Friday, January 28, 2022

Reading Someone Else's Mail

     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 3:16-17(NIV)

I was rummaging through a closet recently, and way in the back I came across an old, dusty shoebox I hadn’t looked at in quite some time. I knew what was inside, but I just hadn’t had occasion to open it up for a few years, I guess. So I took a minute to rummage through it a little.

     The box mostly is full of letters and cards, all from a girl in her early 20s I was “talking to,” as the kids say. Before you start thinking there’s a scandal here somewhere, I’ll just tell you that I went on to marry that girl.

     The letters and cards were mostly from when we were in college. A lot of them were from the summer I was living in Montana and she was home in Chicagoland. Some were from the semester I was still in college, but she had already graduated and was, again, in the Chicago suburbs. 

     The letters are full of the sentiments you’d expect, the kinds of things young adults in love write to each other and then, years later, chuckle over fondly and feel those warm feelings all over again. There’s also a fair amount of talking about what’s going on at work, or with family members, or asking me to say hello to so-and-so or asking for updates on college friends. Several are heavy on wedding planning details, which she was obviously spending a lot of time on and I was, apparently, not of much use in. (To be clear, I was excited about the marriage and, I guess, not so much with the planning.)

     But I was surprised by something as I skimmed back over some of those letters; there were names I don’t remember. References to events that I can't reconstruct. Advice and encouragement about situations that I really don’t recall. It has, after all, been over 30 years since those letters and cards were written. Maybe I could reconstruct it all better if I still had the letters I wrote to her at that time. As it is, while I remember the feelings we had for each other, some of the specific references to people, places, and events are a bit hazy, or a lot hazy. Or pretty much lost to time entirely.

     Now, imagine if those letters weren’t written to me, by the woman who became my wife, but to someone else and by someone else, neither of whom I knew. Say they they had to be translated from another language first. And then imagine that they were written not a few decades ago, but a couple of millennia. 

     Imagine that, and you start to get the idea of why sometimes reading the Bible is hard.

     Maybe the first thing to remember when you read the Bible is that it was not written to you. “But wait,” you say. “Doesn’t the Bible say that it’s ‘God-breathed’ and useful for equipping us for ‘every good work’?” Of course, you’re right. It does say that, and I wouldn’t for a second want to be understood as saying there’s nothing for you in the Bible.

     But I’ll double down: it was not written to you.

     It’s like if you were reading Laura’s letters to me. There are things there you’d relate to. Maybe even some words you’d find inspiring or helpful for something you’re going through now. But a lot of it would be stuff that doesn’t apply directly to you. A lot of the Bible is that way, as well.

     In some cases it’s easy to see. The part of the Bible we call First Corinthians is Paul’s “first” letter to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. (It’s actually probably his second, and 2 Corinthians is probably his fourth, but never mind.) Romans is a letter from Paul to, of course, the church in Rome. You get how that works.

     But the Gospels are likely written to — or at least for — particular churches as well. Revelation is written to seven churches in the Roman province called Asia (which is what we know as Turkey, but, again, never mind). 

     The Old Testament is written to the ancient nation of Israel, or segments of it. They’re particular documents, written to and for specific recipients for specific purposes just as certainly as Laura’s letters were written to me.

     It may certainly be that at least some of the authors of the documents that make up the Bible anticipated that future generations of believers would find guidance and help and encouragement to live faithfully in their own places and times through their writing. Still, all of those documents reflect the language, style, issues, and concerns of their original recipients. Some of them mention names of specific people — many of whom we don’t know. Some of them construct a code of laws that the original recipients are supposed to follow — but not necessarily us. Some of them deal with violations of those laws, and those words may not apply directly to us. Reading the Bible often requires sifting, making judgments about what applies directly to us (like, “you shall not commit adultery”) and what doesn’t (“you shall not boil a young goat in his mother’s milk”). In some cases, like in those examples, we do that automatically and unconsciously. Other times, it takes more work. 

     But here’s the thing: the less aware we are that the Bible isn’t necessarily written to us, the more likely we are to get its application wrong. You know what I mean, I’m sure, because you’ve heard people abuse the Bible to “prove” all sorts of things, and they almost always abuse it by acting as though it’s speaking directly to us. Promises of prosperity to the nation of Israel if they obey God become direct promises of prosperity to America, or to individuals. Commands for ancient Israel to wage war on a particular group of people get twisted to sanction war for nationalistic goals, or even violence against anyone perceived as God’s enemy. One  problem in both of those examples is forgetting that the Bible isn’t written to us.

     Alexander Campbell said it this way:  

“[Some Christians] read…through the spectacles of their vernacular versions, and, superadded to this, through a ready made theology, imparted to them by early education and high authority - parental or ministerial or both. It has become part and parcel of their individuality.”

     Campbell was just pointing out that we all read the Bible through a specific pair of glasses, created by our distance from the original text (in time and culture) and the ways we’ve been taught by parents, teachers, clergy, church, and culture to read it. The only disagreement I have with Campbell is that he seems to think that you can read the Bible any other way. He had his own “spectacles” too, whether he knew it or not.

     The only way, I think, to see around those lenses we’re given is to remember that the Bible isn’t written to us. Literally, we’re reading someone else’s mail. Knowing that should make us more humble that we have the “correct” interpretation. It should make us more curious to dig and search for what the text might have meant to the people to whom it was written before coming to hard and fast conclusions about what it means for us.

     The miracle, of course, is that through reading someone else’s mail the Holy Spirit does teach us and remind us of God’s faithfulness and challenge us to obey him and follow him. What I’m saying doesn’t undermine that. If anything, it invites us to be a participant in what God is doing. Not text-jacking verses to create our own preferred Bible, but instead investing ourselves in the study of Scripture with other like-minded people and with Jesus present with us through the Holy Spirit.

     That’s how we’ll hear God’s word to us.

Friday, January 21, 2022

A Transforming Church

     Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…

-Romans 12:2 (NRSV)

I would very much like to lose a little weight and get a little healthier. 

     Well, I say “very much.” What I mean is, I’d like to lose a little weight and get a little healthier without really changing the way I eat or my current level of exercise. Anyone have any suggestions?

     Before you come at me with any diet pills, supplements, pink drinks, or essential oils “guaranteed” to burn calories, reduce belly fat, and make me healthier while I pound cheeseburgers and chicken biscuits, let me just stop you. There’s one path to losing weight and getting healthier: Eat better and exercise. Anything else is going to get you right back to where you are. 

     In a Wednesday night class for a few months, we’ve been talking about a reality in the church that’s been documented in countless surveys, books, and blog posts and experienced in just about every church and denomination in America. That reality is that, sometime in the 5 years after Christian young adults graduate high school, something like two-thirds of them walk away from church.

     We’ve spent some time talking about some of the reasons for this. According to research, some young adults are bothered by what they perceive as the exclusive nature of Christianity. Some struggle with the judgmental attitudes they see as prevalent in the church, either against their own choices, beliefs, and mistakes, or against the choices, beliefs, and mistakes of their friends. Some leave because they think the church is antagonistic to science or adversarial toward the world. Some feel that their doubts and questions aren’t taken seriously. Some walk away because of deep disappointment or even trauma suffered at the hands of the church. Some can’t go along with their churches’ political stances, or their attitudes toward race, or their limitations of women. Some, no doubt, walk away because they lose their faith in the existence of God, or lose their conviction that what they or anyone else think about God has anything to do with their lives.

     Know what we discovered? It’s one thing to talk about the results of surveys and studies that give us data about the reasons people walk away from church. It’s quite another thing to agree on what to do about it.

     Sometimes we’re quick to get defensive: “That’s not us. That’s not our church.” It might not be, but something is causing people to walk away in their late teens and early twenties.

     Sometimes we blame those who leave. “Narrow is the path,” and all that, because it lets us off the hook while at the same time conveniently positioning us as those on that narrow path. That reasoning equates the church itself with “the path” and paints everyone who’s not on it with the same broad brush. We doubt the reasons people actually give for walking away, suggesting that they’re just cover for folks who just don’t really love the Lord like we do. (An odd thing to believe about people who grew up in our church, attended our Sunday school classes, and live in our homes. These are people we know.)

     Look, I know that faith on one level is personal, something between God and each person. I know that the Holy Spirit is involved in people coming to faith and following Jesus in ways that we can’t plan for or make happen. Still, we don’t leave it to the Holy Spirit to reveal the gospel to people in the first place. We’re supposed to do that. We don’t leave it to the Holy Spirit to move people to worship. We gather together each week to do that.  We don’t leave instruction in the way of Jesus to the Holy Spirit. We teach.

     Don’t you imagine God might have something for us to do in helping people who are in danger of walking away, or who have already walked away, to recover their faith and walk with Jesus in the community of faith?

    Here’s what it comes down to, here’s why when we talk about this problem we get defensive or finger-pointy, why we shake our heads and wish people would just love the Lord like we do…

     It’s because to really grapple with this and change it will require that we change. And we don’t. Like. Change. Seriously: If it’s up to us we’d rather keep things as they are — even if keeping things as they are means people who would have been dogged followers of Jesus will instead walk away from their faith entirely.

     It’s like me with losing weight and being healthier: Sure, as long as I don’t have to change anything.

     But what if we said we weren’t going to stand by and watch anymore?

     What if we said that we were going to take this problem seriously?

     What it we recognized that one of the most consistent doctrinal statements in the Bible is that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves? And that our nearest neighbors are our brothers and sisters in Christ?

     What if we resolved to give up the settled destination of what makes us comfortable and what we’ve come to think church ought to be for a journey, an odyssey, in which we discover with our less firmly located sisters and brothers in the faith what church could be if we all stop settling for being comfortable?

     What if we gave up our delusions that doing the same things in the same ways is going to get us a different outcome?

     What if we — together with those who maybe we’ve unintentionally alienated — imagined what church might look like when we let go of some of the things we’ve grown accustomed to, but that have been standing  in the way of really being a community of Jesus-followers?

     It’s worth pointing out that in Romans 12:2, Paul tells the church at Rome not to “be conformed to this world.” The passive verb suggests that conformity can be something that happens to us, that’s done to us — and that it can happen when we aren’t paying attention. And I wonder if maybe it doesn’t happen to church people, right in the middle of our church-y lives, and maybe as much as anything that explains why we’re sometimes not what the church should be. We’re not paying attention, and we get conformed to the attitudes of the world around us: defensiveness, impatience, contempt for younger generations, a mindset to dig trenches and put up battlements to hold our positions. Sometimes we do it while quoting that very verse, convinced that by holding our positions we’re resisting conformity to the world. 

     Conformity will happen. It’s inevitable. Unless, Paul says, we are transformed. That’s the choice. If we’re not having our minds renewed by the Holy Spirit so that we’re transformed, we’re being conformed. It’s that way for individuals, and it’s that way for communities. Given that choice, we should invite God’s transformation. And that won’t happen if we can’t lay church as we’ve come to know it and like it on the table.

     I was going to say that takes courage, but that’s wrong. We don’t have to be courageous. We just have to have faith. If you have ideas for changes that need to happen, I hope this will help you to speak up.

     If you’re struggling with the notion of changing anything, I hope this will help you to reconsider the choice of conformity or transformation.

     And if you’re away from the church and you happen to read this, I hope you’ll see in it that we want you to come back, and that there’s room for your disappointments, struggles, questions, and voice. 

     Transform us, Lord.

Friday, January 14, 2022

New Creation

      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. With another New Year’s Day come and gone and the pandemic grinding on, maybe we need to hear it again. 

       We’ve lost our jobs, or we’ve walked away from them, and those of us who haven’t are doing jobs in ways we’ve never done them before, for companies and organizations that have changed drastically. 

     Every time we go to the store, or a restaurant, or church, or the dry cleaner, or do any one of a thousand things we used to do without thinking, we put on our masks and distance and wash our hands afterward. Or we make the decision not to do those things, and accept that there might be consequences to that we’ll have to live with.

     We need reminding.

     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, and maybe that’s convenient and maybe we even like it in some ways, but it isn’t the same. 

     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, January 7, 2022

"The Manger of My Heart"

 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep  is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled  to the measure of all the fullness of God. 

-Ephesians 3:16-19 (NIV)

If you’ll excuse a Christmas-y post, post-Christmas…

     Someone shared a prayer with me a few weeks ago, as the Christmas full-court press began. The introduction went like this:  

As the days get shorter in December, it seems the time I spend with God does too. I long for His presence. I know I need His perspective and peace. But as I prepare for the holidays, my heart can get so focused on planning and buying gifts that I forget to unwrap the most important gift—the gift of Immanuel—God with us.

     In all the hustle and bustle, it's easy to fill our heart with everything but Him, and miss the calm hush His presence brings. I felt an unusual void around the holidays several years ago, and wrote this Christmas prayer to help me keep my heart where it needs to be. I display it where I'll see it often - to remind me of what matters most.

The prayer itself then began with this line: “This Christmas, Lord, come to the manger of my heart.”

     Now, I would be a very strange minister indeed if I didn’t agree with that sentiment. The prayer goes on to ask that God will “fill me with your presence,” “remind me of the gift you gave,” “restore to me the wonder that came with Jesus' birth,””surround me with Your presence,“”clear my mind of countless concerns,” “slow me down…in the midst of parties and planning,”"invade my soul like Bethlehem, bringing peace to every part,” “dwell within and around me,” and “keep me close to You, Lord.” What’s not to like about all that? 

     But, I have to admit, a few questions crossed my mind as I read through that lovely prayer:

  • What does the hope of Jesus have to offer for those who aren’t “in the midst of parties and planning”? Who have no one to party with and no one to plan for?
  • What about the fact that Jesus’ coming didn’t exactly bring only peace to Bethlehem? If I don’t have peace, is that because Jesus hasn’t come to me?
  • And then there’s this: The prayer is very first-person. The pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” are all through it. What about second-person — “you”? What about third-person — “us”?

     Listen, again, I have no problem with what the prayer is trying to communicate, and I think it could be very helpful as a sort of reminder and bit of spiritual discipline to keep us focused on Jesus. It’s more that it’s an example of a blind spot that Christians in our time and place sometimes have: We sort of tend to internalize salvation. To us, the gospel tends to be about some variation of “Jesus in my heart.” Jesus is with me. He helps me. He forgives me, and he makes me feel better. And it’s not that such a view of salvation is wrong. It’s just that it’s one-dimensional. 

     This might surprise you: I was only able to find one verse in all of the New Testament in which Jesus is said in any way to be in our hearts. It’s Ephesians 3:17, part of Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus. He says that he’s been praying that “Christ may dwell in your hearts  through faith.” Even there, it’s plural; it’s not as much about individual experiences of Jesus in individual hearts as much as it’s about the church together finding together the blessing of Christ’s presence and power among them. 

     Jesus, after all, turned things upside-down. He welcome people dismissed as “unclean” by the religious. He said that the humble would be exalted and the exalted would be humbled. He taught his followers to turn the other cheek, to forgive, to love each other. He said that things like who you ate with mattered, but not for the reasons we usually think. He spoke of the kingdom of God, and said it demanded allegiance even over the kingdoms of his day. He talked about enduring persecution and not to be afraid and most of all to trust in a God who had his eye on the birds and flowers and thought every human was of infinitely greater value.

     If Jesus really just came to be in our hearts, forgive our sins, and give us peace, they wouldn’t have killed him.

     Jesus did talk about being present with us. He assured his disciples he would be with them “until the end of the age” — but he also told them to go into all the world. In John, there’s a lot of language about Jesus being with his followers — but also about them being in the world and loving one another. The point wasn’t just that Jesus would be with them, in a warm, comfortable, personal way. It was that he would be with them for the purpose of continuing his mission in the world through them.

     Jesus also talked about being present with other people, not just the church — the hungry and thirsty, the alien (xenos — like, xenophobia), the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, those who were poor and on the margins and in danger of being excluded, forgotten, and taken advantage of. Sometimes, in the particularly American brand of Christianity we tend to practice, we’re quick to think of Jesus as present with us and less likely to think of Jesus as present with them. Which is why our politics, our attitudes toward those who are in need, and our stance toward those outside the realm of what we think of as “normal” don’t always reflect the presence of Jesus. But it’s hard to have a hostile attitude toward the refugees who sneak across our borders or the protesters clamoring for justice or kids struggling with their sexuality or single parents in the inner city for whom SNAP is the difference between their kids eating and going hungry when you think of Jesus — our Lord, the one who gave his life for us — as present with them. 

     Listen, don’t mind me. It’s great if Jesus is in your heart, it really is.

     But — and of course you know this — he is present in the world in a much bigger, more expansive way than just in your heart. Or in mine.  

     He’s present when his church agrees together to share the gospel and announce forgiveness.

     He’s present through his Spirit, bearing fruit in our lives.

     He’s present in the communities we build in his name and through which we can act in the world as his physical presence, his actual body, making the Word flesh all over again.

     He’s present in the people around us, the most broken and pitiable of them, inviting us to express our gratitude to him in service to them.

      I guess here’s the thing, the thing I’m trying to get across in all of these words: if Jesus is in your heart, please make sure he looks very similar to the Jesus who is present in our world in all those other ways. He doesn’t need us to preserve him in our hearts, but to allow him in our lives.

     And then the people around us can get to know him, too.