Friday, August 26, 2022

Party Planners

 But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger  and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again;  he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate. 

     Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”

-Luke 15:22-27 (NIV)

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of Jesus’ best-known parables. Though we name it after the younger son, the “prodigal” one (prodigal just means wasteful), you could argue that the oldest son is the main character. Jesus told the story to those who didn’t care for the way he “welcomed” sinners and shared a table with them. The oldest son, the one who was irritated at his father’s generosity to his younger brother, represents their attitudes. He literally refuses to join the celebration for his brother’s return, and the story is supposed to make Jesus’ opponents who do the same realize how ridiculous they are. 

     We know the story: a father, two brothers. Their interactions represent the grace of God for sinners pushed up against the gracelessness that the brothers and sisters of those sinners can sometimes show toward them. 

      Just three characters, right?

     Well, not exactly. There’s one other character — well, a collective group of characters — in the story. You see them, don’t you, there at the point in the parable where the lost son comes home?  

But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe  and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again;  he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate. 

     Yes, there they are: “the servants.” They don’t have any lines, but then again servants aren’t necessarily there to talk. Silent though they are, they’re pretty important to the story. The prodigal wastes the inheritance his father gives him. The older son pouts when he hears that his dad is going to drop a bundle on his no-account little brother yet again. But the servants — they just do what they’re told. They obey their master’s wishes. They run and get the robe, the ring, the sandals. One of them brings a calf they’ve been preparing for just such an occasion and slaughters it. (I’m assuming that had to be the servant with the least seniority!) If the boss wants a party, a party there shall be. 

     They don’t get an opinion, nor do they seem to think they should have one, as to whether or not the prodigal deserves his party.

     They aren’t consulted, nor do they seem to think they should be, about whether or not the father should use his resources in this way.

     They just do what they’re told. “We had to celebrate,” the father tells his eldest son, but the servants already know that. They’ve told the eldest son the same thing: “your father has killed the fattened calf because he has [the prodigal] back safe and sound.” They don’t have a problem with it because they understand why the father wants to celebrate. 

     But, without those servants, the celebration wouldn’t have happened, would it?

     Maybe Jesus is saying that those religious leaders who don’t like the fact that he hangs out with sinners need to remember that they’re supposed to be servants. Yes, they’re God’s children — but that doesn’t privilege them over other of God’s children, and when it’s time to celebrate then they just need to take off the petulant older brother hats and put on their servant hats and make the celebration happen.

     Maybe we need to hear the same thing. It’s we servants who will — or won’t — make the celebration happen. God entrusts us with that responsibility. If prodigals are going to feel like they have a place, it will most often be because we show them that they do. It’ll be because they’re treated with love and joy, not resentment over their past mistakes. We shouldn’t treat them like they’re on probation, quarantined until they’re no longer sin carriers. We treat them like God’s children who are trying to believe that they have a place in their Father’s house. We let them know of the Father’s pleasure in their return. When he says make the celebration happen, we should.

     I say that because I don’t think most people associate the church with celebration. I don’t mean to be unfairly hard on us, but I think if you asked unchurched people who we are in the story of the prodigal, most would say we were the older brother. There are multiple reasons for that, and we only really have any control over some of them, but it’s hard to deny that we have at times conducted ourselves like we want no part of the celebration God throws when his lost children find their way home.   

     We’ve all been the younger son. We do all need the grace and love of the Father through Jesus. But you can’t live forever as the younger son, always straggling home from the latest pig pen. 

     We’re not the Father, who decides if the prodigals are sufficiently penitent to deserve the celebration.

     And we certainly shouldn’t be the oldest son, thinking we’re so superior to the prodigals that we resent our Father’s extravagant grace.

     That leaves servants. So let’s be servants.

      How can we serve God by making our churches places that celebrate over and over the return of prodigals? 

      First, the servants in the parable knew that it was not their wealth that the youngest son had squandered. We need to learn the same. If our Father is thankful when those who have squandered his grace come to their senses and come home, so should we be. No need to be stingy with God’s grace; he has plenty to give.

   Celebrating doesn’t necessarily mean that you endorse everything a prodigal has done. It certainly doesn’t mean that God can’t appreciate and celebrate long, consistent faithfulness. It’s just getting on board with God’s conviction that when the lost are found and the dead are made alive again, everything else gets put in perspective.

    Let’s be churches where everyone is treated with the joy, respect, and appreciation that should belong to a child of God. If their clothes are stained with whatever pig pens they’ve most recently been in, we don’t make them display their shame. We clothe them with honor.

     If they come hungry, we give them seats of honor at our table and full plates of the best we have, spiritually and physically, not make them stand outside begging for the scraps we might toss them; we. 

     And we give them whatever tokens we can of God’s faithful love for them. Like rings on their fingers, we gift them with kindness, patience, compassion, acceptance, and peace.

     If we’re places of celebration, people who didn’t dare hope they could come home will find their way, and find the place their Father has for them in his house and in his heart.     

Future Church

 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

-1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (NIV)

     In a recent blog post that caught my eye, Carey Nieuwhof made seven predictions about what the church will look like in 2032. You might want to read it yourself, as I’m sure I won’t do it justice here. As you read, ask yourself what sounds really good to you about his predictions. Ask yourself what bothers you or even angers you. And, in each case, ask yourself, “Why?”

     The title itself grabs you; “It’s 2032. Here’s What’s Left of the Church.” What’s left? That sounds ominous. Is he predicting some outbreak of persecution? Some apocalyptic event? Turns out no, but what he is saying might not sound a whole lot better to you. Here’s what he says may very well have happened by the year 2032: 

  1. Christian America died.
  2. Growing churches are now digital organizations with physical locations.
  3. The majority of church attendees are no longer in the room. 
  4. On-demand access now greatly surpasses live events. 
  5. Growing churches shifted their focus from gathering to connecting. 
  6. Community and connection matter more than content.
  7. Growing churches staffed for digital.

I don’t know how you feel about those. Probably, like me, your reaction is mixed. Here are some of my random thoughts, drawn from no expertise and no special knowledge other than what is easily visible and demonstrable now, in 2022.

     Number 1 has already started happening. It’s inevitable. That doesn’t mean that the church will disappear from America, but it does mean that we just might as well give up on what some of us — white, middle-class churches, mostly — have long seen as the ideal. I don’t see America becoming a purely secular nation in ten years; religion is just too deeply woven into our national fabric. But the days in which Christianity is the dominant religious influence in our nation are over. It’s time that we lay that ideal to rest and admit that it was only ever the ideal for a small but influential segment of American society. Political power and influence won’t change the tide. The job of the church by 2032 will often be that of domestic missionaries preaching the gospel to people who increasingly have no direct Christian influences in their lives.

     Numbers 2, 3, and 4 are already happening as well. COVID restrictions two years ago pushed most every church into some kind of digital ministry. Think about how most of us do everything else. Want to find a restaurant? Buy a book? Reserve a rental car? Find DIY advice? We Google it. Church is the same. A church’s website and social media will, increasingly, be our new front door. Physical gatherings will still be important, and so will a physical location, but increasingly churches will be digital-first, offering opportunities to connect throughout the week for content and interaction. It may be that, for many churches, online connections will far outpace physical attendance. 

     We may not love that, because most of us love being “at church.” But we’ve always known that the church isn’t the building, and that there’s a lot going on in a healthy church far away from the building on days other than Sunday. Being digital will allow people to access what we offer when and where they can. It can increase, rather than decrease, engagement with the church.

     That’s what numbers 5 and 6 are getting at. How many people slip away from churches each year simply because they get lost in the shuffle of coming and going on Sunday morning? Most churches tried to remedy that with other gatherings during the week, but that leaves out anyone who can’t or won’t come to the building then. But connection can be facilitated by digital ministry. Nieuwhof makes the point that content is available everywhere, great sermons by great preachers are at everyone’s fingertips. What’s in short supply is community. Connection.

     My chief disagreement with Nieuwhof is that I think he underemphasizes content. The Greek word for “content” in the New Testament is kerygma. It means, “what’s preached.” You see it in 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul says his “message and his preaching” — his content — was not filled with wisdom and persuasion. It was about Jesus, and his cross, and backed up by the work of the Holy Spirit in his life. I don’t think Nieuwhof would disagree with that, but I don’t think creating connection and community should be the message we preach. The message we preach — our content — should always point people to Jesus. We’re not just called to bring people together — there are lots of organizations that do that well. We’re called to proclaim the good news that in Jesus God is bringing everything together, and if we do that well, in a way that will let people see in our lives that God is at work, community will be created.

     Nieuwhof’s number 7 is a matter for church leaders to take seriously. Who a church decides to spend money to employ speaks volumes about what is important to them. Most churches don’t have an unlimited payroll budget — I’m certainly part of a church that does not. Our own staffing choices have a lot to do what what we think our ministry is. If we believe that things are changing rapidly in our world, then we need to take those changes seriously. If a church can’t hire with their digital ministry in mind, maybe they can reeducate and reallocate their existing staff members. Maybe they can invest in people who aren’t necessarily staff, but who can get some training in how to put together a digital presence that is true to the gospel message while helping people to connect with one another and with the Lord. There is an expertise to that, some special knowledge that will be as valuable in the near future — maybe is already as valuable — as presentation skills before a physical audience and other abilities and knowledge that churches usually look for in staff. 

     I’ve been preaching on the book of Acts on Sunday mornings lately, and I’m reminded of how the early church had to adapt to be faithful to Jesus’ mandate that they be witnesses “in Jerusalem, and and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jerusalem wasn’t exactly like the rest of Judea. It certainly wasn’t much like Samaria, and even less like “the ends of the earth.” Different people stepped up to lead. The gospel was preached in different ways. Existing technology and infrastructure was put to use. Different vocabularies arose. All to proclaim the message that Jesus was risen, and that in him was salvation. 

     Whatever our future looks like, our mandate won’t change. May we be as faithful as they were in letting go of the old ways when they’re no longer useful to that mandate, and embracing the new ways when they are.

Friday, August 19, 2022

"I Am"

 This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”

-Exodus 3:14 (NIV)

Now and then, you see stuff on social media that's seen so much it's just assumed to be true. A fair amount of it what might be called “popular theology.” Mostly, I think, it's pretty  harmless, even if it's less than accurate. Somebody hears something in a sermon or reads something in a book, is touched by it in some way, and reproduces it. Sometimes, maybe, they remember it imperfectly. Before you can turn around, it’s passed along by every other person on social media. The one I’ve seen a lot of recently has to do with the name of God. It goes like this:

     “But scholars and Rabi’s (sic) have noted that the letters YHWH represent breathing sounds, or aspirated consonants. When pronounced without intervening vowels, it actually sounds like breathing. YH (inhale): WH (exhale). 

     “So a baby’s first cry, his first breath, speaks the name of God. A deep sigh calls His name – or a groan or gasp that is too heavy for mere words.”


     In the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s name looks like this: אֶהְיֶה. In English, it’s often represented with the letters YHWH (sometimes referred to as “the Tetragrammeton”). When we say it in English, we usually pronounce it something like “Yahweh,” even though we don’t know how it would have been pronounced in ancient Hebrew. 

     God’s name is explained in Exodus 3, in the story of the burning bush. God wants Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the Hebrews’ release from slavery. Moses first objects by asking God, “Who am I to do this?” When God answers that objection, Moses moves on to his next one: “But who are you?”

     God responds with these words (transliterated to English): “hayah ásher hayah.” It means something like, “I Am that I Am.” God goes on to tell Moses that he should tell the Hebrews that “The One Who Is” — YHWH — sent him. 

     English translations usually represent the name of God with something like “the LORD”. The capital letters indicate that it stands in for אֶהְיֶה — YHWH or Yahweh, God’s name disclosed to Moses. We do that because ancient Jewish scribes who copied the Scriptures were concerned about accidentally dishonoring the name of God. One of the ten commandments, after all, is “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” So they would use the vowel signs for adonai, “Lord,” with the consonants YHWH in order to avoid writing the sacred name of God at all.

     Let’s tap the brakes on the whole idea that God’s name is about breathing. I first heard this maybe 15 years ago in one of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos — and nowhere else, until just recently on social. If you see it somewhere, maybe don’t pass it along. It sounds really cool and everything, but it’s not true. No “scholars and Rabbis” would say that God’s name is the sound of breathing. I certainly don’t think you’ll find this in Scripture:

“…[B]reathing is giving him praise. Even in the hardest moments….God chose to give himself a name that we can’t help but speak every moment we’re alive. All of us, always, everywhere. Waking, sleeping, breathing, with the name of God on our lips.”

     No. Worship of God is something we do by choice. Not by the accident of just continuing to breathe.

     Would you be content if your spouse’s only acknowledgment of their love for you was their breathing? Would respiration satisfy your desire for your child’s expressions of love? Would you ever imagine that your best friend was saying “Love you” with every inhalation and exhalation? No, thought not. So I think we can dispense with the notion that just walking around breathing is somehow equivalent to worshiping God, or even speaking his name.

     With that set aside, would you like to know what God’s name does mean? Why it’s significant?

     When Moses asks God who he is, he’s asking for a very good reason: the Hebrews have forgotten. It’s been 400 years since Joseph. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are just hazy names in history if they’re remembered at all. The covenant God made with them that extends to all their descendants has been forgotten as well. The Hebrews worship the Egyptian gods, probably — Yahweh, if they worship him at all, is just one option. 

     Moses is asking, in effect, which god are you?

     To which God replies: “I Am.” God doesn’t have to differentiate himself from the Egyptian pantheon because none of them are. None of them exist. None of them are coming to the rescue of the Hebrews. Only Yahweh, who made himself known to their ancestors and now is making himself known to them, is coming for them. He’s coming for them because he’s faithful to those promises made long ago. Whether his people know him or not…He Is. 

     That’s still true. God Is. Whatever you’re facing, whatever you’re fearing, whatever you’re fleeing from or feeling and whatever failure you can’t forgive, God Is. That’s his name. That’s just who, well, He Is. Always. When the future that’s so uncertain becomes the present, the one thing you will always be able to say is that He Is. And  when you look back over your life, the one thing that will always have been true is that He Is. And since He Is, you can do what he asks of you and He Is always, always hearing his people cry out and delivering them from bondage.

     Not you, you think? Because you’ve worshiped other gods? Join the club. He still Is, and he’s faithful to his promises, and those promises are for you. One of the problems with the “God’s name as breathing” thing is that it’s about us. But God’s name, I Am, is about him — his faithfulness, his love, his unfailing grace and compassion and mercy.  As Jeremiah said in the one bright spot of Lamentations: “Because of the LORD’S great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning”

     In John 8, some people are asking Jesus who he thinks he is. He’s made this audacious statement to the religious leaders that their ancestor Abraham saw Jesus’ time through faith and celebrated it. The leaders mock him: “You’re not even fifty years, old, and you know Abraham? Abraham knew you?” Laughable. 

     Jesus says, simply, “Before Abraham was…I Am.” When they heard that, they intended to stone him. They knew what he was saying.

     Later, when they go to arrest him in Gethsemane, Jesus asks who they’re looking for. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they say. Your English Bible will tell you that Jesus said, “I am he.” But what he actually said was, “I Am.” And they fell to the ground. They knew what he was saying.

     Jesus is the embodiment of the God Who Is. John says that the Word, who was with God and who is God, “became flesh and lived among us.” God said “I Am” to Moses, and he said “I Am” through Jesus, and he says it to us as well. Let’s put away our other gods. Let’s trust that he’s faithful to his promises. Let’s expect his salvation. Let’s worship him for his love and holiness and power.

     Take a deep breath. His name is still “I Am.”

Friday, August 12, 2022

All Sin Is Not the Same

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

-Matthew 7:15 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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