Friday, September 30, 2022

"That All of Them May Be One"

 I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one,  Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me,  that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity..

-John 17:20-23 (NIV)

Like many of you who read this blog, I belong to a church that calls itself a “Church of Christ.” I’ve spent my entire life in Churches of Christ, and though I know something about our weaknesses and failures I have no regrets. (I imagine that’s largely because of the particular congregation I’ve spent almost 30 years of my life with.) There are things I love and deeply appreciate about our fellowship: our insistence that baptism and Communion matter, our willingness to let the Bible be our authority, our eclectic music tradition, our tendency to push against authoritarianism. But my favorite thing about us, I think, is that we are at heart a unity movement — even though we too easily forget it.

     Without going too deeply into history you can dig up elsewhere, we came about after a wild collection of Presbyterians, Baptists, proto-Pentecostals, and who knows what else with a desire to just be Christians dared to imagine that they could jettison their denominational baggage and unite around Scripture. To me, it doesn’t matter that we haven’t always been true to that vision, and in fact some of us have been about as sectarian as anyone in Christendom. It doesn't matter that, to some degree, it was a naive hope to imagine that we could ever arrive at perfect unity based on the Bible. That impulse to be united was a noble one. It still is, even if we're a little more cynical than our forebears that it can be achieved.  

     Jesus’ prayer before his sacrifice was that those who believed in him would be one, just as he and the Father were one. That unity, he said, would come not from everyone agreeing about everything but from the glory of God that Jesus places in us. It would come when “the love [the Father has] for [the Son]” is “in them so that [Jesus himself] may be in them.” God’s glory and love — that’s where unity comes from. The reason we haven’t gotten there yet is because God’s glory and love are ever in need of renewal in us.

     Unity’s hard, but it isn’t only up to us. That’s why Paul wrote that we should “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” The Spirit creates that unity, the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but we have to maintain it by keeping the bonds of peace strong. That work never ends.

     So if you believe, like I do, that unity among believers is important, then let me suggest some tangible things you can do to help keep that Spirit-created, love-infused unity.

     1. Pray for unity. Jesus did. Pray for people you know from other groups, denominations, and tribes, people you know who love Jesus but might see some things differently from you. You can pray for them to see the light, fine — but not before you pray that God will help you love them just as they are.

     2. Repent of pride. If we don’t watch ourselves, we can really get proud of how we have “it” — whatever “it” is — right while everyone else has “it” wrong. If we do, it’s because of God and not our own righteousness. And “they” — whoever “they” is — probably have some things right that we have wrong. And having “it” right or wrong means nothing anyway without love, grace, and humility.

     3. Refuse to caricature anyone else. Sometimes we aren’t fair to other groups, to their intentions or their efforts or their authenticity. We tend to compare the best examples of “us” against the worst examples of “them.” I grew up hearing  that Catholics don’t care about the Bible, for instance. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Catholic Bible scholars! I learned too-simple criticisms of Calvinist teaching that never acknowledged how Calvinists themselves discussed and worked through those problems. Paul reminds us to give each other some grace and assume that others want to please God as much as we do. Let’s do that.

     4. Look for evidence that God is working through others who aren’t in “your” group. Jesus seemed genuinely shocked to find his disciples stopping someone from casting out demons in his name because they weren’t part of their group. “Why would you stop him?” he asked. You know why, don’t you? Sometimes we don’t want to admit that God might be doing something through this other group of Jesus-followers that aren’t much like us. But if God can use imperfect “us,” surely there are some imperfect “thems” he can use, too. Affirm it when you see it. Join in if you can. 

     5. Focus on Jesus. Read the Bible to see the story of God’s salvation as it narrows down to the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not to learn how to win arguments and correct others. If you learn Jesus, you’ll start to look, sound, and act more and more like him. And then you’ll know how to discuss differences and help others grow through love and service.

     6. Take small steps. Unity doesn’t just happen, especially where it’s been absent. I’ve been a part of an ecumenical Thanksgiving service in our neighborhood. I’ve been talking with some church leaders in the neighborhood about a regular “clergy” breakfast. Our church will be the meeting place for a group of religious leaders and police to discuss community needs. Maybe you’ll find common cause with members of other groups in a community food drive or a Bible study group. Maybe it’ll just be a friendly conversation with that other person at work who reads their Bible every day. Maybe you’ll read a book by someone outside of “your tribe.” Don’t cross any lines that you can't feel good about. But take a step toward understanding and appreciation. 

     7. Hold on to your convictions. Authentic unity isn’t least-common-denominator Christianity in which most every truth is relative. It happens when we love one another in spite of our differences, and begin to learn from each other. The differences that matter to us can help us to see how multi-faceted the kingdom of God can be. And how little of God’s truth any of us grasps by ourselves. Unity, contrary to what some might have you think, doesn’t require you to give up any convictions. It only requires that we give up pride, hostility, and arrogance.

     8. Don’t let yourself be bullied into intolerance. Sometimes when you extend peace to someone who differs from you, others will say you’ve compromised. They’ll try to force you into line. That’s their fear talking, fear that in unity something is lost. Resist that. Truth has nothing to fear from dialogue and collaboration. Ignore your critics. Don’t let their fear turn you away from the unity Jesus prayed for. But do pray for them. Include them in your efforts for unity. The kingdom is big enough to encompass them and the people they can’t accept.    

     Again, none of this requires that you let go of any of your convictions, that you change anything that’s important to you. It only requires that you have a view of the world that allows for the possibility that you and the followers of Jesus you identify most closely with might not have cornered the market on truth, nor are you the only recipients of God’s grace. We are united with others who have put their hope and trust in what God has done for us through Jesus. Thinking alike about everything else is not possible, and not required.

     May we look to the Father, Son, and Spirit, and find there a model for unity.

     And may our unity be a witness to the world of what Jesus can do.

Friday, September 23, 2022

On Shutting Up

 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

     With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

-James 3:7-10 (NIV)

So I’ve realized something about myself over the last 30 years or so. I talk. A lot.

     Now, I’m not usually the guy who walks into a room and all eyes are on me. As a rule, I don’t strike up conversations with strangers. In social situations I’m probably just as likely to sit and listen as I am to talk. By temperament I’m an introvert, which means among other things that social situations wear me out and time alone recharges me. 

      Still, I know that I talk a lot.

     Sometimes it’s necessary. If I just sat and said nothing at a meeting, someone would ask me what’s wrong. I teach. I get phone calls. Sometimes someone wants to talk to me about something going on in their life. I talk to my family, of course. I speak to clients at our food pantry. And, every Sunday, my church kind of expects me to have something to say. I try to take that seriously and make sure what I have to say is worth hearing (though I imagine some Sundays they’d be OK if I said a lot less). 

     So I know I talk a lot. After a meeting recently, I realized I had probably spoken more words (not the same as saying more) than anyone else there. Well, there was a lot I wanted to say. Some things I felt strongly about and wanted to get out. Things I felt we needed to accomplish. I may have overdone it. 

      I also know that more words from me does not equal a better outcome. 

     I didn’t come up with that all on my own, of course. Proverbs says the same thing, in lots of ways. One of my favorites is this one: “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.” Another Proverb says, “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.” Or how about this one, all the incentive I should need to just shut up sometimes: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” Or, in the same vein, “Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them.

     In fairness, Proverbs also has a lot to say about “words fitly spoken.” That’s what Proverbs does; it pushes in one direction and pulls in the other in the hope that you’ll get the idea and live in the tension between those extremes. Of course there are times we need to speak, times when well-chosen words can make all the difference. But if you’re hoping to find those effective words by just spitting as many words as possible and sorting through them later, you’re going to be disappointed. The general drift of Scripture is that lots of words isn’t constructive. Fewer words, carefully selected, will be the most helpful. 

     Which brings me to my point, I guess: maybe you, like me, need to shut up occasionally. 

     Oh, my mother won’t be happy with me for saying that. She hated it when my sister and I would tell each other to shut up. She disliked that choice of words, and rightly so. Don't tell other people to shut up; it’s demeaning, dehumanizing, and you wouldn’t like it if someone said it to you.

     However, I think it’s pretty important for all of us to have a self-censorship button in our heads. We all need to tell ourselves sometimes to just…shut…up.

     James, Jesus’ brother, said it this way: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak….” See, I think that’s one of the problems with talking a lot; when we’re talking, we’re not listening. Sometimes, in our rush to say what we think is so important, we literally talk over someone else. But even beyond that — when you’re speaking, someone else isn’t. They’re not being listened to. They’re not being heard. And one of the most egregious ways to sin against another person is to decide that what you have to say is more important than what they have to say.

      Maybe that’s why James has such harsh things to say about, well, speaking. He says, this for instance

“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”

     Ouch. That stings a little, doesn’t it? Now, listen, James isn’t saying you’re not really a Christian if you have a hard time shutting up when you should. He admits later in the same letter that “no one can tame the tongue,” and that a person who never sins in what they say would be “perfect.” What he’s driving at is that expression of our faith ought to include the exercising of control over the things we say. While none of us will get it right every time, part of our “religion” — James probably means “worship” or even “discipline” — should be putting a filter on our mouths. And if we have no filter, then we can’t really say we’re putting much into worshipping God or exercising our faith.

     So maybe we all need to talk a little less and hear others a little better. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that James follows up that statement about religion with another one that almost seems out of place: 

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” 

     But maybe those statements are a little more related than we think. You can look after those on the margins of society without saying a lot, can’t you? And, in fact, maybe we don’t hear the distress of the orphans and widows of our world — who God has a special love for — because we’re too busy airing our opinions about, well, everything. Maybe we need to be quiet sometimes just so we can hear the cries of those around us who need to experience the love, compassion, and faithfulness of God in action. 

     And maybe one of the ways the world pollutes us is through our open mouths. In our social media obsessed world, we’re encouraged to talk about everything. But could it be that always wanting to have an opinion might lead us to spend far too much time thinking about things that aren’t worthy of the space in our minds and hearts they’re taking up? And far too little time thinking about and considering the things that ought to fill our minds and hearts?

     I’m going to go out on a limb: I don’t think I know anyone who talks a lot about politics, or celebrity culture, or the social issue of the moment, or their own grievances, or even “religious” issues, whose faith really seems to be growing. I know that faith might give us a point of view on things like that, but it seems to me that talking too much about such things stunts our spiritual growth and makes us deaf to what God is really calling us to. 

     So, I’m going to try to shut up and listen every chance I get. I’m excited about what I might hear. When I do speak, I’m going to ask God to help me to make sure I’m saying the right things, in the right ways, so that people can see his glory and hear the good news of Jesus.

     How about it? Feel like shutting up with me?

Friday, September 16, 2022

Narrow Way

 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. 

     Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

-Matthew 7:12-14 (NIV)

     I’ve been thinking a lot lately about recently-released data from the Pew Research Center that shows Christianity will likely slip to minority status in America over the next 50 years. (In 2020, 64% of Americans were Christians; by 2070, as few as 35% of Americans will be Christians.) They imagine four different futures, and in three of them by 2070 Christians are in the minority. (The one in which we are not is the least realistic of the three, imagining that no one in America changes their religion after 2020.)

     The same data suggest that religiously non-affiliated people in America will become the majority by the same year, 2070.

     Interesting numbers, but what do we do with that?

     Well, in one sense…nothing. These are admittedly all projections based on to what degree current trends continue over the next 50 years. As Pew acknowledges, of course, their data can’t account for the work of God, for possible revivals, for the work of the Holy Spirit and new ways of being the church that might disrupt the course of future events. As Christians, of course, I think we should be assuming that God won’t be sitting on his hands over the next 50 years, and that neither will his church. 

     Something else comes to mind, though, and I hope you’ll hear me out on it.

     I wonder if sometimes our views of Christianity are too isolationist. What I mean is, I wonder if sometimes we have trouble seeing the influence of Christianity on the world around us, and on the people around us, because we’re too caught up in the expressions of faith that we’ve come to appreciate best and consider correct or orthodox. If it’s only we and people exactly like us who we think of as “Christian” in any sense, then maybe we’re missing some things God might be doing in the world.

     I’m thinking of the Uber driver that took us to the airport a couple of weeks ago. Josh was sitting in the front and saw him better than I did, but apparently before every lane change our driver made the sign of the cross. Now I’ve heard folks in “my” tradition, even recently, be dismissive of that kind of thing: it’s not real faith, it’s not mature faith, it’s not biblical, it’s superstition. Still, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t trying to integrate his faith in Jesus, as he understands it, with his day-to-day life as an Uber driver in Chicago. It’s hard to argue that the Christian story, the gospel, doesn’t have some kind of influence on his heart and mind. It suggests to me that he saw our safety as a responsibility entrusted to him by God.

     Yeah, for sure, I’d want to have a conversation with him about our understandings of baptism, for instance, or any one of maybe two dozen points of teaching and practice — important points — we might differ on. But, if God is working on me — and if he’s not, then it’s not because I’m in any sense “done” — then he’s “in progress” on my Uber driver, too. And he’s “in progress” in the world around me, even if Christianity is shrinking or has already shrunk to a minority in America. Surely we can pay attention to the forms of Christianity we see around us, and say thank you to God and praise him for them, even if there are things in those forms that bother us. Surely we can recognize that the sick have been healed, the poor served, and the gospel proclaimed in the name of Jesus for centuries by folks who thought that making the sign of the cross made them more mindful of Christ. No, they didn’t always represent Jesus well. Neither have “we”. But maybe a broader view of what God might be doing in the world will allow us to be more clear in our conviction that we aren’t alone. 

     Oh, and maybe our isolationist views of Christianity are too focused on Western Christianity, too. Christianity is growing rapidly in South America, Asia, and Africa. According to Lifeway Research, in 2000, 814 million Christians lived in Europe and North America, while 660 million Christians called Africa and Asia home. Twenty years later, 838 million live in the global North, while almost 1.1 billion Christians live in Africa and Asia alone.  Those are big numbers, so don’t miss it: 440 million African and Asian Christians came from somewhere in 20 years! 

     Among many Christian denominations, a growing trend is the sending of missionaries from Africa, Asia, and South America to the United States. If in fifty years churches in the global south are planting thriving churches in the United States, God will not be any less behind that than he was when the paths of the missionaries ran the other direction. 

     Elijah was just sure he was the only one left in Israel who was faithful to God, until God opened his eyes to remind him that a) there were a lot more than he thought, and b) he wasn’t being all that faithful! Maybe we need reminding that there are plenty of people in our world and in our immediate vicinity who haven’t bent the knee to or kissed the images of the Baals of our age. 

     But let’s remember this, too: Christians have always done well as the minority. Better, I think, than when we’re in the majority. When we’re in the majority, we play the power games that majorities in a democracy always play. We create political blocs that elevate ambitious people to power, and they create fear that we’ll lose our way of life if we don’t keep electing them, until before you know it winning elections has become the only thing that matters. When we’re in the majority, we try to enforce our will — and sometimes in doing so we run roughshod over those who don’t have power. 

     When we’re in the minority, we can behave more like Jesus. When we aren’t chasing power, we can show love. We can change things by serving and laying down our lives and caring for those on the outside looking in   instead of by exercising our influence and prosperity.

     The way of the minority is the way of Jesus. He told us, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we would be in the minority — not because we’re so much better or smarter or more spiritual than others, but because the way of Jesus can be, in his own words, hard to enter and difficult to walk. Maybe being in the minority is baked into Christianity, not because God’s grace is limited in any way but because the gospel makes more of a demand on us than many are willing to pay. Maybe these words of Jesus should remind us not to gravitate toward the majority, but to seek Jesus far from the places where the crowds gather. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” Sure, there can be disgrace in being a minority. But maybe that’s exactly what we need to discover the real power of the gospel.

     Maybe our kids and grandkids will discover, if Christians do indeed become the minority in the next 50 years, more of what it means to identify with Jesus, to boast in him instead of nice buildings and social media followers and candidates who know they can’t get elected without us. And maybe they’ll be able to do a better job than we did of communicating the good news of Jesus to a broken, fragmented world in dire need of good news.

      If so, becoming a minority might be the best thing that ever happens to us.