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.

Friday, June 3, 2022

In This Way

 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

-Galatians 6:2 (NIV)

I was listening this week to a podcast — an episode titled “How Do You Measure Success in Ministry?“ I was struck by the title because I live in that weird crossroads between ministry and career — the work I do for a paycheck is ministry, service to the church and to the world in the name of Jesus and for the purpose of spreading the gospel. And, to be honest, it’s sometimes hard to know how I’m doing. Are the attendance numbers at church because of me, in spite of me, or am I irrelevant to the question? What percentage of my time should I be spending with church people? With unchurched people? Preparing for preaching and teaching? Praying? Do I measure success by attendance at church? Baptisms? Bible studies? Spiritual conversations? How do the people who pay my salary know how I’m doing? What should a performance review look like? Sometimes success in ministry feels like a moving target, which is why, I guess, I’ve come to really enjoy work that is finished at some point and I can look at and say, “OK, I accomplished that today.”

      It occurred to me as I listened, though, that I’m not the only one who struggles with that question. That, in fact, people who do ministry professionally are not the only ones who wonder how to measure success. Every Christian who does ministry of any kind — and that should be every Christian — wonders from time to time how to evaluate how they're doing. If you teach a kids’ Sunday school class. If you send a card to someone who’s sick. If you comfort someone who’s grieving, or pray with someone, or offer counsel to someone, or share your faith with someone, or give food to someone. If you lead singing or lead the church in communion, if you’re an elder or ministry leader — well, you get the point. I bet you’ve asked the question: “How did I do, and how can I know?” It’s an important question for several reasons, one important one being that it’s hard for most people to sustain enthusiasm for doing anything that they aren't feeling successful at.

     I think my friends Becky and Kerry Holton, who do the podcast, offered some good insights into answering that question. They start by talking about some flawed metrics for success, and they look at some metrics that are maybe more profitable. I won’t rehash their thoughts here; I encourage you to listen to the podcast (it’s just about 20 minutes long). They led me to think of some other standards for success, standards marked off in the Bible by one phrase: “In this way.”

     As a first example, the verse at the top of this post: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The law of Christ Paul refers to here is Jesus’ insistence that his disciples should be known primarily for how we love each other. So Paul wants the church in Galatia to know that one way to follow that law is to share in the loads that each of them have to carry in life. 

     So here’s a measure for success in whatever your ministry is: How well are you fulfilling the law of Christ to love each other by carrying others’ burdens? If you serve in a food pantry, are you grudging and easily irritated in the way you deal with clients? Are you impatient and short with other people who are trying to serve in this way? Or do you prioritize service, kindness, compassion, grace, and trustworthiness? Do you let them know by your words and actions that you care about the burden they’re carrying and want to help them with it? One way to evaluate your success in ministry is to see if you’re carrying others’ burdens in the name of Jesus. 

     Here’s another, this time from Romans 14:17-18 — “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.” Paul wrote these words to a Roman church dealing with disagreements and outright division about menu and calendar — what you can and can’t eat and what religious holidays you should and shouldn’t celebrate. He doesn’t come down definitively on one side or the other, but reminds them that the kingdom of God of which they're subjects doesn’t take a hard line about the things they’re so argumentative about. He tells them that their King wants them to be more concerned about “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit,” and that maintaining and promoting those things is much more important than winning an argument.

     So we surely want to use righteousness, peace, and joy as one of our standards of success. I know plenty of Christians whose primary “ministry” seems to be pointing out how everyone else is wrong. God has given them the gift of criticism, and they’re faithful in using it! I know that sometimes there have to be arguments and debates in every church, but we have to just remember that if they aren’t had in the service of righteousness, peace, and joy then they aren’t the work of the kingdom and can’t be very pleasing to our King. Does your ministry promote righteousness, peace, and joy in your home, your neighborhood, your workplace, your church? Then you’re successful; God is pleased, and people with eyes to see will approve.

     Another mark of success in ministry is in Acts 19:20 — “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” You’re a success if through your ministry the word of the Lord — the gospel — spreads from person to person, place to place. I think that’s maybe a better metric than how many believe, because the faith of others is really out of our hands. What we can control is whether or not people know about Jesus — not the messages that the church sometimes confuses for the gospel, but the actual good news of Jesus. Some will believe. Some won’t. All we can do is to resolve that in the witness of our lives and our words — and in the witness and words of our life together as the church — “the word of the Lord” will spread  and grow as it touches the people we come in contact with.

     Want one more measurement of success in the ministry God has given you? How about this, from Philippians 3:20-4:1 — “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” You’re successful when you stand firm by remembering who our Savior is, who our Lord is, and that we’re waiting for him. We’re waiting for him to come and give the final stamp of approval to the work we do for him. We’re waiting for him to come and redeem the mistakes we’ve made. We’re waiting for him to make us, finally and completely, like him. All of that power is his, not ours. Until he comes, we won’t be what we will be. We’ll be flawed, and so will our work for him. But that shouldn’t lead us to despair. When he comes, I think surely people who I fell short of loving and serving will finally see what I in my imperfect ministry failed to show them. So our ministry is successful if we’re always waiting on him, always hoping in the transformation to come when he will bring everything under his control, and always remembering where our homeland is and who our Lord and Savior is.

     In your life, there will be plenty of people to tell you that you’re the greatest. And there will be plenty to tell you that you’re the worst. Please don’t believe either; human metrics for success are pretty limited. Try evaluating your life and your ministry for the Lord “in this way” instead. May God bless your work for him.