Saturday, October 20, 2012

Asking for It

He said to them, “What is it you want Me to do for you?” And they said to Him, “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” (Mark 10.36-37)

Are You New?

My favorite moment in the entire “Roseanne” series came when DJ, the financially strapped homemaker’s son asked his mother for some extra spending money. With classic sarcasm, she replied, “Are you new?” The laugh comes out of everything Roseanne’s answer telegraphed. Before he asked, the boy knew it was a long shot, at best—so much so that it sounded as if he had no idea how things worked in his family.

The scene instantly came to mind when looking at Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10.35-45). James and John step forward to ask Jesus for a most unusual favor. They want Him to reserve places beside Him in God’s kingdom. From our vantage, it’s such a ridiculous, self-serving request—an idea so antithetical to discipleship—that we almost see Jesus roll His eyes as He fires back, “Are you new?” At every opportunity in Mark’s gospel, Jesus preaches self-imposed lowliness and service to others. There is simply no room in the kingdom for ambition and seeking status. Yet here are two of His closest disciples trying to secure positions of honor in advance of the events that will bring Christ into His glory. And we need to be very clear about the error of their intentions. Three times Jesus has explained He’ll be arrested, executed, and brought back to life. Getting to glory will be a gruesome, humiliating task and anyone who expects to arrive there with Jesus will have to go through the ordeal alongside Him. That’s why Jesus constantly emphasizes the importance of lowering oneself, of focusing on intentional service that embraces crushing demands. The right request would ask Jesus’s help in summoning courage to sacrifice one’s life and strength to endure unbearable pain. James and John, clinging to the fantasy of triumphal glory, discount what it requires. All they care about is landing the best seats in house after the worst of it is over. If Jesus decided to play it for laughs, perhaps giving the so-called “sons of thunder”—as He somewhat sarcastically calls James and John—a foretaste of the meanness that awaits, He would dismiss them with ever-so-dry incredulity. Are you new?

Personal Costs

But the trials and presumptive defeat that will bring about Christ’s glory are no laughing matter. Jesus sternly tells the Thunder Boys, “You don’t know what you are asking.” He turns their request into a question for them: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (v38) Now comes the passage’s real shocker. James and John immediately reply, “We are able.” (v39) The question changes from “Are you new?” to “Are you nuts?” Strangely, Jesus goes a different route. He seems to find their confidence reassuring and reinforces the fact that they will most definitely join Him in the fear, suffering, and death that must be conquered to bring about God’s kingdom. Yet, even then, He withholds any guarantee of greatness. “To sit at My right hand or My left is not Mine to grant,” He tells them in verse 40. “But it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And let’s look closely at this: Jesus refuses to pre-judge James and John either way, good or bad. Their place in the kingdom depends on them. If they honor its principles and endure its hardships, they will achieve the prominence they seek. What they want isn’t Christ's to give. It’s up to them.

Obviously this outbreak of status craving infuriates the rest of the disciples. Who do James and John think they are? Instead of trying to explain the sincerity of their motives—essentially apologizing for the Thunder Boys—Jesus returns to the same lesson He’s been teaching all of His followers: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (v43) The New Order He’s come to institute is all about giving, not getting. He makes Himself the prime example, explaining, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (v45) Jesus is upholding the principle of selfless exchange: our sacrifice for others’ redemption, our loss for others’ restoration. It is a radically new idea that, to this day, is nearly impossible to comprehend. It is an ideal that carries tremendous personal costs that we must assess and accept if we are ever to gain access to the kingdom of God.

Ready to Serve

It’s been said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sunday’s Gospel tells us the path to glory is a rocky one that can only be navigated by intentional goodness. There is no express lane, no shortcut that gets us into God’s kingdom ahead of the rest—no means of arriving early to snag the best seats in the house. Nearly every step we make presents us with decisions that ask more of us than we’d ordinarily give. Every day confronts us with choices that put our comforts and desires in direct opposition to those of others. And those choices would be easy if they merely boiled down to being nice and agreeable—to acting polite.

But it’s not that simple. To be servants of all, we must seek what is right for those we serve. That means we are often called to humble ourselves in pursuit of justice and demonstrate compassion with boldness that reflects God’s righteousness. We must be willing to endure the hardships and criticism that accompany swimming against popular trends and tides—not for the sake of self-aggrandizement, but because it is our calling. As it turns out, we are new. We are new creatures in Christ. Old thinking about success and prominence doesn’t work for us. Old ideas about getting ahead don’t sway us. And whatever glory we may receive for our commitment to Christ is irrelevant. Like our Savior, we are ready to serve, not to be served. We give our lives in exchange for the lives of others. If we ask more of our faith than that, we have no idea what we’re asking for.

The path to glory is a service road—and a rocky one, at that.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


There is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28)

By now you’ve heard the name Malala Yousafzai. By now you’ve joined millions the world over made sick at the thought of such barbarity. That anyone—let alone a religious sect—would attempt to assassinate a 14-year-old advocate of educating young girls is beyond comprehension. The more I’ve thought about this perverse tragedy, the more I’ve wondered about the man who actually pulled the trigger. What was going on his mind as he pointed his rifle at a school bus, waiting for the precise moment when Malala passed into its sights? How did he feel in the seconds after he shot her? What is he feeling now? Does he feel like a hero—a warrior of Allah? Has he any remorse at all, or has his inner compass gone so awry that he’s rationalized his crime as an act of righteousness? These questions quickly brought to mind Eudora Welty’s famous short story, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” Written immediately after the 1963 assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers (who, like Ms. Welty, lived in Jackson, Mississippi), the story chillingly imagined the killer’s madness from the inside out. Describing what prompted her to write the story, Ms. Welty said she somehow realized, “Whoever the murderer is, I know him; not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind.”

In the West, we can’t help but regard the attempt on Malala Yousafzai’s life as too monstrous to contemplate—particularly since it was allegedly committed in the name of Allah. Yet in our rush to condemn, we must also grapple with our complacency about the treatment of women in our own culture. And, tragically, many of the attitudes and policies that relegate women of all ages to second-class status are rooted in antiquated, erroneous Christian dogma. There is simply no excuse—civic or religious—for accepting gender inequality in American society. There is no reason why women don’t earn equal pay for equal work. There is no justification for denying them full access to healthcare, control of their bodies, and the right to safeguard their future with every advantage given to men. What does it say of us as a people—especially we who claim discipleship—that we aren’t grievously troubled by a culture that puts more emphasis on telling women how not to get raped than teaching men rape is unacceptable? What does it say of us that we value male opinions of gender-related issues more than women’s? What does it say of us as a Church that we’ve not yet fully rejected the notion that God is a male and that men are more qualified than women to lead us in worship and service? Like Welty, we know where these voices are coming from—we know their coming about, in this time and place. The question for all of us, but believers in particular, is: are we raising our voices against them?

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul experiences a magnificent “Eureka!” moment that rebuts the sexist slant of his other writings. “There is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” he proclaims. Gender discrimination—or any prejudice, for that matter—has no place in a believer’s life. It simply doesn’t belong in God’s kingdom. We can sigh with great relief that we don’t live in a culture that tolerates the heinous religious violence perpetrated on girls and women like Malala. Yet our daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers nonetheless are the objects of male-propagated injustice. We know where these voices are coming from and they will continue to come until we lift our voices for equality and justice in obedience to our faith. Paul has set before an ideal, prevailing on our belief in Christ as the Great Equalizer, Who makes all of us one. May that belief pierce our hearts and disturb our complacency with a world where men and women are not yet equal.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Love the Stranger

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords… Who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10.17-19)

When I was a kid, I’d visit classmates whose grandparents lived with them. That felt rather odd to me, as the idea of an extended family living under one roof was foreign to my Southern roots. “Our people”—as we called kinfolk—tended to live in close proximity to one another, yet seldom in the same house. If a relative needed a place to stay, they were always welcome. But it was understood these arrangements were temporary; the whole point of welcoming them into the house was getting them back on their feet to make it on their own. So the concept of multiple generations living together was a real curiosity. What’s more, most of my friends’ grandparents came from “the old country,” a euphemism for their homelands. They spoke little, if any, English and always seemed distant from everyday American life. Yet these strange people who neither spoke America’s language nor understood its customs were revered in our community. They were heroes who left the world they knew, often at great sacrifice, to provide something better, richer, and more promising for their children. They were living proof of what America—the “land of opportunity”—was all about.

Getting to America was tough. Being allowed to stay was even tougher. The immigration maze was nearly impossible to navigate. The bureaucratic indifference was disheartening. And the overt hostility many new immigrants encountered while trying to carve out new lives was terrifying. They persevered. But they didn’t do it alone. Everyone rallied around them, driven by a common sentiment that permeated American life—the sense that we were building a new kind of nation where ethnicity and class were irrelevant. In my youth, this was the “American dream”—E pluribus unum, “one out of many”—not the fantasy of personal wealth and social advantage that many mistake it for today.

By and large this dream was made possible by a deeply religious commitment to honor Old and New Testament doctrines of welcoming the stranger. Embracing immigrants was seen as a sacred American and Christian value in response to passages like 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.” As second- and third-generation Americans, we could relate to the Exodus saga. We understood the Promised Land in palpable ways, as many of our ancestors had sought refuge from oppressive European regimes, with African-Americans struggling to shake the chains of slavery within our borders.

Times have changed. European dictatorships are no more. Racial progress has weakened America’s connection with its shameful past. New waves of immigrants cross our borders and light on our shores, fleeing the injustices of Latin American, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern tyranny. Like their European predecessors, they don’t speak our language. They don’t understand our culture. And they too are confronted with a labyrinthine process made nigh unto impossible to satisfy. Many don’t succeed and more than a few don’t even try. It’s all too easy to demonize them—forgetting the sacrifices they’ve made to reach for the promise we call America—and ignore our scriptural obligation to love the stranger. If we do as God asks, we will see their problems as our own, and press our leaders to find mutually beneficial ways to welcome them. Constructing walls and construing more stringent immigration policies most assuredly will reduce their numbers and may ease the burden of integrating them into American society. Yet we whose lives are governed by God’s Word must never overlook the immigration edict it issues over and over. God loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing, Deuteronomy says, charging us to do likewise. Immigration is a problem we can fix, provided we do it with love.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Zealous for Peace

The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. (Isaiah 32.17)

Yesterday our church gloried in the promise of peace. Our guest preacher, Rev. Dr. Edward Campbell—a highly regarded Bible translator and seminarian whose title belies his salt-of-the-earth pragmatism—said something that stuck with me. As we read Scripture, he said, we should remember it’s the story of people figuring out how the world is supposed to work. Thus, the tension that binds together 66 books written across centuries is manifest in a contest of wills: human will and its wantonness versus God’s will and all that God desires for, and from, us. Consequently, we’ve invented an alternate reality to accommodate weaknesses that, as Scripture persistently reminds us, bear no reflection of God’s vision. Nowhere is this discrepancy more magnified than in human proclivity to make war. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is rife with war zeal. Repeatedly, we watch Israel engage in military conflicts that lay ruin to its country and other nations. The extreme losses are plain to see. And while it’s true that God sometimes—though not always—intervenes on Israel’s behalf, no stretch of scriptural interpretation can be made to translate God’s role in human combat as a divine sanction of war. When God steps into military conflicts, miracles occur that restore peace. Peaceful cohabitation is how the world is supposed to work.  It is God’s will. Why can’t we figure that out?

I submit we have figured it out. What we’ve not yet resolved are the international, cross-cultural, and political conflicts that cause war. Proverbs 14.31-34 diagnoses our failure when it says: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor God. The wicked are overthrown by their evildoing, but the righteous find a refuge in their integrity. Wisdom is at home in the mind of one who has understanding, but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Emphasis added.) When we set our hearts to prove our superiority over other nations—when we advance policies and actions that promote poverty, violence, and suffering, whether abroad or at home—we forsake God’s call to righteousness. We will not live in peace. As we’ve recently experienced in a recession largely brought on by reckless war-making, the costs of militaristic bravado are enormous. Conflicts wrought of aggression inevitably exact a huge toll on the aggressors. And the prices aren’t just paid out of pocket: they’re deducted in human lives, bodies, minds, and emotions. War is not God’s will. Why can’t we figure that out?

Isaiah 32.17 says, “The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” We are not so naïve to expect global righteousness and its peaceful effects will prevail in our present world. Yet, as Christians, we must also ponder how we can expend our resources to promote righteousness. That we need adequate defenses against malevolent powers is a given. The question is whether we permit our leaders to pursue unrighteous policies of aggression—to foster nationalistic, military bravado that is quick to pull triggers and create undue poverty, suffering, and loss of life. We must be zealous for peace at all costs, as the price of warfare is more than we can bear. We are regularly confronted with the harrowing realities of warfare, yet we cling to the myth that war can ever be just. Military aggression is the way of the world. But it’s not how God intended it to be. It’s time we figured that out.