Friday, July 29, 2011


These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also. (Acts 17.6)

Response to Real Change

“The more things change the more they stay the same,” 19th-century critic Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr mused. We take him to mean progress is illusory; though advances look like breakthroughs, they’re no more than fresh approaches to age-old challenges. To be sure, reading the epigram from this angle gives us plenty to mull over, since we live in what’s often described as a rapidly changing world. Communication is a prime example proving we’re awash in fast and furious transition. In roughly 600 years—a finger-snap in the human saga—written text evolved from tedious, time-consuming manual transcription to instant messaging (no less tedious or time-consuming, for different reasons). The methods changed, but the endgame is the same: packaging information to travel across time and space. In this sense, the saying suggests at its best, change is improvement, not innovation, refinement rather than revolution.

If this is what Karr meant, the adage proves his point, as it’s merely a fresh spin on an old idea. Ecclesiastes, a volume of proverbs traditionally attributed to Solomon, says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (1.9) But I have a hard time agreeing, simply because what’s old indisputably began as something new. Though perhaps not as frequently as we imagine, revolutionary ideas can and will emerge, changing the world on such a profound level nothing stays the same. And what’s interesting about this is Ecclesiastes and Karr’s observations most assuredly apply to our response to real change. That has always been, and no doubt will always be, exactly what it is in Acts 17.1-15, where Christ’s revolutionary Gospel provokes emphatically opposite reactions from two remarkably different sets of people. It’s the classic faith-meets-fear conflict played to the hilt with everything but pitchforks and torches.

Hot Spot

The drama starts with Paul and Silas arriving in Thessalonica, Greece’s thriving deep-water port on the Aegean coast. Given what happens, the setting couldn’t be more perfect or ironic. Commercial advantages as the hub where West Asian, European, and Middle Eastern trade routes intersect grace it with a sound economy that stabilizes its multicultural population. Yet due to its location it’s equally well known as one of the least stable and sound places to live. The Romans call the region Thermaicus, or “Hot Spot,” alluding to thermal springs surrounding the city. Geologists connect prevalence of naturally hot water with seismic activity, and Thessalonica lives up to expectations. Earthquakes and tremors are common, as are landslides and avalanches in looming mountains that squeeze the city to the coast. So, despite their economic and cultural stability, the restive landscape makes Thessalonians easily excitable and stubbornly rigid. (Living on shaky ground that spews scalding water, staring at mountains that could dissolve into rock piles at any moment, will do that.) Which is why things get real hot real fast when any threat to the status quo comes to Thessalonica. And that’s what Paul and Silas bring to town.

Paul marches into the Thessalonian synagogue and draws its teachers into a heated discussion about Messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfilled by His suffering and resurrection. This goes on for three weeks, creating buzz that attracts bigger crowds at each Sabbath’s performance. Thessalonian Jews pack the front of the house, while Greeks who observe Jewish traditions fill the Gentile gallery and many of the city’s prominent women look on. Paul’s eloquent mastery of Scripture persuades many to embrace Christianity. Envious of his success and enraged that he preaches a faith that includes all ethnicities and genders, traditionalist Jews team up with local thugs and wreak chaos. They tear through the town looking for Paul and Silas. When they can’t find them, they attack Paul’s host, Jason, dragging him and other believers before the city authorities. “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also,” they complain. (Acts 17.6) Framing their indictment as a global shift is a cunning ploy; the slightest mention of terrestrial upheaval puts any Thessalonian on edge. Then they come in for the kill, misrepresenting the Gospel as a subversive plot. “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” (v7) The city finds this disturbing. Becoming a reputed haven for up-enders puts its socioeconomic stability at risk.

Wisely, the city leaders release Jason and the others. While this is going on, Paul and Silas head south, to Berea. Although the city is also situated on rocky terrain, its ground is surer than Thessalonica’s and its people more reasonable. Paul does the very same thing he did in Thessalonica: without hesitation, he goes to the local synagogue. (Will he never learn?) The Bereans aren’t threatened by his message. “Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing,” verse 12 reports. Similar changes to those that occurred in Thessalonica take place. But they’re welcomed. And they’re big news. Word of them reaches the disgruntled Thessalonians, and what do they do? They hurry down to Berea “to stir up and incite the crowds.” (v13) This time, their ploys don’t work. Paul leaves Silas and Timothy behind to establish the Berean church and travels on to Athens. That’s what up-enders do: they boldly declare their revolutionary message everywhere they go, turning the world upside down one step at a time. Someone recently framed this strategy as “Think globally, act locally.”

The Same New Ending

Christian theologians and historians cite Paul’s Thessalonian and Berean adventures as the moment the Church comes into its own. Prior to this, the doctrine of inclusion is realized on a case-by-case basis. The influx of Gentiles and other unorthodox believers has raised many concerns among Early Church leaders, which they resolve at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). And now we discover what real change looks like, as everyone—Jews and Greeks, men and women, the lowly and the prominent, poor and rich, ignored and respected—come together under Christ’s banner of love. There is no status in the Early Church—no barriers preventing total acceptance. Everyone plays a role; everyone is equally valued as an essential member of Christ’s Body. This is revolutionary—completely new and unheard of, not only in Judaism, but also in pagan religions and ancient society at large. While many welcome this change with enthusiasm, just as many find it so fearful they rally to prevent it from taking hold.

As seen in Paul's era and our own, when the Spirit calls the Church back to Its original doctrine of full inclusion, response to real change is always the same. Those resisting it will resort to every available tactic to see it’s defeated. They’ve heard about up-enders like us, who’ve courageously taken Christ’s revolutionary Gospel to heart. When real change reaches their shores, they’re alarmed, primarily because they live where stability and soundness aren’t guaranteed. These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also! Figuratively and literally, they take to the streets, starting trouble and vilifying those who don’t agree with them. They attack inclusion’s allies and prevail on leaders to do something. They travel wherever inclusion is welcomed and make ruckuses there, too. That will not change. Neither will the final outcome, because real change cannot be thwarted.

John’s Gospel sums up real change’s invincibility beautifully: “What has come into being in Him [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1.3-5) Yes, it’s the same old story. But with it comes the same new ending. We who are convinced Christ’s Gospel insists on total inclusion are up-enders. We’re turning the world upside down with the message we’ve been given. Adversarial responses are predictable to a fault. They’re nothing new and therefore nothing to worry about. We don’t stop because backward-thinking people disapprove. We don’t hang around to hear their allegations. We move ahead, turning the world upside down one step at a time. The more things change the more they stay the same: light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

God of endless change and perpetual motion, set our compasses to Your Spirit. Endow us with boldness to speak Your Word to fearful ears in unstable places. Open our eyes to the futility of those who oppose real change. And fire our passion to turn the world upside down one step at a time. Amen.

It’s the same old story: real change the Spirit calls us to lead frightens and angers many. But the same old story always comes with the same new ending.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love another. And this is love, that we walk according to God's commandments. (2 John.1.5-6)


Last weekend hurled us into a haze of cognitive dissonance. We knew what we saw and heard was factual. Yet as we processed the news, we couldn’t shake the feeling it might not be real. Norway. Could there be a more benign place on Earth? On hearing of last Friday’s two-fisted attack on its government offices and a youth camp, the brutality of it didn’t compute, because Norway didn’t make sense. These were public servants and young people, bright of mind and rich of promise, ripped from the human tapestry by a deranged “Christian crusader” prosecuting a delusional war on multiculturalism. As with all terrorists, demonizers, and ideologues, only the crusade mattered to him. Nearly 100 lives randomly destroyed, countless relatives and friends forever marred by irreplaceable loss, an entire nation shattered, and a world stunned beyond speech—they mattered not.

This idea of “mattering” haunts me. In addition to the Norway coverage, the US debt-ceiling farce got plenty of play, as did the premature death of pop diva Amy Whitehouse, ongoing violence in Syria, escalating famine in drought-plagued East Africa, and continuing fall-out from the British tabloid scandal. The rhetoric and actions swirling around these stories were rife with insinuations that a select few matter, but the majority doesn’t. And the more I contemplate the heaviness of this useless burden I’m more convinced mattering is why love matters.

Why Love?

Jesus taught us many things—instilling in us humility, tolerance, self-sacrifice, joy, trust, and so on. But He commanded us to love. Heeding Him without question would seem the right thing to do. Still, there must be a reason why love is paramount, why we’re taught all that is right and good in us begins there. What makes love the linchpin? Why not faith or hope or truth? Why love? The answer is so obvious many look it in the eye and never recognize it. Loving others in obedience to Christ—as much as we love ourselves, with all the concern, patience, and understanding we desire for ourselves—is how we tell those who come into our lives, “You matter.” Not, “You matter to us.” Or, “You matter as much as us.” Simply, you matter.

Love confirms we see them. We hear them. And we value them as they are. We honor them because they reflect our Creator. Our mutual origins in the hands of God, Whose breath brings all of us to life, forge a love-bond calling for basic respect and selfless concern. And the only way we convey how much others matter is by loving them without condition or expectation. Loving them is all about them, only them, because Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves isn't meant gratify or ennoble us. (That it often does is irrelevant.) Jesus instructs us to love others because every one of us matters to God.

The Vast Jigsaw Puzzle

That’s all love is: reassurance we matter. No one is inconsequential. None is worthless. Each of us exists as an essential piece in the vast jigsaw puzzle that, when properly assembled, portrays God’s perfect image. It’s when we mangle pieces with hatred, prejudice, ridicule, violence, and cruelty that God’s beauty and perfection are lost. It’s when we refuse to love one another as Christ commands that we lose consciousness of how much each of us matters. It’s when we make love hard with reasons and opinions asserting those we must love don’t matter that we become mangled by hatred and resentment. But, ah, when we do love—ratifying the value of those around us—the rest flows unrestrained.

Over and over we hear the Apostles echo Jesus’s love commandment, because people who courageously value those around them naturally coalesce into a community where harmony, peace, nurture, and joy thrive. Conscious awareness that everyone matters constantly reminds us of what really matters—and why what seems important may not be so important after all. In his second letter to the Church, John writes, “I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments.” (2 John 1.5-6) This is nothing new, he says. We’ve been talking about it since we started. It's incumbent on him to remind his flock that loving one another is imperative for the sake of its stability and unity as a community. It’s essential they know they each possess unique worth vital to the whole.

Going All the Way

In saying, “I love you,” we take care to understand what we’re saying and what’s expected of us by saying it. If we speak love, we must be committed to do love exactly as Christ commands—to make love happen by going all the way. Indeed, the central message of John’s first letter emphasizes there’s no use professing love if we’re unwilling to prove it. He’s so determined we get the gravity of love’s demands he doesn’t sugarcoat the topic or leave the door open for any exceptions. Here’s the Reader’s Digest edition of 1 John:

“Whoever says, 'I have come to know God,' but does not obey God’s commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys God’s word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. (2.4-5) Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before God whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts. (3.18-20) Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother sister whom they have seen cannot love God Whom they have not seen. (4.7-8; 20) Everyone who loves the Parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God and obey God’s commandments. And God’s commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (5.1; 3-4)

This is the discussion John references when he says, “This is nothing new,” in his second letter. Obedience to God and love for others aren’t linked; they’re one and the same. Lip-service love gives slip to the lie that we truly love God and our faith is real. In an age when no news is good news, every day conspires to prove how little we matter. Which is why true love that goes all the way—that happens on the ground, touching every life that touches us—has never been more crucial. Mattering is what love’s all about. In saying, “I love you,” and showing we mean it, we transmit healing and self-worth to people in desperate need of knowing they matter.

Most loving God, grip us with an understanding of why You command us to love truly, without condition. Create in us a gnawing desire to say, “I love you,” and mean it. We confess mixed results in our struggle against the idea that some matter and others don’t. When fear and doubt tempt us to stray, deal with us as You alone can, firmly and gently. Teach us to love Parent and child—every child—equally and lavishly. Amen.

It’s a brave thing we do, insisting everyone matters and proving it with love.