Saturday, March 23, 2013

With God's Help

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50.6-7)

How did Christianity morph from a collection of oddballs and misfits into the communion of conformity we know today? As we read the Gospels and Acts, we must wonder if we’d be all that happy to see the Apostles in our sanctuaries, let alone trust them to lead us. Can we imagine Peter, the leather-skinned fisherman, stepping into our pulpits? What about Paul, whose infamous “thorn in the flesh” urges him to overcompensate by showing off how smart he is? Would we attend his Bible class? Let’s not forget the Early Church’s far-flung membership. When we survey the rolls peppered through the Epistles, we find slaves and masters, couples and singles, widows and kids, people of all shades and expressions, every social strata, and a spectrum of personal histories that would give today’s most progressive faith community pause.

Of course, we understand why early Christians prize diversity. They belong to Jesus, Who founded His ministry on the radically inclusive doctrine of God’s unconditional love. But we also have to factor in the prophetic tradition Jesus comes from, where eccentrics and outcasts excel. Start with Moses, a Jew raised as Egyptian royalty, a murderer on the lam who worries about his stammer and works all kinds of miracles with a stick. You’ve got David, an adulterer and terrible father, who uses poetry as a therapeutic tool. Elijah’s a manic-depressive, and his student, Elisha, wanders the land in a raggedy coat Elijah tossed to him while being flown into heaven on a celestial chariot. And we can’t forget Isaiah, who walks around naked and shoeless for three years to indicate Israel’s enemies will be stripped of power. Finally, there’s John the Baptist. He sets up shop in the wilderness, survives on honey and wild locusts, wears a hairy shirt, and spends most of his time splashing around in the Jordan River.

With roots dug deep in this wild and crazy tradition, it’s no surprise that Jesus pays no attention to His followers’ idiosyncrasies and sketchy pasts. He looks beyond their quirks and shortcomings to see their potential. Yes, He does this because, as God Incarnate, He loves them without reservation. But He’s also doing something that we, in an age of Christian homogeneity, miss. He’s assembling a prophetic community, a far different thing than starting a religion or organizing a congregation.

So how do the first Christians look and act? They’re all over the map, literally and figuratively. Unlike today, when many Christians gauge who’s in and who’s out by appearance and behavior, in the first century both criteria were useless. Indeed, judgments based on surface observations were highly suspect. The only way to identify a true Christian was by prophetic witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Early Church’s connection to prophesy—i.e., the articulated mind and will of God—is so solid that first-century believers scour the Hebrew Bible to confirm Jesus’s legitimacy. His birth and death narratives are shaped to reflect Messianic clues strung across the texts. This is why Jesus’s statements from the cross echo Psalm 22 and the details of His torture and crucifixion mirror Isaiah. In the coming days, we’ll hear these passages and nod along, thinking, this is what the prophets said and this is how it went. But something gets lost when we limit the Hebrew texts’ meaning and import to Jesus alone. And that something is us.

The suffering and rejection the ancients describe are, in many ways, as universal to every believer as they are specific to Jesus. When we open Isaiah 50—which figures prominently in many Passion liturgies—and read, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” we can’t forget the prophet isn’t just talking about Jesus. He’s talking about himself, and he’s also talking about us. Gratefully, neither Isaiah (as far as we know) nor we actually experience the physical pain and humiliation he poeticizes. Yet we all know what it’s like to feel powerless, as conveyed in the image of giving our backs to those who strike us. We know how it feels to be stripped of self-worth, which, for Jewish men like Isaiah and Jesus, occurs when their beards are ripped from their faces.

The violation in these images is so hideous we have to ask why someone would do such things. Those who go to such lengths clearly have big problems with whomever they assault. It’s obvious that fear stirs up their anger since they have to be more afraid of the person they attack than penalties for their abuse. So what gives rise to such fear and hatred? Well, let’s see. You have Jesus, the Gatherer of oddballs and misfits. Then there’s Isaiah, the naked wanderer. And how do we fit into this pattern? By not fitting into conformist patterns and disrupting norms. Whether in the world or the Church—which, over the centuries, has grown dangerously at ease with adopting the world’s ways—we represent something other than normal.

How dare LGBT Christians expect faith communities to welcome and embrace them. How dare women honor their callings to ministry and ask to be respected on par with their male counterparts. How dare the poor and undereducated and abused and politically radical enter our congregations and expect to be treated as equals. How dare anyone insist prophetic witness to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection qualifies her/him for acceptance. All Christians are supposed to look, talk, and behave alike. Anything that doesn’t meet acceptable standards is something to fear. And anything that makes people afraid must be eradicated and stripped of value.

That kind of logic may work for country clubs, social orders, and political parties. But it bears not one glimmer of resemblance to the Church’s beginnings and its prophetic roots. Christian communities that genuinely heed their prophetic calling should be visibly, culturally, and spiritually diverse. Their commitment to Christ’s gospel of radical inclusion should be tested. And we who’ve been relegated to the margins are ordained to challenge the Church’s faithfulness to God’s will.

Not even Jesus could accomplish this without divine help. Nor could Isaiah. And neither can we. That’s why Isaiah’s prophecy doesn’t end with the backlash against nonconformity. “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame,” he writes. As we enter Holy Week and witness the agony Jesus endured to remain faithful to God’s will, we must accept the same calling for our lives. We will not be disgraced. We will set our faces like flints, looking at the challenge before us without a moment’s hesitation, knowing we will not be put to shame. We can’t do this great work we’ve been given on our own. But thanks be to God, we have God’s help.

This coming week, as we stand before the cross, let us not only weep for the horrific suffering our Savior endured. Let us weep for what’s been lost by reducing the Church purchased with His blood to an insiders-only club. Let us commit our lives to reviving the Early Church’s vision of what a truly prophetic, radically inclusive faith community can be.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Baby Snatchers

There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast, and take as a pledge the infant of the poor… From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer. (Job 24.9,12)

Dedicated to the memory of hundreds of murdered children and those who loved them.

During Advent our pastor asked a question that has haunted me ever since. “Can we continue to idolize violence and still believe the Gospel’s message of love?” She paused to scan the congregation. With a catch in her throat that fueled the fire of her insistence, she said, “The answer just has to be, ‘No!’” By idolizing violence, she meant faith in hostility and death over love’s decisive power to sustain life. This violence runs much deeper than movie mayhem and gangsta rap. It drills down into the marrow of our social and spiritual beings.

We participate in a culture that places nearly all of its confidence in aggression and retaliation. It’s not enough to resolve our differences in a loving, peaceful manner—in part, because doing so requires tremendous effort and sacrifice on all sides. No, we opt for the inferior alternative: settling scores. This compulsion takes root long before we reach for physical weapons. It’s the product of low biology—what the New Testament calls “the flesh”—that obsesses about survival and perceives every life challenge as a potential threat. Darwin optimistically framed this instinct as “survival of the fittest.” But, at its core, it’s a kill-or-be-killed mentality that goads us to take preemptive strikes and meet violence with violence. Thus, violence is an attitudinal issue that, if unchecked, becomes a behavioral problem. Its primary weapons are hearts and minds; fists, guns, knives, and—most commonly—words are merely hardware.

Violence always carries hidden costs that ultimately discredit its effectiveness. Years may pass before the bill comes due. But the instant our hearts and minds turn to violence—whether physical, verbal, emotional, or spiritual—the invoice is in the mail and it will arrive bearing interest. And violence doesn’t care who pays the tab, as long as it’s paid. So when excess pride in our children causes us to instill in them a ferocious competitive streak, we shouldn’t be surprised when its attendant anxiety and selfishness erupt in rage. When paranoia about safety and loss of “what’s ours” compels us to attack others, we shouldn’t be perplexed when we become targets of hostility. When fear of losing respect breeds disrespect for others, we shouldn’t be shocked when what we’re determined to preserve evaporates. Faith in violence doesn’t just look ridiculous. It is ridiculous.

Because violence can’t coexist with love, it provides no brakes to stop our slide down the slippery slope. The gaps between “venting” and berating, “defending” and bullying, “winning” and humiliating are not as wide as we imagine. If we listened more closely to how we talk, we’d get this. We talk about “letting people have it” and “crushing the competition” and “butting heads.” Even when we’re on the losing side, we glorify the violence we suffer, saying we’re “floored” by what was said to us, or “blown away” by another’s actions. Kids and sports fans have a term for our use of violent speech—“talking smack,” which gets to the nub of the issue. Saying leads to doing, and with so much of our language devoted to violence how can we not admit to its prominence on the altars of our hearts?

Giving violence different names or redefining it to highlight its extremes won’t remove its place of idolatry. When violence becomes the thing we rely on for protection and the thing we most fear, it is our god. What else but a god could persuade us to wage war in the name of peace, to assert the sanctity of our land by invading and occupying another, to exhibit self-worth by diminishing the value and rights of others? These are not instinctive responses to fear and threat; they’re conscious acts that constitute wholehearted worship of violence. And don’t be deceived: this god is a filthy liar. Nothing it promises ever pans out.

In the 24th chapter of Job—which some scholars believe is the Bible’s oldest volume—the hero’s complaint about the violence of his day reads like our daily news. Evildoers scam widows out of their property. Poor parents scavenge to feed their children, while thugs seize fields and vineyards. (Job’s loathing for this crowd is so vehement that he accuses them of not having enough sense to come in out of the rain.) Murderers kill the poor and defenseless. Women are routinely abused. And several times, Job’s focus turns to children born into a world consumed by violence. “There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast, and take as a pledge the infant of the poor,” verse 9 says. These baby snatchers place no value in human life. Nor do they bow to the God of love. The violence they worship deadens their senses to the agonies they cause. “From the city the dying groan, and the throat of the wounded cries for help,” Job tells us. “Yet God pays no attention to their prayer.”

That last sentence troubles us, as it should. It certainly vexes Job. The entire chapter begs the question, “Why would God allow this?” It’s the same question we ask when reading reports of children gunned down in drive-by shootings and we’re gripped with grief by grade-school massacres. Where is God? The answer may be simpler, and closer to home, than we think. We’ve replaced the God of love with the god of violence. In Matthew 6.24, Jesus explains, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” A society—including its religious right—that looks to violence to solve its problems has cast God from its presence. Before God can intervene, idolatry of violence has to be torn down. Then the love of God will return and that, in and of itself, will be the answer to our prayers.

Holy Week starts early for me this year, as Walt and I and members of our church join thousands of Chicagoans for tonight’s CROSSwalk, a sacred processional honoring the memory of over 800 young humans sacrificed to violence since 2008. Although the demonstration will be peaceful, it is intended to confront the idolatry of violence that plagues our city with baby snatchers, abusers, murderers, and war-makers. It is a fitting start to Lent’s closing act, when God’s love will challenge violence’s power and rise from death in decisive triumph.

This evening, as we hear the names of our lost called out—as we ponder the horrors of homicide and baby-snatching—we’ll want to ask, “Where is God?” But the answer to that won’t satisfy, because it’s the wrong question. With repentant hearts, we need to ask, “Can we continue to idolize violence and still believe the Gospel’s message of love?”

The answer just has to be, “No!”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

When Love and Faithfulness Meet

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. (Psalm 85.10-11)

Reading the psalms often feels like stumbling on a private conversation in midstream. It’s hard to say exactly what prompted the discussion. But the closer one listens the keener one’s sense that something’s happened and the poets are working things out with God. Sometimes the verses burst with gratitude and praise, leaving little doubt that God has done a wonderful, altogether unexpected—and perhaps undeserved—favor for God’s people. Then again, there are psalms that appear to be composed after the relationship with God has completely fallen apart. The writers’ pens bleed with remorse and pleas for forgiveness.

The conversation—the side we hear, that is—in Psalm 85 sounds like a follow-up to a prior one in which the people begged God to forgive their infidelity. With the repentance taken care of, the poet seeks God’s help in getting things back on track. “You forgave the iniquity of Your people; You pardoned all their sin,” he reminds God. (v2) Yet he’s not quite sure if God’s ready to pick up the pieces and start over, causing us to suspect something very serious caused this latest flare-up in Israel’s perpetual on-again, off-again love affair with God. The psalmist beseeches his Maker with the tremulousness of a faithless suitor hoping to return to his lover’s good graces. “Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations?” he asks. (v5)

What’s more, he and those he writes for are exhausted. The longing to put the entire nasty episode behind them thrums in the writer’s panic: “Will You not revive us again, so that Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us Your salvation.” (v6-7) The real question, of course, is, “Is God through with us?” (Massage the lyric slightly, put a steel guitar under it, and you’ve got a country-western let’s-give-it-one-more-try hit single.)

As if to silence his audience’s sobs, the poet says, “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for the Lord will speak peace to God’s people.” (v8) He goes on to assure his listeners that God will restore them to right relationship. The closing stanza swells with hope. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

If this conversation sounds familiar, it should. For five weeks now, we’ve trudged across Lent’s desert, wrestling with our failures, praying God’s forgiveness, and trusting God’s mercy and grace will find us. Confronting weakness is an exhausting process. We’re desperate to feel the security of God’s love. By this stage of the journey, we’re liable to panic, wondering why God would stay with us. But God is ever faithful. All the inner turmoil that Lent stirs up will be calmed. God will speak peace. “Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear God,” verse 9 promises.

Unknowingly, the psalmist provides a glimpse of where our journey leads. When love and faithfulness meet, when righteousness and peace kiss each other, faithfulness will spring up from ground in the form of a rugged cross. And righteousness will look down from the sky, brimming from the tender eyes of our Savior. Is God through with us? Hardly. Is God ready to give it one more try? Oh yes. Always. This conversation that began in anguish weeks ago will end with the most forgiving kiss we'll ever know.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Good Sheep

I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. (John 10.15-16)

Take a moment and flash back on your school days. Pick a random grade and scan the classroom. Who do you see first? Whose names bubble up the quickest? When I tried this little experiment, here’s who rose to the top: the troublemaker, the clown, the pet, the flirt, the rebel, and the ne’er-do-well. What about the good kids? Where were they? By “good kids” I don’t necessarily mean the A students or the champs or the leaders of the band. I’m thinking of kids who did their homework, never caused any grief, and got along with everyone. They were good friends, good teammates, and did well in their studies without calling attention to themselves. I imagine they grew up to be fine parents and neighbors and probably achieved an enviable measure of success. But, in all honesty, I remember little about them. A few names surface, and there are several faces whose names I’ve lost. Other than that, I can’t recall much about them.

I’d guess you’re better at this game than I, because I’m terrible at it. But I put it out there to illustrate how easily we overlook good people. Because we rely on them to do what’s right and hold themselves accountable and not put themselves out front, we gloss over their virtues. This phenomenon follows us through life, at work, in neighborhoods, and, especially, in religious spheres, where two groups stand out: the super-faithful and the train wrecks. Those are the people we focus on and talk about. It’s just more exciting to stand in awe of the saints and sit in judgment of the sinners than to recognize how many good Christians we live with. And this disconnect is unfortunate, not as much for them as us, because our obsession with extremes results in a severely skewed—in some cases, badly scarred—picture of the Body of Christ. There is goodness all around us. But do we see it? And if we see it, do we take the time to let it sink in? I’m apt to think not. Otherwise, our impressions of what’s good and what’s not so good about the overall community of believers would be far less extreme.

In John 10, Jesus, once again, tries to explain His approaching death to His disciples. All along, He’s told them He will die and be resurrected. But His words don’t seem to stick. So He turns to metaphors that summon familiar images. He says, “I am the gate for the sheep,” invoking a leader who must be physically removed and then restored to corral and protect his flock. It appears that the visual doesn’t quite do the trick, because He expands on the shepherd analogy. This time around, He adds something new. After saying, “I lay down My life for the sheep,” He tells the disciples His flock is much bigger than they suspect. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice,” He says. In the gentlest of ways, Jesus assures the disciples that the community of believers they will shepherd after His departure is stronger, larger, and more inclusive than they imagine.

Chances are these “other sheep” are all around the disciples. They may even know many of them by face or name. But their experiences at Jesus’s side have conditioned them to focus on extremes. They’ve witnessed extraordinary feats of faith, as severely sick and unjustly marginalized people have reached out for healing and acceptance. They’ve encountered vile hypocrites and critics who embody all that’s wrong about “organized religion.” Yet between these two polarities, there is a wide swath of faithful believers who follow Jesus—not for the miracles and controversy, but simply because His voice calls to them in very real ways. They’re not stars. They’re not part of the touring company. But they’re there, even though our fascination with extremes blinds us to them. And, despite being overlooked, the Good Shepherd counts them as good sheep.

Many theologians read Jesus’s “other sheep” statement to mean the actual community of faith exceeds religious labels. They suggest it’s possible that Jesus is saying He claims all who abide by the principles of His teaching—whether or not they identify with Him by name. Our comfort with that matters little, however, because the basic idea leads us to realize there is more goodness around us than we’re apt to see. In the Body of Christ, superstars are few and far between. But it also turns out that scoundrels are equally rare. As we prepare our hearts to enter Jerusalem, where we’ll rehearse the final week of Jesus’s mortal life, we should open our eyes and hearts to millions and millions of overlooked, seemingly unremarkable Christians traveling beside us. “I must bring them also,” Jesus insists, “and they will listen to My voice.”