Wednesday, February 27, 2013

what will we be known for?

A couple of years back, the Barna Group did a study and found that if you ask a young (16-29 years old) non-Christian in the US how to describe Christianity, they'll respond "anti-homosexual." 91% of young non-Christians in the US responded this way. That's how young Americans think about our faith.

If you're a Christian--whatever you think about homosexuality (I've written about some of my feelings here)--this statistic should be disheartening and embarrassing. We're trying to follow Jesus and tell the world that God wants to be with you, that God wants to be reconciled to you, and we've done such a terrible job and/or had such selective and terrible publicity that all people can say is, 'oh, Christians. Right. They're anti-gay'. Even if you do believe that homosexual intercourse is a sin, you have to recognize the failure here.

Part of the reason this is such a wide-spread perception is probably because people just care about this question. Everybody has a gay friend or a cousin who's a lesbian, someone you know and love, and so when someone hears that you're a Christian, they want to know your position, and they'll ask you directly. So the topic comes up again and again, and whatever else you say, the part people will remember is the 'yes' or the 'no' they wring out of you.

Well I encountered the question again today, this time in a popular Q&A forum on another blog. The person being interviewed is a young Christian writer named Shane Clairborne, author of several books, including The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Claiborne's known for his radical (nothing ordinary about it) Christian commitments, like living among poor and homeless people in inner city Philadelphia, eschewing material comforts, and vocal anti-war and non-violence convictions. Yet, Claiborne seems to have more traditional views on sexuality, and so, sure enough, when given the chance, one person asked him directly:
Shane what is your position on same sex relationships? I remember a clip I saw of you... discussing this and sounded like you supported celibacy for gay folks. Am I correct? Also, what are your thoughts on the state of the culture war raging over gay rights? How do we redeem it? Where do you see it headed?

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard someone try to answer the question, "what is your position on same-sex relationships," but, for me, Shane Claiborne's response was stirring. In the middle of it he mentions the Barna statistic:
It must break God’s heart that this is what we have become known for. Jesus said they will know we are Christians by our love. So my admonition on this is that we become known for our love again.

Claiborne never actually gives a 'yea' or 'nay' here. I'm sure if it had be a live conversation rather than an online, ask-ahead Q&A, someone would have pointed that out and demanded an answer. But that would have only distracted from the things he did say that we absolutely need to hear. The Church's call is to go and love people. And considering how many GLBT folks have been hurt by Christians and churches, we should go out of our way to love them.
'Progressives' and 'conservatives' both need to hear this. If you're convinced that Christians need to affirm the biblical picture of marriage as 'one man, one woman', and you've never taken the time to get to know a gay man, to listen to him, and to show him God's unconditional love and grace, then you haven't done anything for the Kingdom. If you think Christians need to accept gay and lesbian individuals and bless same-sex unions, but all you really do is read DC's Earth 2 comic book or tell people how much you enjoyed Brokeback Mountain, then you haven't done one thing to take the gospel to people in need. And we're all in need.

What are we going to be known for? For our love--the way we embody God's unfailing love for his world? Or for the judgment we pass on a particular group of people?

I've written more than I meant to; this post was really supposed to be nothing more than a recommendation of this Shane Claiborne interview. Oops. But really, please do read the interview, or at least this one question and response. It's worth your time. The quotation from Billy Graham alone is worth your time. You can find it all here. The question about same-sex relationships is the second-to-last.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

keeping the Sabbath

Last night I gave a talk on the practice of Sabbath. While I was getting ready for that I looked through a number of resources, but one that I spent more time with than I expected and enjoyed more than I expected was Norman Wirzba's book Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight.

To keep people thinking about the topic and to share some things I didn't get in during the program last night, I wanted to offer a few quotations here from the book (and the book's preface by one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry).

Wendell Berry opens the preface by describing the "industrial era" with its ideal of "ceaseless pandemonium."

... The industrial economy, by definition, must never rest. Rest would deprive us of light, heat, food, water, and everything else we need or thing we need. The economic impulse of industrial life (to stretch a term) is limitless. Whatever we have, in whatever quantity, is not enough. There is not such thing as enough. Our bellies and our wallets must become oceanic, and still they will not be full. Six workdays in a week are not enough. We need a seventh. We need an eighth... We need a job for the day and one for the night. Thank God for the moon! We cannot stop to eat. Thank God for cars! We dine as we drive over another paved farm. Everybody is weary, and there is no rest.
    To rest, we are persuaded, we must “get away.” But getting away involves us in haste, speed, and noise, the auxiliary pandemonium, of escape. There is, by the prevailing definition, escape, but there is no escape from escape. Or there is none unless we adopt the paradoxical and radical expedient of just stopping.

Sabbath, he says, is the answer. Berry puts it simply: "The requirement of Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest the world continues without our help."

In the body of the book, Norman Wirzba argues that the call to Sabbath is a call to rest, delight, thanksgiving, and worship (see Exodus 20:8-11 and Psalm 92:1-4, "the Song of the Sabbath"). Ignoring that call is no small matter. “Our Sabbath commitment bears witness to whether or not we have brought our habits and priorities in line with the way and intentions of God.”

Like Berry, Wirzba thinks we need Sabbath as an alternative to a life under the constant stress of 'accomplishment' and 'productivity'. That's not the kind of life God intended for his creatures.

When we become Sabbath people, we give one of the most compelling witnesses to the world that we worship a God who desires our collective joy and good. We give concrete expression to an authentic faith that is working to deflate the anxious and destructive pride that supposes we have to “do it all” by ourselves and through our own effort.

Does the drive to complete tasks and accomplish things busy up your life? Have you ever given much thought to taking Sabbath time? What would you need to do in your life to set aside time to stop, rest, and delight?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ashes, Dust, Moths, & Rust

For those of your who couldn't make it out to an Ash Wednesday service this year, here is the homily from our service at Grace on Wednesday night, just before we all received the ashes on our foreheads. May it help you starting off on this season of Lent.

The texts for this message are Psalm 51:1-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10.

You may have seen one of the big news stories that broke last week, about a skeleton archaeologists found in England last fall that’s now been confirmed as the remains of King Richard III. This is the King notoriously accused of killing his two nephews in the Tower of London so he could seize the throne. Shakespeare wrote a wonderful tragedy about him—this hunchbacked tyrant, whose soul was more twisted on the inside than his body on the outside, and who was finally killed at the end of a desperate battle. “A horse! A horse—my kingdom for a horse!”
For five hundred years, no one knew what became of the remains of this man who spent his life conniving and struggling for power and finally wore the English crown. But last week British scientists officially announced that the king’s remains have been recovered—they found them under a parking lot. The archaeologists concluded that Richard met a violent death—there was evidence of ten wounds, eight to the head—one of those was the fatal blow. It also seems like the body was mistreated after he was killed (the naked corpse was supposedly on public display for a while), before it was basically crammed into this tiny grave. And, of course, if that weren’t enough, after all of his schemes and efforts to become king of the realm, to grasp all of that power and wealth, Richard III almost spent all of history beneath some asphalt, with a clear view of the bottom of a Land Rover.
King Richard III’s story nicely sums up a lot of what Ash Wednesday is about. Sin – Richard was this infamous sinner, hated by so many, and the way his remains were handled testifies to that. And mortality – the King of England, just as dead as anyone else, and his body even lost and forgotten. Dead and gone.

The king’s story echoes the sober acknowledgements of sin and mortality we heard in this evening’s scripture readings. In Psalm 51 we hear one of the most unrelenting admissions of sin and guilt in the whole Bible. The psalm’s ascribed the David, his confession after the whole debacle with Bathsheba and Uriah. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love! Cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me…” David’s not watering things down, talking about his regrets or how he’s messed up; it’s sin, iniquity, transgression. The ‘man after God’s own heart’ (Acts 13:22), King David, was on his knees before God with a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart (51:17), looking for deliverance and salvation, because of his sin.
As we receive the ashes on our foreheads this evening and enter into the 40 days of Lent, we're called to be mindful of our sins, to come before God with a broken spirit in repentance—not watering it down, but truthfully acknowledging how we are selfish, loveless, proud, hateful, or lazy, whatever it is. You know your sins. In the Bible ashes are a sign of repentance: over and over again you read about people putting on sackcloth and ashes and crying out to the Lord for forgiveness. That’s why we receive these ashes tonight, as a sign of our repentance.
And fasting, as Christians traditionally do during Lent, is an act of penance and an expression of our repentance; it’s supposed to help us prepare ourselves for Easter. In the story of David’s repentance after his affair and the death of Uriah, the king fasted and refused to eat any food for a week (2 Sam 12:15ff). This is a sign that we’re earnestly seeking reconciliation and we’re dedicating ourselves to God and nothing else, nothing that would try to assume God’s place in our lives.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are about sin.

Then in Matthew, Jesus reminds us of mortality—just how fleeting things are in life. Earth is the place of moths and rust, where thieves break in and steal (6:19). There’s no permanence here; everything’s subject to decay and deterioration. The truth is, it’s only in the Kingdom of heaven that things are really lasting, that there are no moths or rust consuming things, no thieves coming in to steal them. It’s only with the Father that there’s security against the sheer impermanence of our present lives. Our lives will end and everything we know and love over the years will eventually be gone too.
Ashes have long served the church as a sign of that fact, because ashes are like dust. In Genesis God creates the first man from the dust of the Earth. And when we die, eventually, our remains will turn back into the ‘dust of the Earth’ (cf. Gen 3:19). That’s why, when Abraham wanted to plead with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction, he began by saying “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). Of course in everyday life, cremation is probably the clearest connection we see between ashes and death. And so the ashes we receive tonight are a reminder of our mortality, that we are dust.
And when we fast during Lent, we’re again acknowledging our mortality. Fasting says that food isn’t the source of real life. What we get from food isn’t lasting. We depend on God; we receive lasting life from God, and fasting names that and practices that. 
So Ash Wednesday and Lent are about mortality.

Now, for most people all of this talk about sin and dying probably doesn’t sound like gospel, doesn’t sound like good news. At very least you don’t want to feel like you have to identify with David in Psalm 51—“I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (51:5)? Come on, I’m not that bad, right? And there are some individuals who really can’t handle the sober message of Ash Wednesday, people who are already struggling every day to find meaning when life seems so short sometimes, and the universe so big, while we’re just a speck in the middle of it all… To come to church and be reminded that you’re going to die, to be reminded of your iniquity and the reality of judgment—that just feels someone’s kicking you when you’re down. You need good news.

Well here’s the good news. Lent and Ash Wednesday don’t have the final word. All this talk about death and sin, it’s all true. But there’s a bigger truth, a more determinative truth, on the horizon, and it’s not fasting, but rejoicing; not ashes and dust and moths and rust, but resurrection. At the end of Lent comes Easter. That’s the gospel truth. That’s what Paul was talking about in 2 Corinthians: you can be reconciled to God (5:20). He made him who knew no sin, Jesus, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him, in Christ (5:21). Righteousness. You can have a clean heart. It’s not all about our sin anymore. It’s not all about dying because of your sins. God has acted, so things can be different. He’s spoken a different word over us. When you feel like you’re just an unknown, you’re dying, under punishment and sorrow, you’re poor, having nothing at all… the reality is, in Christ, you’re known; you’re alive; you’re not killed; you’re rejoicing; you’re rich, possessing everything. When it seems like sin and dying are it, like you just live your life and do your thing, until you die, and that’s the end of the story—you’re under the ground, under a parking lot, forgotten, gone… when it seems like that’s all there is to life, the risen, living Jesus says ‘no’. The cross isn’t the end; death isn’t the end. And that is our God’s final word; that’s the truth about life and death and ashes and mortality and life.

No other word has the final say on our lives. Not Shakespeare, as beautiful and stirring and enduring as his words are. Not Psalm 51 and the reality and weight of our guilt and our failures—not even those words you hear at the graveside, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” That is not the last word. Jesus Christ speaks the last word, a better word (Heb 12:24). Lent’s a time to remember our mortality and our sin, but also to remember the one who robbed mortality and sin of their claim on us. For every sooty cross we see, we have to remember that after the cross, after the darkness, after death, comes life and light, and an empty tomb. We have to remember what God does with dust. He takes it in his hands and molds it and shapes it, and then he puts his lips to it and breaths life into its lungs. The God we meet in Jesus, the God we seek during Lent, is finally the God who trades us beauty for our ashes (Isa 61:3).

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

two fantastic posts that I didn't write

There are some weeks that you just don't have time to write a blog post. This week is one of those.

But, rather than letting you off easy with no post at all, I wanted to offer you these two wonderful posts that I've read on other blogs recently. They're more worthy of your time than most of the things I write, so check them!

The first one is by an old classmate of mine from divinity school, who is now living and serving in Zambia, where he's constantly faced with the reality of poverty. The post is a beautifully honest wrestling match between what he's been told, what the Bible says, and what he experiences every day with his neighbors. In so many ways, life is not so different in the United States than in Zambia: Christians still have to grapple with the same questions. Really, read this piece. That Icky Feeling.

The second post is by Rev. Dan Thomas Edwards, the Episcopal Bishop of Nevada. The bishop putting his finger on the ways we work hard to drive people away from our churches. Not visitors, but the folks who've been around, who know us--whom we know how to offend. This is a worthwhile read for anyone concerned about the life of their congregation. Check out The Real Reason People Who Have Left A Church "Can't Go Home Again."