Saturday, October 13, 2012

Staying on Message

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow Me.” (Mark 10.21)

Understanding and Internalizing

As a marketing consultant, I constantly remind clients effective communication is all about staying on message. Not only must the message remain consistent across time. It must also stay the same on a vertical plane, until everyone at every level of the company is marching to the same beat. In time, the message morphs from strategic imperative into personal commitment that alters how employees think and work. I’ve been at this a very long time and can tell you that staying on message works. I’ll also admit it’s not easy to do. By nature, we’re more attracted to novelty than consistency. Repetition reduces our curiosity with each retelling. After we get a sense of what’s supposed to change and why it’s needed, we’re eager to move on. Yet there’s a huge gap between hearing and internalizing a message, knowing and understanding. Hearing and knowing may inform behavior, but they rarely alter it. To change behavior, a message must lodge so pervasively in the hearers’ minds that it becomes first nature to them.

Check out any business school and you’ll find entire curricula and volumes of theory and case studies expounding this principle. Still, no expert I’ve found matches Jesus’s brilliance for consistently communicating change, and no book I’ve read outclasses Mark’s gospel as a case study in effective communications strategy. Mark documents the pivotal moment in Jewish and, by extension, human history. It is the culmination of Israel’s longing for change and the start of something far greater than anyone expected: the revelation of God’s kingdom in the person and teachings of Christ. Jesus arrives, declaring change: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.15) From there, He takes every opportunity to reinforce His message—consistently emphasizing a New Order that disrupts tradition and overturns conventional wisdom: the last are first, the poor preferred, children lead adults, outcasts are welcomed, and so on.

After following the readings from Mark, hearing the same thing—often the same words—week after week, we open Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10.17-31) to discover yet another iteration of Jesus’s message, It’s all we can do not groan, “Enough already! We get it!” And that’s probably true. We know full well what Jesus is saying. But do we understand it? Have we internalized Jesus’s good news to the point that we are changed? That’s why Jesus stays on message.

Life to the Fullest

There is something new in this weekend’s lesson, though. Previously, we’ve heard Jesus deliver His message to groups of people—often changing the subject to do so. In this case, He models vertical communication, delivering the same message to a “higher-up.” We watch a wealthy man kneel before Him and ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v17) We’re not sure what’s on the man’s mind. We know what he means by “eternal life,” however. In Jesus’s time, the concept of eternal life transcends life after death; to live eternally is to experience life to the fullest now and always. The man asks about inheriting eternal life, recognizing it’s a gift (not a reward) God wills to us. He senses there’s more to life than all he possesses. Until he identifies what’s missing, he’ll be incomplete. To use a financial term often found in the gospels, this rich man wants to be made whole.

Jesus answers with a somewhat pat response: keep the commandments. “I’ve done that since my youth,” the man says, once again addressing Jesus as “Teacher.” With that a superb teaching moment arises. Jesus sees the man’s sincerity and loves him. “You lack one thing,” He says, instructing the man to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow Me.” (v21) Once the man is relieved of his burdensome riches, he’ll access the enormity of God’s wealth and discover fullness of life. He’ll be free to follow Jesus. Mark tells us Jesus’s answer shocks the man. He leaves sorrowfully. He gives up finding the missing piece of his life because he can’t (or won’t) give up what he already has to make room for it.

This is one of the gospels’ saddest moments—one of very few episodes that end unhappily. And the disciples’ reaction gives us a taste of how rare it is. They’re stunned. But Jesus stays on message, saying, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” This only confuses His followers more. They’re culturally predisposed to believe those with the greatest means have the best chances of winning divine favor. After all, they cut the most prominent profiles in the Temple; they’re the movers and shakers—elite philanthropists and entrepreneurs and job creators. How can entering God’s kingdom be so difficult for them that Jesus says it’s easier to shove a camel through a tiny door by comparison? But Jesus is adamant. Entering God’s kingdom isn’t based on what we own. It’s decided by how easily we can surrender everything we rely on: possessions, people, and even prospects. This passage ends with Jesus telling us again: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (v31)

Divesting Every Encumbrance

In an election season fraught with cries of economic injustice and a fetishistic obsession with percentiles, how simple it would be for us to filter this text through a political lens! How smug we’d feel if all of this actually boiled down to accusing the infamous 1% of flouting Christ’s instructions! Yet Jesus stays on message to teach us—rich or poor, high or low—the life-changing power of His good news. The kingdom of God has come near. The door to eternal life is flung open. And none of us, regardless of status, can enter without first divesting every encumbrance that prevents us from following Jesus. Wealth is the rich man’s burden. But there are many burdens that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. We carry pride and intellect and relationships and popularity and sophistication and religion and advantages of every kind—including moral superiority we assume as casualties of injustice—with such ferocity that we can’t perceive life without them. We rely on them to put us ahead. But they don’t provide fullness of life. Something’s lacking. And if we’re to be made whole, we must first be willing to sacrifice everything we cherish to find it.

Let’s be real: Jesus’s message quickly loses its novelty. It’s the same thing, over and over: let go everything you think you know and understand what’s truly essential. Stop hearing and start internalizing. Once we learn to do that, we will be changed.

Jesus stays on message so that we can progress from hearing His words to internalizing them, from knowing what He says to understanding what He means.

Friday, October 12, 2012

At the Opening

Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. (Proverbs 22.6)

We most often hear this wisdom in conjunction with faith formation. Pastors and lay leaders quote it to urge parents to invest time in teaching their children godly ways. There is a promise in this verse—a guarantee, if you will, that the child who learns to value spiritual principles at an early age will follow them for life. I can’t attest to its validity in other families. But it proved itself in my own. My folks took this promise to heart, and their two sons—along with nearly all of the 50-plus young people they welcomed into their home and nurtured as surrogate parents—grew up to be committed believers.

Still, applying this verse to a strong faith foundation and leaving it there strikes me as shallow. I’m convinced it's meant to stress the importance of an overall solid education. A better translation of the Hebrew is “Initiate the child at the opening of his/her path,” encouraging parents to ensure their children enter adulthood with a strong start. When we couple this with Christ’s repeated command that we, as individuals and a community, care for our children, we are scripturally obliged to meet their educational needs with the best we can offer.

Every child deserves a strong start. Our forebears believed this, which is why they implemented public institutions and laws to provide every American child with a quality education. Yet, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly one in 10 young people drops out of school. The rate more than triples in many urban areas, meaning thousands of children never reach the opening of their paths. As the Harvard Education Letter recently described, the reasons our children aren’t in school and others receive substandard education are myriad and complex, with most of them directly tied to poverty. Combined with the runaway costs of higher education and enormous debt we inflict on university students at the opening of their paths, it’s all too evident we’ve turned our hearts from what God expects of us. We’ve abdicated our scriptural duty to remove hurdles that prevent our youth from being trained in the right way. Since our neglect isn’t a new phenomenon, we’re already coping with its toll on our young, as well as the prices we pay personally, as communities, and as a nation. We can readily trace the connections between undernourished education and the socioeconomic—and spiritual—malaise that plagues us. And this is chiefly because the American response has been to move away from areas where substandard education is the norm, rather than invest the time, energy, and money to secure first-rate educations for all young Americans.

Most often, our politicians position their education policies in the context of “competing in the global economy.” They seem to believe we can’t be moved to remedy education gaps without threatening loss of profitable trade and innovation that has held the US on the top of the heap. But there’s more to it. Providing children with a strong start is God’s will. For believers, the mandate is non-negotiable. It’s not about us—or our pocketbooks. It’s about our children. If we commit our all to initiate them at the opening of their paths, when they’re grown, they’ll walk in productive, prosperous, and healthy ways.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Substance, Not Size

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities… For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good. (Romans 13.1,3)

This election will mark the ninth time I’ve voted for president. If memory serves correctly—and I’m fairly confident it does—the size of government has been hotly debated in every contest. The candidates play to their parties’ predispositions, promising big cuts and less interference on one hand and more effective use of spending and power on the other. When elected, rarely does either side live up to its promises. And that shouldn’t surprise us, because candidates enter office with no way of knowing the challenges they’ll face. When the hoopla dissipates and the real business of running the nation takes hold, size is a phantom issue. Leaders—if they’re wise—do what must be done; expedience drives policy, not the other way around. So we should ask ourselves if all of this wrangling over size is worth the effort. Is there a better question? For believers, there is.

In Romans 13, Paul couldn’t be clearer that Christians are to respect to their leaders. This had to be tough for the Romans to swallow. At the time of his writing, they’d survived Caligula, were dealing with Claudius, and would soon endure severe persecution under Nero. Given their distrust of Caesar, Paul’s admonition that they “be subject to the governing authorities” had to sound nuts. And one struggles to imagine they found solace in his reasoning. “For there is no authority except from God,” he writes, “and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (v1-2) Equating submission to Caesar with obedience to God’s will—and threatening judgment for resisters, no less—sure sounds like a catch-22, a real lose-lose proposition.

What do we do with this? Can we toss it out with Paul’s other cranky bits—his misogyny, for example, or comfort with slavery? Not really. Paul’s doctrine is deeply rooted in faith in God’s sovereignty above all. God sanctions human government as the penultimate authority, reserving final say for God’s Self. Without a doubt, many rulers abuse power and visit great suffering on their nations. But Paul focuses our attention on God’s intentions and our obligation to honor them. Verse 3 tells us, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good.” When we see leaders defy this ideal, promoting bad conduct rather than good, Paul’s words are no easier for us to swallow than for the Romans.

Again, what do we do with this? We are exponentially more fortunate than the Romans. We are free to choose the authorities who govern us. Thus, as believers, we should first question the substance of those we elect. Can we trust them to be “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”? Will we be able to live out our faith while complying with their principles and policies? For believers endowed with democratic privilege, substance, not size, is the deciding factor. If we let substance guide our choice, we’ll have no reason to fear those we elect.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Honest Work

Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. (Ephesians 4.28-29)

We hear a lot about the “social safety net.” I genuinely believe the vast majority of us agree we need it, as most are wise enough to understand that we as a nation would be in far worse shape without it. Deciding who’s entitled to support is where the conversation unravels. These programs cost a lot of money—funds taken from us in taxes and essentially redistributed without our consent. And because it’s our money, we want to feel confident those who receive financial support are legitimately in need and not playing the system. It’s a fair expectation.

What’s not fair—what should be patently unacceptable to every believer—is the presumption that a large portion of the net’s beneficiaries is comprised of lazy people who’d rather “steal” from the system than find work. The stereotypes we often hear—“welfare queens” and “leeches”—don’t come from nowhere. We know these species exist. Yet when we paste such labels on those who rely on government provision to survive, not only do we defeat the net’s purpose. We give poverty a foul name. And as people who worship a God Who chose poverty as a way of life, we are highly aware that relying on common kindness (as Jesus did) is no slur on one’s dignity and worth. Second Corinthians 8.9 reminds us, “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor.” It should distress us greatly when believers promote ideologies that slander the destitute and dependent as thieves. “Get a job!” is their panacea to poverty—a facile answer that disregards many impediments to gainful employment: availability of work, deficient experience and education, childcare and health issues, transportation, criminal record, and so on. (And McDonald’s isn’t the answer.)

Ephesians 4.28 is a favorite for many Christians in defense of their simplistic go-to-work stance. Yet if we look at it clearly, it’s evident they’ve got it backwards. First, it’s written to the Church; it’s not a social policy statement. And it’s about actual thievery, not sloth or abusing kindness. Most of all, why does the writer urge us to find honest work? So we may have “have something to share with the needy”! This passage validates the social safety net, without any mention of who “deserves” to benefit from the fruits of our labor. (And frequently—conveniently—the expectation that we share what we earn with the poor gets amputated from the quote.) The writer goes on to caution us about we say, telling us, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” (v29) If our thoughts and words about the poor aren’t constructive, we’re out of line.

When we vote for candidates who endorse policies that deprive the poor, we add our voices to cynics who would rather compound the sufferings of the needy than part with a buck. We have quit our calling to build up, and joined ranks with believers and non-believers intent on tearing down. Working only for our benefit—demanding that those who don’t enjoy advantages we’ve been given do likewise—is how honest work becomes dishonest.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sold Out

Do not exult as other nations do; for you have played the whore, departing from your God. You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors. (Hosea 9.1)

How did we not see the Great Recession of 2007 coming? Long before millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes and savings, economists warned that the bubble would one day burst. Yet we spent and borrowed like there was no tomorrow. As a nation, we pursued high-cost agendas in retaliation for 9/11. We slept—enthralled by grandiose dreams of wealth—while lobbyists and special interests plied our elected officials with seductive notions about lowering regulatory gates to unleash a tsunami-like cash flow that never materialized. Instead, rivers of riches poured into a handful of pockets, leaving everyone else high and dry. But that was not before we mortgaged our common sense to buy up any and everything that reeked of success.

We became a people deliriously infected with possession obsession. Whatever we wanted, we got, unconcerned about the ridiculous prices we paid to get it. Then tomorrow came. It was a tsunami all right—just not the one we’d been promised. We watched in horror as countless lives washed away because we sold out, doing precisely what Hosea accused ancient Israel of doing: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no heads, it shall yield no meal; if it were to yield, foreigners would devour it.” (Hosea 8.7) Whether or not foreign debt existed in Hosea’s time I don’t know. But his words surely must chill us to the bone.

The recession should have ushered in a season of chastening, a time to ponder our error and course correct. It didn’t. Our rebellion persists in willful ignorance of where we went wrong. Meanwhile, we shovel blame and disgust on our leaders for not moving fast enough to set things right. But what does God say? Before we answer, perhaps we should ask if we even care, because we’ve paid no heed to divine warnings not to put faith in material wealth, not to horde treasures, not to measure our lives with spreadsheets and status symbols. To truly believe that the prophets of old speak God’s truth to the ages, we must first deal with our Creator. Hosea 9.1 issues a scathing indictment: “Do not exult as other nations do; for you have played the whore, departing from your God. You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors.”

We sold out, as a nation and individuals, wherever it profited us. Like streetwalkers, we traded in false pleasures that betrayed God’s desire that we be a righteous people. We soon will be given a new chance to mend our undoing. Will we sell out to the highest bidders, to merchants who reduce us to commodities that feed their wealth and enjoyment? Or will we be gathered in common effort to restore equity and justice to a land that has turned a deaf ear to precepts that please God?