Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Let's Go Up

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” (Psalm 122.1)

Till Every Exile Comes Home

What gracious Facebook friends I have! Besides linking posts on Straight-Friendly’s group page, I also put them on my personal page, dropping them on family and friends. Every time I post a link, I hear a lot of them groan, “Here he goes with that stuff!” Yet, other than a couple tightly wound Christians, not one has charged me with overstepping. In fact, I’m often surprised and moved by positive responses from people I considered unlikely to show any support. Ever the optimist, I imagine those who’ve not said anything pro or con view the links favorably. Meanwhile, the realist in me argues that many dislike what I do and are too polite to complain. The truth, I guess, lay in the middle. Most probably breeze by my stuff as I do much of theirs, because Facebook is the Land of the Unhidden Agenda, where any and everyone can say what’s on their minds and keep saying it until they’re tired of saying it—usually long after people tire of hearing it. Whether or not my FB friends look kindly on what I say and do there, it’s a smart bet they’re over it by now, many of them wishing I’d give it up and move on. Sometimes I wish I would, too. But I can’t.

When God’s Spirit and Word spoke healing to my heart, it broke anew for multitudes of LGBT and straight believers unjustly ostracized by foul doctrines of fear, shame, and rejection. Assurance that nothing can separate us from God’s love won’t let me quit saying so till every exile comes home. Compared to the task facing those of us who hear the Spirit call the Church to renew its first love—the Gospel of grace, equality, and inclusion—I know my efforts don’t carry a flea’s weight. Yet having so little to offer compels me to do all I can in the biggest way. With regrets to those who are weary with me, I suspect this obsession is with me for life, gaining insistence the closer we get to a day when Christians of every gender, ethnicity, orientation, class, and persuasion are joyfully, freely welcomed by all members of Christ’s Body.

Can—will—that day arrive? Along with believing there’s no good reason why it can’t, I find no use in excuses for why it won’t. Or so says my optimist. It never saw a mountain it couldn’t scale once faith in God’s power and trust in God’s purpose entered the picture. Oddly enough, my realist, who generally sides with logic and skepticism, doesn’t disagree. It does, however, stop short of buying the dream without caveats. Reviving the Apostles’ doctrine of Christ’s acceptance relies on us forsaking prejudices and myths that wormed their way into our traditions, fractured our unity, and corroded our witness. That’s a tall order.

Belittling a Few to Mass-Market Belonging

Since many who govern Christian lives obtained and hold power by preaching fear of rejection, we can’t imagine they’ll champion equality and inclusion. Early in the Christian movement, it became clear the leader with the biggest draw held the most clout. Not a few figured out that barring select groups was the quickest, surest way to pack the house with would-be insiders. For centuries, those charged with advancing the Gospel have built huge, slavishly devoted followings by fueling an intrinsically covetous desire to have what others can’t get. Twisting Scripture every which way—or, if that failed, inventing exclusionary “theologies” from whole cloth—they present the Church as a members-only organization, not the let-everyone-come organism Jesus brought to life with His blood. As a consumer strategy, belittling a few to mass-market belonging couldn’t be more effective; its replication in every ad touting status or getting ahead verifies that. One thing’s certain: it inflates many prelates and pastors’ self-importance and makes a lot of them very rich—every one of them fully aware that hawking the Gospel to endorse exclusion negates Its truth and cheapens the price Christ paid to substantiate It. Exclusion is the most subversive, dangerous doctrine ever visited upon Christ's Church.

You’d expect the shameful history of religious wars, public strife, and private torment brought on by Christian exclusion would cause every leader in every faith community to demand it cease, regardless if they care or even understand that true discipleship is defined and measured by Christ’s command to love God and others without restraint. But here’s the rub. Nullifying doctrines of inequality and exclusion cancels all power to leverage fear of rejection as a control mechanism and campaign tactic, which many in authority can’t afford to do.

Humanly Impossible

Suppose churches literally became what Jesus indicates they should be: safe harbors where none is rejected and all are equally entitled to God’s grace. How would that work? It’s humanly impossible. Despite the New Testament’s outlay of church governance, only a lunatic would try to hold such an unmanageably diverse and needy crowd together. With nothing to fear, what’s not to lose? Without sinners to keep out, there’s nothing to keep saints in. If Jesus means what He says in John 6.37 (“Whoever comes to Me I will never drive away”), and if the Spirit and the Church actually say what Revelation 22.17 says (“Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”), we’re looking at a managerial nightmare. Not that there will be much to manage. Nobody joins a club that lets anybody in.

My realist urges me not to lose sight of the scarred history, ingrained traditions, and nagging insecurities that plague the priestly caste at the summit of the mountain that my optimist hopes to conquer. Waiting for an invite like the one in Revelation wastes precious time. That offer has stood since Christ stepped out of the tomb. It will forever stand. There’s no excuse for stalling in the valley, starving for community and nurture until those at the top send invitations barreling down the hill. If that’s what it takes to press our way toward inclusion, we ain’t going anywhere for a while, because what we’re waiting on ain’t coming any time soon.

Those occupying the mountain may rule it to their liking. But they don’t own it and can’t stop us from climbing it. So why keep murmuring about high officials and lofty communities too terrified of falling to budge? They don’t have to come to us—and we need to stop wishing they would. What they do or don’t do to end the Church’s long night of exclusion has no impact on us. God gives all exiled believers a fear-free, outrageously joyful answer to their dilemma. It’s not a demand or denial. It’s a decision, delivered on wings of a song that says, “Let’s go up.”

Going to Meet God

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”

Most of us raised in church grew up singing one or another version of Psalm 122.1. Composers have set its lyric in every style and genre—from toe-tapping, let’s-get-our-praise-on versions that emphasize the “glad” end of the sentence to richly sacred hymns that evoke the privilege of entering God’s house. Psalm 122 is the third in a 15-song suite (120-134) known as “The Songs of Ascent,” sung by ancient Jews while climbing Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (a.k.a. “Mt. Zion”) for festival services. These songs surpass others that extol Temple worship. They’re informed with a sense of community and stubborn hope. They span an enormous range of emotions, referring to the best and worst of Israel’s experience. As worshipers look up to the Temple, they repeatedly describe a God Who watches over them. Their joy mounts as they sing; reciting how far they’ve come makes vivid where they’re going. It’s bigger than going to church out of obligation (like many part-time Christians do at Christmas and Easter). They’re going to meet God, every song drawing nearer to God’s dwelling.

A fascinating aspect of The Songs of Ascents surfaces with four (122, 124, 131, and 133) composed by the Temple’s visionary, David, and a fifth (127) by its builder, Solomon. Yet these songs are written like the rest: in the voice of a commoner marveling at God’s goodness and power. Israel’s two greatest kings join the procession—not out of noblesse oblige or politically savvy solidarity. Implicit in their point of view one finds an electrifying confession of faith. This is God’s mountain, God’s house, and they, along with every pilgrim, are God’s people. They own these truths without presumption of owning what belongs to God. Canny recognition of what’s theirs and what’s God’s frees them from inequities and fears that shatter community and sanction prejudice.

David and Solomon leave their palatial heights to ascend Mt. Zion with their people. They surrender authority as Israel’s anointed leaders to honor Who’s really in charge. And while Israel habitually backslides into exclusionary policies, both kings consistently take a hands-off approach regarding elitism. God’s awesome reality in their own lives—made real by keen awareness they’re undeserving of divine favor—stays before them. In Psalm 131.1-2, David writes, “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvelous for me.”

The Spirit of Ascent

This is the spirit of ascent: the mightiest man in Israel admitting he’s not big enough to take the reins from God. Weighty matters exceed his knowledge and authority. Much of what happens around him is unmanageable. What God demands is humanly impossible. Yet David doesn’t grab for control to retain to power and position. He’s so smart about where his authority ends and God’s begins that he celebrates his limits. And when the call goes out—“Let’s go up to God’s house”—he’s thrilled. It’s a little thing. But he does it in a big way.

When we answer the call to go up, we bear in mind our ascent is about meeting God where God dwells. We concede our limitations while doing what we little can in a big way. With that comes a lamentable concession that not every church is a house of God. Many don’t nurture organisms where faith thrives and all are invited to take the living water as a gift. They’re merely clubhouses—organizations whose members define themselves by what they’re not instead of Whose they are. They’re founded on covetous desire to have what those who don’t fit the accepted profile can’t. They preach and practice belittlement to conjure a false sense of belonging, status, and getting ahead. Thus, we have to free ourselves of the idea that boycotting worship because expertly marketed clubs won’t admit us proves anything. Our ascent bypasses such places without a glance. They’re not where we want to be, nor should be. Not being welcome is our first indication they can’t provide what we need. We’re climbing God’s mountain to meet God. Jesus promises never to drive us away. The Spirit and the true Body of Christ says, “Come.” We must own these truths.

A New Normal

In every Christian exile there’s a profound longing for a safe home where none is belittled and all belong. Those we find will, in many cases, be nothing like those we left. Our trek isn’t intended to return us to clubhouses that mock God’s sovereignty and our making. Our ascent leads to homes that defy the norm in obedience to a new normal. Once we start filling up authentic houses of God, members-only mentality will self-destruct. Fear of rejection will lose its luster, and physical, emotional, and spiritual violence born of exclusion will cease. For that to go, however, we must let go fantasies that homes where we’re not wanted or appreciated will suddenly change their ways. Mistaking magical thinking for faith-bred optimism can be as paralyzing and unproductive as stubborn denial.

Though it seems those occupying the summit hold the power and write the rules, nothing could be further from the truth. The power resides in us. The only rules that merit attention are laid out in God’s Word. They’re not hidden in obscure passages or legalistic fine print, either. They’re writ large in Old Testament commands to welcome the stranger and embodied in Christ’s life and teachings. God’s Spirit beckons us to God’s house. Let’s respond gladly. Let’s go up.

You call us to Your mountain, to meet You in Your house, O God. Forgive our reluctance to climb. Make us glad as we go up and lead us safely home. Amen.

There’s no excuse for stalling in the valley, expecting an invitation to come rolling down from those who occupy the top of the hill. Power to go up and meet God resides in us.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Assuming Risks

The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. (Matthew 25.16-18)

Mutually Beneficial Outcomes

Business that took me to San Diego last week offered an opportunity to visit with our financial advisor, his wife, and their two-year-old son. Before their recent move to the West Coast, Walt and I counted them among our favorite couples to spend unhurried evenings with, and the chance to see how they’re doing in their new place—if only for an hour or so—gave us too much important stuff to talk about to discuss money. As it is, my financial conversations with Byron are typically brief for two reasons. My head isn’t wired for money matters; it shuts down the instant the charts and graphs come out. More important, we have total faith he has our best interests at heart. Because he knows and cares for us, and wants to please us, he treats our assets like his own.

Our discussions usually begin by him saying, “Here’s what I’m doing with our money,” and end with me saying, “If it works for you, it works for us.” In between, he’s legally obliged to disclose risks we assume if we take his advice. Given his faithfulness as our friend and advisor, precautionary measures seemed silly at first. Then he explained why they're important to him. “You stand to lose money—which is never pleasant, but can always be remedied. I stand to lose your friendship, trust, and respect. That can’t be fixed. If the law didn’t require it, I’d still go over what’s at risk to assure you I’ve weighed the options to make the wisest decision—for both of us.” The explanation beautifully summarizes the investment dynamic Jesus describes in Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 25.14-30). His story of a man who entrusts large sums to three servants is all about assuming risk, weighing options, and wise decisions—and how honoring the master’s faith yields mutually beneficial outcomes for two of the three servants.

No Growth Without Risk

Matthew buries the parable’s lead by not telling us much about the master’s character until the third servant scrambles to justify not generating gains with what he’s given. “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” he says. “So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” (v24-25) These days, when we’re inundated with exposés of Ponzi schemers, robber barons, and Wall Street flim-flam artists, we immediately suspect this guy’s working some kind of angle. We’re suddenly very wary when he hands one servant five talents, another two, and a third a single talent before departing on a trip. (Scholars estimate one talent equaled 15 times an average worker’s annual income. Jesus is talking a lot of cash here.) We shudder as the first two rush off to wheel and deal with his money—and we’re relieved they’re able to double it. Imagining their fate if things went wrong, the third servant’s decision to bury his talent doesn’t look so foolish after all. With the least to gamble, he’s got the most to lose.

So why does the master call him “wicked and foolish” (v26) and those who take big chances “good and trustworthy” (v21)? Why does he reward their risky behavior by giving them more, while taking back what he gave the other servant, saying he should have known not to play it safe? (To add insult to injury, he hands the talent to the first servant, who risked more than the others combined.) Why does he invite the first two to “enter the joy of your master,” yet banish the third to “outer darkness” (v30)? If he’s as greedy and conniving as we’re led to think, avoiding his wrath at all costs is the smartest thing a servant can do, as it witnesses true loyalty and respect.

The master doesn’t see it like we do, because he’s not the predator we presume him to be. He’s a brilliant venture capitalist in the business of funding risk. He reaps where he doesn’t sow and gathers where he doesn’t scatter seed in return for providing the seed and ground it grows in. Expecting those he entrusts with wealth to assume risks to create more wealth, it’s his right to demand they weigh the options and make wise decisions that benefit him and them. What the third servant views as harshness is really sound management. The master empowers his people to take risks, and those who know and understand him don’t hesitate do so. They’re less concerned with results than honoring his trust. As a canny investor, he’s aware that markets and harvests fluctuate. He knows taking risks invites potential disappointment and frustration. Yet it’s nothing to be afraid or ashamed of, as there can be no growth without risk. The first two get that. The third earns his master’s ire by lacking will to grow. Poor grasp of his master’s plan and fear of punishment witness not a shred of faith in the one he serves. It’s true: he’s wicked and lazy and deserves to be fired on the spot.

Them That’s Got Shall Get

According to Matthew, this is Jesus’s final parable before He’s arrested. In light of its timing, then, we ascertain Jesus refers to Himself as the demanding master who endows his servants to manage his investments while He’s away. He cautions us we’ll be judged and rewarded in scale with what we’ve done with what we’re given, which is by no means a negligible sum regardless how our talents compare to others’. The only commentary Jesus inserts into the story surfaces in the master’s fury with the risk-averse servant—and it’s a stunner: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (v29) Jesus wants us to recognize the value of what we possess and He expects us to risk all we have to create greater wealth from the wealth He’s entrusted to us. Burying it where no one can find it may seem smart. But it’s a wicked, lazy approach that reveals not a shred of understanding or trust in Christ.

I’m also convinced the parable contains less overt messages that we need to hear. While faith is our most precious and holy possession, we’re foolish to imagine it needs our protection. What’s more—and you may want to fasten your seatbelt for this—fearing God’s wrath does neither God nor us a service. Indeed, Jesus says what comes of being afraid of God’s punishment is the surest way to experience it. We are not called to spiritual stasis. We’re called to grow. That demands courage to assume risks, weigh options, and make wise decisions. In 2 Timothy 1.7 Paul writes, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Burying our talents for fear of losing them puts us at greater risk than any chance we’ll ever take to grow the power, love, and self-discipline God entrusted to us. Jesus couldn’t be more explicit in warning us risk-averse cowardice leads to an unhappy ending. And it’s no surprise we should find this so surprising. As Billie Holiday put it, “Them that’s got shall get; them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible says, and it still is news.”

Lord, You know better than anyone we’re surrounded by third servants frozen with fear of Your wrath. Assuming risks to generate growth is anathema to them. Reignite the power, love, and self-discipline You placed in us so that we’ll reject fear and honor Your trust. For Your sake and ours, strengthen our will to grow. Amen.

Safeguarding our talents may seem like a wise strategy, but it ends up putting us at greater risk than using what God has given us to generate more growth.