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.