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Friday, May 27, 2022

Room

 When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

-Luke 14:12-14 (NIV)





My son is the digital marketing and social media guy for our church. This week, he posted this photo and these words: “We can't fit too many more VBS supplies in [our] basement...Thankfully, VBS begins in less than two weeks….”

     VBS, in case you’re not aware, is an acronym for Vacation Bible School. It’s a way churches often reach out in the summer, when kids are on vacation from school, to offer fun and Bible learning. We’ve done it in different ways in our church the last few years, but we always try to make it as fun and exciting as we can for the kids. We want them to get excited about it. We want them to bring their friends. We want them to get used to the idea that there’s stuff happening at church for them, that they have a place there. That they matter to us. 

    A basement room filled with VBS supplies, props, and curriculum is hopefully a sign that kids do have a place at church. We try to demonstrate that in other ways, too. Go upstairs in our church building, and you’ll find classrooms that our teachers have decorated, filled with appropriately-sized furniture, kids’ Bibles, supplies, games, and snacks. That’s not unusual, of course — most churches have kids’ classrooms. But those spaces set aside and specially adapted for kids tell anyone who might see them that we’re serious about kids learning about Jesus. 

     Josh’s post got me thinking: What do we make room for at church?

     A few things came to mind immediately. We have a large room that dominates our building. It’s more elaborately decorated than the rest of the building. It has a sound system in it. It’s where we come together on Sundays to worship, and all anyone has to do to see how we value Sunday worship is walk through our building and note how much of it the worship space takes up. 

     We have a room called the “multi-purpose room.” Most Sundays we use it for a classroom. A lot of the time we use it for a meeting room. Often, we use it as a place to eat together. It’s been used for wedding receptions and funeral lunches. Sometimes community organizations meet there. Sometimes we use it for our food pantry. I think that means we want to be flexible, to use our building in ways that meet needs — both our own and in our community.

     Speaking of our food pantry, we have a room set up with freezers and cabinets for food storage — we literally make room for feeding food-insecure people. We have a tank of water and changing rooms for baptizing. There’s an office. We have a room with a video monitor of our worship service where parents of small children can go if the kids are having trouble sitting quietly. Here’s my point: one way to tell what any church really values is to walk through the building and see what we’ve made room for. If we say something is important to us, but you don’t see any space for it — well, you might reasonably ask how much it really matters. The physical space given to something can be an indicator of how much we care about it.

     But there's a related, though not necessarily identical question it’s important for a church to ask: Who do we make room for at church?

     Sometimes you can tell that from the building as well. All of the spaces in a church building have something to say about people included or excluded. Quite a few years ago now, for instance, we put in a lift and a wheelchair-accessible restroom so people with limited mobility don’t have to negotiate the many stairs and other obstacles in our vertically-designed building. A recent Washington Post story describes churches in different parts of the country developing underutilized property into affordable housing — a church making room for people who need housing speaks considerably to what matters to them.

     Of course, a church doesn’t have to have a building. That can say a lot about what matters to that church as well, right? I read about one church that sold its building so that a 173-unit affordable housing complex can be built on the site, and then rented space in the new complex for worship. When you make so much room for others that you actually move out yourself — well, that’s a pretty significant commitment. And, incidentally, a very Christian thing to do.

     Who do we make room for at church, and how? I know about a church that has a Vacation Bible School every summer for intellectually disabled kids, organized and led by people who best know how to connect with them. I know of churches with ministries on college campuses giving students a family and a place to go for support, encouragement, and spiritual growth. I know churches who intentionally work to make themselves a safe place for people who are questioning and searching, or who open their doors for support groups for people in recovery or survivors of abuse or parents who have lost children.

     I think you’d want to be careful about inviting Jesus to dinner; apparently he wasn’t shy about telling his hosts who ought to be there. Once, Jesus told his host not to put friends, family, and influential people on the guest list next time. Instead, he said, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” I don’t think his point was that only those four categories of people could come to dinner, or that you should never invite the in-laws over. I think he was warning us to guard against the tendency we have to see the world too narrowly and never reach out with love and kindness beyond the people who are like us, or the people we want to be like.

     A few years ago, before COVID, we were having a meal together at church, and this text really came alive for me. Folks started coming in to wait for our food pantry to open, and I was struck with the uncomfortable irony of all of us sitting around tables with plates full of food, enjoying each others’ company, while our food pantry clients looked on. Thankfully, a few members invited them to join us at the table, which led to pantry clients being invited to future meals.  

     Who does your church make room for, and how? Do people of color feel there’s room for them? Immigrants? In a post-COVID world, do you make room for people with compromised immune systems, who might need special accommodation or maybe even don’t feel they can come to the building? Do people feel they have to embrace a particular political viewpoint to find a place? Do the poor, who can’t give much financially, have room at your church, or do they hear that you value more those who can give a lot? Do you make room for people who are struggling under the guilt of a failed marriage? Do you make room for people who are attracted to the same sex and wonder if there’s still a place in the gospel story for them?

     No church does it all, I know. All of us are in progress. The point is not to feel guilty about past oversights, but to let Jesus remind us not to be content with just making room for other people like us.

     There’s plenty of room, you’ll find it. And, as Jesus promises, you’ll be blessed because of it.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Thoughts on the End of Jonah

 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

-Jonah 4:10-11 (NIV)



Just finished up a class on the Book of Jonah, and I was struck again by the way the book ends. God has finally gotten Jonah to Nineveh, where he’s supposed to preach against the wickedness there. When Jonah carries out his mission, the people respond. The whole city repents. But Jonah is furious. He wanted Nineveh destroyed. He wanted God to visit his anger on these people and obliterate their city. “I knew this would happen,” he says. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah even builds a little shelter, sets out a law chair, and watches to see if maybe God’s grace will run out and fire will fall on the city.

     Jonah’s angry because God won’t commit genocide to feed his desire for some kind of retributive justice.

     So God arranges an object lesson for Jonah. He causes a plant to grow and give Jonah some shade — which Jonah is “very happy” about. But then the next day, he arranges for a worm or bug or some kind of similar critter to chew on the plant and kill it. He also arranges for a hot wind to blow through. Sweltering in the sun, with this hot wind blowing on him, Jonah is miserable. He’s as angry as he can be, he tells God.

     And that’s when God points out Jonah’s horrific value system. He’s upset about a plant — a plant he had nothing to do with — being taken away from him, leaving him uncomfortable and overheated. But he’s pretty casual about wanting God to wipe out a “great city” full of people who are wicked because they just don’t know the difference — people who he created, whose lives are in his hands, and about whom he is rightfully upset. 

     The text also mentions the animals in Nineveh. I used to wonder about that. Maybe God’s showing environmental concern? Maybe all of his creation matters to him, and if Jonah couldn’t bring himself to care about the people, surely he could see the animals didn’t deserve God’s judgment. But now I think the reference to the animals reminds us that the people Jonah wants God to destroy have a place in his creation, too. In that, they’re not all that different from Jonah and his people. They have work to do. Animals to tend. Their lives have purpose, and if God wants to preserve those lives then Jonah should rejoice in it, not resent it.  

     We got to the ending of Jonah a few days after the mass shooting at Tops supermarket in the Kingsley neighborhood of Buffalo. Ten people were murdered, three others wounded. Eleven of the victims were Black, and the shooter made it known through a long, rambling “manifesto” that the demographic of his victims was intentional. He drove 200 miles to Kingsley because it’s a predominantly Black neighborhood. In his manifesto, he described himself as a white supremacist who supports a conspiracy theory that says that White people are being systematically replaced in Europe and North America through immigration and decreased birth rates, and that’s about as much of that “theory” as deserves attention. He said that the attack was intended to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people and get them to leave the country. 

     Here’s the thing: the ridiculousness of a belief does not stop people from killing for it.

     Now, as the aftereffects of this tragic event play themselves out, one of the things we might be tempted to do is to dismiss this shooter as a young, impressionable, bored guy with mental illness — and it may turn out that there’s truth in that. It may not. But don’t let that cancel out the fact that people all over our country — and some in our churches on Sundays — buy into some form of this crazy idea that White people are being replaced. Oh, not the version where you grab a rifle and go looking for someone to kill, maybe. But it’s there, in some form, in a disturbing number of ways.

     You can hear it nightly on certain news networks: fears stoked that politicians want to grab power by forcing demographic change. Or how “classic Americans” are being “drowned out” by elitists. According to an Associated Press poll, one in three American adults now believe that an effort is underway “to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.” All this in spite of the fact that there has never been  evidence of widespread voter fraud involving illegal immigrants — or any other ineligible voters. News presenters legitimize the darker versions of this idea with their more sanitized versions. The loss of “our way of life” is talked about openly on social media posts — and there’s no question of whose way of life is, supposedly, being lost. One political party is making it, increasingly, a part of their platform.

     Sometimes, sadly, the church is the worst repository of this kind of thinking, when crime, immorality, and corruption are explicitly linked with supposedly unchecked illegal immigration.

     If we’ve ever used that kind of language, even without considering the implications, we need to repent of it. It’s fertile ground for the kind of thing that happened in Buffalo. I’m not saying it’s the only cause. I understand that the vast majority of people hate violence and didn’t want it to happen. But people who would never pick up a gun sometimes use words and language that suggest that “they” — whoever “they” may be — are a threat to “us.”

     And if we hear it, we need to call it out. Particularly those of us who are White. We need to obey Paul when he writes, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” If everyone who called themselves Christian would repudiate every occurrence of this kind of thinking that they hear, if we’d reject those who put it on our screens and those who get elected on it, then just maybe it would lose the foothold it seems to have found in our culture, and just maybe there’d be fewer instances of it being radicalized into the form we saw in Buffalo and in what seems to be an increasing number of instances: Utoya, Charlottesville, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Christchurch. This isn’t political: both sides of the aisle can, should, and do repudiate this reprehensible idea that “we” are being replaced by “them.” It's a form of white supremacy, and it needs to die once and for all.

     For over a quarter of a century, I’ve been a part of a church in which immigrants worship and serve the Lord with people born in America, in which Blacks, Whites, Asians, and Hispanics pray and read Scripture together and share communion together. I have gained everything by being associated with all of these people. I have lost nothing. I love them dearly, and they love me. There is room for me and there is room for them. 

     God’s concern extends far beyond ours. Every human being is his creation, and as such is entitled to a place in his world. Instead of worrying about what we might lose in relation to others, let’s consider what we might gain and what we might give. May we push back, hard, when someone questions the right of any human being to a place in God’s creation. 

     And may the attitudes that gave rise to what happened in Buffalo sink back into the pit from which they came. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

How To Consume the News (Without It Consuming You)

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

-Luke 13:1-5 (NIV)



Not long ago, I watched a little of one of those apocalypse movies from a decade or so back. I honestly forget which one it was, but you know the ones I’m talking about back during that trend of environmental catastrophe movies. An asteroid hits the earth, or volcanos erupt, or massive storms flood cities, or maybe all of the above. I watched it for a little while and then turned it off — not because it upset me, but because I didn’t think it was very good. 

     But before I turned it off, a thought went through my mind: “Isn’t it cute that those were the things we were scared of just ten years ago?”

     Feels like in the present that watching the news on TV or opening the news app on your phone is one of those disaster movies where one after the other everything goes wrong. Only it’s real. War. Sickness. Inflation. Shortages. Political corruption. Are you a little overwhelmed by it? Then let me offer some suggestions to you about how to consume the news without letting it consume you, without losing faith, hope, and love.

     First: I think there ought to be a big warning sign flashing on our devices or printed with our newspapers or running across the bottom of the screen on TV news channels: “There is SO MUCH MORE happening in the world than this!” When I worked for a TV station producing newscasts for a couple of years, I first heard the slogan, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That’s the first and greatest commandment of mass media, and the second is like unto it: “If it’s sex, it’s next.” Never forget that, in mass media, the news is always in service of profit. Those stories you're seeing and hearing and reading aren’t the only things going on in the world, and likely they aren’t even the most important. When we think they are, then our view of what God is up to in the world gets far too small and stunted and limited. He’s much bigger than the headlines, in case you needed a reminder, but a lot of what he’s doing around us wouldn’t sell ad space. Make sure your vision isn’t too obscured by the “important” stories you see every day to notice his work in the world and consider how you can be a part of it.

     Related to that, a word about how news works online. If you primarily get your news from a feed or app like Google or CNN Daily Headlines or AP or what have you, then you need to know that online news feeds and apps send you headlines based on other stories you’ve clicked on. (That’s why my newsfeed is largely populated with stories about football and Star Wars.) Those companies’ algorithms push stories out to you that, based on your past interests, you’re likely to click on. So if you think you’re getting overloaded on stories about the likelihood of nuclear war with Russia or the COVID virus or economic woes, click on some uplifting or educational or inspirational stories. That won’t get rid of all the bad news, but it may let the algorithms know that you’re interested in seeing more than violence, sorrow, and pain on your screen.    

     A third suggestion is based on something Karl Barth said: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” That’s especially good advice for this time when our interpretation of news can be so public. I see Christians commenting on news stories, throwing out their opinions like grenades and blasting those who see things differently, without ever even mentioning their faith. What you understand Scripture to be saying, what your faith in Jesus tells you, ought to give context to your interpretation of the news. If it doesn’t, then you can bet that your reading of the news is interpreting your faith for you, and without you noticing. (I think that’s why so many Christians so easily seem to fall for conspiracy theories and out-and-out lies in the news.) Always filter the news you take in through the gospel of Jesus, the words of Scripture, and the Kingdom of God.

     And, yes, I did use the phrase “interpreting the news.” (Well, Barth did.) Please don’t forget that news does need to be interpreted and shouldn’t be accepted at face value. We all are probably aware that news outlets slant their coverage in particular and discernible directions, but it can run deeper even than that. News stories never come from a completely objective perspective. They are always influenced by those who produce them, those who sell them, and those who consume them, and they’re always shaped by other events happening around them. You won’t always know everything that has gone into shaping a story, but just assume that it’s there. If it’s something important to you, try to get coverage from different sources. And resist superficial opinions and facile answers to difficult questions. 

     Know this, though; we have long since passed the time in human history when anyone can be well-informed about everything. News is a 24-hour global churn. No one has the time, attention span, or intellectual bandwidth to stay submerged in it for as long as it would take to be aware of every story and all their possible ramifications. Most of us, probably, already spend far too much time and energy trying to learn to swallow fast enough to take in the firehose of information blasted at us through our TVs and devices all day, every day. Maybe it’s time for us to be more selective. For starters, stick to a set amount of time each day for news. (The way our ancestors used to!) Try to focus on news that has the most to do with you and the people to whom God has called you. Prioritize local news. Ask how what’s happening locally might affect peoples’ receptivity to the gospel, or how your church might serve or help, or just what God is doing and how you and the community of faith can be a part of it. That’s not provincial, it’s responsible. What’s happening globally might have a lot to do with what’s happening locally — but be an expert on the local events.

     Finally, another Barth quote that I ran across while looking for the one above: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Prayer is a revolutionary act. It calls on God and asks that his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Consume news prayerfully. Praying about what you hear and see and read will help you feel less powerless. It will remind you that, whatever is going on in the world, God is on his throne, and that it’s not up to you, or any human being, to solve all the world’s problems. When we pray, we acknowledge the God who brings order out of chaos.

     Jesus interpreted news stories of his day: a horrific, government-sponsored massacre at the Temple, a tower collapse. He warned his followers about making too-easy assumptions. He reminded them that, in the end, the most important news is the Good News and its implications for people who refuse to accept it. May we never get so caught up in knowing and responding to the news of our world that we neglect to know and respond to the Good News of Jesus. Your favorite news outlet probably won’t cover it. But that’s the news that should matter to you most of all.

Friday, May 6, 2022

The Water and Not the Lion

 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit,  whom those who believed in him were later to receive.  Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. 

-John 7:37-39 (NIV)


Art by Leanne Bowen

A friend on Facebook posted a section of dialogue that I had forgotten about from C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, one of the Narnia books. Seeing it again reminded me of some things that I think it’s important to remember every once in a while. Maybe it’ll help you remember, too.

     The dialogue comes when Jill Pole has gotten separated from her friend, Eustace, while exploring Narnia. Stumbling through the woods, lost and tired, Jill becomes very thirsty. Thankfully, she finds a stream. But as she starts toward it, she stops short — there’s a lion lying between her and the stream. 

     We know the lion is Aslan, the Christ figure in the Narnia books. Elsewhere in the series, another character explains that “of course [Aslan] isn’t safe. But he’s good.” Jill, of course, doesn’t know any of this yet. All she sees is a lion, and all she can think is that if she stays or tries to run away, he’ll eat her. While she’s trying to decide what to do, and so thirsty that she almost thinks she’d try it if she could be sure she’d at least get a mouthful of water before he eats her, Aslan speaks.      

     “If you are thirsty, come and drink.”

     Once she gets used to a talking lion, Jill says,”I am dying of thirst.”And the scene goes on:

     "Then drink," said the Lion.

     "May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.

     The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. 

     The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. "Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.

     "I make no promise," said the Lion.

     Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. "Do you eat girls?" she said.

     "I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

     "I daren't come and drink," said Jill.

     "Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.

     "Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

     "There is no other stream," said the Lion.


What this little scene reminded me of is how we have tried our best to domesticate Jesus. We’ve tried to make  Jesus, I fear, into Dr. Phil, or into any one of a whole mob of self-help experts, life coaches, and mentors who tell us how to be healthy and successful, to have happier families, stronger minds, and greater satisfaction in life. We don’t need Jesus to live, like we need water. We need him to rubber-stamp our plans and cure our anxieties and help us be just a little bit better and maybe even endorse our assumptions, religions, beliefs, and prejudices. 

     We’ve tried to have the water and not the lion.

     Wouldn’t it be nice, sometimes, if Jesus would obey our polite request to go away for a little while? Not forever, of course, and not far — just far enough that he wouldn’t bother us while we took care of real life.

     Or, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get some kind of promise that, if we hang around with him, he won’t…do anything to us? Because honestly, we like things just as they are. We like us just as we are. 

     Failing that, couldn’t we at least get some kind of assurance that Jesus wouldn’t swallow us up? That we could still have self, along with him? Couldn’t we at least get a guarantee that all the stuff he said about taking up our crosses and denying ourselves and losing our lives to follow him doesn’t mean what we think it means? That it’s only meant for priests and monks and nuns and ministers and missionaries, and not for normal people who have lives?

     A more manageable Jesus — a safe Jesus — would be ideal. All of the good stuff, none of the danger. The water and not the lion.

     See here, though: there is no such thing as a safe Jesus. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink,” Jesus said. He told another thirsty girl at a stream — OK, a woman at a well — that all she had to do was ask, and he would give her living water. He hoped his people wouldn’t make the same mistakes they had made for generations, that they would understand that there is no other stream.

     We need to understand: Jesus has what we need for life. More than that, he has what we must have to survive. And, with all the love and respect in the world to other religions, other belief systems, and even to my fellow Christians who want a safer source of life than Jesus — there is no other stream. I’m not saying I know anything you don’t know — too often when people claim to be offering Jesus what they’re really offering is their own domesticated version of him. I’m saying that the only stream for any of us is the stream Jesus offers, and he offers it to us whoever we are, wherever we might come from, and whatever we’ve done or thought — whenever we stumble across him laying there in our paths. And I’m saying that he isn’t much concerned about making you feel safe, and that he will not go away and that he will do something to you and that you will be swallowed up. 

     But you will also be brought to life like you’ve never known before. Come to him, drink from the water he offers you, and you’ll never be thirsty again. That water he gives you will become a stream flowing out of you and inundating the world around you. He’ll fill you with God’s Spirit, God’s life, the energy that comes from him, changes you, and makes you a catalyst for change around you. But that’s not for those who want a safe, domesticated Jesus. He is, after all “the Lion of the tribe of Judah.”

     That’s a name for Jesus that John heard in the vision he recorded in Revelation. Funny thing, though — John doesn’t see a lion. He sees “a lamb, looking as if it had been slain.” What he’s getting at in his enigmatic way is that Jesus, in his death, has become the Lion. In his earthly life, Jesus could be ignored, marginalized, shouted down, discredited — and, when all that failed, he could be killed. The risen Jesus, on the other hand, can’t be shrugged off. If you want life, you have to deal with him. You have to accept him on his terms. You can’t render him safe. You can’t negotiate. You accept him, or you don’t, just as he is. That feels scary.

     Here’s the good news: he accepts you the same way, just as you are. “If you’re thirsty, come and drink.” That’s all you have to be. Thirsty. Not religious. Not good. Not sober. Not clean. Thirsty.

     And there is no other stream.