Friday, August 25, 2023

The Way Things Are

 We’ve spent some time this week waiting for medical decisions. If that’s not something you’ve never had to do, then maybe you don’t realize how frustrating it can be. Doctors and hospitals seem to move glacially slow sometimes — largely, I guess, because when we’re waiting for them, it’s because we or people we love are sick. We want to get well.

     Doctors, meanwhile, have to wrestle with The Way Things Are. They have to look at the risks and side effects of treatment alongside the goal of making their patients well.

     I’ve been preaching from Jeremiah this month, and Jeremiah is a prophet of The Way Things Are. God sent him to give his people a theological perspective on what they’re mostly looking at with geo-political eyes. From their perspective, The Way Things Are is not acceptable. They’re being threatened, existentially, by the kingdom of Babylon. But they’re the kingdom of Judah, the people God has made a covenant with, so of course God must be on their side. Some of Jeremiah’s prophetic colleagues are telling the people that God is going to intervene and vindicate them. Just a year or two, these prophets say, and Babylon will be defeated. 

     Jeremiah has been given a different message. One that doesn’t make him popular, but that has the advantage of being the truth. “The Way Things Are is going to be with us for a while,” he tells the people. He tells them that, for 70 years, they’re going to have to live under the Babylonian thumb. The time upon them is one in which they’ll live in exile in the kingdom of Babylon, away from the land that God gave them. Jerusalem, and the Temple upon which they’ve placed so much of their faith and from which they’ve gotten so much of their national identity, will fall into ruins. It will seem to everyone that God has given up on them. 

     In chapter 29, the prophet tells God’s people to “build houses and settle down” in Babylon. They are to have children and build families. They are to “seek  the peace and prosperity of the city.” They are to “pray  to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah tells them that they’re in Babylon for the long haul; it’ll be their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who get to return to the land of promise and see Jerusalem again.

     That must have been a difficult message to swallow. But the Babylonian siege ramps are already against Jerusalem’s walls. God says, “I am about to give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will capture it.” He warns King Zedekiah that if he chooses to fight against Babylon, his army will fail. 

     This is The Way Things Are. Israel can’t beat Babylon, God says, so they might as well — not join them, exactly, but invest in their lives there. They can prosper, even away from the Land of Promised, the city of David, and their cherished temple. They shouldn’t just blend in; they should keep their identity as God’s people. But their prosperity for the next several decades will be tied to the prosperity of the Babylonians. Like it or not, their future is entwined with the future of Babylon.

     Jeremiah is walking a fine line. His people need to recognize The Way Things Are. They need to be realistic about that. The Way Things Are is not the whole story, though. 

     In chapter 32, Jeremiah buys a field. From a strictly financial point of view, it’s an odd decision. The value of land in the Kingdom of Judah is about to plummet. Jeremiah will eventually go into exile with the rest of his people. There’s going to be no one to farm or develop his new property. Jeremiah might as well dig a hole and put his money in it. With The Way Things Are, buying a piece of property makes no sense. 

     I guess that’s why God has to tell him to go through with the purchase. But it isn’t that God wants Jeremiah to be a real estate baron; the purchase is symbolic. While the people should be investing in Babylon, Jeremiah’s example shows that they shouldn’t give up on the Promised Land either. 

     God says:  

“Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time….Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”

Jeremiah’s purchase of land is a way of assuring the people that there’s a future life for them in the Promised Land. The deed to his field will be waiting for his descendants when they return. 

     The Way Things Are now isn’t the way things will always be. 

     That’s hard for most of us to understand. I guess it’s human nature to imagine that nothing will ever change. When things are tough, it seems they’ll always be tough. When we’re waiting for treatment options for a medical problem, or waiting for a bad situation at work to get better, or wondering if a relationship will survive, or worrying about financial problems, we tend to assume things will always be as they are now. It can he hard to imagine a better future.

     Jeremiah’s message from God encouraged his people to deal with the realities of The Way Things Are. Sometimes we use religion to avoid exactly that. We hide behind our doctrines, our systems, our rituals, our Bibles and our hymns and our prophets, because we don’t want to engage with things as they are right now. But we have lives to live, even with The Way Things Are. We have jobs to do, families to raise, prayers to pray. We can still find the beauty of God’s world to enjoy. We can prosper, even when we don’t like how Things Are, and we can help others to prosper too, in all the ways that we need and in all the ways that matter. 

      We need to resist or urge to withdraw and not deal with The Way Things Are.

      But we can also get overwhelmed by The Way Things Are. Dragged down by it. That’s what Jesus was talking about, I think, when he warned about getting weighed down by fear and worry. We can lose all perspective. Give up on the hope of things ever changing for the better. When that happens, we can become bitter, angry, pessimistic people who delight only in dragging everyone else down into the muck to keep us company. To make our choices and live our lives as though nothing will ever change, there’s no hope of more or better, will inevitably lead us to bad decisions and all their repercussions. 

     So God tells his people to invest in Babylon. But he also tells Jeremiah to invest in Jerusalem.

     I think it’s interesting that God told Jeremiah to put the deed to his new piece of property in a clay jar, so that it will last “a long time.” Sometimes life requires that we put our hope for a better future away for a while. 

      When that happens, we have to take special care that our hope doesn’t get lost. We need to make sure that we preserve it so that, when the time comes, we remember that we have it. That means looking after ourselves spiritually, knowing that The Way Things Are doesn’t negate the promises and faithfulness and compassion and love and grace of God. That’s why we worship and pray and take Communion. We’re protecting our hope.

     God tells his people to invest both in Babylon and Jerusalem, both in The Way Things Are and The Way Things Will Be. In both cases, of course, he’s telling them — and us — to invest in him. It’s God who will help us to cope with The Way Things Are, help us to push through our fear and disappointment, prosper, and help others to prosper. And it’s God who will keep our vision of The Way Things Will Be in front of us, especially in the promises he makes to us in Christ.

     In Christ, may we never lose sight of the Way Things Will Be. And may we always make the most of The Way Things Are.

Friday, August 18, 2023


 Lately I’ve had some grammar conversations with Christians.

     Specifically, the conversations have been about pronouns. You know what I mean, the increasing practice in our world of identifying preferred pronouns in email signatures, resumés, CV’s, and so forth. 

     The practice has developed out of sensitivity to those who, for various reasons, don’t think the pronouns that might usually be assigned to them based on the usual cues to their biological sex — dress, secondary sexual characteristics, speech, and so on — adequately convey their own understanding of their gender.

     And that’s the problem for some of us. For people who believe that our sex is given to us by God, and that our understanding of gender should come from that, it can seem like we’re in foreign territory. Why would we refer to a biological female as “he”? Why would we refer to a person of determinate biological sex as “they”?

     And, deeper still, the unasked question: “Why would a person’s gender not conform to their biological sex?”

     And the related question: “If I use someone’s preferred pronouns, or identify my own (even assuming they match my biological sex), am I compromising something of my faith?” Am I validating deeper theological problems, like the relative nature of truth or the goodness of God’s creation or questions of sexual morality?

     In many contexts in our world today, even asking questions like this would be considered inappropriate and offensive. To believers, they’re real questions, at least for some of us. Other believers might not have such questions, but that may be less about having greater spiritual insight and more about already being immersed in the world’s view of the subject. (Many younger believers think it’s odd and even reprehensible that some of us older Christians would even ask such things, but they are in schools and workplaces that have already embraced a much more open attitude toward this subject — and may even discipline violations of it.) 

     So, I’m having the grammar conversations: “Should I use someone’s preferred pronouns at my school or workplace? Should I not use pronouns at all? Am I compromising my faith if I do? Am I contributing to the idea of the church as an intolerant mob if I don’t?”

     I think these are good questions that indicate a desire to live out our faith in the real world that we live and work in every day. If you’re honestly thinking through questions like these, honestly are trying to figure out how to navigate this situation at your own school, workplace, or even home, then read on. I’m just going to offer suggestions, not rules. Beginning points. Some hopefully solid ground you can stand on as you try to find leverage to deal with this issue. 

     First, it’s not going away. The tide’s not turning, the preferred pronoun genie isn’t going back in the bottle. 

     Second, let’s cut each other some slack, especially in the church. Let’s figure this out together, and let’s not try to immolate each other if we come up with different answers. This is complicated. There is no verse that says “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.” Any answer we come up with is going to require some interpretation, and that can be as dangerous as it is helpful. 

     One text that might be helpful is 1 John 3:18 — “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” John is addressing a situation where someone sees someone in need and “has no pity on them.” He asks, “How can the love of God be in that person?” So he wants embodied love — not just affirmations of care for human beings, but real, in-the-flesh evidence that you love people in the life situations that they’re in.

     It’s maybe significant that John was writing to push back against a heresy that the physical body and reality didn’t matter, a heresy that had reached the point of denying even that Jesus came in a body. Whether or not to feed to feed the hungry was likely an open question because they believed that physical bodies were only temporary vessels holding immortal souls. A disembodied gospel has consequences, including a lack of compassion toward those in need.

     John reminds us that human beings have bodies. Jesus came as a human being in order to bring redemption to those bodies, and he did it through laying down what he wanted in order to show love to others:   

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (I John 3:16, NIV)

     I don’t think it’s possible to love other people without taking seriously their physical reality. You can’t love someone who’s hungry without recognizing their hunger, you can’t love someone who’s sick without acknowledging their illness. And I don’t think you can really show love to someone whose gender and biological sex are in some way disjointed without acknowledging that fact. 

    Some might argue that love requires us to refuse, that a person who believes they’re anything other than their biological sex is deluded. That might be the case. But agreeing with their belief and going along with what they ask are not necessarily the same thing, are they? Assuming that it is a delusion, isn’t going along with their pronoun choice simply one small way to let them know that they are accepted and valued as human beings, even if we can’t really understand what they’re feeling? 

     Besides, very few of us would be even close to qualified to try to talk someone out of their feeling that their sex and gender don’t match, and to try could have devastating consequences. 

      I think that sometimes in trying honestly to deal with this topic from a Christian perspective, we make the mistake of failing to show compassion. Maybe we too quickly turn it into a cultural battleground, and it becomes all about politics and our frustration that traditional Christian faith doesn’t seem to have a comfortable place in the world anymore. Maybe it’s just because we’re uncomfortable with the whole idea. But most people who ask you to address them with a particular pronoun aren’t trying to make a political statement. They’re trying, as well, to find a comfortable place to live and work. 

     It’s my belief that if we’re going to make mistakes — and we will sometimes — then we should make those mistakes on the side of compassion, love, and kindness. 

     Here’s where I come out, if you’re curious: I don’t post preferred pronouns. My name, my appearance, my voice, the way I dress point other people to the pronoun that’s appropriate for me. I believe God intended that when he created us male and female.

     But I also believe that, as with other aspects of creation, sometimes there are disconnects in the way we see ourselves. What should be done about that is for people more qualified than I am to determine. What we’re called to do is to show love, compassion, and kindness to people who are struggling to navigate those complex questions and feelings about who they are. If one of the ways we can do that is by simply using the pronouns for them that they prefer, then — for myself — I don’t see what would be wrong with that. 

     Let’s don’t forget that it’s also our job to introduce people to the God who knows them better than even they know themselves, who created them and who, if they can learn to trust him, is able to offer them clarity about who they are. Certainly more able than any of us.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Stay in the City: A Wish for Churches

 Last week, Harding School of Theology made a significant announcement. Reaction has been both sorrowful and joyful, and I suppose depending on your perspective either reaction is appropriate.

     They announced that they would be leaving their longtime home in Memphis, Tennessee, and relocating to Harding University’s main campus in Searcy, Arkansas. 

     And they also announced that they’ll be dropping their price per credit hour from $740 to $100.

     That last isn’t a typo, and if you’ve ever considered graduate education in theology next fall would be a really good time to start! 

     It’s the relocation, though, that I’m thinking about right now.

     HST has been located in Memphis since 1958. Bob Turner, one of the ministers at White Station Church of Christ, just about a mile and a half from the campus, used to work for HST. He wrote an excellent reflection on the move, titled “Running from Nineveh,” that’s worth your time to read. In it, he writes about the “suburbanization or (worse) white flight” of the late 20th century that “sent people packing for the suburbs.” He says: 

“This suburbanization has presented challenges for the church. The churches that I’ve spent my life in have struggled ministering in urban settings. Despite the fact that by 2050 most of the world will live in urban areas, Christians still seem uncomfortable in them. Most urban areas are littered with old, empty churches that used to be relevant for the community, but their membership died or moved away.” 

Here in Chicago, it looks like the former Kenwood Methodist Episcopal Church will be converted to office space and apartments. Two or three other similar redevelopments are at least in the planning stages. Though there was a time when churches were being built in cities, and served their communities well, now I think I agree with Bob that at least many Christians do seem somewhat uncomfortable in cities. At least many white Christians. So, in many places, Christians have simply withdrawn from the city.

     I did a little research and quick math, and came up with some interesting figures. Searcy, Arkansas, has just over 23,000 people, and they have 7 Churches of Christ — one for every 3,286 people. Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up, has 182,000 people and at least 25 Churches of Christ — one for every 7,280 people. That’s about 5 more Churches of Christ than are located in Chicago, which has a population of 2.7 million. One for every 135,000 people. Bob points out that Seattle has 6 Churches of Christ and nearly a million in population, and New York City’s 8 million people are served by 7 Churches of Christ. 

     I’m cherry-picking, of course. In larger cities in the south, there are more of us. Memphis has around 45 Churches of Christ for its 628,000 people — but that’s still only about one for every 14,000 people. In Atlanta, where 496,000 people live, there are 15 Churches of Christ, by my count; one for every 33,066 people.

    Maybe other tribes of believers are doing better in cities. I can only really speak to my own.

    I’ve been a minister in an urban church for almost 30 years, and here’s what I know: I’ve sort of gotten used to Christians reacting with concern and even pity when they find out I’m in the evil, wicked city of Chicago. Much of that reaction, I think, comes from a very one-sided view of cities in general, and Chicago specifically, that they mainly get (as near as I can tell) from Fox News. I know for a fact that visitors to Chicago sometimes drive past my church from their hotel in the Loop to go to a suburban congregation where they feel safer and more comfortable. OK, that’s their choice. But I worry when Christians’ attitudes about the city are informed more by politicians and country songs about small towns than they are by God’s love for human beings. When we’re more concerned with echoing hysteria about cities than we are with sharing the gospel there, something’s wrong. Something is deeply wrong.

     I get it, there are reasons not to live in cities. I’m not saying everyone should. But when the church — and the schools that train its leaders — runs from the challenges of urban life to suburbs and small towns, something is missing from our perspective on cities. 

     One other thing, and I hate to say this, but I do think the abandonment of cities is by and large a white church thing. We should grapple with the questions about why. Do we just prefer our churches more homogenous? Are there racist attitudes behind our choice to leave cities? Do our ideas of success and prosperity influence the choices we make about where to live and where to put our buildings? Have our churches become too focused on making our members comfortable? I can tell you this; young Christians who grow up with different worldviews and assumptions about urban life and diversity notice when our churches lack any diversity. 

     Ethnic churches — Black, Latino, Asian — have continued to be a presence in urban areas. To the degree that we want to reengage with the city, we should look to those churches for leadership. Partner with them.

     After preaching last week from Jeremiah 29, I’ve been thinking about what the prophet wrote to exiles to Babylon who, no doubt, weren’t crazy about being relocated to the wicked, pagan city. Jeremiah told them to “build houses and settle down.” Become a part of the community. Invest in it. He told them to “plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Literally, put down roots; you don’t plant a garden if you don’t plan to be there for a while. Not to mention that gardens give you something to share with neighbors! He advised them to “work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the LORD for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.” They were to work and pray for their city; invest their time, energy, resources, and prayers into helping their new city prosper. They were to participate in the life of the city and contribute to its future by raising children who would be confident in their identity as God’s people, but also as citizens of Babylon.

     It’s the easiest thing in the world to isolate ourselves behind the walls of our home or church buildings, behind privacy fences and gated communities, away from the Lazaruses at our gates. Part of the reason churches retreat from the city is that it allows us the illusion that the problems of the city aren’t our problems. You hear it in some of our rhetoric that dismisses cities as “cesspools,” Sodoms and Gomorrahs where the people are totally unlike the people that “we” know and live and work around. 

     We need to be planting churches in the city. We should literally plant community gardens we can share with our neighbors, and serve in ways that make us part of the fabric of the neighborhood. When considering whether or not to leave an urban area for the suburbs or small towns, Christians should at least ask whether or not God might have called us to the city for a reason. There are good reasons to leave, but there are also good reasons to stay.

     I’d love to see struggling urban churches decide to stay in their neighborhoods instead of closing the doors. I’d love to see them ask God how they need to change to reach their neighborhoods with the gospel. I’d love to see fewer condos and shopping centers on former church properties, and more places where urban people can come to know Jesus. I’d love to see churches committed to praying and working for the city’s prosperity.

     Our cities need us more than they need another Starbuck’s.

Friday, August 4, 2023

An Unfamiliar Bible

 I’ve been taking a look at Scot McKnight’s new translation of the New Testament, called The Second Testament. McKnight, a professor at Northern Seminary in Lombard, is an excellent scholar and, even more rare, a good writer, so I’ve been interested to read it.

     McKnight’s translation, in his estimation, is “more word-for-word than thought-for-thought,” and I think that’s accurate. His stated intention is to replicate the syntax and rhythm of the original Greek as closely as he reasonably can in English. In fact, he says in the preface that his translation will sometimes “not sound all that English-y.” Which flies in the face of most recent translations that operate more on the theory of communicating the original text in more conventional and conversational English. In fact, if what you’re looking for is a word-for-word, literal translation of Greek to English, The Second Testament is probably the New Testament for you. 

     McKnight’s translation philosophy yields some interesting results. For one thing, he transliterates names. So “Jesus,” in his translation, is “Yēsous.” (It’s a little odd, I confess, to open a New Testament and nowhere see the name J-E-S-U-S.) “John” is “Yōannēs.” “Galilee” is “the Galilaia.” “Jerusalem” is “Yierosoluma.”

     But the names aren’t even the most striking choices he makes. Take a look at these comparisons:  

Ephesians 2:8-9

“For it is by grace  you have been saved,  through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works,  so that no one can boast. ” (NIV)

“For by grace you are delivered through allegiance—this isn’t from you; it’s God’s gift—not from works so someone might not boast. (TST)

Matthew 11:28

“Come to me,  all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (NIV)

“Come to me—all the laboring and loaded—and I will [provide] rest [for] you.” (TST).  

1 Corinthians 1:27-31

      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. (NIV) 

    “But God selected the Kosmos’s idiots to degrade the wise, and God elected the Kosmos’s weak to degrade the strong, and God elected the Kosmos’s ignoble and devalued—the ones who “are not”—to undo the ones who “are,” so that no flesh may boast before God.” (TST)

I don’t foresee McKnight’s translation becoming my favorite, or the one I’ll just sit and read, and certainly not one I’ll read from in church. It winds up being pretty clunky sometimes — largely because it’s committed to sounding more Greek-ish than English-y. 

     Still, there are some benefits to this. A more literal translation like TST is less concerned with supplying meaning. It leaves more room for the reader figure out meaning. There’s something to be said for wrestling with a text, trying to draw out its meaning for you. Often, though, the impulse of the translator is to just give us the meaning of words by their choices. Sometimes that’s exactly the right call. Other times, it doesn’t serve us so well.  Sometimes the choice of a translator narrows the possibilities for the reader too much. 

   As an example, look at  what McKnight does with 1 Timothy 2:12, compared with the NIV: 

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;  she must be quiet.” (NIV)

“It isn’t appropriate for a woman to teach, nor to overwhelm a man, but to be [learning] in silence.” (TST) 

I’ve talked about the difficulty of this verse before; the Greek word authentein is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. Most English translations render it as some sort of exercise of authority, sometimes abusive, sometimes not. The NIV simply says “assume authority.” I think that’s a motivated reading that gives the impression that the problem Paul is trying to resolve is that the wrong gender has authority. 

     The word and its cognates, however, are always negative outside of the New Testament. Check out this post if you want more information than I can go into here; suffice to say now that authority isn’t the issue — Paul often used other words for authority in his letters. Authentein has to do with abusiveness, control, and power, which fits the context of Ephesus as seen in the pastoral letters. So McKnight translates authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 as “overwhelm.” 

    What I like about The Second Testament is that it provides an antidote to what McKnight calls the “wonderful problem” that many of us have when reading the Bible — that of familiarity. (To be sure, the opposite — unfamiliarity — is increasingly a problem even in church.) He writes that he he wants the translation to “jar the reader.” And I think those of us who are familiar with the Bible may need jarring the most. To read a familiar text is to, sometimes, read right past, through, or over what the Spirit intends to do in our lives. I remember something I heard often growing up in church: “The familiar needs to be read more closely.” Sometimes we just don’t see or hear certain words or phrases, especially specialized, “stained-glass” words. 

     Notice in Ephesians 2 above how McKnight handles two of those “stained-glass” words. The Greek word pistis, usually translated in English “faith” or “belief,” is regularly translated in TST as “allegiance.” It sure sounds weird — “saved by allegiance”? — but it takes a word that, I’m convinced, is often misunderstood and given little thought and makes you take a second look at it. It makes clear that faith is more than an agreement in your mind that something or someone is genuine. Tangled up in it are concepts like loyalty, obedience, and trust. “Allegiance” communicates really well.

     The same with another word, sōzō, usually translated “save.” That’s a word that we take almost exclusively as a synonym of forgiveness of sins — which is part of salvation as discussed in the Bible, but not nearly all of it. “Saved” often calls to mind old-time revivals, where people come forward to “get saved.” McKnight consistently translates sōzō as “deliver,” avoiding the misconceptions of the more familiar word while making us ask questions like, “Delivered from what?”    

   Reading a different translation can help you “get over” your familiarity with the Bible.

     And really, that’s what I’m advocating here. Now and then, when you feel like your Bible reading needs a boost, find a different translation than you normally use and give it a try. It doesn’t have to be McKnight’s. It doesn’t even have to be literal, like his — a very free translation can accomplish the same thing. (Give the New Living Translation a shot.) It may not “sound like the Bible” to you, but that’s the point. Sometimes we need the Bible to sound a little less familiar to us.

     May we all hear the Bible with new ears. May the Holy Spirit keep us out of the trap of familiarity.