Friday, March 17, 2023

"Where the Holy Rubber Meets the Road"

 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written

    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me 

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

    Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

-Luke 4:16-21 (NIV)

I saw Bruce Springsteen on tour last week, and something’s been nagging at me ever since.

     What happened in that arena for about three hours between Bruce and the E Street Band and their fans was pretty much church. And I don’t mean the old clich├ęs about the audience worshiping the pop “idol.” He wasn’t the focus of the worship so much as the leader — the priest, as one of his old songs imagines — leading an arena full of people in communion with a god who knows their lives and offers them peace, joy, redemption, forgiveness, love, a new start — whatever it is they feel they need.

     The fact that the god they were worshiping was ill-defined, and I’m sure even varied from person to person, doesn’t change the fact that in a very real sense worship was happening.

      Part of it, I know, is the way music can, at its best, drive emotions and connect us to other times and places. But there’s more than that behind 18,000 people standing and singing and sharing for three hours in the Church of The Boss.

     I’ve written before about how Springsteen composes songs; he’s said, “The verse is the blues, and the chorus is the gospel.” His faith is complicated, but he has said that he believes in Jesus. And, as someone who’s listened to his music for 40 years or so, I think he is pretty clear on what the gospel is.    

     He writes in his recent memoir of his Catholicism, and the “poetry, danger, and darkness” he absorbed from it. He writes: 

“I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbors. I turned it into something I could grapple with, understand, something I could even find faith in. As funny as it sounds, I have a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus…  

He writes about his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, where he still lives with his wife. He says it’s a place 

“where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures…and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town. Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy….”

     We’re reading the Gospel of Luke in our Wednesday night Bible study, and the last couple of weeks we were talking about Jesus’ return to his own hometown, Nazareth. Luke says he “found the place” — so he went looking for it — where Isaiah wrote about the proclamation of “good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind.” He read about setting “the oppressed free” and proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus went on to say to the assembled family and friends and neighbors and enemies, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This was one of the defining texts for his ministry. His theme.

     In Jesus’ own hometown, people were leading hardscrabble lives in the shadow of the steeple — or, at least, the synagogue. They lived “where the holy rubber meets the road.” And Jesus told them that he had come home to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, the long-awaited good news Isaiah preached that God was going to put things right for hurting people.

     That’s the gospel. It’s where “the holy rubber meets the road.” It’s for the crookedly blessed, for the blind who are given sight, the oppressed who receive justice, the sinners trying to hold off demons. But sometimes we Christians treat it more like a ledger sheet, an accounting tool that lets us see who’s operating at a spiritual profit and who’s at a deficit. We live a disembodied gospel, spiritualized, sanitized of “poetry, danger, and darkness,” and unconcerned with the hardscrabble lives people are living in the shadows of our steeples. But a disembodied gospel is only good news to people who aren’t hurting, whose only need is some assurance of going to heaven when they die. It can also lead its believers to a disregard for the pain and suffering of others. 

     I think that’s how Christians justified slavery, or rooted for the police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, or today sneer at people concerned about racism or misogyny as “woke.” It’s why we can elect political leaders more on the basis of what we think will make us more prosperous than on who will do what’s just and right. We believe the gospel is about saving our souls, which in our theology are somehow separate from our bodies. We forget that Jesus preached justice and care for the poor, healed the sick, and told his followers to visit those in prison. His actions and his words together painted a picture of the kingdom coming, the holy rubber of the Year of the Lord’s Favor meeting the road, God blessing the most crooked. 

     Crooked. That reminds me of the story in Luke’s gospel of Jesus healing a woman in the synagogue who had been “disabled by a spirit and could not straighten up at all.” Jesus has her come to the front — apparently he wants the worshipers to see her. When he heals her, his words are, “You are set free — released — from your infirmity.” And she stands up and praises God.

     Afterward, when he’s criticized for healing on the Sabbath, he just says that they couldn’t wait any longer; Satan had already kept her bound for too long. For Jesus, the woman’s physical condition and spiritual condition were entangled. Freeing her from Satan meant healing her body and spirit, and it had to happen now

     Maybe our worship services — not just that, our church lives, also — ought to be more like that synagogue service that Jesus disrupted, where we can show each other the ways that we’re crooked without fear, and find healing in the power of the gospel. Where we can identify, not with the religious and powerful and all-together, but with the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed. And where we can lay the gospel we preach across real lives so that people can see Jesus come in the power of the Holy Spirit to set us — and them — free.

     I still don’t imagine we’ll fill arenas. That’s not what we do. But those people in the arena the other night were admitting, as they cheered, sang, and danced, that they were crooked, weighed down with pain, bitterness, disappointment, fear, and guilt. They were discovering that, for a few hours, they could stand up. And we can help people stand up. Well, not us — but our Boss, our Lord, certainly can. May they see in us his love and mercy, and may we dance together in the aisles and sing God’s praises. 

Friday, March 10, 2023

Little Ones

 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

     Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

     He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

-Mark 9:33-37 (NIV)

I’ve heard it said that sometimes the Bible interprets the reader, and not the other way around. I heard it most recently in a discussion on the story of David and Bathsheba, how where you place blame in that story might say more about you than it does the text. (This uncredited painting housed in the Bowes Museum depicts Bathsheba as being very aware of David’s presence as she bathes, which changes the story drastically.) 

     I think Jesus’ parable of the little child — and it is a parable, an acted one — in the verses above is another one of those places in Scripture that interprets us.

    The parable itself is straightforward. It follows the Transfiguration, where a few of the disciples get a look at who Jesus really is. Then, in rapid succession, there’s a failure by the disciples to drive a demon out of a child — a failure that Jesus holds them accountable for. Then Jesus explicitly teaches his disciples about his coming suffering, death, and resurrection; not only don’t they understand, they’re afraid to ask him about it. Following these two glaring failures, they get caught by Jesus actually arguing about which of them is the greatest — which at that moment is kind of like Cubs and Sox fans arguing about who had the best season last year. 

     In answer to them, Jesus borrows a child from someone — around the same age as the one they had been unable to help — and “takes [the child] in his arms.” He says, “You want to be first? You want to be great? Then you have to be willing to be last. You have to serve, and you have to serve everyone.”

     And then, with the child in his arms, he talks about welcoming “one of these little children” in his name. That’s how to be hospitable to the presence of Jesus, to welcome the Father and his work in the world.

     My son and I saw Bruce Springsteen live earlier this week. Toward the end of the show, he referred to a Milwaukee food bank. He said, “They’re doing God’s work on the front lines.” I think Jesus would agree with that statement.

     “Little children” in this text goes far beyond actual kids, though they would be included. The next thing you hear from the disciples is maybe an attempt to change the subject: “We saw some random dude driving out demons in your name, and we put a stop to it because we don’t know that guy.”

     So, they weren’t able to drive out a demon — but they stop someone who is able to? They’re trying to be gatekeepers. That’s fun, because it distracts from our own failures and lets us promote ourselves, makes us seem greater. So sometimes instead of caring for the little children in Jesus’ name, or at the very least supporting those who do care for them, we argue, denounce, and try to control God’s work. We distract from our failure to welcome “little ones” by finding fault with other efforts to do just that.

     Jesus turns the tables — “How will you feel when it’s you who need help? In my evaluation of things, if someone gives you guys so little a thing as a cup of cold water in my name when you’re thirsty, they’re getting a reward.” Left unsaid is the obvious implication that they should have put aside their egos and been more charitable. He wasn’t the competition.

      Next, he warns his disciples about the danger of causing “one of these little ones” to stumble. We’re back to little ones, children. The obvious context is what’s just been happening with the disciples — they’ve been preoccupied with “greatness” and have 1) failed to drive a demon from a child, 2) responded to Jesus’ teaching about his coming torture, murder, and resurrection by arguing over which of them is more highly ranked, and 3) tried to shut down someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and actually, you know, being successful at it!

     At every turn, their self-interest has put potential obstacles in the path of “little ones” who they should have been serving — in the way their Master does, and will.

     “Little ones” — like the people served by that food bank in Milwaukee. “Little ones” — like the children loved and cared for in the name of Jesus by teachers and social workers. “Little ones”— like people whose lives have been scarred and twisted and broken by the work of Satan. 

     The “little ones” Jesus refers to are any of the people who, in a given moment, his disciples need to put their arms around and care for in Jesus’ name. It isn’t intended to be paternalistic. He recognizes that sometimes the tables turn and those who have been the helpers need to be helped. (Jesus himself will, in the near future, need help.) “Little ones”is not a judgment on the value or competence of the person who, in a particular moment, needs looking after.  

     So when I say that, in our city, new immigrants to our country are often “little ones,” I don’t mean that they’re like children, incapable of caring for themselves, or that helping means we get to control them. The fact that I need to say that means that we don’t get it. What I mean is that they’re human beings loved by God who followers of Jesus may need to put their arms around and welcome and help.

     When I say that people of color are sometimes “little ones” in our country, I don’t mean that they should be treated like children. I mean that those of us with privilege and power need to put our arms around them by advocating for their rights when they’re being marginalized, listening and then speaking up when their voices aren’t being heard, and caring about the ways in which their human rights are trampled. 

     In 2023, to hear stories about churches supporting abusive pastors over their victims is disheartening to say the least. To hear about misogyny in the church is shocking. To hear about people who claim to follow Jesus supporting fringe politicians who spout hysteria and promise to preserve rights that are in no way threatened by disregarding “little ones” who are in real danger is maddening.

     If whatever rights, possessions, privilege, or way of life we want to grasp and hold onto causes us to put an obstacle in the path of “little ones”, it would be better for us to cut off our hands. If what we see and want causes us to disregard “little ones,” it would be better if we tore out our eyes. To not welcome “little ones” in Jesus’ name is to endanger ourselves. It’s antithetical to the life of the kingdom of God, and it puts us on the way of destruction. 

      “Little ones” are not a distraction. The cost that helping them may accrue is worth it, because they are the focus of God’s kingdom. I like how Mark points out that Jesus put that child, literally, “in the middle of them.” He made that little one the focus of everyone there. And then he “put his arms around him.”

     May little ones be our focus, too. And may we follow our Lord in putting our arms around them and welcoming them so that we may welcome Jesus and be part of God’s work.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Does Artificial Intelligence Hate Your Values?

 If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

-John 8:31-32 (NRSV)

So, a social media acquaintance of mine recently authored a post with the (intentionally?) shocking title, “AI is taking over the world and it hates your values.”

     This was like the fourth or fifth post on ChatGPT — what my acquaintance called “a highly intelligent, interactive, chat AI” — that I had seen in the past couple of weeks, so I decided to take a look at it. After all, if it hates my values I need to know, right? 

     First, a quick lesson on what ChatGPT and AI — Artificial Intelligence — really are.

     ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence chat robot. It’s trained by scouring large amounts of data from the internet, then using human “trainers” to refine the data. It’s able to respond to prompts, answer questions, “converse” about its responses, and even challenge incorrect assumptions. Samples from the website have the AI responding to the query, “How do you break into someone’s house?” by saying, “It is not appropriate to discuss or encourage illegal activities, such as breaking into someone’s house.” (Clearly it doesn’t hate all my values.) When the questioner asks about protecting his house from burglars, the AI comes back with seven suggestions.

     I was interested to put it to another kind of test. I preach most every Sunday, so I wondered how ChatGPT would do at sermon-writing. I thought I’d give a softball assignment for its first try, so I just asked it to “Write a sermon on John 3:16.” Here’s the bulk of the result:

This verse is a powerful reminder of God's love for us. It tells us that God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to die for us, so that we may have eternal life.

     But what does it mean to believe in Jesus? Believing in Jesus is more than just acknowledging His existence. It means putting our trust and faith in Him as our Lord and Savior. It means turning away from our sins and surrendering our lives to Him. When we believe in Jesus, we are given the gift of eternal life, and we become part of God's family.

     This verse also reminds us that God's love is not exclusive. It is available to everyone, regardless of their background or past mistakes. No matter what we have done, God's love is always there for us. All we need to do is accept it and believe in Jesus.

     So what does this mean for us in our daily lives? It means that we are called to love others as God loves us. We are called to show compassion, forgiveness, and grace to those around us. It means that we should strive to be more like Jesus in all that we do, and to share His love with those around us.

I have to say: it’s not bad. Certainly nothing I’d disagree with.

     My social media acquaintance put a question about gender to the AI, phrasing it in a way that made it clear that he expected it to defend from Scripture the “value” that there are two genders. ChatGPT responded with a different set of values, saying that it wouldn’t “provide a defense of something that promotes harmful and inaccurate information about gender identity.” It went on to cite several Christian denominations as affirming gender diversity as part of their commitment to “the dignity and worth of every person as a child of God.”     

     In an interesting twist, several readers who commented on my acquaintance’s post — many of them who identify themselves as Christians — disagreed with his binary view of gender. Which makes me wonder why we’d expect an AI to defend a specific position that well-intended followers of Jesus disagree about!

     It may be true that AI hates some of my values. In this case, though, it affirms one of Christianity’s most fundamental ones — that we should be careful not to cause harm to other human beings. Isn’t “love your neighbor as yourself” sort of a fundamental value of Jesus’? Maybe the problem is that, when we talk about “values,” we’re often talking about something else. I don’t think Scripture uses the word as it’s often used today. 

     Often, I think, we talk about “values” we’re actually talking about who gets to set them for society. That concern comes out later in my acquaintance’s post: “[ChatGPT’s] answer is being filtered by people with a competing worldview.” The problem isn’t that AI hates Christian values, but that it might force us to evaluate alternate ways of seeing the world. (Also known as “living in the world.”) 

     On the ChatGPT website, the designers say, “during…training, there’s currently no source of truth.” What they mean is that there’s no all-inclusive way for the AI to sort and evaluate the tremendous amounts of data it’s dealing with. The human “trainers” can help it along, but that just kicks the can further up the road because none of them have a corner on objective truth either. It’s all in-progress.

     Which makes artificial intelligence very similar to natural human intelligence. 

    When we talk about our own “values,” maybe we should acknowledge that they, too, are always in-process. Healthy people don’t solidify their values and refuse to change them. Their values should change as they learn, grow, and mature. Truth is discovery. And all of that is true for Christians, too.

     Jesus says that it’s in living out his teachings in the worldcontinuing in his word” — that we learn truth, develop values, and are set free to love, to carry our crosses, to care for those around us, to live in God’s love. Continuing. When you think you’ve arrived, think again. Keep listening to Jesus. Keep trying to treat the people around you as he teaches you to. Even Christians don’t receive truth as a one-time download, but more as incremental updates as we learn to continue in Christ’s word in the world we live in. It isn’t always neat or easy.

     Also, other people are doing the exact same thing. There is such a thing as “Christian values,” but we’re all evaluating different data in different ways, so those values aren't nearly as uniform from Christian to Christian as we might think (or wish). There are, for example, earnest believers in Jesus who struggle with not fitting into the gender norms most commonly assumed in churches. There are Christians who do fit the norms, but see people they care about struggling and feel compassion and want them to be welcomed at church as they are. It doesn’t seem to me to be very loving or compassionate to disparage those believers by saying their very real concerns and experiences amount to hatred of Christian “values.”

      I wonder why my acquaintance didn’t ask ChatGPT for biblical support on generosity? Racial equality? Is it because gender is a political hot-button issue? Is it because gender has become a dog whistle for many Christians? And how healthy is that, especially if it disregards one of Jesus’ central values — loving our neighbor as we love ourselves? 

     May we “continue” in the word of Jesus as we live in the messiness and struggle of the world around us. May we “continue” in his word as we learn new things, experience new truths. And may we always be led by the true Christian values of love for God and neighbor.  

Friday, February 24, 2023

"What a Rumpus is Raised!"

      Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 (NIV)

Maybe by now you’ve heard about what many are calling a revival at Asbury University, a small Christian college of the Wesleyan tradition in Wilmore, Kentucky. It started at a mandatory Wednesday morning chapel service; the day’s preacher spoke on love in action, from Romans 12. He felt like he “whiffed it,” and texted his wife that it was a “stinker” and that he’d be home soon. No one came forward to respond to the message as a gospel trio closed out the service with a song. Students left — except for 19 or 20, scattered out across Hughes Auditorium. They stayed where they were, praying and singing.

     And then it just went on. And on. For hours, days, students kept on coming in. They’d leave to go to class or jobs or sleep, and then they’d come back. They started texting friends, posting on social media, and then more started coming. More students, faculty, but also residents of Wilmore. And then people started showing up from out of town.  

     Students began leading the singing, leading prayers, speaking to the group. Eventually someone started scheduling people to lead, because something was happening. People who had been away from God came back. Broken relationships were healed. 

     It went on, non-stop, for two weeks, until the University wound it down. Major media outlets, including the New York Times, reported on it.

     At Asbury it even eclipsed Super Bowl Sunday, which is saying something.

     I don’t like this about myself, but I tend to be skeptical about reports of revivals like this one. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I doubt I could sort them all out. One reason is that many so-called revivals are intensely personal and individual, and don’t seem to have much of an impact in terms of justice, righteousness, and holiness in communities. Another reason is that it’s easy for people having experiences like the ones at Asbury to be profoundly disillusioned and disappointed when inevitably the high wears off.

     I also have to admit, though, that one of the reasons I’m skeptical has to do with the fact that I have spent my life with a version of Christianity that trusts the rational and intelligible over the mystical, emotional, and unexplainable. In the tradition I’m a part of, revival is usually a matter of understanding a Bible verse differently. It can feel a little academic.

     But I’ve learned over the years to distrust my initial suspicion about events like the ones at Asbury. I’m not in as big a hurry to dismiss them as I once might have been. I’m more like Gamaliel in the book of Acts: “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” 

     Here’s what I do know — I don’t know exactly what’s been happening at Asbury, and neither do you, and neither does any one of the innumerable people who seem to have an opinion about it, most of whom couldn’t find Wilmore, Kentucky, on a map. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know, and I’m pretty sure that many of the people who were there don’t know. I know that in the two weeks of the revival, students have regained lost faith. They’ve repented of sins. They’ve confessed addictions. They’ve been baptized into Christ. They’ve given their lives to serving him. I know that none of us have to know what’s happening, or have to have an opinion.

     There’s a really good post at Christianity Today about the events at Asbury. Most of it has to do with the faculty, staff, and volunteers who responded to what was happening in real time, avoiding the extremes of squelching the work of the Spirit on the one hand and exploiting it on the other. They kept away people who seemed to want to use the event to make political statements or gain a hearing for themselves. They started acting as gatekeepers to ministers coming to town asking to “share a word”in the chapel. (Here’s a free tip for preachers: Don’t hop in the car and try to make something like this about you, no matter how much you think God has given you something to say. If he wants you to preach, he’ll make sure they find you.) They have done their best to keep it about the students.

     Volunteers provided food, including Chick-fil-a, so maybe it is from God. They kept the building open for the students, answered phones when people started calling the school about what was happening, and acted as support for the thousands of visitors who have come to the little town and school over the last couple of weeks. They quickly came to a consensus that, though they hadn’t started or planned what was happening and weren’t in control of it, they would “create space” for it.

     “Create space.” I think that’s a good way to put it. The school’s namesake, Francis Asbury, a Methodist bishop who was associated with revivals throughout the U.S., once wrote, “The work of God is wonderful. But what a rumpus is raised!” Seems to me that, instead of looking at events like what happened in Asbury with suspicion, we should look to create space for whatever rumpus God might be raising. Even if it’s just space in our own hearts and minds for God to work in ways we don’t expect or predict. 

     In fact, Jesus said we ought to expect God to raise some unexpected rumpuses. He said that the kingdom of God is the work of the Spirit, and that being the case it can surprise mere human beings. He compared it to the wind; you can see its effects, but you can’t control it or direct it or even necessarily predict it. That’s how the Holy Spirit is; it “blows wherever it pleases.” (It helps in reading John 3 to know that the same word is translated “Spirit” and “wind.”)

     But controlling, directing, and predicting the Spirit’s work is not our concern. What Jesus says there in John is we can’t enter the kingdom of God unless we’re born of the Spirit. That’s good news, though, because that’s God’s work. He has poured out his Spirit in Jesus. Anyone baptized into Christ has received the Spirit

     But Paul could still tell Christians to “be filled with the Spirit," because maybe we don’t always “make room” for the Spirit in our churches, in our lives, in our hearts. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we think of what God might have been up to the last two weeks in a little Kentucky town. What matters much more is what he might be up to in your heart, in your life, in your church and community.

    I was struck by an unnamed theology professor at Asbury mentioned in an article who has been known for years to walk around town holding a sign that says, simply, “Holy Spirit, You are Welcome Here.” I think that’s maybe the best final word: may we be people who welcome the Holy Spirit as he blows around where he pleases, raising a rumpus, breaking our schedules, and where necessary disrupting the careful choreography of our lives. May we, through careful attention to hard, unglamorous work like prayer, worship, service, love, peace, and repentance, be filled with the Holy Spirit. May we create space for the Spirit to give us, our churches, and our communities new birth. That’s the revival God is looking for.     

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Lives of Significance

      Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. 

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 (NIV)

Most organizations I know that depend on volunteers are singing the same song: volunteering is down. It’s hard to find people who’ll keep your organization’s wheels turning.

     There might be all kinds of reasons for that. One is that some volunteer-based organizations — churches included — have misused money and people. Maybe that pall has spread until every organization is regarded with the same amount of suspicion. One reason might that people are just too busy these days trying to get by to give time to volunteering. One might be that our instant-gratification culture has made volunteering less attractive, especially when it’s far easier just to send some money.

     But I’ve been thinking lately about another reason volunteers are a rare and in-demand species these days.

     I think it might be that we’re addicted to significance.

     I know that’s a weird thing to say, but that’s been my experience. People have a pressing need to be doing something that “matters” — however we might define that. They're desperate for some kind of metric that immediately shows them how much their contributions matter. I know when I’ve volunteered at our local food bank packaging food for distribution, every work session ends with whoever’s in charge telling us how much food we prepared, in pounds, pallets, items. The food bank, of course, hopes that hard numbers will translate into people coming back to volunteer again because they see how their contributions “matter.”

     We want to see how our actions matter immediately. So we volunteer with organizations that can show us.

     I get that, of course. Again, our time is limited, and we don’t want to waste it doing something that (at least from our point of view) isn’t accomplishing very much of worth. That’s just it, though — how do we know what is “of worth”? Our concern for “significance” can sometimes obscure the fact that we’re not always very good at determining what is significant.

   I think we sometimes tend to confuse significance with activity. To be significant, we think we always have to always be in demand, running from meeting to meeting, juggling phone calls and texts, posting to social media. What matters, so the wisdom goes, is making important decisions, determining policy, setting vision.

     So it seems natural to transfer those assumptions to our ideas of significance in God’s kingdom. The significant things happen in leadership meetings. Or in front of the congregation on Sunday mornings. The important, significant people are the ones who are heard and seen on a regular basis or the ones whose decisions set direction for a church. 

     I think we’re reaping the consequences in the church of placing too much significance on too small a subset of people, letting too few people do too much of the decision-making and policy-setting. But that’s because we think that what those people do is what matters.

     In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul tells the church, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” A quiet life sounds pretty boring and insignificant — if you’re quiet, how do you make a mark? How do you know if your life has made a difference? 

     The fact is that there are a lot of lives that make a lot of noise in our world without offering much in the way of  significance. 

     No, Paul says that we should aspire to quiet lives. He doesn’t mean never to say anything, of course, or that your life should never attract attention, but that if it does attract attention it should be for the right reasons. He means that activity and attention don’t equal significance. He means that there can be value and significance in quiet things that no one pays much attention to.

     I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:42 — “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” The immediate context of that saying is hospitality shown toward itinerant preachers carrying the good news of Jesus. But there’s a larger application: the smallest deed done, the smallest kindness shown, the most seemingly trivial attempt to care for someone in need matters. While those small acts might not attract much attention, they are significant. God knows about them and rewards them.

     When you make a phone call or send a card or text or email to someone in need, it matters.

     When you pack a bag of food to be given to a food-insecure family — or when you use a computer to account for that food so that others may get what they need too — it matters.

     When you pick up someone for church, or take them to a doctor’s appointment — it matters. 

     When you whisper a prayer for healing on behalf of someone — it matters.

     Paul expands a little on what he means by aspiring to quiet lives when he writes that we should “mind [our] own business” — probably with the same implication that figure of speech has in our own time: don’t stick your nose in other peoples’ business. He talks about the importance of work. He talks about a life that will “win the respect of outsiders” — at the end of the day, there’s nothing much more significant than living in a way that most everyone would agree is admirable.  

     Here’s the point, I think — you don’t need to be more influential, greater, busier, in order to live a life of significance. You don’t need to wait until you have a more important job, a more powerful position, a degree, a certification, more social media followers, or a bigger pulpit. What you’re doing right now is significant. It matters because God is there. He sees what’s done and rewards it. And that’s enough.

     How you do your job matters.

     Driving your kids to school matters.

     Making a meal for the people you love, cleaning a house, taking care of a yard — those things matter.

     The hard truth is this: you won’t always know how significant the things you do each day are. I remember as a kid this guy who used to stand in the church foyer and give sticks of gum to all the kids after church ended. He’s long gone now. I’m 45 years or more removed from the last stick of gum. But I remember that. I remember his smile, and his kindness. He made a lasting impression on me. I can still see him, smiling, handing me gum.

     You can’t tell me that small act didn’t matter.

     Don’t waste time looking for significance. Instead, look for ways to serve. To care. To love. Look for ways to channel God’s grace into the lives of the people around you — and don’t downplay the quiet ways that happens. Even a cup of water or a stick of gum are significant when God puts them to work.

     Your life already matters. You’re already significant. Just mind your business.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Beside Me, Not Beneath Me

      For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

     Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 

1 Corinthians 4:7-8 (NIV)

If you live in Chicago, you might have heard of Aleta Clark. Though you might know her by another name. She also answers to Englewood Barbie.

     Clark is pretty, like a Barbie doll, and she’s from Englewood, the kind of notorious neighborhood on the city’s South Side that’s remote from the Mag Mile and Edgebrook in all kinds of ways, not just geographically. 

     After the gang murder of a 9-year-old boy and the death of her mother from a heroin overdose in 2015, Clark founded a non-profit she calls Hugs No Slugs. Through Hugs, she has been serving her neighborhood ever since, trying to show that respect comes from helping people, not hurting people.

     One of her avenues of service is called Club 51, a sort of supper club every evening during the winter for people who live under the viaduct at 51st and Wentworth. She puts together educational and recreational programs for kids. During the pandemic, she opened “safe houses” where she distributes groceries for those who need them. She’s partnered with Louis Vuitton, the clothing store Notre, and Chance the Rapper. 

     Recently, Hugs No Slugs paid $16,000.00 for a group of people who live on the streets to stay for over a month in a West Loop hotel. Clark calls the group “the friends,” saying, “[They] are the people that live out here. I don’t identify them as homeless because that places them beneath me. Calling them the friends places them beside me.” 

     But when check-in day came for her “friends” this week, the hotel turned them away. Clark gave the desk clerk her confirmation number and was told, “My general manager doesn’t feel comfortable renting to these people.” 

     Maybe “these people” wasn’t intended to convey what it conveys: that separation that calling them “friends” is intended to bridge. Hotels can, I suppose, rent to — or refuse to rent to — whoever they choose. Policies were cited: there wasn’t a name on the reservation, the rooms were reserved by a third party, all possibly valid security concerns. The hotel did offer to rebook the group for a week — they claimed that the reservation had been canceled before the group arrived and a week was all that was available at that point. 

     Still — it would surprise me if the hotel would have refused to honor the reservation if the group of “friends” in question had been Ivy League buddies in town for a wedding, or a group of Fortune-500 executives using the hotel for a corporate retreat. Or if they’d been well-dressed. Or, maybe, if they’d been white. I don’t know the  hotel business at all, but it sure looks as if Aleta’s comments about placing people beside her instead of beneath her might be words that needed to heard in this situation. 

     For their part, the hotel chain released a statement saying they were “deeply sorry” for the incident. They said that their “purpose is to care for people so that they can be their best,” and apologized for making the group feel unwelcome.  They said, “We are dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion and, when those values are not upheld…we hold ourselves…urgently accountable to do better.”

     So should we all hold ourselves urgently accountable to do better. 

     There are lots of reasons why we forget to place people beside us instead of beneath us. It’s why political differences turn ugly; we treat those on the other side of the aisle as less than us. We do it with money, power, education, race, gender, age; people are injured when we treat those who have fewer resources or opportunities, a less-privileged place in the world, or who are different from us, as somehow inferior. Or, maybe just as likely, we’re like the guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple — we think the things we have and the degree of success we may have attained entitle us to being elevated above “those people,” people like Aleta’s “friends,” who don’t deserve to stay in a hotel like “we” do.

     We can even do it with religion, twisting the Scriptures and the gospel and our own piety to pretend that through our own efforts and spiritual enlightenment we somehow deserve the grace God has given us — or at least deserve it more than “those people” who haven’t gotten their lives up to snuff like we have.

     God must laugh. Or maybe not. More likely he doesn’t see anything funny about it.

     We need to hear again Paul’s words to the church at Corinth. He doesn’t stroke egos or cater to people who like to feel superior for any stupid reason. One way to translate what he says is “Who would see any difference between you and anyone else?” Boy, that could stick a pin in an inflated ego, couldn’t it? We’re all like grammar-school siblings arguing over whose “art” should be on the fridge. Though I often am impressed with my own work, in truth there’s not much special to distinguish my efforts from my brothers’ and sisters’.

     Another way to say it might be, “What makes you so special?” 

     Usually, the only real answer to that question is, “My mother says I am.” 

     And, listen, our Father in heaven does indeed think you’re special. But no more so than anyone else in the world. That’s not intended to make you feel bad about yourself, but to make you recognize that there really isn’t such a thing as “those people.” We’re all “those people.” But we’re also all God’s “friends.” You’re not beneath anyone. But you’re certainly not above anyone either. We stand beside each other, whether we want to admit it or not — but we stand beside each other in the love of God. 

     Know what that means? It means we have to answer another rhetorical question: “What do you have that you did not receive?” That’s a good question. In his love for us, God gave us everything. Through Jesus, he calls us his friends and shares generously with us. And if he’s given me more of something than he’s given you, then what entitles me to think that makes me special, that it makes me somehow superior to you? All I did is receive what God gave me. As Paul asks, “And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

     That attitude will help us stand beside people, to share in their joys and help bear their burdens Not consider ourselves above them, where their problems have nothing to do with us.

     Englewood Barbie is taking that seriously. Most nights, you’ll find her in a tent with her friends near 51st and Wentworth. “I can’t go home tonight knowing…that this hotel just told them to go back to their tent,” she says. “So I told them I’m going to stay out here every day until I raise enough money to buy us a shelter.”


     That’s how Englewood Barbie does it. I don’t know if she got the idea from Jesus, but he did it first. He could have regarded us as “those people.” But he came and lived with us and said, “us,” even when it cost his life.

     Look around for people to stand beside. Live with them, even when that means taking on their struggles as your own. Call them your friends, like God has called you his.      

Thursday, February 2, 2023


      Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12, NET)

In a Bible study at church, our class was looking at James’ admonition not to “speak against one another.” For James, to “speak against” someone is to ignore the law to love your neighbor as yourself and try to take God’s prerogative as the “Lawgiver and Judge” who “is able to save and destroy” for yourself. None of us made the law of love. None of us can save or destroy. So, James goes on to ask, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” 

     All of us know that Jesus said not to judge. All of us know that he promised that we’ll be judged with the same standard by which we judge others. But we also talked about the tendency we might have, as people who want to get the Bible right, to find ways around these very straightforward texts that tell us we’re not to judge. We do this for a lot of bad reasons, but maybe some as well that don’t seem so bad.

     Jude tells us to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” Some Christians read this as orders to open fire on anyone who disagrees with us on most any question or issue. You like a different kind of worship music? Read an “unauthorized” Bible translation? Have an “unorthodox” view about what happens during Communion? Think differently from me about a political issue? I have to go to war with you. “The faith” is threatened, and it needs me to defend it!

     This is one of those places where context is key. Jude says that the faith is threatened because “certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you.” He characterizes these people as “ungodly” and says that they “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” 

     It doesn’t take much thought to recognize that most of the things Christians tend to judge each other over do not rise to the level of twisting God’s grace into license for immorality or denying Jesus as King and Lord! People who disagree with you are generally not “ungodly.” They’re rarely, as Jude says later, “scoffers who follow their own evil desires,” and they haven’t snuck in with the express purpose of doing harm.

     Paul had harsh words for people who would preach a different gospel — because the gospel didn’t belong to him, and it didn’t belong to them. But, in Acts, he meets a group of “disciples” who have only been baptized for repentance. He doesn’t blast them for their ignorance or treat them as though their faith is lacking, he simply teaches them about baptism into Christ. His colleagues, Priscilla and Aquila, teach Apollos, a powerful preacher of the gospel already, “the way of the Lord more perfectly.” They don’t insult him, they instruct him.

     Jesus, who said his followers shouldn't judge, spoke strongly to people who used religion to weigh people down with expectations that no one could possibly bear. He was tough on people who covered injustice, selfishness, and mercilessness with a thin veneer of piety and religious busywork. What brought out the fire in Jesus was when people who claimed to know God  didn’t listen to his invitation to enter the kingdom, and prevented other people from entering as well. But then, when those people had him crucified, he prayed that God would forgive them on the grounds that they had no idea what they were doing.

     Paul said that a church should disassociate from a man living in flagrant, unrepentant sin — he says he’s “already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus” on this man. As he winds up his instructions on this matter, he tells the church that they aren't to judge those outside the church, but that they are to judge those inside and that, in this case, they should expel this man from the church. (In the hope that this will shake him enough that he will change his behavior and will still be saved.)

     But he also says, just a few verses earlier, that the same church should “judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes,” because only Jesus will “bring to light what is hidden in darkness and…expose the motives of the heart.” 

     Jesus himself said that we shouldn’t judge, but he also said that we should use “right judgment” and not judge by appearances. And that may be the way we clear this up. Judging by appearance, according to Jesus, is not “right judgment.”

     Yet we’re so quick to do exactly that, it seems. I recently saw one church criticizing another church publicly for a change they made in their worship music. Based on this change, they say this church is “compromising." They say that this church’s worship is "vain." Imagine that — one group of Christians saying that another group’s worship is “vain!” Ironically, Jesus (quoting Isaiah) uses that word to describe the worship of people who are teaching human rules while claiming to honor God.

     Which of those two churches does that seem to best describe?

     Judging by appearance isn’t isolated or unusual. How often have Christians made knee-jerk judgments based on a disagreement, a difference, a word, an action, even something like skin color, gender, age, or education level? Such a small percentage of the things we see each other do and hear each other say provides enough context for judgment  that we should rarely feel that we have enough information about each others’ hearts and intentions to do so.

     Still, Scripture does leave open the possibility that, from time to time, a brother or sister in Christ might deny the truth of the gospel by their words or actions. These folks won’t just be mistaken or misled — they’ll be trying to make rules for others to follow, denying God by their actions, and seeking to take advantage of religious beliefs for their own gain. They’ll be leading people away from trust in the work of God through Jesus. They’ll be trying to obscure their actions by saying one thing while doing another. Twisting the Bible to justify themselves. To speak against this kind of self-evident denial of the gospel is, unfortunately, necessary.

     So we would be right to speak against abuse committed under religious cover. We’d be right to oppose a false gospel that leads people to pride in their own achievement, or rips their hearts out with demands that they can’t bear. We’d be right to raise our voices to resist hatred in the name of Jesus. We’d be right to stand against a “gospel” that promotes greed, or one that folds the good news of Jesus into patriotism or ethnic and racial superiority. We’d be right to resist any “gospel” that creates unrestrained license or crushing legalism.

   To judge rightly is to remember that we’re never right when we forget love. It’s to always hope for reconciliation and redemption, and to be the first to offer forgiveness and mercy.

       No, we shouldn’t judge. Except when, now and then, we must. Sniffing out and exposing error shouldn’t be our primary hobby. That can become its own false gospel. Then again, so can avoiding those times when we must make a right judgment. 

     May God give us the grace to judge rightly when we should, and to keep quiet when we don’t need to.