Friday, April 29, 2022

Harassed and Helpless

 Who Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

-Matthew 9:35-37 (NIV)

A lot of people think that Chicago, where I live, must be very easy to get lost in. I suppose it can be: there are over 2800 streets within the city’s 234 square miles. Drop someone who doesn’t know Chicago at, say, The Museum of Science and Industry with no way to navigate and ask them to find Wrigley Field, and they’d likely have a pretty hard time. 

    I was talking to a friend a couple of weeks ago who has just moved to Chicago. He knows how to get to work, to church, and a few other places, but other than that is somewhat bewildered at the idea of finding his way around. Obviously, I’ve been in Chicago a lot longer than he has. But I also have one other advantage. 

     When I first came to the city, my father-in-law, who moved to Chicago in the mid- 1950’s, gave me a little pocket-sized paperback book called The Chicago Street Guide. The guide, as its name suggests, lists every street in the city, its direction (north-south or east-west), and its location north, south, east, or west. (Of course, it’s available online now.)

     And he also gave me the key to understanding the street guide: every address number in Chicago tells you how far that address is from the intersection of State Street and Madison Avenue. State is 0 east and west. Madison is 0 north and south. Once you learn some major streets, it becomes much easier to navigate. 

     For instance: Wrigley Field is on Addison Street, which is 3600 north (36 blocks north of Madison). Wrigley Field’s address, 1060 West Addison, tells someone who knows Chicago that Wrigley is at the corner of Addison and Clark Street (which is 10 blocks west of State). My church’s address, 4602 N. Kilbourn Avenue, is at the corner of Kilbourn (4500 west) and Wilson Avenue (4600 north). If you want to catch a Cubs game Sunday after church, you need to go 10 blocks south and 35 blocks east. Since there are (usually) 8 blocks in every mile, I can even tell you that the ballpark is about 5 miles from the church. 

     Now, of course, you can just navigate with your phone. But what a phone won’t do — at least not so far — is teach you to understand what Chicago addresses actually mean and how to navigate the grid on your own. Understand Chicago’s grid, and you can never really be lost in the city, because you’re never more than a street number away from knowing exactly where you are.

     Lost. That’s a word we use metaphorically in church a lot. Jesus told three famous parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son, and the joy that comes when they're found. Those parables were meant to shed light on Jesus’ mission, which he referred to more pointedly when he said he “came to seek and save the lost.” That comes from Psalm 119, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, all of which picture people who should be living in peace and safety with God being lost, scattered, and in danger.

     It’s a word that, in the 18th and 19th century revival traditions of church, came to mean “lost in sin,” people who are doomed to hell for eternity if they don’t come down the aisle to “be saved.” That understanding of being lost, in turn, contributed to the idea that “lost” people are morally and spiritually inferior to “saved” people, and that they must be either converted or shunned. 

     But I want to point something out; as Jesus and the prophets use the term, being lost isn’t primarily about a person’s eternal destiny. Nowhere does the Bible add the prepositional phrase “in sin” to the word, “lost”. The sheep and the coin aren’t responsible for being lost. The son is, but the sins mentioned in the story are treated as sort of the inevitable result of his walking away from his father’s house, and the father forgives them with a wave of his hand when the son comes home.

     In the prophets, the only sin explicitly connected to “lost sheep” is the neglect of those whose job it was to care for them and look after them. That’s why Jesus pictures himself as coming to look for and rescue the lost; he will be faithful to his calling where others had been faithless. He had compassion for those who were lost. The lost people he came for weren’t bad folks who were going to get what they deserved if they didn’t straighten up and fly right, but people who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” They might have been sinners, but in Jesus’ eyes that didn’t make them too different from anyone else. The difference was that they didn’t know there was a path back to safety for them. Jesus came to show them that path. To be that path.

     So I think we need to ask ourselves, very seriously: Who are the harassed, helpless people in our lives?

     And are they finding compassion and grace and help at our churches?

     Obviously, the poor are harassed and helpless. Poverty touches every other part of life, makes everything more difficult. Kids who don’t get enough food to eat can’t do as well in school. Parents without reliable transportation are more limited in their employment options. Poverty restricts access to good medical care. It sets people behind technologically. 

     Immigrants, who often also deal with poverty, are harassed and helpless. They may not be able to read and write English. Their kids may struggle to catch up in school. They, too, struggle to find medical care or legal representation when necessary. Their educational opportunities may be limited. And, of course, they often deal with the prejudice and distrust of the majority culture.

     The elderly are often harassed and helpless. So are those with criminal records, who often can’t find work and become part of the recidivism statistics. People of color and women have historically and still often are harassed and helpless. Single parents are. Those with mental illness are.

     Point is, we need to follow Jesus in recognizing that those who are lost are not necessarily lost strictly because they’ve chosen to be irreligious or immoral. They’re harassed and helpless and what they need is for someone to come and find them and help them and bring them to safety. Jesus, of course, will. But he often sends us out looking as his representatives. 

     Through us, Jesus wants to seek and save the lost. May we have our eyes and ears open. May we have the vision to see those harassed helpless people all around us who are lost, and may we have the compassion to care that they are and offer them love, grace, help, and hope. What we have to share with the lost isn’t moral superiority, but a way to make sense of life, navigate its twists and turns, and a community in which we can do so together. The Way. Jesus. 

     Show harassed, helpless, lost people The Way. Help them find their way back to him.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Jesus and Thor

 Who among the gods is like you, Lord?

Who is like you—majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
     working wonders?

-Exodus 15:11 (NIV)

I came across a post not too long ago with a provocative title: "Thor Is Beating the Lutheran Church in a Battle for Believers in the Land of Fire and Ice". The post describes the resurgence of paganism in Iceland, in the form of Ásatrú, a “spiritual movement” that honors the old Norse gods: Odin, Freya, Loki, Frigg, Vár — and, yes, Thor. 

     If you think it’s not a coincidence that a new interest in Norse pagan gods has arisen in the decade when the Marvel Cinematic Universe started depicting its versions of Thor, Loki, Odin, and Freya in blockbuster films — well, I probably wouldn’t try to argue with you. But Ásatrú as a movement goes back to the early 1970s. There’s some pretty interesting stuff in the post on the history of Christianity in Iceland — an Ásatrú priestess, Jóhanna Harðardóttir, is quoted as saying that Iceland is “still Christian in name only.” I can’t really speak to her view of the history of the Icelandic church, but the numbers are fairly straightforward: while the percentage of the population of Iceland that claim membership in the country’s largest denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, dropped from 90 to 64 percent in about 30 years, Ásatrú membership tripled in size from 2007 to 2017. There are plans to build an Ásatrú temple near downtown Reykjavik. 

     Interestingly, Ásatrú does not proselytize. Jóhanna Harðardóttir says, “We gain every year, but it’s not because we are trying. People come to our ceremonials and ask, ‘Why didn’t I know about this before?’”

     I think there are some pretty clear reasons why Ásatrú is growing. (Other than the movie connections.) For one thing, we live in a world now in which institutions, especially institutions that have been around for a thousand years are more, are being questioned. A decade or two ago, it was easy to see that people weren’t very interested any longer in defending or remaining a part of a particular Christian denomination. Now, that lack of institutional loyalty has spread beyond denominational lines to the church in general. People are less likely to see the church as a positive force in society. 

     Ásatrú is a relatively new movement, and careful not to call itself a religion, or even invite people to join anything. People interested in Ásatrú can take their pick of any number of gods. Harðardóttir says, “There are so many. When you’re in love, it’s good to have Freya. When you’re sick, you want Eir around. Harðardóttir drives a red Nissan that displays a “Protected by Thor” bumper sticker. Faced with the possible death of a grandchild, she says, “Thor got me through it.” But she goes on to explain, “I don’t believe in a God in the sky we pray to, but I believe in him.” Ásatrú, she says, is less a religion and “more like a lifestyle, living in peace with yourself and the surroundings.” 

     In short, Ásatrú answers well the doubt many people feel about institutions like the church, while still offering the opportunity for divine assistance. But, of course, on their terms. You can choose your god, and that choice can even be situational. There is no concept that’s analogous to sin in Ásatrú — meaning actions or inactions that are objectively wrong, as defined by God. Adherents are taught to do “what’s good for you and others.” “I don’t make rules for other people,” Harðardóttir says. “I trust they know what’s best.” 

    Another reason for Ásatrú’s popularity seems to be that it’s perceived as truer to the national identity of Iceland. Christianity, according to Harðardóttir, was sort of pushed on the country a thousand years ago for economic reasons. But the old Norse gods were worshipped in Iceland long before that. (Unaddressed in the post is the fact that the worship of those gods was introduced by Viking invaders.) To embrace Ásatrú, the thinking goes, is to be more truly Icelandic.

     The same things that are contributing to the rise of Ásatrú in Iceland can be seen in America in the increase of people who say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Institutional distrust. More freedom to build a personal spirituality. Less concern with a god who intervenes in human affairs — “a God who was constantly spying on you,” as Harðardóttir dismissively says of Christian teaching — which also makes less of a demand on people. A simplifying of ethical and moral imperatives to “living in peace.” And an appeal to indigenous religion — or, at least, religion that wasn’t forced on people by by forces outside their control.  

    Something occurred to me, seeing Ásatrú and Christianity juxtaposed in such contrasting terms: The church has not done a good job in communicating what Christianity is.

     Admittedly, some of the critiques in the post are unfair. They obviously aren’t purely objective. Still, you hear it enough and you have to start wondering if maybe, somehow, we haven’t communicated the hope of the gospel, the love of God, and what it really means to follow Jesus.

     Christianity was never supposed to be what many people in our world are under the impression that it is. 

     Christianity is spiritual. One of its central doctrines is that Jesus has poured out the Holy Spirit, shared God’s Spirit with everyone who believes in him. We’re filled by the Spirit. The Spirit should be bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our lives.

     While there are moral and ethical imperatives Christians are expected to follow, it isn’t about God spying on us. The central belief of Christianity is that God forgives sin through Jesus. The angry, pedantic, malicious God that many people, like Harðardóttir, seem to think is watching us from on high looking to find fault has actually come near to us in Jesus, identified with us totally, and taken on our sins and suffering. He protects us and gets us through. The things God asks us to do and not to do are summed up by Jesus as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He even said, in a teaching that Ásatrú adherents can surely appreciate, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

     And, of course, Christianity was never supposed to be an institution. Institutions are all about defending, sustaining, and propagating themselves. What we’re supposed to be is a community of Jesus-followers, more like a movement than a religion, quite willing to give ourselves up if it means Jesus is believed. When we share the gospel, it must be in ways that respect and love and uphold the good in the people with whom we share it. We must help people recognize the ways God is working in the world as they see it, not force them to see the world the way we do.  

     It strikes me that all of the things about Ásatrú that Jóhanna Harðardóttir and other Icelanders find engaging are things that the gospel offers, too. If only we can cut out the background noise enough for our world to hear its thunder again. 

     Even the god of thunder would bow down before that. 

Friday, April 15, 2022


      Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

-John 19:28-30 (NIV)

Atlanta’s Major League Baseball team won the World Series last year. As a lifelong Atlanta fan, having endured four World Series losses in the 90s, I was taking nothing for granted. Yes, they had a 3-2 lead in the Series. Yes, the score in Game 6 was 7-0 with two out in the ninth. But until Dansby Swanson fielded a grounder hit by Yuli Gurriel and threw to Freddy Freeman to end the game, as far as I was concerned the outcome was still in doubt.

     The players, coaches, and other personnel received their World Series Rings last week. They’re ridiculously massive and elaborate, with 755  diamonds, 19 rubies, a white pearl, and a flip-up top that hides a replica of Truist Park, their home stadium, complete with micro-LED lights. Not something you’d wear to the grocery store — or probably anywhere else, for that matter. For symbolic value, though, they’re pretty effective. They’re visible tokens that the team accomplished what they wanted to accomplish. They’re reminders to everyone who sees them that this group of players were able to finish what they started.        

     I’m writing this on the night before Good Friday. At first blush, Good Friday sounds like a stupid thing to call the day on which many Christians reflect on Jesus’ death. “Good,” in this case, doesn’t mean positive, excellent, or something to be desired. It means “holy,” “pious.” It’s Good Friday because Jesus’ suffering was a holy thing that completed the work of God in redeeming human beings from sin and death. 

     Not all Christians place a lot of significance on Good Friday as a day of remembrance. I grew up in a stream of the Christian faith that most surely did not. At the church I’m a part of now, there won’t be a Good Friday service — though I know it means something to at least some of the people I gather with each Sunday for worship and communion. I’m not too concerned, to be honest, that Good Friday be observed as a day that’s holy or special in some way. Jesus’ crucifixion should be significant to us all year long — though I know that for those who set aside Good Friday, Jesus’ crucifixion is no less significant the rest of the year.

     Often, one of the things churches do to commemorate Good Friday is to focus attention on Jesus’ words from the cross. And, of those words, today three stand out for me. One sentence: “It is finished.”

     I think you can take those words in a few different possible ways. I mean, Jesus might be saying, with a sigh of relief, “My suffering is over.” And who would blame him? The agony he was in — physically, emotionally, spiritually — it would make most anyone look forward to the end of it. 

      There again, Jesus might be saying, “Their cruelty is complete. Their sin has reached its full capacity.” He wouldn’t be wrong. Judas’ betrayal, the injustice of rigged trials and bought witnesses, the violence and shame of his scourging, and the horror of crucifixion — it sure seemed like a lot of people were working overtime to do evil as events moved inexorably toward his execution.  

     Or it might be that Jesus is saying, “the Scriptures are fulfilled.” That certainly seems to be on his mind here. Johns suggests that’s the reason he says he’s thirsty, in order to bring about the “fulfillment” of Psalms 22 and 69. I would affirm that Jesus’ crucifixion does “fulfill” Scripture, so it’s easy to imagine that might have been on his mind. 

     Jesus might mean all of those things, to some degree. But I think he means more. Whatever you might understand him to be saying in the moment, when I read those words I don’t imagine that he intended them with relief or resignation, or even that he intended them to affirm his death as the fulfillment of the words of the Old Testament. He was no doubt relieved by the end of his suffering, and he certainly experienced the full capacity of human cruelty and injustice, and he never wavered in the conviction that Scripture showed how God’s intention to save human beings came to fruition in his death. But I don't think any of that is primarily what he meant when he said, “It is finished.”

     Jesus said that he came to give his life as a ransom for many. Paul wrote that God demonstrated his love for us “in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He said that Christ “died for our sins according the Scriptures,” and that was something to be passed on “as of first importance.” When Jesus said those words, “It is finished,” what he meant was he had completed the work God had given him to do, the work of demonstrating the extent of God’s love for us, the work of ransoming us from the slavery of sin and death. 

     At his worst moment, Jesus was celebrating that all the suffering and sorrow and rejection and shame had the purpose of redeeming the human race. That God’s work was finished, just like it was finished after six days of Creation. That, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, in the new creation that Christ’s sacrifice has brought to completion, “there remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.”

     There is so little in my life that ever feels finished. I certainly have times that I can rest for a while, but I can’t name too many things each that are finally, completely, and forever put to bed. I bet you can relate to that. Even in Atlanta, a new baseball season has started, a new quest for a championship. That’s what being human is, I think. As long as we’re alive, we’re always striving. Always trying to finish the next thing on our lists. 

     But what I think we’re supposed to see here on Good Friday is that one thing is complete. One thing is finished. Jesus has sacrificed himself for us. When he said “It is finished,” he meant that nothing else is needed, that it had all been done. God’s ages-long work of salvation, put into action before there was such a thing as time, had finally been accomplished. In Jesus, we are redeemed. In Jesus, we are set free. 

     I think that matters. It makes a difference as to how we think about ourselves. We’re not placed here to save ourselves, to work through levels of enlightenment or balance the scales of justice or discover the magic formula of good deeds and repentance to prop open the door to heaven. We’re placed here as a witness to the glory of God’s grace and love as seen through Jesus. We’re placed here to testify and celebrate that in Jesus our salvation is accomplished, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 

     But that conviction that in Jesus God’s act of salvation is finished also makes a difference in what we think of those around us. We can show to others the grace that we’ve received, knowing that through Jesus God’s work is finished for them, too. We can help them to accept it in joy and freedom. 

     “It is finished.” That’s the hope we have. We aren’t saved because we accomplished anything: not doctrinal purity, not character, not Bible knowledge, not steps of salvation — nothing we can take credit for. We’re saved because of what Jesus accomplished. May we receive it with humility, and may we celebrate with gratitude.

     And may we be tokens, shining in the light of Christ for the world to see, that God’s work is finished.

Friday, April 8, 2022

On Evangelism: Further Thoughts

 When you enter a house, first say, “Peace to this house.” If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

     When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

-Luke 10:5-9 (NIV)

Two weeks  ago, I wrote a post about evangelism. I wrote that I didn’t care for the word, or for the word evangelist. If you want to know the truth, I got a little pushback on it; polite pushback, but pushback all the same. Most of it seemed to come from concern that I was advocating casualness about sharing our faith, that I was underemphasizing the importance of going into the world and preaching the gospel. They rightly pointed out — as did I in the original post — that those two words I don’t care for both come from the word we translate “gospel” — good news. Some of them — politely, again — even wondered if maybe I wasn’t really interested in preaching the gospel. 

     Well, fair enough.

     I don’t feel the need to defend myself. It’s hard to be objective about that, anyway. I'll leave it to people who know me better to evaluate my commitment to the gospel. But they raise an interesting point — that, again, I also raised in the original post: “Still — we have that nagging sense, don’t we, that the gospel should be shared? We still believe that as Christians we should tell others about Jesus, even if we know more about how we don’t want to do it than how we should.”

     Here’s the thing about that, though; sometimes we can’t even agree what the gospel is.

    I often think of a Sunday school class when I was a teenager, where for a week or two the teacher led us in making notes in our Bibles that were supposed to help us in preaching the gospel to our friends or whatever. I still have the Bible — on the inside cover I’ve written the words, “start here,” with a reference. When I flip to that page, that verse is underlined, and in the margin beside it is written the next verse. And then the next, on through several  verses. By that time, I suppose, we would either be done preaching the gospel or our friend would have remembered suddenly that he had somewhere to be.

     Now, I’ve taught enough teen Bible classes to know better than to criticize someone who takes on that assignment without it being part of their job description! I don’t have a problem with the idea, and I doubt that whoever taught that class — I don’t recall — even came up with it all by himself. But the question that comes to my mind skipping through those notes is, “When did we decide it was OK to change Jesus’ definition of “gospel.” It’s right there, in Mark 1:14-15, plain as day:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe  the good news!” 

Twice in two verses, the message Jesus entered Galilee preaching is called “the good news” — evangellion. 

     The verses marked in my Bible, which are supposed to be about preaching the “good news,” are more about our response to the good news. Those verses describe a sequence that I’ve often heard in my life referred to as “the gospel” — that God will save us if we hear, believe, repent, confess, and are baptized. There are some variations that drop hear and put in be faithful at the end. It’s based on a sequence that a frontier preacher named Walter Scott taught children when he’d come to town for an evangelistic meeting, because it could be enumerated on five fingers — though his went "faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit.”

     For Scott, though, that wasn’t the gospel. It was how he hoped people would respond to the gospel.  The gospel, always, is what Jesus announced: “the kingdom of God has come near.”

     OK, right; that’s a little vague. But look at how Jesus “evangelized.” He didn’t try to talk people into anything, and he didn’t try to walk them into theological blind alleys and then pounce on them. One of the frustrations you might feel when you look to Jesus as an example for evangelism is how little of it he seemed to do, at least as we define the term. But that’s just because of our prejudices as to what evangelism is.

     Every time Jesus taught, he was preaching the good news. He introduced many of his parables, for instance, with the phrase, “the kingdom of God is like….” His evangelism was telling people, “Hey, here’s how life is different in the kingdom. Here’s what it’s about.” He wanted his hearers to understand what it meant that through him God was bringing his kingdom near and opening it to anyone who would come in.

     I’m not sure that most churches today can show — or even tell — the people who they want to bring to Jesus how life in God’s kingdom is different. Or why they should care that his kingdom has come near. We still think so exclusively of evangelism as information transfer that we’re blind to any other way. But preaching the good news isn’t solely about information transfer — as though people routinely synthesize new information and immediately change their lives!

     Look at the instructions Jesus gave to 72 of his disciples before he sent them out on a preaching tour. They were supposed to, in pairs, visit different places and depend entirely on the hospitality of the citizens for a place to stay and food to eat. They were to offer peace. They were to stay with the first townspeople who welcomed them, not move around. And  their mandate was to “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” 

     We tend to notice the part about healing, but I think that the emphasis on hospitality and remaining with those who first welcomed them shifts the focus to being present. They were to preach the nearness of the kingdom of God, but they were to do so while being near, being present, being in community, having their needs met and meeting the needs of those around them. 

     I think it’s easy to overlook this necessary part of evangelism. Gone are the days when people will listen to a stranger tell them about Jesus. And while it’s tempting to rush around telling as many people as we can as quickly as we can, maybe we’d be better off if we were just present, really present, with a few people. Someone can hear a stranger on the internet anytime they want to. What’s often missing is someone who will be there with them and offer them peace. Who’ll eat with them and talk with them and tell them about Jesus, yes — but also stay and help them heal. Many people in our world can’t think of too many people who they can depend on for that. And being present for the people around you, staying with them, giving to them and receiving from them — doesn’t that sound a lot like the way God’s kingdom came near to us anyway — through Jesus, who was present with us, who offered us peace?

     So who can you be present with? To whom can you offer peace? I bet you already have reciprocal relationships into which you can bring the good news of the kingdom and help someone heal. 

     May we be faithful.