Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Celebrating New Creation in the New Year

      For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

     So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:14-19, NIV)

Maybe we need reminding. Another New Year’s Day has come. COVID is still in the news. Vaccines. Political turmoil. War. So maybe we need to hear it again. 

       We’ve lost or changed jobs in the last couple of years, or we're doing them in ways we’ve never done them before, for companies and organizations that have changed drastically. 

     The economy has changed. Supply chain and staffing issues have affected how companies we deal with work, what’s available to buy, how we travel. We’re budgeting differently, planning for a different future than we’d envisioned. 

     We need reminding.

     As always, world events worry us. But this New Year maybe they seem a little more frightening than usual, a little closer to home. 

     Some of us start a New Year missing family and friends who we’ll never give Happy New Year wishes to again. And we wonder how any New Year from here on out will ever be a truly Happy one.

     Even church has changed; the schedule, the way we do things, the time we spend together. Some of us have traded in-person presence for online. Those of us who haven’t worry about where everyone is.  

     We’re stressed. It seems like there’s bad news everywhere. 

     Yes, I think we need reminding.

     Right in the middle of that reading up at the top of the page is what we need reminding of. You see it?

     If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.

     A lot of English translations have there some variation of “that person is a new creation.” But this is a good example of why translation matters, and how sometimes it takes a translation a few tries to get it right. The Greek Paul uses here would be literally translated something like, “If a person is in Christ — new creation!” It isn’t wrong, of course, to understand that a person who comes to faith in Jesus is made new. It’s just that he or she is made new because they become a part of God’s new creation.

     See, it’s not just that in Christ you’re made new in the forgiveness of your sins and the presence of the Holy Spirit to help you and the new purpose you have. It’s that you become a part of what God is doing to make everything new. The old has gone. The new is here.

     That idea of “new creation” is from the part of the Bible we call the Old Testament, but that Paul would have just called “the Scriptures.” In Isaiah 65, for example, the prophet looks ahead to a time past the exile, the loss of the Promised Land and the temple and national sovereignty, to a time when God’s people will “be glad and rejoice forever” in what God will create, a time when “the past troubles will be forgotten:”  

“See, I will create 

new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

nor will they come to mind.”

     “Heavens and earth,” of course, are a summary of God’s created universe, as in Genesis 1:1. Paul isn’t coming up with anything new in 2 Corinthians. What he’s saying is that the centuries-old hope that God will remake creation is finally coming to fulfillment, that it’s happening all around and in the church to which he’s writing, that they’re being made new individually and that they’re being made new as a community, that the whole heavens and earth are being made new, in fact. And that it’s happening through Jesus. God is “reconciling” human beings to himself, he’s wiping away all the devastation caused by human sin and selfishness and replacing it with his love as seen in Jesus. And he’s saying that this will quite literally change the world.

     We need reminding right now that God’s purposes in Jesus aren’t diverted in the slightest by a pandemic or political instability or anger or hate. “Christ’s love compels us,” Paul says. It compels us to see each other differently, not as adversaries but as human beings loved by God. It compels us to choose to live for others, and not ourselves. It compels us to stop copying the world’s ignorant, stupid, self-absorbed ways of seeing and dismissing one another. It compels us to accept the ministry he has given us — the ministry of taking the message of his reconciliation to a world that’s going on as if God hasn’t made everything new in Jesus.

     I know, it’s hard to see sometimes. That’s why we need reminding. 

     See, though, to really grasp this and take it seriously is to see that, as sure as we’ve been made a part of God’s new creation in Christ, we’ve been given a job to do. A responsibility. We’re representatives of that new creation to the world around us. 

     So we must actively push back against our tendency to see others “from a worldly point of view”. Instead of giving in to the habit of dividing ourselves and the people around us into categories, tribes, allies, enemies, people like us and people not like us, we see every person as a creature of God, made to bear his image, and  as a possible location for his new creation. We must act in such a way as to demonstrate and advocate for each person’s dignity and value, simply because they are human beings. We must develop the new habit of seeing them through the lenses of the new creation brought about through Jesus’ incarnation as a human being. In Christ, God is showing that he is not inclined to count peoples’ sins against them. How can we?

     The message we are to carry to the world is not a message of judgment, disregard, contempt, or anger. We aren’t called to give voice to the politics of fear. We certainly aren’t to be spokespeople for the powerful, the corrupt, and the privileged. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” — that’s our message. New creation — that’s the world in which we live now.

     New creation has something to say about the pandemic in which we find ourselves. It has something to say about the threats to human worth and freedom and flourishing that even some of our political leaders are willing to tolerate or even perpetrate. It has something to say about our life goals, the purposes for which we live, and the way we interact with those around us. May our lives always be labs for that new creation, and may it spread everywhere and influence everything it touches through us.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Christmas for Misfits

      And Mary said: 

“My soul glorifies the Lord....

        He has performed mighty deeds with his arm…

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 

  He has brought down rulers from their thrones 

but has lifted up the humble. 

  He has filled the hungry with good things 

but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46, 51-53, NIV)

I was reminded this week of the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials I used to watch as a kid. You might have seen them, too — if you’re around my age, I’m almost sure you did. (I don’t know if kids watch them now; they’d probably look pretty weird to kids used to computer animation.) They were stop-motion animation, with wood puppets, bright scenery, and catchy music. My sister and I looked forward to them every year, and 45 years later or so the titles have stuck with me: The Year Without a Santa Claus. (Heat Miser. Snow Miser.) Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. The Little Drummer Boy. And, of course, the undisputed king of the Rankin-Bass specials: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. 

     You might remember that Rudolph isn’t just about the shiny-nosed misfit reindeer. There are other characters as well: an elf named Hermey who doesn’t fit in with the other elves because he wants to be a dentist, an Abominable Snowman who doesn’t fit in because he’s, well, abominable (but a very sweet guy once you get to know him), and a prospector, Yukon Cornelius, who doesn’t fit in I guess because he hasn’t found any gold? Anyway, all these misfits through a series of misadventures end up in a place called the Island of Misfit Toys. There, they meet toys that haven’t found homes because they’re defective or out-of the ordinary. There’s a train with square wheels, a squirt gun that shoots jelly, a “Charlie-in-the Box,” a spotted stuffed elephant, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a stuffed bear with a feathered tail, and a bird with a fish tail. Every year, Christmas comes and goes, but these toys stay on their island, unwanted. Misfits. Rudolph and Hermey, of course, fit right in with the misfits — even it they aren’t toys.

     Eventually, of course, Santa shows up and loads up the misfit toys to take with him — whether to give as gifts or repair, I was never quite sure. In any case, the show ended with them getting off their island and finding their place in the world.

    This time of year seems custom made for people who have somewhere they fit. Parties, family gatherings, gift-giving — it seems like Christmas is the time of year where everyone sort of returns to the places they know they fit best. We go “home for Christmas.” We eat with family or friends. We reminisce about shared memories. We laugh at inside jokes. I still have a stocking with my name on it at my parents’ house, even though I rarely am there on Christmas Day and, oh yeah, am 54 years old!

     I wonder how many “misfit” kids watched Rudolph and found some hope in seeing other misfits find their place? 

     Of course, it isn’t just kids who feel like misfits. I think one of the skills many adults learn is the ability to hide it when you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, just to smile and fake it and pretend you’re on the outside looking in because that’s where you want to be. Seriously, I think offices and schools and factory floors and boardrooms and homes and organizations must be absolutely full of people who if they felt they could be honest would tell you that they identify completely with those misfit toys, and maybe even wish sometimes that they could go somewhere everyone was a misfit. 

     I think even churches are full of people who feel like misfits. 

     I know of a church in my neighborhood who had a service last week they called “Blue Christmas.” It was intended for the misfits. It was for people who are estranged from family, or alone. It was for those who are grieving a loss. Who are celebrating Christmas with a medical diagnosis hanging over their heads. Who are going through a divorce. I think that’s a great idea. Not everyone is feeling celebratory just because December 25th rolls around. 

    Maybe though, we should remember that, when Mary sang about the first Christmas, and the baby already growing inside her, she sang about how through her God had “lifted up the humble” and “filled the hungry with good things.” I think she was singing about the fact that, though God knew of her “humble state,” he had “done great things” for her by choosing her to bring Jesus into the world. Her, of all people; a young girl in a tiny region of the greatest Empire the world had every known, a poor, unmarried, uneducated girl. 

     But she was also singing about how Jesus’ way of coming into the world was also how he would live in the world, and die — lifting up the humble and filling the hungry with good things. 

     Something Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians comes to mind:   

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise  by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose  the foolish  things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus,  who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness,  holiness  and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

     Paul’s pushing back there at the very human tendency to seek to be well thought-of, loved, influential, smart, competent, powerful, and wealthy. He asks the church at Corinth to be honest about themselves and recognize that most of them are Exhibit A that God chose the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised to be his people and to know him through Christ. He didn’t choose by human standards; if he did, most of them would have been out of luck.  “God chose the misfits,” he says. God chose the misfits.

      It’s OK to be a misfit. That’s what Rudolph taught us; misfits can be loved, valued, honored. They can fulfill their purposes in the world. And the gospel teaches us the same thing. God didn’t bring Jesus into the world through a wealthy, noble, powerful woman in Rome; he sent him through a peasant girl in hillbilly country. Because he came for the misfits. He came to show them that they were loved. That they mattered. That they had a place in God’s kingdom and that they could make a difference in the world if they would trust him.

      So, please — be a misfit. Misfits, see, have nothing to boast about except for what Jesus has done. We can’t fall back on our talent, our brains, our money or our charm or our good looks. Misfits can only say, “Look what Jesus has done for me. He’s taken me off my island and given me a place and purpose. And he will for you too.”

     Have a Merry Christmas, misfits. 

Friday, December 9, 2022

Going to Church

      I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”  (Psalm 122:1, NIV)

I went to church Sunday. That’s nothing new; I’m a minister, I preach every Sunday, so of course I went to church. I have to tell you, though, that going to church is different when you’re preaching, and not just because you don’t have to sit through a boring sermon, you get to stand. (Rim shot)

     It’s different because you’re thinking about how your sermon’s going to go until you preach it, and then you’re thinking about how it went. Then again, that’s probably not different from most everyone else there, people who have an important meeting on Monday, a medical test on Tuesday, people who had a fight with a spouse or a kid Saturday night or Sunday morning. I guess we all are distracted when we come to church. I used to think that being distracted would put me off worship, but now I realize that distractions can help to shape our worship, if what we’re thinking about and worrying about becomes what we’re praying and hearing about.

     The song leader Sunday had done a good job choosing songs that built on the theme of expectation. We sang “Where Could I Go?” leading into “Unto the Hills” (“O When for me, shall my salvation come?”) into “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (“that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear”). We sang a few more songs that reminded us that Emmanuel has come, that when we don’t know where we can go and are wondering when our salvation will come or even mourning in lonely exile, that we can know that God has chosen to be with us in Jesus and knows those feelings and has ransomed us. 

     We heard from Isaiah, who reminded us of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” that he knew was coming, who would be full of the Holy Spirit and would bring righteousness, justice, and faithfulness and “slay the wicked,” and I allowed myself a little feeling of triumph, even though I know that absent God’s grace I’m among the wicked. But there are people who take advantage of the weak and marginalized who deserve what’s coming to them, and I say that without any feelings of superiority. 

     To tell us about that new world, Isaiah paints a powerful word picture of wolves lying down with lambs and a kid leading a lion and a calf and a yearling in an animal parade, and another kid over there sticking his hand into a viper’s nest, all to make the point that in the world that the Messiah brings into being the vulnerable don’t have to worry about being hurt. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” God says through the prophet. After a month when my wife had to bury her father, I’m down for some Isaiah.

     After we heard from Isaiah, we sang “Peace in the Valley,” and it was hard for me to sing it because every time I sang, I teared up, and I had to sing that song facing the congregation and I don’t want them to think I’m a big crybaby. That’s one of my favorite songs, and I think it was one of my grandfather’s favorites (Jack, my mom’s dad), even though he wasn’t much for going to church. It starts off, “Well I’m tired and so weary, but I must go along,” and you have to appreciate that kind of stoicism, right? It’s like, “Yeah, I’m pretty worn down, but there are things to do.” You have to admire that. It made me think of everyone I know there at church with me who are tired and weary but go along anyway, hopefully with visions of Peace in the Valley on their minds.

     The song was written by Thomas Dorsey, a Black songwriter and musician who had a lot to do with fusing blues and gospel music, his two favorite genres, which come to think of it, “Peace in the Valley” is all about blues and gospel rolled together. Dorsey grew up in the Jim Crow south before moving to Chicago, so I can take a guess at some of the things that made him tired and weary. He also lost his wife and son in childbirth. Tired and so weary indeed.

     But only until “the Lord comes and calls me away.” And then after that “the morning is bright, and the Lamb is the light, and the night is as fair as the day.” There’ll be “peace in the valley,” no sadness, sorrow, or trouble. I like that it’s a valley that Dorsey looks forward to — maybe because he’s already struggled over all the mountains. The third verse borrows Isaiah’s menagerie of bears, lions, wolves, and lambs, along with little children leading beasts, and even his own tendencies toward beastliness will be gone as he is “changed from this creature that I am.”

     We turned our attention toward Communion with this odd little hymn based on an Appalachian folk song, “I Wonder as I Wander,” in which we “wonder” with the songwriter that Jesus came to die for “poor ornery sinners” like us. (The song says “like you and like I,” and one of our members is a retired English teacher and cringes every time we sing that line.) It’s good to admit that we’re all three: poor, ornery, and sinners. It’s especially good to admit it when we’re together at church, because we need to hear that others are poor ornery sinners too, that it’s not just us, and also because there are a lot of people who think Christians think they’re too good for everyone else. Well, if we believe what we sing, we know too well that we’re not what we ought to be, either.

     I was thinking as we sang this time that I’m not sure if the songwriter was saying that he wonders why Jesus came, or wonders that he came. Does he wonder about it, or at it? I think I finally decided that it’s both. The communion leader reminded us to think of our attitudes toward those sitting around us, and as I shared communion with the “poor ornery sinners” around me and who have come before me, I wondered why Jesus would come to give himself for us, and of course the only answer is that he loves us. And that, in itself, is a wonder.

     As we left, we sang of the “beautiful star of Bethlehem,” the hope of the redeemed, and asked that his light would shine on us until “the glory come.” I think that’s similar to the sentiments of Peace in the Valley, that we know we aren’t there yet, but trust that we will be and just need some light in the meantime. I’ve thought about that a lot this week, and because of that I’ve prayed more for light, and I  hope that’s made a difference in the way I’ve conducted myself this week. 

     That’s what going to church can do, come to think of it. It can change your perspective: on yourself, on the people who live around you, and on God, who has answered our lost cries by coming to us in Jesus to offer us light and who will come back again someday when “the glory come” and bring us Peace in the Valley. And that I’m in the number of “poor ornery sinners” for whom he died, so maybe I can give other people, and myself, a little bit of a break when our ornery side shows. 

     I confess that I don’t always go to church as well as I did last Sunday, but I think that’s at least as much a “me” problem as it is a church problem.

     Oh, that phrase, “go to church”: I grew up hearing that “you can’t go to church, you are the church.” I believe that, I do, but taking exception when someone talks about “going to church” is a little silly. Even though I am the church — part of it — I’m not all of it. And church, as long as we believe meeting together matters, is always going to be partly a place and time. That’s OK, because we’re people who live in space and time. And I was reminded last Sunday how much I need to carve out space and time for going to church.

     Hope  you’ll go to church with me this Sunday.

Friday, December 2, 2022

The Jeopardy of Knowing All the Answers

      For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  (Hebrews 4:12, NIV)

My family and I like trivia. We may or may not have once put together a week-long reign of terror over a cruise ship’s trivia competitions to the extent that late in the week other contestants just shook their heads and looked dispirited when they saw us come in. (Pro tip: If you don’t drink on a cruise ship, you’ll have an advantage in the trivia competitions.)

     Since we like trivia, we like watching Jeopardy. Last week we were watching the Tournament of Champions. If you’ve never watched the TOC, the first thing you have to know is that the clues are hard: much harder than normal Jeopardy. Seriously, they’ll make you feel bad about yourself. 

     So I was excited when the Final Jeopardy category one night was “The New Testament.” I don’t know everything about the Bible, but I’m 95% sure that I’ll know the answer to Jeopardy Bible clues. Even during the TOC. That’s kind of my wheelhouse. So I was feeling good about it. 

     The clue was: “Paul’s letter to them is the New Testament epistle with the most Old Testament quotations.” 

     Now, the correct response to that clue is, “Who are the Romans?” Sam Buttrey answered correctly. Amy Schneider and Andrew He both responded with, “Who are the Hebrews?” Sam’s response, though, was ruled incorrect, while Amy’s and Andrew’s was accepted.

     Jeopardy got it wrong. It’s true that Hebrews contains more Old Testament quotes than Romans, but almost no New Testament scholar today would tell you that Paul wrote Hebrews. If you turn to Hebrews in the King James Version, you’ll find that it’s titled “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews.” That was Jeopardy’s explanation; they use the King James Version. Book titles, however, have never been part of the original text of the Bible, either Testament. And if you happen to have access to a 1611 King James Version, you’ll find that at the end of Hebrews is a line that reads, “Written to the Hebrewes, from Italy, by Timothie.” It’s been dropped out of more modern versions of the KJV because you can’t find a manuscript earlier than the 5th century that includes it.

     The book itself doesn't make an authorship claim. There is an ancient tradition that Paul wrote it. Many of the oldest Greek and Latin manuscripts and versions that have collections of Paul’s letters include Hebrews — at least three from the fourth or fifth century have it between the letters to Thessalonica and the letters to Timothy. But authorship was disputed even then. Paul’s involvement became important because the Western church debated whether to include Hebrews in the canon, in apostolic authorship was a criterion. It doesn’t seem to have been until the 5th century, about 400 years after it was written, that Paul’s authorship was taken as anything like a settled fact. And even then it wasn’t unanimous and was based on some pretty thin evidence. 

     Others have been speculated to have written the book: Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Luke, Apollos, even Priscilla, though no solid case has been built for any of those. Still, for the last 150-200 years, the letter’s anonymity, prominent style and vocabulary differences between it and Paul’s letters, and the difficulty of explaining why Paul’s name would have been removed if it had ever been attached have convinced the vast majority of scholars that Paul is not the author of Hebrews.

     None of that matters a whole lot, though; Hebrews has encouraged, challenged, and strengthened generations of believers before us. Its authorship likely doesn’t make much difference to you — unless, of course, it costs you a chance to win a quarter of a million dollars on a TV game show.  It’s just interesting. Bible trivia, if you will.

     I started thinking, though, after Sam lost the game with what was almost certainly the correct response: What do I take for granted about the Bible that just isn’t true? And is it less trivial than a Jeopardy answer?

     That’s obviously a hard question to answer; if I’m taking anything for granted, it’s probably not at the level of conscious thought that allows me to rationally consider it on my own. I do know that there were things I once believed the Bible said that I now don’t think it says. Things that I was once convinced of that I wouldn’t be able to affirm anymore. Sometimes that was because I misunderstood. Other times, it was because I just sort of took for granted something someone else said, without really considering it for myself. Given what I’ve done for almost 30 years, that’s likely caused me to mislead others. Maybe to get in the way of the gospel, even. When you preach and teach the Bible every week, you can’t afford to do that — that’s why James says those who teach are to be held to a higher standard. 

     I’ve also seen the tendency in others enough to know that I’m far from alone. I’ve seen people who, confronted by reasons to question their point of view about a Bible text or a belief, refused to consider that they may have been wrong. We all misunderstand Scripture at times. All of us misread it. But if the Bible in some way forms who we are, we have to let it speak to us. We can’t afford to mute it with our prejudices, our dogmas, our need to justify ourselves. We have to allow some uncertainty as Scripture, through the work of the Holy Spirit, does its work of  judging the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. We have to be able to admit it when the answers we think we have are wrong and when we need to back up and let Scripture have its way with us.

     And before we protest that our answers aren’t wrong, we need a dose of humility. Can’t you name some ways in which previous generations of believers got the Bible wrong? Using it to justify slavery, or segregation? To subjugate women? To choke off legitimate dissent against totalitarian governments? To defend a geo-centric model of the universe? Scripture has been used to perpetrate terror campaigns against Jews, Muslims, and homosexuals. It’s been used to defend and cover up ungodly behavior. It’s been used to draw unbiblical lines between well-intended followers of Jesus. 

     They got the Bible wrong. At least parts of it. Some were convinced they were right, and they got it wrong. They were good Christians, many of them, respected and loved by everyone, and they got it wrong.

     Isn’t it just possible that some of the Bible answers we come up with might be wrong, too? Even the ones passed down from the people we love and admire the most? “We’ve always believed that” isn’t the same as being right, not if the Bible really is alive and active. That makes it less a code chiseled in stone and more a live organism that wants always to do its work in our hearts, now. It’s not a collection of trivia to be memorized and regurgitated. Like the game show, its answers are often about knowing how to ask the right questions. 

     One of the ways we avoid getting stuck in our own little understanding of the Bible is by reading it with others — preferably people as different from you as possible. With all the resources at our disposal, there’s no excuse for reading the Bible in a little personal devotional bubble. That might shake you a little. You won’t always agree. But it will keep you from getting locked into your own reading and understanding of Scripture. 

     There’s nothing trivial about growing in your knowledge of Scripture. Don’t take it for granted. Let its sharp edges cut you where necessary. And don’t be afraid to find your answers in the questions it raises. 

     Even — especially — about things you thought you already knew.