Friday, May 31, 2024

About That "Very Critical Alert..."

 I've been asked a couple of times recently about a meme running around on social media. It's kind of a mashup of accusations against the New International Version and English Standard Version of the Bible, tinged with some Satanic Panic hysteria. Ordinarily I wouldn't think it would even deserve comment, but since I've been asked, and since we have the NIV in our pews at Northwest and I know some of us use the ESV, I thought maybe I should comment briefly.

     There are different versions of the post, but most of them start with something like "VERY CRITICAL ALERT." They go on to allege that the NIV and ESV have "removed 64,575 words from the Bible, including Jehovah, Calvary, Holy Ghost, and omnipotent, to name but a few." The post also says that the versions in question have "removed 45 complete verses." 
     You're advised at the end of the post that "if you must use the NIV or ESV, buy and keep an earlier version of the Bible." The loss of all these words and verses, the post alleges, happens when you're asked to update digital Bible apps. 
     There's so much ignorance here, willful or otherwise, that it makes your head spin.
     To address the words that the versions in question supposedly leave out: "Jehovah" occurs 4 times in the King James Version of the Bible, but is used much more often in the American Standard Version of 1901. It's a very awkward attempt to denote the name by which God revealed himself to Israel, often spelled Yahweh or just YHWH. Since Jewish people often tried to avoid pronouncing God's name (even when the pronunciation was known) to keep from taking his name in vain, they would substitute the word Adonai -- "Lord." "Jehovah" is the combination of the consonants of God's name with the vowels of adonai. It doesn't appear in the NIV or ESV because nearly every modern translation now signifies the name "Yahweh" by "LORD" (in all caps). God's name is not removed in those verses -- it's just translated "LORD."
     "Calvary" doesn't appear in Luke 23:33 because it's just a transliteration of a Latin word that means "skull." The NIV and ESV translate the word instead, and so, instead of "the place which is called Calvary," you have "the place called the skull" -- which is a better translation.
     "Holy Ghost" doesn't appear in the suspect translations because modern translations use "Holy Spirit." "Omnipotent" doesn't appear because newer translations choose "Almighty". Strong cases can be made that for modern English speakers, those choices are better.  
     As for the 45 verses supposedly "removed" -- it is closer to the truth to say that older translations "added" those verses. The people who translate the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to English (or any other language) need a base text to translate from. Since there is no "original Bible," translators work from handwritten copies of copies of copies, mostly in small pieces, a few complete or almost-complete manuscripts, and some quotations and sermons, ranging from the second century to the 13th or 14th century. All of those manuscripts and fragments differ from each other in small ways -- including words, phrases, verses, and a few even larger chunks that appear in some manuscripts and not others. 
     People who specialize in using those manuscripts to reconstruct
the text of the Bible that underlies our English translations are always working and revising as our understanding changes. They have criteria for making the decisions about what is most likely to be the original text of the Old and New Testaments. It isn't an exact science, but it IS a science.
     Earlier translations, like the KJV, used a base text that is different from the one used by more current translations, because the KJV translators didn't know about the many manuscripts discovered in the 413 years since it was published. Some of those differences include verses that are no longer regarded as original by most scholars who specialize in this field. Those 45 verses cited in the meme fall into this category. They include the longer ending of Mark, several instances in the Gospels in which harmonization occurred (Why "remove" Matthew 18:11 and leave Luke 19:10, which both say the same thing?), and instances like the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7-8 in the KJV), in which it seems that commentary originally jotted in the margins of a manuscript was included in the Bible text by later copyists. 
     In short, the VERY CRITICAL ALERT actually describes the normal practice of biblical scholars who want to reconstruct as nearly as possible the original text of the Bible -- with nothing subtracted from it or added to it --  and translate it in a way that can be understood.
     Every major English translation that you're likely to get your hands on is useful and can be trusted. Don't fall for posts by people who, at best, don't understand the nuances of a very specific field of study. 
     Let's thank God for Scripture, and for the people who help to make it more accessible and understandable. And let's read it often -- whatever translation you choose!   

Friday, April 12, 2024

Trying a Different Bible: "Foaming at the Mouth" in Micah 2:6-11

 Sometimes a different Bible translation catches me flat-footed. It happened just recently to me in a study of the book of Micah. I asked someone to read out loud chapter 2:6-11, which in the New International Version (my default translation) says this:

“Do not prophesy,” their prophets say. “Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.” 7 You descendants of Jacob, should it be said, “Does the LORD become impatient? Does he do such things?” Do not my words do good to the one whose ways are upright? 8 Lately my people have risen up like an enemy. You strip off the rich robe from those who pass by without a care, like men returning from battle. 9 You drive the women of my people from their pleasant homes. You take away my blessing from their children forever. 10 Get up, go away! For this is not your resting place, because it is defiled, it is ruined, beyond all remedy. 11 If a liar and deceiver comes and says, “I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,” that would be just the prophet for this people!

The reader used the New English Bible, and here’s what he read: 

How they rant! They may say, “Do not rant”; but this ranting is all their own, these insults are their own invention. 7 Can one ask, O house of Jacob, “Is the LORD’s patience truly at an end? Are these his deeds? Does good not come of the LORD’s words? He is the upright man’s best friend.” 8 But you are no people for me, rising up as my enemy to my face, to strip the cloak from his that was safe and take away the confidence of returning warriors, 9 to drive the women of my people from their pleasant homes and rob the children of my glory for ever. 10 Up and be gone; this is no resting-place for you, you that to defile yourselves would commit any mischief, mischief however cruel. 11 If anyone had gone about in a spirit of falsehood and lies, saying: “I will rant to you about wine and strong drink,” his ranting would be what this people like.

Just at a glance you can see the differences. There are several that would be interesting to talk about, but what struck me is the lack of explicit mention of anything related to prophecy in verse 6. 

     That was only strange to me because I took for granted that the NIV was pretty literal.

     It’s not, though neither, really, is the NEB. A very  literal translation of verse 6 might go something like this:

“Don’t drip,” they drip. They shouldn’t drip such things. We will not be overtaken by humiliation.”

Obviously, that’s not very helpful. This is an excellent example of how translation must sometimes include  interpretation in order to yield anything intelligible. This is a tough verse for folks who claim that the only good translation of the Bible is a very literal one. 

     So what’s going on here?

    The New English Translation (not related to the New English Bible), in one of their wonderful notes, suggests this translation: “‘Do not foam at the mouth,’ they foam at the mouth,” assuming that the use of “drip” has to do with spit flying from a speaker’s mouth during a particularly impassioned diatribe. In other words, in this view the prophets are “spraying” out words of judgment, and their hearers, with equal vehemence, are insisting that they shouldn’t say such vehement things. 

     The NET’s main translation isn’t quite as memorable, but still tries to capture something similar: “‘Don’t preach with such impassioned rhetoric,’ they say excitedly.” 

     The same word is used twice in verse 11. The NET has there, “If a lying windbag should come and say, ‘I’ll promise you blessings of wine and beer,’ he would be just the right preacher for these people!” In their note, though, they suggest, “If a lying windbag should come and say, ‘I will foam at the mouth concerning wine and beer,’ he would be the foamer at the mouth for this people.”

     (“Lying windbag,” is a great translation too.)

     While I love the “foaming at the mouth” translation, I’m not sure it’s validated by other places in the Old Testament where the same word refers to speaking. The word can be used of speech that isn’t vehement, and is even the opposite; take Job’s description of the respect he commanded before his troubles, where he says, “People listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel. After I had spoken, they spoke no more; my words fell gently on their ears.” (Job 29:22) Or Song of Songs 4:11, where the Bride’s “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb.” Or in Proverbs 5:3, where “the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey.”

     In Ezekiel, the prophet is told (in the King James Version) to “drop thy word toward the south” and “drop thy word toward the holy places” (NIV “preach against the south” and “preach against the sanctuary”). 

     In Amos, as in Micah, the prophet is told by (presumably) the leaders of Israel to “drop not thy word against the house of Isaac” (KJV). In each of these cases, perhaps the prophets were intense in their preaching, spit flying, foaming at the mouth; preaching “against” something or someone certainly suggests that.

     So what’s the “right” translation here? I’m not sure, to be honest. The NIV might miss something by just translating “drip” with “prophesy” in Micah 2. But the New English Translation and the NEB might oversell it with their “foaming at the mouth” and “ranting” translations.

     What different translations of the Bible give us are different options. They keep us from being locked in to one reading of texts that might limit or even prevent our understanding. 

     To be sure, those options are all human ones, and as such subject to every conceivable human weakness.

     But God has chosen to communicate his word to us in just that way. God’s word doesn’t change. But human language always does. So communicating that never-changing word will require some work, some patience, some prayer, and some humility.

     So when you see a difference between two translations don’t let it bother you. It’s not the sign of a conspiracy that someone is trying to change the Bible. It’s a sign that necessary hard work or interpretation is happening. That human beings still care to understand the Bible. 

     Let’s not be drips about it. Let’s not foam at the mouth over it. God still intends that his word will fall into our ears.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Split Decision

 Back in 1978, the Church of Christ on Oakton Street in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines had a decision to make. I don’t know what all the decisions were. I was 10, and living anywhere near Chicago would not even be on my radar for at least another decade. But it came down to this: stay where they were, or buy a school in a nearby suburb that had been closed a couple of years earlier to use as a new building?

     Decisions like that can be difficult for churches. On the one hand, churches usually come to exist because they have a mission in a particular place and context, and it’s right to think long and hard about giving that up. On the other, sometimes God calls us to other places, and it’s right not to shut the door on that possibility without a lot of prayer and consideration. 

     Some decisions come down to, not right vs. wrong, but what’s the best of two valid choices. Maybe it’s like that more times than not. From a distance, as someone who was never directly involved in the decisions, that’s certainly what it seems like was the case with this church in the Chicago suburbs. One building had a high-traffic location on a major street. The other was in a residential area with lots of neighbors around. One had the church’s history. One was full of potential.

     I don’t know exactly how the decision was made, but it was made, and in May of 1978 the church bought that school and made the move.

     At least most of them did. A few families, convinced they shouldn’t leave Des Plaines, rented a field house and decided to keep meeting there. I don’t know if there were hurt feelings on both sides — I can imagine there might have been.

     Within a couple of weeks, though, and through a series of circumstances so improbable that a person of faith might seriously doubt that they were coincidence, that church that remained in Des Plaines had bought another building, on the corner of Illinois Street and Everett Avenue. Its members started referring to it, informally and affectionately, as “Little Des Plaines.”

     I know this because my wife and her mother and father were one of those families who stayed. They helped to buy the building, do maintenance, teach classes — they helped to sustain Little Des Plaines and helped it to survive and even thrive on that corner. 

     The rest of the church moved to Cardinal Drive, in Rolling Meadows, and they did the same there. 

     And a few years later, when Laura was a teenager and Cardinal Drive had a very active youth group, their family moved there. Another tough decision, another one that was more about two valid choices than right or wrong. They didn’t lose the friends they had at Little Des Plaines. And they were able to reconnect with friends they’d had at Oakton Street. 

     A few years later, when Laura and I married (at Cardinal Drive!), I preached a couple of times a month for a year and a half at Little Des Plaines. I helped teach and work with the youth group at Cardinal Drive. In both cases, I’m sure, because of the history Laura’s family had in both places. Both churches nourished and encouraged us. A few years later, our son even went to preschool at Cardinal Drive. 

     That’s my experience. I wasn’t part of the tough decisions, but was blessed by both churches. 

     In the Book of Acts, chapter 15, we get a look at some of the controversy that most people would rather think doesn’t and shouldn’t exist in the church. Paul and Barnabas, partners in a very successful mission trip, are planning to go back on the road. Barnabas wants to bring along a young man named John Mark, who had started off with them on their previous trip but had left them to go back home. Paul is adamant that he not go along. Barnabas is just as adamant that he should. (Maybe because John Mark was his cousin?)

     The result is that they go their own ways. The team breaks up, seemingly for good. That must have been hard; Barnabas had vouched for Paul when no one else in the church would trust him. He must have felt hurt that the partnership could end so easily. Paul must have felt the same. 

     But, notice this: they both go to share the gospel and encourage Christians. Neither of them stay home sulking. Paul picks another partner, Silas. Barnabas takes John Mark. Off they go, two missions, not one. 

     That’s how it works sometimes. 

     We don’t always know what’s best, none of us. Sometimes there will be disagreements in the church. Sometimes serious ones. The only way there won’t be is if part of the church is suppressing their sense of mission. Or someone else’s. 

      Because when you have a sense of mission, when you’re convinced that God is up to something that you want to be part of, you won’t be talked out of it. So when missions conflict, then maybe the best thing to do is not argue until someone gives in. Maybe, at least sometimes, the best thing to do is for both sides to follow what they think God is telling them. 

     Too often, churches suppress their sense of mission because influential members don’t want to do that

     Sometimes, church leaders give in on important things so they don’t upset members or “cause division.”

     Sometimes, churches find it easier to stifle the creativity and passion of members who see God’s possibilities for new paths. Or dismiss the conviction of members who want to stay on the old ones.

     There doesn’t always have to be a right and a wrong. Sometimes even “sharp disagreements” can serve the Lord’s purposes. One path becomes two. One church becomes two. One mission becomes two.

     All through Acts, we see Paul’s and Silas’ partnership thrive as they preach the gospel in Turkey, Greece, and Italy. We don’t hear much about Barnabas and Mark. But we have this, in one of Paul’s letters, a decade or two after he and Barnabas had their falling-out. Paul writes to Timothy: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. “ He’s in prison and feeling alone, and he asks for Mark to come. Mark — who he barely remembers left him on that first trip. Mark, who is helpful.

      We see what people are now, if that. Not what they can become. When we make tough decisions, let’s do our best not to demonize those who disagree. Let’s recognize that sometimes disagreement is exactly what God will use to do his work in the world. 

     By the way: both Cardinal Drive and “Little Des Plaines” still exist, doing God’s work in their neighborhoods. 

     Are you even the slightest bit surprised? 

Friday, March 8, 2024

The Center of the Universe

 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created:  things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

-Colossians 1:15-17 (NIV)

Last month, designer Matt Webb debuted his new app. And the minute I read about it I decided immediately that I absolutely did not need it and positively had to have it.

     I downloaded the app, called Galactic Compass, from the app store while I was still reading the article. When you open it, you see a big green arrow on your screen. That’s pretty much it. There’s a secondary screen you can click on with some numbers, like latitude/longitude, pitch, yaw, heading, and a few others. And those numbers, if you understand them, maybe give you a hint as to what the arrow on Galactic Compass actually points to.

     Open up the app, put your phone on a flat surface, and the arrow points toward the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, that is the rotational center of the galaxy we all live in, relative to our position on the earth and its position in orbit and rotation.

     To hear him tell it, Matt taught himself to find the center of the galaxy living in an apartment with a great view of the stars at night. He originally used augmented reality and astronomy apps to identify the stars and figure out where Sagittarius A* was, but eventually was able — supposedly — to point in the direction of the galaxy’s center, wherever he was and wherever the earth was in its rotation. It has to do with math and physics and identifying the constellation Sagittarius, and — well, I understand it completely, as far as you know. I just  don’t have the space here to explain it.

     Eventually, he was able to code an app that will enable you, too, to point out the center of the Milky Way. All you need is a phone and a flat surface to place it on. (The math “breaks down,” Webb says, if your phone isn’t held flat. Something he’s working on for an updated version.)

     The app’s free, so there’s no reason not to try it out. It’s a whole new way to procrastinate! Or, while you’re waiting for an oil change or a doctor’s appointment, you can ponder your place in the universe as you look toward the fixed point around which everything we know spins. That is, as a matter of fact, what Matt says about his app:

"Once you can follow it, you start to see the galactic center as the true fixed point, and we’re the ones whizzing and spinning. There it remains, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, steady as a rock, eternal. We go about our days; it’s always there.”

     He uses what amounts to religious language to talk about the center of of the galaxy. Of course, what’s there isn’t God. It’s an unapproachable singularity that would “spaghettify” anyone who got near it. There’s no love, no compassion. It doesn’t make or keep promises. It doesn’t care about justice or righteousness. You can’t even see it; it’s just a big wad of darkness that draws everything toward it. Knowing where it is won’t matter when you’re sick, or when someone you love dies, or when you’ve lost a job or are struggling with financial problems or are depressed. And while knowing about it may indeed tell you something about your place in an impersonal universe, it tells you nothing about your nature as God’s creation, made in his image. 

     It serves pretty well as a center for the galaxy, I suppose.

     It’s not nearly as effective as a center of your universe.

     So what is? What’s at the center of your universe? When life has you “whizzing and spinning,” where do you look to keep your bearings? What’s the fixed point for you, steady as a rock, eternal? 

      Some of us choose family, friends, people we love. Our children. A spouse. A social group. We find our identity in these people. Our lives revolve around whether we’re making them happy or they’re making us happy. We can’t conceive of what we would be apart from them. But if that’s our center, then when those relationships change we’re left adrift.  

     Some of us choose a career. The work we do becomes our orbit. Our arrows are constantly pointing toward what we accomplish in our chosen field. We evaluate the success or failure of a given day by how productive we’ve been. But if our work is our galactic center, then a career setback is a catastrophe. A layoff is universe-destroying. 

     Some choose wealth and financial security as the fixed point around which everything else spins. Others might choose experiences, joy, pleasure. Health is a popular center for a lot of universes. But none of those things are solid enough, powerful enough, or eternal enough to hold everything together indefinitely. Eventually, all of them will be lost to our sight and we’ll be left drifting in cold, empty space, without adequate  bearings to tell us which way is up.

     Paul begins his letter to the church in Colosse with something to say about what holds everything together. A big green arrow, pointing toward galactic center. “The Son,” Paul calls him here. Jesus, who is the image of a God who can’t in any other way be imaged. His is the power by which everything has been created, and his is the power that continues to hold what God created together. 

     But it’s not just that God through Jesus created and sustains everything. This power is not impersonal — Paul goes on to write that “God was pleased  to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus].” God created through Jesus because he wanted to. He wanted to make this universe we inhabit, he made it for us and he called it “good” and he intended for human beings to represent him in it. And when we failed, in Jesus he created us all over again. He “reconcile[d] to himself all things…by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”  

     Jesus is the center of the universe. He’s the center because it’s in Jesus that God’s power to create, sustain, and reconcile all come together. And every one of his created beings, especially us, needs to be sustained and needs to be reconciled. Jesus made us. Jesus holds everything together for us. Jesus gives us peace. 

     Whether you can ever point to the black hole at the center of our galaxy will likely never make an appreciable difference in your life. But if your internal compass doesn’t point to Jesus as the center of your universe, steady as a rock, eternal — well, there will come a time when you won’t know which way’s up.

     But point all your arrows to him, and you always will. Even when everything else seems out of control.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Time-Traveling Bible Readers

 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4, NIV)

Back in 2011, the Chinese government banned time travel. Or at least strongly discouraged it.

      Now, before you celebrate that the United States can actually pull ahead in the Back to the Future Race, the Chinese weren’t actually concerned about you strapping a flux capacitor to your DeLorean and trying to get that piece of junk up to 88 mph. They just don’t want you to watch Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd try to do it. 

     What China actually banned — uh, discouraged — is TV shows and movies about time travel. 

     Their argued that shows with time travel plots treat “serious history in a frivolous way” and “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.” The government says such programming lacks “positive thoughts and meaning.”

     All of that ignores that some of the most-beloved TV shows and movies ever include time travel — think Dr. Who, Outlander, Russian Doll, Quantum Leap, Time After Time, Terminator, Back to the Future (And a few lesser-known but still great ones like Run Lola Run and Idiocracy) — and seem to be just full of positive thoughts and/or meaning. Most people think the ban, or whatever it is, came about because of the popularity of a couple of Chinese TV shows of the era that featured protagonists drifting around in time.

     In a country known for wanting to control the narrative of its own history — aren’t you glad we’re not like that? — the almost-ban probably had a lot to do with the fear that the history seen in those shows might expose the official history as an alternate timeline. The reference to “reincarnation” and “superstition” suggests, too, that concerns about unregulated religious beliefs might have something to do with it. 

     But it might also be this: the protagonists in those shows seemed to find some kind of happiness in the past, a happiness that they couldn’t find in modern-day society. Which cuts against the grain of the state’s narrative that they are an ideal society.

    China wants media consumers to keep their feet planted in the present, or in their version of the past, or in the sparkly future they envision. They don’t want people slipping around through the time stream, creating alternate pasts and other possible futures and holding up inconvenient mirrors to the world they live in now.   

     That’s how you know that a time-travel show or film is good; it’s not really about going back or forward in time. It’s about what traveling to the past or future says about the present. It’s about finding meaning in shared history, even when it’s painful to do so, and perhaps finding unity, joy, and hope in setting our eyes on a better future.

      Reading Scripture, in this way, is time-travel.

     I know, that sounds weird. But consider that the Bible is a set of ancient documents, the most recent of which was written, conservatively, almost two thousand years ago. Some of those documents tell stories that occurred in even earlier times, some in what we’d call prehistoric times. They’re written in ancient versions of unfamiliar languages, by long-gone cultures. They are firmly set in the past.

     But if we believe their central conceit — and why spend any time with them if we don’t? — they have something to say about our lives now, today. It’s amazing, really, that we’d give ancient writings from an obsolete culture that kind of influence. Of course, it’s because we believe that they say something about a God who doesn’t change, who is faithful throughout history. That they say something from that God, actually. That what he did in the past gives meaning for our present. That he’s doing the same things now that he did then. That we can expect him to do the same things throughout our lives and into eternity. That they tell us about hope, and life, and justice, and righteousness that overcomes death, sorrow, violence, and hatred. 

     So reading Scripture is about slipping back and forth through time. No DeLorean or “strange things afoot at the Circle-K” required. But you can’t read Scripture correctly or helpfully without that slippage.

     Sometimes we like to think we can read Scripture with our feet only in the present. Saw something on social media just this week: “If a Bible question requires outside help, such as historical or cultural references, the question is not necessary to answer, since God has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness in His word, and that with that word we are complete, completely furnished for every good work.” Ironically enough, the OP misunderstands the text it quotes, 2 Peter 1:3. It’s God’s power, and our knowledge of it through Jesus, that gives us life and godliness. Peter, when he wrote those lines, new nothing about a New Testament. He’s certainly not saying that God gave us an instruction book, and all we have to do is read it. The Bible tells us of God’s power and love for us, but there’s nothing transforming about just reading it. Knowledge is necessary. One of the virtues that he tells us to add in the next few verses is knowledge. 

     The Bible can be hard to read. Isn’t it Peter who also tells us that some of what Paul wrote can be hard to understand and, so, prone to twisting by false teachers? Things like historical context and an understanding of the language and culture of the biblical writers help to safeguard Scripture from being misused and abused. Reading the Bible with an understanding of the past helps us to better understand what it has to say to us today. And also what it doesn’t say to us.

      But to read it with our feet only in the past is to ignore that it does have something to say to us now. Jesus told some of his critics to “go and learn” what Hosea the prophet meant when he said that God desired “mercy, and not sacrifice.” They were experts at what Hosea meant back then. He thought they needed to do some work on what that meant for his day. He told his audience in one sermon, “You have heard that it was said…but I say….” It’s great to know what the biblical writers said. But we have to do the hard work of interpreting those words from long ago to understand what God is doing in us and through us now. And what our future looks like because of him. 

     So it’s not either/or. If you aren’t willing to learn about what the Bible said back then, you shouldn’t be dogmatic about what you think it says now. And if all you’re interested in is what it said in its original time and place, you’re not going to be very good and applying it to life in a world that’s so much different.

     So grab your Bible and do some time-traveling.                      

Thursday, February 15, 2024

"A Lunch-Pail Job"

 John Stewart, the comedian who became famous for hard-hitting political satire while hosting The Daily Show for 16 years, has recently returned to the show on Mondays as part of a rotating slate of guest hosts. Stewart is, to me, almost always funny and occasionally insightful. Especially so this past Monday, as he reflected on the upcoming Presidential election and the choice between, in his view, two not-so-great candidates. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, it was what came next that I think most everyone would have to agree with. 

     He talked about how who wins the Presidency, while important in our government, is not the only thing we should be thinking about. His words really resonated with me, since I think sometimes we put far too much of the weight of our own happiness and well-being on which millionaire or billionaire spends enough money to win an election, and far too little on the everyday things we can do — or not do — to make our world better. Stewart said: 

“The work of making this world resemble one that you would prefer to live in is a lunch pail…job day in and day out, where thousands of committed, anonymous, smart and dedicated people bang on closed doors and pick up those that are fallen and grind on issues ’til they get a positive result and even then have to stay on to make sure that result holds. So the good news is: I’m not saying you don’t have to worry about who wins the election. I’m saying you have to worry about every day before it and every day after. Forever.”

     I have a cousin who, in the name of Jesus, ministers to inmates in prison. Week after week, he shows up, I suppose sometimes literally banging on closed doors so that, through prayer and love, he can help pick up the fallen. A “lunch pail…job.” He has no authority to reform prisons or change any broken systems. He just shows up and prays and worships and talks with prisoners. He’s served death row inmates who one week were there and the next…weren’t. If he stopped showing up, many of the gains he’s made in the lives of some of those men would likely be lost. Our world tends to discount the value of contributions like that. Politicians prefer high-dollar, high-visibility projects that produce easily-trackable results and translate well to votes. Administrators always think the answer is more funding.

     Just a few weeks ago, I tried to get in touch with some of those politicians about what we’d need to do to use our building to house a family of migrants who have been sent to our city by other politicians looking for splashy headlines. I was told if we couldn’t house 20 or 30 people they had no use for us. Bigger is better. 

      I’m saying those attitudes are wrong. What my cousin Tom does matters. What small churches and individuals and organizations do in a neighborhood matters. What “thousands of committed, anonymous, smart and dedicated people” do to “grind on issues ’til they get a positive result” matters. They do help to make our world somewhere you would prefer to live. Especially when they’re done in the name of Jesus.

     One of Jesus’ best-known miracles is the feeding of the five thousand. He multiplies five loaves of bread and two fish to feed this huge crowd of people. When everyone’s full, there are twelve basketfuls of leftovers.  

     And how does this miracle happen? 

     A little boy shares his lunch. He, literally, shows up with a lunch pail.

     Jesus tells the disciples that it’s up to them to get this enormous mob of people fed. They have no idea how they’re going to do that. But they tell him, “Well, we have this kid’s lunch here. That’s a start.”

     It takes some courage, desperation, faith, or all of the above, to throw five pitas and two fish at more than five thousand people and call that a solution, doesn’t it?

     Yet believers in Jesus do that every day at shelters, food pantries, schools, hospitals, orphanages. They’re underfunded and undersupplied, and they know it, but they give what they have to Jesus and they put on a brave face and they get to work. They show love, they pray, they encourage and offer grace, they get creative and thrifty, and in the churn of all of that Jesus multiplies what they have and makes it more than enough.

     Churches do the same in their neighborhoods. Missionaries on the field. They serve and give and share what they have. They see themselves as the body of Christ, his presence in the world, and they pray and start passing out what God has given them, and God increases it exponentially. He meets needs. He shows his love. He spreads the good news of Jesus with the words, actions, talents, and resources of his people.

     Jesus told a story to help change the perspective of his disciples on the things he would leave them to do in the world, and the resources he’d provide them to do it. In the story, a wealthy man goes away on business, and Jesus says “entrusted his wealth” to three servants, who he expects to multiply his holdings. 

     That’s a different perspective than we sometimes have right there. God entrusts his wealth to us. We’re not as underfunded and undersupplied as we think. We don’t always see the worth of what God has left us because it isn’t always in currency that the world around us values, but that’s just a problem of vision. We have resources of skill, spiritual gifts, potential co-workers, and God’s power that we don’t even know about.  

     In the story, the estate owner only asks for results in proportion to what he’s left. Maybe sometimes we expect more of ourselves than God does. He sees our efforts. He knows how hard we work to do his business in the world with what he’s given us. He doesn’t expect perfection, and he doesn’t demand unreasonable results. And he promotes from within: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

     And then sometimes we expect less of ourselves than God does. And he’ll make that clear to us as well, if we’ll listen.

     Paul told the church in Corinth, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” It’s interesting; that comes at the end of a chapter that’s all about the hope of resurrection. That’s his conclusion; if Jesus rose from the dead, so will we. And if we rise from the dead, then what we do for God here and now has ripples that we won’t even see until “the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” and “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

     So keep at it. Keep praying and working and sweating and giving what you have to the Lord, knowing that he has already given all he has to you. Keep going until you hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

     And then you’ll see, finally, what all your hard work has accomplished. And it’ll be glorious.

Friday, February 9, 2024


 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  

-Romans 3:21-24 (NET)

When the Green Bay Packers fired Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry, they knew they’d have sift through a lot of coaches interested in the role. It’s a prestigious job with an organization that’s one of the best-established brands in professional sports. It’s a talented young team. I imagine it pays pretty well. You get to coach football for a living. There are worse jobs, I’m saying, even if you have to do it in Green Bay. 

     Still,  they might have been surprised at exactly how deep the applicant pool goes.

     Bill Port applied. He’s been coaching football for 23 years. He’s won 3 regular season championships and 3 playoff championships. A lot of NFL teams don’t have close to that kind of success. (Including the Midway Monstrosity of a team that plays in my city.) Not to mention that he’s a lifelong fan of the Packers.

     A strike against him, though, is that his wins haven’t been at the NFL level. Or at the college level. Or the high school level, or even in Pop Warner football.

     Or anywhere but on a screen, for that matter. Bill’s two decades of coaching experience is in fantasy football. He’s never called a corner blitz, dropped a safety into double-coverage, or helped a defensive lineman with his 3-technique. All of his coaching is for teams that didn’t really exist. 

     Bill didn’t really imagine he was going to get the job, but he sent a resumé to the Packers anyway, listing all his “qualifications.” He hoped they’d at least get a chuckle out of it. His cover letter said, “I heard your organization has a job opening and I figured I’d try this defensive coordinator thing. Please note, I’d prefer weekends off. Go Pack Go.”

      Weekends off might be tough when you work for an organization that plays most of their games on Sundays. But, you know, who’s going to run his fantasy team if he’s working?

     Well, Bill didn’t get the job. But Packers CEO Mark Murphy sent him a handwritten reply:  

“Bill, Thanks so much for your cover letter and resume regarding our Defensive Coordinator position. While your fantasy football experience is impressive, I regret to inform you that we have decided to go in a different direction.”

Kind of him, really, to let him down gently that way. He didn’t have to include the last line, though: “I hear the Bears have an opening — you look to be a perfect fit for them. Thanks again.”

     Oh, funny. But, seriously, Bill: the Bears have made dumber coaching moves.

    Bill wasn’t seriously applying to be the Packers’ DC. He knew he wasn’t qualified by a long shot. 

      And I hope you’ll hear me when I say to you that he was far more qualified for that job than any of us are for the blessings God has given us in Jesus.

     Ouch. That took kind of an abrupt turn, didn’t it? We need to hear it, though, because the fantasy that God would be lucky to have us on his team is alive and well and living in all kinds of guises in the church. It turns us into Pharisaical, hypocritical, hypercritical jerks who do nothing but stand in the way of people coming into the kingdom of God. It sends us spiraling into depression when our facades crack and our illusions fade.  

     Paul writes in Romans about being “justified,” a word that means to declare someone to be righteous or not guilty. It’s his way of talking about what makes someone “Israel,” the people of God. In Romans, he’s already said that “there is no one righteous, not even one.” Using mostly Psalms, he shows that Israel was never Israel because they were so good. The difference between them and those who weren’t Israel was never their righteous acts. “We have already charged that Jews and Greeks [non-Jews] alike are all under sin,” he writes. To be God’s people, both Jews and non-Jews need to be “justified” — pronounced innocent. 

      That’s hard to hear for someone who thinks they’re more qualified than most everyone else. Imagine that Mark Murphy had called a news conference to announce that Bill Port was a legit candidate for DC. That coaches who have been successful NFL Defensive Coordinators are no more qualified than him. No doubt the team would start to wonder if maybe Murphy wasn’t qualified for his job. 

     Here’s the thing: all of us, before God, are Bill Port. Our best is not enough. “Together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” But sometimes we start to think that we’re Dan Quinn or Raheem Morris or even Bill Bellichick. 

      Some of us think that our Bible knowledge qualifies us. Some of us think that because we worship the “right way,” God is lucky to have us. Some of us are proud of our understanding of baptism, or our special gift of the Holy Spirit, or the sacraments we observe. For some it’s our good deeds, our positions on political issues, or our concern for social justice. Some of us have overcome sins. Please understand, none of those things are bad. But none of them qualify us to share in the blessings that God gives to his people.

     What qualifies us, he says, is “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” I specifically chose a translation that renders it that way; the phrase can also be translated “faith in Jesus Christ.” It’s really not a one-or-the-other thing, because Paul talks about the necessity of faith in Jesus in many places, and even here this righteousness is for “all who believe.” But “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” is just as valid a translation, and I think it’s the right one here. What qualifies us to be part of the people of God is not anything we do at all — other than to trust, as much as we can, in the faithfulness of Jesus. He obeyed God when we couldn’t. He suffered for our sins.  

     That might shoot a hole in your pride. It might make you rethink who you feel superior to, and why. God isn’t interested in your resumé. Your qualifications, such as they are, won’t impress him. They’re not that much better than anyone else’s — not enough to matter.

     But it will also save you when your world is falling in and you have no one to blame but yourself. 

     God doesn’t reject you because of your resumé. As sure as Christ is faithful, we are justified. By his grace, through the redemptive work of Jesus and not our own.

     Congratulations. God thinks he can make you qualified for this new position he has for you. 

     Time to get to work.  

Friday, February 2, 2024

Connection Point

 This past weekend, our church hosted teenagers from all around our area for a time of worship, food, games, and sharing in our faith together. It was what we used to call a “youth rally” when I was a teenager, though I think that term has sort of gone the way of VHS, pay phones, and writing checks. We call it Connection Point around here, but the idea is the same as it was in the 1980’s — getting teenagers together so that they know that there are other people their age who take their faith seriously. And who also wrestle with that same faith.

     Let me say up front, I’m not cool. Not in the least. (Not that anyone who knew me for more than a minute or so would ever be in any doubt about that.) Definitely not to teenagers. I’m 55, a minister, a dad; I’m a lot of things, but cool isn’t one of them. I haven’t studied teen/young adult culture as anything more than an interested outside observer. So I’m in no way an expert on anything I’m about to try to write about. Everything I’m going to say comes from my own experience and reflection.

     Primarily, that experience comes down to this: for quite a few years now, teenagers have tolerated my presence. I’ve enjoyed reading the Bible with them, looking forward to what they’re going to ask and what they’re going to say about Scripture when they feel like it’s safe. I’m grateful that most weeks I get to talk to them about their lives, pray with them about what they want to lift up to God, and encourage them when they’re feeling overwhelmed. I don’t think I usually have much to say that helps them — but I think sometimes I do. And sometimes, I think, just my willingness to listen gives them a chance to talk through something, to articulate it, to develop their vocabulary and their capacity to name whatever might  happening in their lives, take ownership of it, confront their fears about it, and maybe know that God cares about it as much as they do.

     Every now and again, one of them will talk about something big with me. Those moments have been some of the most sacred of my life because they’ve trusted me enough to talk to me and pray with me about their most deeply-held and -felt truths.  

     So I want to say some things to the church about teenagers.

     The first is this: You can’t expect them to listen if you don’t listen. And your listening has to come first. In that way, it’s like how we experience God’s grace. God offers grace before we know we need it and before we’re able to accept it. If you aren’t listening to teenagers, I promise you this — they are not listening to you. 

     Teenagers are used to being close-mouthed around adults. They feel like they have to be. On the one hand, they’re learning how to be their own people, independent of their parents and other adults in their lives. Sharing something feels like they’re betraying that process. 

     On the other hand, some of them have probably trusted adults, only to have it turn around and bite them. They’ve been disappointed, made to feel stupid, and even taken advantage of, perhaps, when they’ve been too open. Or they have friends who have. Once bitten, twice shy. So they’re careful.

     And that means if they’re talking to you about anything, you take it seriously. You care about it as much as they do. Eventually, they might see you can be trusted and open up more. Maybe.

     In our teen classes at church, we spend a lot of time just talking about what went on in their lives that week. We don’t always offer advice, not unless we’re asked. We just do what the Bible says; we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. And we pray, because God listens best of all. Even if we don’t get to what we were planning to talk about that morning. Because if you’re not listening to teenagers, they are not listening to you.

     Second, and to put it bluntly: Teenagers have amazing b.s. detectors. They know if you’re not being real with them. The last thing they want is for me to try to identify too closely with them. There’s very little that’s more inauthentic and pathetic to a teenager than a 55-year-old guy trying to be like them. They are not unable to relate to someone older than them — if they want to. What they don’t want is an older person trying to pretend to be like them. Not to mention that whatever of theirs you try to embrace, you immediately make uncool.

     That should flow both ways, incidentally. You don’t need to be them — and they don’t need to be you. They have the rest of their lives to be adults. Right now they’re in a difficult in-between time when they aren’t children, but haven’t completely found their place in adult society. They’re trying things. And if they sense that they’re not accepted as they are, they will disengage. Which is no different than the rest of us, really. Imagine if, every time you walked into church, you felt people were disappointed in you and disapproving of you. That’s exactly how many teenagers feel every Sunday.

     Third, teenagers are capable of much more than you think they are. Our teens planned and carried out our   Connection Point themselves. Sure, there were some adults who helped. But we worked for them. When decisions needed to be made, it was the teens who made them. They were in front of their peers, speaking to them about faith, reading Scripture, leading activities, skits, and games. They planned the menu. They made our guests feel welcome. 

     And because of that, it was theirs. They felt ownership of it. They felt pressure to put together something that  would be meaningful to them, and they felt pride when they accomplished it.

     Most churches need to trust their teenagers more. Give them something to do, help them see that it matters, and they’ll follow through. We never had to force them to work. We didn’t worry about whether or not they’d show up. This was their thing, and they took it seriously.

     Fourth, teenagers deconstruct. It’s what they do. It’s what they need to do. They need to take apart what they’ve been asked to accept so they can see how it works, understand it, and decide if it’s going to be a part of them. And that includes the faith they’ve received. They need to decide if it’s going to be their faith. And how much of it. We need to give them space, while acting as guides.

     It’s messy, this deconstruction. It’s disorienting, for them but maybe even more for adults who love them and are invested in their acceptance of the faith. We just have to remember that we deconstructed our parents’ faith, too. Things that mattered a lot to them did not to us. We jettisoned things that our parents hoped we’d keep. And things that they never saw as significant became for us non-negotiable. We need to remember that it’s not our job to keep them in the faith — that’s God’s work. He can be trusted. 

     Finally: our teenagers are paying attention to us. They’re watching when we traffic in conspiracy theories and distort truth. They’re listening to our cynical views of the world. They notice when we ignore science and dismiss their concerns about the environment. They see when what we say about loving our neighbor doesn’t fit with how we actually treat our neighbors. They notice when we ignore blatant injustice while grumbling about a pop star and her football-player boyfriend. They’re watching, and what they see will determine whether they see you as an ally or just another adult who doesn’t understand them. 

     They need you to be an ally. They hope you’ll be. Give them reason to think you are. Don’t push and shove them toward the destination you want for them. Don’t impatiently drag them along behind you on your journey. Walk with them on theirs, as fellow disciples of Jesus. Be a point of connection between them, the church, and the world. You may just help them to grow.

     I know they’ll help you.