there’s work still to be done. 

     I’ve been re-reading Philemon the last couple of days. It’s so short that you could miss it if two pages in your Bible stick together. It’s in some ways an odd little letter, probably Paul’s most personal. He isn’t trying to correct bad theology or practice in a church, as he usually is in his letters. He’s just writing to a man named Philemon on behalf of a man named Onesimus who he’s met.

     The story, as nearly as we can reconstruct it, goes something like this. Philemon is a householder, probably in the area of Colosse (compare the name “Archippus” in Philemon 2 and Colossians 4:17). He owes his conversion to Christ to Paul. A church meets in his house, which means he is wealthy enough to have a good-sized home. Paul considers him a “partner in the faith,” has been encouraged by reports of Philemon’s love for the church and his faith, and compliments him on how he has “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.”

      Paul and Philemon have a mutual acquaintance: a man named Onesimus. Paul considers Onesimus his “son” and “his very heart.” Onesimus is “dear” to him and has become “useful” to him in his current circumstances: he is in prison. In Paul’s day, that would have meant that a friend or family member would have to supply his food and other needs, and that seems to be what Onesimus has been doing for Paul. At some point during Paul’s relationship with Onesimus, he has brought Onesimus to Christ. 

     Here’s the twist: Onesimus owes Philemon a debt. He is an escaped slave. He has perhaps even stolen some of his master’s money. In any case, he has violated the law by running away. No doubt trying to hide in whatever city Paul is imprisoned in, he has met the apostle and come to Christ. And, together, they have come to a difficult decision: Onesimus should return to Philemon. 

     It bothers me that Paul sends him back. Three things, though: One, slavery in the Roman Empire was not the same thing as African chattel slavery in America. It was still slavery. People were considered property. They were often mistreated. But there were laws regulating it, and slaves could earn their own freedom or be freed by others, and it wasn’t based on race, but on usually on economics. Place Paul in 19th century America, and I have no doubt he would have been an abolitionist.

     Two, to hide Philemon would be to sentence him to a lifetime of hiding and running.

   Three, the gospel calls us to repentance. How else can Onesimus repent of this crime of defrauding Philemon besides returning — especially now that Philemon is not only his master but also in Christ is his brother? 

     But that’s also true for Philemon; Onesimus is now his brother. That’s why Paul writes. He wonders in the letter if God wasn’t at work in these events so that Philemon might “have [Onesimus] back forever — no longer as a slave, but…as a dear brother.” The clear intent of his writing Philemon is to plead for Onesimus’ emancipation. Based on their relationship as “partners” in the gospel, he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “as you would welcome me.” That is, not with a set of chains, or punishment for his misdeeds, but with the same love Paul has heard that he has shown for other believers.

     Paul sends Onesimus back in the end, because, dear as he is to him, he is “dearer to” Philemon “both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” I think Paul means that Onesimus is “dear” to Philemon as the embodiment of the idea that the gospel creates family and equalizes status. The letter doesn’t demand that Philemon free Onesimus. But it makes it very clear that if Philemon doesn’t see that the gospel makes them equals, then he doesn’t understand the gospel. 

     This letter is all about the question of what demands the gospel makes on the way we deal with one another — especially in the church. I’m reminded in this little letter that a gospel that doesn’t change the way we see the people around us is no gospel at all.

     If it doesn't cause us to liberate people from the chains of our prejudices and selfishness, then perhaps we don’t understand it. If it doesn’t lead us to see others as family in Christ or as fellow human beings, it isn’t the gospel of Jesus.

     If the gospel doesn’t make us rejoice in the liberation of other people — and weep over their enslavement — then we don’t get it. If it doesn’t make us care about the injustice and prejudice that our brothers and sisters of color still experience, we don’t get it.

     If the gospel doesn’t cause men to stop objectifying, victimizing, or dismissing women, we don’t understand it.

     If we can hold grudges for offenses others have committed against us, then maybe we don’t grasp it

     If we can worship and serve with people in a church for years and not come to love and care for them, then perhaps the gospel hasn’t really done its work in our hearts. If we can’t listen to believers older than us with love, respect, and deference, then I wonder if we’re partners in the same gospel that Paul experienced and spent his life proclaiming. If we can’t hear believers younger than us, and want to meet their expectations of us, then it’s hard to believe that the gospel has really taken root in us.

     The gospel, when believed, experienced, and turned outward, should “refresh the hearts of the Lord’s people.”

     May we refresh the hearts of the people around us in an oppressive world of brutality, bitterness, prejudice, and slavery.