Tuesday, August 22, 2017

re-reading the "boring parts"

When I was ordained this summer, someoneI don't remember whoplaced a Bible in my hands, The Wesley Study Bible, a CEB (Common English Bible). Having never read the CEB or the Wesley Study Bible, I decided to give it a go. I've been jumping around, but I'm reading through Isaiah right now.

Isaiah, like many of the other prophets, includes a generous helping of "oracles against the nations" (Isaiah 13-23)"Moab is undone," "Wail, O ships of Tarshish," that sort of thing.
I feel like, for the average Joe picking up a Bible, this stuff must be some of the most mind-numbing material in the book, just a little better than a genealogy or Levitical legal minutia. Chapter after chapter of accusations and judgments passed on ancient nations you've probably never heard of. How are people supposed to get through this? What are they supposed to glean from all these accounts of distant, dusty, national transgressions?

And yet, as I've been reading, the scriptures have been surprising me. (Imagine that.)

Like in Isaiah 16:
The daughters of Moab
at the fords of the Arnon
are like orphaned birds
pushed from the nest.
Consider carefully, act justly;
at high noon
provide your shade like night.
Hide the outcasts;
keep the fugitives hidden.
Let the outcasts of Moab live among you.
Be a hiding place for them
from the destroyer. (16:2-4)
"My heart cries out for Moab. Its fugitives flee to Zoar..." says the prophet of the Lord God of Israel (15:5). God's concern for these Moabite refugees may be the most urgent picture of God's love for immigrants in the Old Testament.

A love the Church in America has largely forgotten.
How many refugees are there now, I wonder, who are running for their lives and their families lives, living in camps, praying to their gods that the "Christian nation" across the Atlantic would "act justly" and be their shade from the noon sun, from the radicals and terror cooking them alive in their homelands?

Perhaps these oracles against the nations in Isaiah can speak to other nations, later nations, today.

Then I was reading Isaiah's judgment on Damascus, in the next chaptera judgment that touches Israel too (17:4-6)where the prophet says:
On that day, people will have regard
for their maker,
and their eyes will look
to the holy one of Israel.
They will have no regard for altars,
the work of their hands,
or look to what their fingers made:
sacred poles and incense stands. (17:7-8)
The work of our hands, the things our fingers have made that we look to.
Today, those are aren't altars, sacred poles, and incense stands. Not literally, at least. Today Isaiah's warning might sound something like this:
On that day, people will have regard
for their maker,
and their eyes will look
to the holy one of Israel.
They will have no regard for smartphones and 401Ks,
the work of their hands,
or look to what their fingers made:
goal posts and Valentino flats and Netflix Original Series.
Idolatry may look different now, but where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21).

It's easy to label scripture and dismiss itmind-numbing, irrelevant, boringbut, you know... maybe all scripture really is God-breathed and useful (1 Tim 3:16). Maybe we need to leave no stone unturned and mine this sacred book for precious jewels. Maybe what the Church really needs today is the "boring parts" of Isaiah.

Friday, April 14, 2017

O God, I love thee...

A poem for Good Friday:

"O deus, ego amo te"

O God, I love thee, I love thee
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
   In the everlasting burning.
Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
   Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance
Mocked and marred countenance,
   Sorrows passing number,
   Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
   And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu so much in love with me?
Not for heaven's sake; not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do and I will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then?
For being my king and God. Amen.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins

(I encountered the poem this week in Sarah Arthur's Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

not by bread alone

This Lent, I'm learning to trust.

That wasn't the plan when Lent began, not exactly. I decided on a few daily changes to make, plus some new weekly routines, ways to commemorate Jesus' sacrifice on Fridays. I also decided to commit to some traditional fasting, abstaining from food, one day a week. All in all, nothing remarkablejust more engagement with the season than I've done in the past. I wanted to experience Lent more deeply this year.

Then I got the call: I'm leaving the church I've been serving in Natchez for the last five years and being reappointed to a congregation in Sumrall, MS.

Not surprisingly, this has been both exciting and heartbreaking. It's the first move for me, so this is all new, but I still knew there would be these mixed emotions, the bittersweet quality to it all.

What I didn't know was the trouble I'd have trusting.

It's not a question of whether I ought to go to Sumrall. I have absolutely no doubt that the bishop and the cabinet made the right choice in sending me to Natchez in the first place, and I trust them to listen to the Spirit and to recognize where God could use me next. Some more seasoned United Methodist ministers may chuckle, but I have faith in the process.

The trouble is entrusting this church to someone new.
Don't get me wrong. I don't have any reservations in the world about the pastor who is taking my place. She seems great.

... So, on second thought, maybe the trouble isn't entrusting the church to someone new.
Maybe the trouble is letting go of my sense of control and entrusting the church to God.

As I've been fasting each week during this Lenten season, I've frequently been reminded of Jesus' words to Satan in the wilderness, when he was tempted to break his fast and turn some dusty rocks into fresh loaves of bread. Jesus told the tempter, "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God" (Matt 4:4).

With those words echoing in my head over the last couple of weeks, I've started to see that, in my ministry, particularly as a preacher, I've been trying to "live by" relevant topics, solid research, clever analogies, appropriate injections of humor, and practical takeaways. I've been trying to live by hard work and skill.

But those things are bread.

And man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. A minister of all people cannot live by bread alone, but must live by the words that come from God and set an example and guide the church to do the same. After all, don't we believe that "neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth"? (1 Cor 3:7) Don't we trust in that?

Or would we rather hold on to our bread?

Fasting is supposed to teach us that, ultimately, we depend on God for our lives, not on anything elseeven the food that we eat. Fasting is supposed to teach us that if we let go of the bread, everything will still be ok. Fasting's supposed to teach us to trust.
And now that I'm faced with the terrifying reality of actually trusting God with things that are beyond my control, I see how far I still have to go.

So I'm grateful for Lent. I'm grateful for the fast. Because right now, while I'm trying to learn to trust, I need to remember those words. I need Jesus to whisper to me again and again about living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Friday, March 17, 2017

the Bible and the ban

"What would Jesus say about our immigration policies and problems?"

It was 'question night' at the church, a risky (some would say stupid) thing for a young pastor to do. Most of the questions stayed away from anything that smelled of politics, but as I pulled this slip of paper from the glass bowl and unfolded it, I was in for a surprise.

Now, I don't actually think of that as a political question. I think of it as a biblical question and a question of how to live out our faith in the world. But once politicians and pundits latch on to an issue, we all start to think of it as a political topic. Unfortunately, the result is often that ministers feel helpless to speak out on things that the Bible speaks out on because--you shouldn't go there preacher. That's political.

But it was question night, and someone had asked, so I went there.

What would Jesus say? I told them that, in my opinion, Jesus did say something that speaks to the issues surrounding immigration in the US today. Then I read from Matthew 25: When you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or welcome the stranger, you're doing it for Christ. And when you turn away people in need, when you turn away those who need some place to go, you're turning Jesus away (25:44-45).

There's a reason over 100 evangelical leaders, including Timothy Keller, Max Lucado, and Bill Hybels, took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post last month, in the wake of the President's first attempted moratorium on immigrants and refugees from several Muslim nations, to call on Mr. Trump and the vice-president to support refugees. They were faithfully witnessing to Jesus' teaching.

There have been, unfortunately, many other evangelical voices supporting the President's actions. These voices argue that the call for Christians to love and care for others does not apply to the state. They point out that even the city of God in the book of Revelation has walls to keep "undocumented intruders" out (though they don't wrestle with every detail in Revelation). Or, as Franklin Graham did, they act as if the Bible doesn't really say anything about our situation. Meanwhile, many more evangelical readers have cheered these voices on, thanking them for offering a clear, 'biblical' response to the naysayers.

Of course, technically, they're correct: the Bible does not that say that the United States of America has to receive refugees from Syria, or welcome anyone else into the country. As long as you don't want to call America "a Christian nation," the US can ignore Jesus' teachings and turn away strangers left and right.

Those of us who call Jesus our Lord, however, don't have that luxury.

As a pastor, my biggest concern isn't that the most powerful nation in the world would turn away people in need to whom we could easily offer relief (though, obviously, that is a concern). What worries me the most is seeing Christians embrace this position and rejoice in the evangelical support for it, even though it flies in the face of God's expectations for the faithful.

For instance, listen to Deuteronomy 10:17-19:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The word of God for the people of God - thanks be to God. Right?

As Rev. Mark Wingfield pointed out for Baptist News Global, this passage in Deuteronomy is "one of 92 times the Hebrew word we would translate to “immigrant” in English appears in the Old Testament. And in every case, the admonition is for acceptance and welcome and kindness."

I'd say the teaching of the Bible on this issue is pretty straightforward.

So, since when are evangelicals the people who do their best to explain away scripture's demands?

The arguments I've heard against welcoming immigrants and refugees remind me of the arguments (which evangelicals usually chafe against) for non-traditional views of sexuality:
  • Biblical comments on caring for strangers don't apply to us today - this is a very different situation (because of terrorist threats, US law, separation of church and state, etc.).
  • Biblical comments on homosexuality don't apply to us today - this is a very different situation (because of modern understandings of sexual orientation, committed, life-long same-sex relationships, etc.).
  • There are verses that might suggest we don't have to welcome these foreigners, if you read them the right way - after all, John says not to receive into your house or welcome anyone who doesn't confess Jesus (2 John 7-11).
  • There are verses that might suggest we aren't limited to heterosexual intimacy, if you read them the right way - after all, Paul says that in Christ there is no more "male and female" (Gal 3:28).
  • Surely it was never God's intention to command something that might put my family or my neighbors in danger.
  • Surely it was never God's intention to command something that would leave me/my child alone and unhappy for the rest of my/his/her life.
Frankly, the biggest difference that I can see between these two lines of thinking is that the arguments against welcoming refugees are much weaker than the arguments for affirming same-sex relationships. After all, there are only about a half a dozen verses in the Bible that speak directly to the question of homosexuality, but there are dozens and dozens of verses about welcoming "aliens" and "sojourners." And while advocates of full inclusion of LGBT couples into the life of the church frequently point out that Jesus never says a word on the topic*, the same cannot be said for the issue of welcoming the stranger.
Yet in the face of arguments like these, evangelicals have always insisted that faithful Christians must resist the cultural tide and the emotional tug and resolutely affirm the clear teaching of the Bible.

Until now.

There are probably all kinds of factors contributing to this evangelical rejection of biblical teaching.

Part of the problem is surely that we simply don't know that the Bible calls God's people, over and over, to welcome immigrants. After all, that's probably never seemed like an important topic to preach on. The preachers themselves know what the Bible says (Why else would 86% of Protestant pastors say that Christians should "care sacrificially for refugees and foreigners"?), but they haven't been teaching it. (Why else would 76% of white evangelicals have approved of the ban?)
Another part of the problem is that evangelical Christianity in the US has become so aligned with Republican politics that it's probably difficult for many to believe or accept that the party-line would diverge so dramatically from biblical teaching.

I think the biggest part of the problem, though, is fear.
That's why evangelical commenters are so grateful at the end of an article assuring them that Syrian refugees aren't their problem. We are afraid of these people. I get that. We're thinking about those plumes of smoke coming out of the Twin Towers, the police lights flashing outside the Pulse nightclub, and we're afraid of what's going to happen next. Fear keeps us from accepting that refugees are already well vetted and pushes us to ignore the uncomfortable call of Christ.

I don't think that we have much to fear from these people who are running for their lives and their families' lives, thankful for any safety and stability they can find. A study last year determined that Americans have a 1 in 3.6 billion chance of being killed by a refugee in the US in any given year. 1 in 3.6 billion!

But even if the threat were greater, that wouldn't be an excuse for those of us who follow Jesus. After all, taking up your cross isn't safe. It means you're walking to your death. But that's the kind of love Jesus modeled for us, and "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).

*Though Jesus never addresses homosexuality directly, many do argue that his reference to Genesis in Matthew 19:4-5/Mark 10:6-7 is an indirect affirmation of traditional, exclusively-heterosexual marriage.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Lady Gaga and Jesus

In honor of Lady Gaga's amazing Super Bowl halftime show this week, I wanted to share an old post from Richard Beck's blog: "The Gospel According to Lady Gaga."

Dr. Beck is never short on interesting, fresh perspectives, and this piece is no exception. He uses the lyrics of one of Gaga's songs to highlight her "passionate engagement with the "little monsters" of society, her attempt to welcome them and show them warmth, understanding, and respect." Beck describes how her music and her community of fans has been a source of comfort and strength to outcasts, people like 14 year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a bisexual boy from New York who took his own life after years of bullying at school.
And in this, I can't help but wonder if Lady Gaga isn't shaming the church. Because here's the deal. If kids like Jamey aren't being welcomed by churches or by their schools where are they supposed to go?
 You can check out the whole post over at Experimental Theology.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

DB2017: New Beginnings

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
If you've been following the blog much in the last year, you know I've been working my way through a daily devotional based on the writings of George MacDonald, Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love. Well, I finished the book last week, and I enjoyed it so much that now, with the new year, I'm starting a new daily reader: I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions, taken from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

If you aren't familiar with Bonhoeffer, he was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian in the 20th century (1906-1945) who was eventually executed by the Nazis for his work to oppose Adolf Hitler. Many of his writings have become classics in the decades since his death, like his book The Cost of Discipleship: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die..."

I want to begin the new year on the blog by sharing one of the first readings in I Want to Live These Days with You. Even in Bonhoeffer's day, folks saw the new year as a chance to start over, to do things differently than they did the year before. But he asked,
How can we make a fresh start? "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back..." (Luke 9:62). One who guides a plow does not look back - or into the immense distance - but to the next step that must be taken. Backward glances are not a Christian thing to do. Leave fear, anxiety, and guilt behind. And look to the one who gives you a new beginning.
Bonhoeffer doesn't believe we can carve new beginnings out of our regrets, our guilt, or even our good intentions. Instead, we should look for our new beginnings from the Lord, like David asking God to put a new and right spirit within him (Ps 51:10). We can't let the past control who we are or who we can become with God's help. Obviously, sometimes moving forward does mean making amends for old wrongs or trying to heal relationships that have been broken for a long time, but we shouldn't let the past weigh us down, because in Christ "The old life is gone; the new life has begun!" (2 Cor 5:17 NLT)

When you decide to make a change, whether it's a New Year's resolution or just a Wednesday morning resolution, don't let your mistakes or shame drive you. Let your hope and trust in God propel you forward, because all our "new beginnings" are a chance to embrace the new life God has for us, the transformation the Holy Spirit can work within us.

And for big change, maybe we need to think small: about the next step that must be taken, and then the step after that, then the step after that. Instead of being discouraged when we don't see a miraculous, instant make-over for our heart or our habits, maybe we need to seek after (and acknowledge and give thanks for!) the small miracles, the little changes that God creates in us along the road on our journey of faith. If we take it one step at a time, we may come to realize that God has been slowly, incrementally turning our lives upside down. The Spirit may be quietly working right under your nose to give you a new beginning.

Friday, December 23, 2016

how to keep Christ in your Christmas

Lately I've noticed a lot of folks at church are wearing little silicone wristbands that say "Keep Christ in Christmas." Tis the season, I guess. And of course I agree (I'm a preacher, after all): Jesus needs to be the heartbeat of the holiday.

But a lot of times I disagree with people about what that should look like.

It seems like, most of the time, when Christians talk about people 'taking Christ out of Christmas', they're talking about other people. Schools, stores, government offices. They're trying to remove the reason for the season, leaving us with a happy holiday that's just a shell of the Christmas God wants from us.

But me, I don't think it's Walmart's job or City Hall's job or even the schools' job to celebrate the birth of our Lord.

That's my job.

If you're a Christian, it's your job.

It all starts with us. If we want to keep Christ in Christmas, we need to take Jesus' advise and quit poking around for splinters in our neighbors' eyes while we've got a log jammed in our own (Matt 7:3-5). Christians need to quit focusing on how others are doing Christmas wrong and start focusing on how we can do Christmas right. We need the humility and the courage to ask: what can I do differently, to really make this season about Jesus?

Because there are going to be things all of us can do differently.

Maybe, instead of watching A Christmas Story for the third time in two days, we could pick up the phone and call that brother, that sister, that cousin we haven't spoken to in years, because we've been holding on to a grudge or refusing to admit we were wrong.

Maybe, instead of buying our kid or our spouse another gift and teaching them that this holiday is all about stuff, we could give that money to the battered women's shelter, Habitat for Humanity, or ZOE, to bless people in ways that will last longer than a new toy or shoes.

Or maybe, rather than take that vacation to the Bahamas you could give that waitress who's eight months pregnant a $900 tip, to help her get through the months ahead, when she's out of work, and to show her what the extravagant, sacrificial love of God looks like.

Because—let's be honest—most of us treat Christmas like it's our birthday. How might we celebrate the holiday if we treated it like Jesus' birthday instead?

If the world saw Christians celebrating Christmas like that, in ways that glorified God and made Jesus smile, maybe the Holy Spirit would have room to work in people's hearts, and—who knows?—next year they may be wishing everyone a merry Christmas too.

And this year we all have a special opportunity to focus on Jesus, because this year Christmas falls on a Sunday. Which means we can go to church.

On Christmas.

I know that will sound like a bizarre thing to do on Christmas morning to a lot of people, a lot of Christians even, but if we won't let worshipping Jesus "interrupt" the gifts and food and family, then we're the ones taking Christ out of Christmas. I think the Babylon Bee (a Christian satire news website) captured it pretty well when they entitled one article, "Church Honors Birth Of Jesus By Canceling Worship Service." This is your chance to show the world what this holiday is really all about. This is your chance to show your kids and your family that Christmas is about Jesus.

Or, we could blow off worship this Sunday and focus instead on... well, whatever it is that really matters the most to us at Christmas.

I'm not trying to guilt-trip anyone here, but I also don't care to mince words. I don't begrudge people whose Christmas celebrations aren't really about Jesus, but I do expect Christians to put their money where their mouth is. (I'm a preacher, after all.) And so I hope believers will take stock this Christmas. I hope we'll take a good, long look in the mirror and see what our holidays practices say about the reason for the season.
So if you're going to be on the road, watch for a church to stop at on the drive. If you're at some resort, cooped up, away from civilization, find an old Bible and read Luke 2 with your family, pray for those who need good news of great joy today. If  you're at home, catch a service. Wherever you are, find a way to worship this Sunday.

Find a way to keep Christ in your Christmas.