Friday, October 28, 2022

How Long?

  How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?  

-Psalm 13:1-2, NIV

Sometimes it’s an everyday, mundane kind of question: “How long?”

“How long until you can get that document to me?”

“How long until we have to leave to make it on time?”

“How long until you can get home for a visit?”

And, of course, the basic question of every childhood car trip: “How long ’til we get there?”

     But even in those everyday kinds of “how long” questions, there’s often subtext:

“I need that document now.”

“You haven’t been home for a while, and we want to see you.”

“It feels like I’ve been in this car forever.”

     “How long” is one of those loaded questions, isn’t it? It carries more freight than you might realize. Or, sometimes, maybe, what it carries is actually the whole point of asking the question.

“How long does he have, doctor?”

“How long do I have to wait until my country treats me like a full human being?”

“How long will this sin torment me?”

“How long will I be alone?”

“How long do I have to live with mental illness?”

“How long will this war go on?”

     None of those questions is really about time frame. There’s much more to them. There’s longing. There’s regret. There’s hope — maybe a little — but it’s fading fast. There’s resentment, frustration, even anger. There’s what Jesus called in the Sermon on the Mount a “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” a burning desire to see justice done, evil beaten down, and righteousness triumphant. But it clashes with the way things are right now. And so, sometimes, all you can do is ask, “How long?” 

     You might wish you didn’t, but you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve asked your own “How long” questions, too, right? Maybe even today? Maybe even right in this moment. Well, you know, as long as human beings can hope, dream, aspire, and work for something better than the way things are, we’ll ask that question. It’s inevitable.

     I’m so glad the Psalmist, David, asks it. This isn’t the only place in the psalms the question is raised, but it’s one of the most prominent. I’m glad he asks it, and I’m glad he asks it in a compilation of texts composed especially for use in worship. More than any other book in the Bible, maybe, the Psalms acknowledge that sometimes human beings ask “How long?” Even human beings of faith.

     “How long will you forget me?” David asks. “How long will you hide your face from me?” That’s David saying that it feels like God won’t even look his way, won’t even acknowledge his suffering. Whatever his circumstances specifically, David is “wrestl[ing] with his thoughts” and is filled with grief  and sorrow. Whoever his enemy is, David feels like he’s already lost. “How long are you going to let my enemy rub my nose in it, God?”

     It’s good that David asks that question, “How long?” It gives us permission to. Don’t worry, when you ask “How long” you’re not implying that God has caused whatever it is that you’re suffering. You’re not blaming God. “How long?” is a question motivated by faith. You don’t ask it if you don’t believe God is there, listening, or that he can’t or won’t do anything about it. David asks the question because he believes in God’s faithfulness, he believes that God can be trusted to come to the aid of his people. He’s just asking why God hasn’t come to his aid yet. He knows God is there; what he doesn’t know is why God hasn’t come to his rescue. 

     Look at the last two verses of the Psalm: “But I trust in your unfailing love; / my heart rejoices in your salvation. / I will sing the LORD’S praise, / for he has been good to me.” Most of the time, we ask a question like “How long?” because we believe. It isn’t a crisis of faith, not really. We know God has been good to us. We know that he has acted to save us — through Jesus, especially. We know that his compassionate faithfulness  never fails. So we wonder: “How long do I have to live with this until you come to do what you do?” 

     That’s why this question belongs in worship; even in asking it, we’re affirming God’s love, power, and compassion. This is worship in real life, where things are messy. Our worlds aren’t beautiful church buildings filled with smiling faces and uplifting music. Sometimes the music we hear in our daily lives is full of minor chords. The faces aren’t smiling, and there’s as much ugliness as beauty. “How long?” is the question believers ask in times like these. 

     We see an answer to it in the book of Revelation. It isn’t always a very satisfying answer — though maybe it ought to be more satisfying than it is. There, John sees a vision of the souls of those who have died for their faith in Jesus, crying out to God: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” God didn’t intervene, and they died. And they just know that God, who is “holy and true,” will one day vindicate them. And they want to know — “How long?”

      John’s not really interested in ghostly souls crying out for vengeance — this vision is for very much alive believers who are suffering persecution and the loss of sisters and brothers in Christ who really were martyred. They want to know “How long?” as well, and in the next verse of Revelation we have an answer: “wait a little longer.” 

     A little longer, because Christ is coming and bringing redemption and judgment with him. That may be the only answer we get, too: “wait a little longer.” That’s enough, though, because it rests on the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. What we wait for is as sure as his empty tomb, as sure as God’s love for us displayed on the cross.

     So if, like me, you find yourself asking, “How long?” — can you wait just a little longer? Just until God, in his wisdom, compassion, and grace, shows us that he’s never far from his people’s suffering? Until his patience outlasts the stubbornness of those who are his? Until we see the face of Jesus and know that through him God’s face has always been turned toward us? Our enemies, especially sin and death, will be destroyed forever, and the sorrow will be gone forever from our hearts. And then our question will change: “How long, Lord, will we share in this joyous life with you?” And there won’t be an answer. 

     After all, how do you put a time frame on forever?

Friday, October 21, 2022

Going to Church with Saul

  Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?”     (Acts 9:19-21, NIV)

Growing up, I remember many times driving past a church near my house; not quite as close as the church our family was a part of, but not much farther. It’s name was even similar to the name of our church. They both had “Church of Christ” on the signs. So eventually, I asked Mom or Dad why we didn’t go to that church. I wasn’t looking to move, you understand. I was just curious.

     What I was really asking, I guess, was why two very similar churches literally a five minute drive from each other both existed. 

     At some point, someone explained to me that our church and this other one differed on some specific practices, the details of which I won’t bore you with now. I’ve since been in many places where similar churches existed just minutes from each other. It’s not my job to evaluate the validity of those disagreements that created two churches where there needed to be or had been only one. Some disagreements can’t be worked out, I know. Believers today shouldn’t be held responsible for decades-old divisions that they might know nothing or next to nothing about. Plenty of good has been done in the name of Jesus by churches that originated in a contentious, angry split from other churches — just one more example of God’s redeeming power. 

     But the fact of division raises a question: If well-meaning churches before us have divided over issues that no one today remembers or cares about, then how do we maintain unity? 

     You probably know the name Paul; one of the great early missionaries and theologians of the church. Saul is a name not as many people know, but before Paul was Paul he was Saul, a persecutor of the church. He met Jesus, famously, on the road to Damascus, and from then on he was a proclaimer of the gospel.    

     What a great story, right? Well, when Saul tried to go to church after his conversion the believers in Damascus were, not surprisingly, a little wary. They asked two solid questions: “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name?” And, “Hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” In short, “How do we know this guy is who he says he is? How do we know he’s OK?” 

     Those are fair questions. As much as the church should be open and accepting, there are times when we have to shut the door in the faces of wolves. There are people who will steer us away from the gospel if we let them. There are people who, in the name of Jesus, will take advantage of others. In cases like that it’s necessary for a church to divide.

     But how do we know when? More to the point, how do we maintain unity when we shouldn’t divide?

     Sometimes we base unity on agreement about “essential matters.” Trouble is, no one agrees on what’s essential. Most of us might think Sunday school is a good thing. Most of us might say that the number of cups used in communion is a matter of indifference. But for Christians bothered because they find no authority in Scripture for having divided Sunday school classes or more than one cup in communion, those things are absolutely essential. And sometimes “essential” doesn’t include that things it should, like justice and integrity. “Essential” can mean so much that it means nothing.

     So, on the other hand, we sometimes base unity on a least common denominator approach to Christianity. I think every person who calls themselves Christian thinks that there was a person called Jesus who lived in the first century and who taught some things. Does that work? Thomas Jefferson literally cut his miracles out of the gospels, but he believed that Jesus lived and taught. Some would say that his resurrection was a metaphor, but they believe in a person named Jesus who said at least some of the things attributed to him. Some stick the face of Jesus on their political rhetoric. Muslims venerate him as the greatest of Allah’s prophets — at least up until Muhammad. So I don’t think a least common denominator approach to unity covers enough to be useful.

     From the way the early church handled “the Saul situation,” we get some better answers about what to do when we have questions and wonder if unity is possible. Their example says a lot about making it a priority.

     We see in Acts that Saul “at once” started preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. He “baffled” his opponents by “proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” Through the Scriptures, no doubt, Saul made a compelling case for Jesus. 

     So that’s a good place for us to start, too, in maintaining unity. What’s the message? Too often, I think, churches divide when the message gets foggy. There might be a lot of things that make your church very interesting, unique, and special. But those aren’t the message. You might have some fascinating and controversial takes on this issue or that text of Scripture. Those aren’t the message. You might disagree with another church, but that isn’t the message either. There are other things worth talking about sometimes, of course. But Jesus — who he is, what he did, what Scripture says about him — that’s the message. Don’t let the message get foggy. Don’t get distracted. Go “at once” and start preaching Jesus. And when you see other people preaching Jesus — well, at the very least, they aren’t your enemies.

     Things got tougher for Saul, though. His Jesus preaching upset folks so much that they wanted to kill him. Saul had to sneak out of Damascus with the help of “his followers.” Saul’s preaching had been so convincing that he was mentoring a group of Jesus-followers by this time. 

     If someone’s faithfulness to Jesus holds up through difficulty, what you have there is a fellow believer. Someone who carries their cross — endures hardship for their faith — is in Jesus’ words a disciple of his. This one might take some time to know, but if you’re seeing someone who lives by and proclaims the gospel even when it causes them problems, that’s a sister or brother in Christ.

     When Saul snuck out of Damascus, he went to Jerusalem, where it started again. “Can we trust him?” I’ve seen a lot of church leaders in my lifetime who would never have accepted Saul. I pray I’m not one of them.

     But Saul has an advocate, a man named Barnabas. Barnabas goes with him to Jerusalem and vouches for him. He told the apostles about the message Saul had preached, and about the fearlessness with which he endured hardship. And because they trusted Barnabas, they accepted Saul.

     Let’s be advocates. I saw a website this week on which a church I’m familiar with was attacked for a change in practice on Sunday mornings. Let’s be the opposite. Let’s be advocates. Notice people and churches who preach the good news of Jesus. Note those who endure hardship and persecution with love. And tell someone, “That’s my family.”

     Preach Jesus. Endure hardship. Be advocates for those who do. If we can take these things seriously, then there might be fewer churches. But they’ll be stronger and more united, and a much better witness to the gospel.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Like Scarlet

  “Come now, let us settle the matter,”

says the LORD.

“Though your sins are like scarlet,

they shall be as white as snow;

though they are red as crimson,

they shall be like wool.”

-Isaiah 1:18 (NIV)

We got tagged this week.

     Sometime in the night, someone sprayed graffiti on the walls of the church, and on our sign. It was only the second time it’s happened in 28 years, and by far the most extensive, so we can’t really complain. I do wish it had at least been a little more artistic — I’m pretty sure an 8-year-old with a spray-paint can could have done as well as our “artist” did. Maybe what bothered me most is that one of the tags obscured the “Christ” in our sign.

     In the grand scheme of things it’s no big deal, but it was a little jarring. And not just for me: Some neighbors were more upset than I was. More than one worried that it would take a long time for the city to remove it.

     Thankfully, I know someone who was able to help, a community liaison officer with the Chicago Police Department named Deanna. She’s volunteered at our food pantry before, so she knows us well. I reached out to her. I don’t know exactly who she spoke to, but by the end of the day there was a guy outside blasting it all off our walls. Fifteen, twenty minutes later you couldn’t tell it had ever been there.  

     And this verse from Isaiah came to mind. 

     For context, God says through the prophet that he hasn’t been listening to their prayers. What? Could that be right? Yep, there it is: “even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.” God says he “hates” Israel’s religious observances, their assemblies and offerings and festivals, that he’s “tired” of them. He tells his people that when they come to the temple for worship, all they’re doing is trampling his lawn. Even though the Law tells them that they need to do these things, God wishes they wouldn’t. Why? 

     Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Their religion has lost its meaning because it hasn’t affected the way they treat each other. The same Law that required them to make sacrifices and observe Passover and what have you also required them to treat each other the right way. “Your hands are full of blood,” God says. “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

     And that’s where our text comes. “Let’s reason together,” God says. He and Israel have a problem to solve. A good translation actually might be, “Let’s consider your options.” God isn’t going to compromise on this. He expects justice and righteousness. He expects that those with power and resources and leverage should come to the aid of those who lack them. So Israel has some choices to make.

     One of those is that their sins, scarlet and crimson and out of place like graffiti on the side of a church, can be washed away. They can be “as white as snow,” as clean as newly-shorn wool. The other option isn’t so good: “if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” They need to “wash and make themselves clean” by learning to do right, seeking justice, defending the oppressed, and advocating for those who have no one else to advocate for them and could be easily taken advantage of. 

     Here’s what came to mind for me as that city worker blasted the graffiti off the side of the church: “Well, that was easy.” And it truly was. I didn’t have to do anything but reach out to my friend. She took care of everything. 

     And I wonder if, as believers in the good news of the gospel, sometimes my attitude toward the cleansing of my sin isn’t the same? That was easy. Someone else did the work and, presto, I’m as white as snow. Jesus died for my sins and makes me clean. I’m like those folks in Revelation who “washed their robes and made them clean in the blood of the Lamb.”

     Well, John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Paul does say that Jesus was“made sin” so that we could be “made righteousness.” He wrote, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” He tells us that “works of the Law” can only make us aware of sin, not make us righteous, that righteousness only comes by God’s grace through Jesus’ death, and so there’s nothing for human beings to boast about. We’re only clean because we know who to call on.     

     That’s all true, and I would argue that with my last breath. A hundred other texts, at least, say the same thing. 

     Still, I think we get it wrong sometimes.

     Peter told his listeners on Pentecost that they needed to “repent and be baptized.” Not just be baptized. In baptism, we identify with what Jesus did to take away our sins. But in repentance, we make clear our intentions not to be controlled by sin anymore. God brings us to the place where we’re able to repent. He fills us with his Spirit so that we can, in Isaiah’s words, “learn to do right.”  

     When we say Jesus “takes away the sin of the world,” don’t think of how easy it was for me to sit back and watch that city worker blast spray-paint off brick. Think about following Jesus into that same work, starting with your own heart and mind. 

     Don’t misunderstand: We can’t save ourselves, not even through repentance. We need Jesus because none of us are able to escape sin on our own. We’re too deeply marked by it. Our world is too deeply marked by it. What Jesus did broke the power of sin over us. Through his sacrifice, he buys us out of slavery to it. 

     So what I mean is that what Isaiah said to Israel is still true for us: Jesus can make us clean. He can take the stain of our sin away and make us “white as snow.” And in doing that, he makes it possible for us to “stop doing wrong” and “learn to do right.” He invites us into the lifelong task of pushing back against the power of sin, in our own lives and in the world around us, by doing good. Seeking justice. Taking care of those on the margins. 

     Sometimes we seem to think that God suddenly changed his expectations between the Old Testament and the New, that he lowered the bar. The truth is that through Jesus God made it possible for us to be the people he always intended for us to be. He brought into being Jeremiah’s “new covenant” in which God’s Law could be in our hearts and we could all know the Lord. 

     It’s a cheap grace that doesn’t change our hearts and minds and bring us to repentance. That makes us care only about my sins being blasted away, and not at all about how I live in the world around me. If we don’t get that, then maybe we, too, need to take some time to reason with God, to hear that God is tired of our prayers and our religious piety because it does nothing to make us compassionate for those around us.

     That’s hard to hear. But it’s what we need. May we all receive the cleansing we need through Jesus.

     And may we repent of the scarlet sin that keeps on obscuring that we belong to Christ.