Archive for February, 2016

Telling the Truth, Being the Truth

Before the truth can set you freeYou are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”–Jesus, John 8:31-32 CEB

I tried to start this piece by being cool, calm, objective, even-handed. That approach generated only multiple “deletes” and an annoyingly blank screen. So I’ll just say it:

Donald Trump’s rise is a nightmare perilously close to coming true. The super-slick salesman, self-proclaimed consummate deal-maker, and reality-TV star has insulted, bullied, and bigoted his way to the inside track for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s skillfully amplified popular frustration, anger, and prejudice to unprecedented intensity. He might actually become the forty-fifth President of the United States!

I’ve watched what I knew could never happen, and increasingly asked God and myself, “How shall we who follow Jesus respond? What’s our place in this struggle?” We could get down in the mud with him the way Mr. Trump’s opponents have following last week’s debate. We could proclaim, “Trump’s not a [real] Christian.” When Pope Francis tried that, folks told him to mind his own business. We could engage in endless nitpicking and Bible-quoting to make our case, at least to ourselves. But we’d likely also confirm in many minds the popular stereotype of Christians as narrow, judgmental, unloving grinches. So let’s not wade into the muddy morass where Mr. Trump and his opponents have chosen to wallow. Let’s not attack or “go negative”. Let’s focus on issues and substance rather than insults and half-truths.

I believe the distinctive contribution followers of Jesus can make is simply  to tell the truth about the transforming impact of faith in Christ. I suggest that our witness [telling the truth we have seen, heard, and experienced] embrace the strategy popularly attributed to St. Francis—“Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary.” [While scholars now doubt that those are Francis’ words, that doesn’t diminish their wisdom. ] Let us simply “tell the truth and be the truth” that is Christ.   

The following biblical passages sketch the shape that message takes in our lives:

  • Jesus describes the upside-down blessedness of living his way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope…when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you…when you’re content with just who you are…when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God…when you care…when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right…when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight…when your commitment to God provokes persecution” (Matthew 5:1-12 MSG)
  • A scholar asks Jesus which one of the 613 commandments in Hebrew scripture matters most: “Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.’” (Mark 12:28-34 CEB))
  • Jesus redefines greatness when his disciples argue among themselves: “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It’s not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant. Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27 MSG)
  • “…the fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NRSV)
  • Paul tells Christians seeking to be faithful in the midst of a pagan culture: “I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse”. (Philippians 4:8 MSG)
  • “…religion does make your life rich, by making you content with what you have. We didn’t bring anything into this world, and we won’t take anything with us when we leave. So we should be satisfied just to have food and clothes. People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10 CEV)
  • “If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister…he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” (1 John 4:20-21 MSG)
  • Jesus tells a story about the Last Judgment. People are evaluated according to how they’ve treated their neighbors in desperate need—poor, sick, homeless, prisoners, etc. “Whenever you did [or failed to do] one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46 MSG)

Wow! Who set the bar so high? Not me. Jesus and his early followers knew that’s how much God loved them and wanted to do in and through them–and every one of his precious children. Our most compelling witness among our neighbors is just being ourselves in Christ–“co-operating, not competing or fighting”; caring for the “overlooked or ignored”; focusing on “the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly”; cultivating a bumper crop of “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control “. The Truth that is Christ sets us free from living life against one another as our hyper-polarized society insists we must. The Truth sets us free to live life with and for others so that all God’s children may know the “abundant life” God wills for all of us.

The truth that is Christ is the ultimate antidote to toxic hate-and fear-based politics. Incarnation continues to be the most effective way to communicate transforming, liberating Truth. The best vehicles available for this mission are–you and me. Our neighbors get the message through the lives we live with them day by day. Let’s try something together. Pick one of the Bible passages above. Try to embody it in your life each day. Be sure to fasten your seat belt. God’s Spirit will grow us into people who tell Truth by being Truth–not perfectly, of course, but far better than we imagined on good days. Our incarnational witness will reach and change more people and   situations than we dare to dream–even in this bizarre and sometimes scary political climate.

Truth will set you free

Our Lenten Journey–Who’s Walking with Whom?

“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” is a tune we’re hearing each Sunday in Lent where I worship. It’s part of a “Centering Time” at the beginning of the service, in a different instrumental arrangement. The spiritual certainly sounds “Lenten”—“I want Jesus to walk with me…In my trials, Lord, walk with me…When my heart is almost breaking…When I’m troubled, Lord, walk with me…When my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” Of course we welcome Jesus’ presence with us on this difficult and demanding annual road trip. Calvin Earl writes of this song and others like it: “…the spirituals were a path to freedom for the slaves…as they sung to God through a moan and groan, the cry was so deep God heard, and His comfort gave the slaves strength, courage and the grace to go on in the fight to free the label of slaves for themselves and generations of their children not yet born.”  Perhaps not to the extent of those African-American slaves, but we’ve been through our own trials, heartbreak, and troubles that leave our “…heart …almost breaking…our head…bowed in sorrow…” Of course “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”.

Walking together

This past Sunday another “walking with Jesus” song started playing inside my head: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus…” It’s hardly a slave’s “moan and groan” toward freedom.It’s a joyful song written by a well-off young white woman musician on the staff of a large, affluent church. It’s in the Advent section of our United Methodist Hymnal. Its rich use of light imagery also fits the Epiphany season.

But I hear it helping us along our Lenten journey with Jesus. You see, “I want Jesus to walk with ME” can become a slippery slope before we know it. We start at “I want Jesus to walk with me because I’m overwhelmed by life and I can’t do this by myself.” Sometimes we get too comfortable. We like it here. We’re moving in for the duration. The next verse becomes “I want Jesus to accompany me on my stroll through life so he’ll insulate me from all the bumps and smooth out all the rough spots.” When I ask Jesus to walk with me, I get to decide where we’ll go, how fast or how slow, who we’ll stop and talk to along the way, and when we’ll cross the street to avoid “those people”. Suddenly we’ve asserted our will over God’s and life’s dangerously out of balance. Hardly the first time that’s happened. Way back at our very beginning (Genesis 2-3) God welcomed Adam and Eve to enjoy the fruit of every tree in his garden—except one. Naturally, on that one off-limits tree hung the fruit they couldn’t live without. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Lent is a season of reflection and repentance (re-direction) in which we may refocus our lives and refresh our relationship with God. That process may include clarifying just  who’s walking with whom on this Lenten journey: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.”  We’re with him. We go where Jesus goes, sleep where Jesus sleeps, eat where, when, what, and with whom Jesus chooses, meet, greet, serve, and love the people to whom Jesus leads us along the way. Our annual “Lenten journey” invites us to reaffirm and deepen our response to Jesus’ simple life-changing invitation: “Follow me.” We join him on his journey as we say, sing, pray, and live, “I want to follow Jesus.”

Each of the four gospels tells its own story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Many congregations re-live that journey in their worship during the weeks leading up to Easter. You can follow Jesus’ journey on your own through a daily Bible reading plan. This one covers all four gospels. If you’re starting now (almost two week into Lent), feel free to adjust and adapt. Pay close attention to the places Jesus goes, the people he meets, and how he treats them. “Following Jesus” in daily life means at least going where he’d go, helping the people he’d help, caring most about what he cares most about, doing what he’d do if he were living among us today. And remember–WE NEVER HAVE TO FOLLOW JESUS BY OURSELVES! Discipleship is a team sport. The moment I say “I want to follow Jesus” I am linked to every other person now and throughout history who has made that same transforming choice. If following Jesus is new territory for you, or if you just want some companions to walk along with you with Jesus,  invite a friend or a few to share the journey.

Who’s walking with whom? Am I walking with Jesus, or is Jesus walking with me? Sometimes life gets hard. We’re pushed beyond our limit. We just need Jesus to walk with us through a dark valley or a difficult time. In the midst of those situations we often discover that he was closer than we knew sooner than we knew. When “I want/need Jesus to walk with me”, he does—as long, as far, as closely as necessary. Many people testify that they have come through such an experience stronger, more able to endure hard times, and more focused and willing to follow Jesus’ lead step by step. And the closer we follow, the more we discover his presence in all of life, especially those places we thought he’d never  go or could never reach us.

Let’s walk on together. At any given moment some of us are strong and confident, ready to move forward. Others are going through trials, heartbreak, our heads bowed in sorrow. The more we focus on following Jesus, the more we’ll discover how closely and surely he’s walking with us. In those times when we just need to lean on him (and our brothers and sisters) for strength and comfort, his strong constant presence brings us through and empowers us anew to follow wherever he leads us.

The road leads through Lent and Holy Week to Easter and God’s New World. The refrain of “I Want to Walk” keeps before us God’s ultimate dream for all He has created and loves: “In him [Christ] there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” [cf. Revelation 21:23, 22:5]

 

 

 

 

 

We Are What We Eat

“It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”  Jesus, Matthew 4:4 (MSG)

Self-feeding is a key developmental task for us humans. Our older grandchildren (18, 20, and 22) learned healthy eating habits from their parents and their own involvement in athletics. They enjoy an occasional junk-food splurge, but overall they feed themselves well. “I’m not being fed” is no longer a complaint we expect to hear from them. They’d be told, “Fix yourself something. You’re (almost) an adult.” They’ve mastered the developmental task of self-feeding. Our younger grandchildren Lucas and Amelia have moved from milk to baby food to solid food. Now they’re learning to make their own healthy food choices. 5-year-old Lucas knows he’s allergic to nuts. He also knows he needs to consume some protein soon after he wakes, or else HE’S A GROUCH! 3-1/2-year-old Amelia lives for dessert, especially chocolate! Her folks work hard to help her balance her food intake. [As I wrote, No. 2 son David sent me this picture of lasagna he’d just taken out of the oven. He’s also clearly mastered self-feeding!]DavidH Lasagna

Yet one of the most common exit whines in church life is, “I’m not being fed.” It comes from sheep church members looking to leave their current congregation for pastures that appear to be more lush and green. “Not being fed” is an all-purpose complaint that might mean: “Pastor never talks about my favorite things;” Pastor drags me outside my comfort zone too often and I wish (s)he would quit it.” “Pastor and I disagree about nearly everything.” “Pastor doesn’t interpret the Bible the same way I do (and therefore with questionable accuracy).” Pastor keeps raising hard questions when all I want is easy answers.”

“I’m not being fed.” I heard it periodically during my forty-plus years of active ministry. So did most of my colleagues. More often than not it filtered up through third parties after the sheep parishioner had already wriggled through the fence and wandered off. The goal was rarely dialog, learning, and mutual understanding. It was more often assuring a steady diet of one’s favorite “foods” that wouldn’t upset a tender spiritual tummy.

These developmentally-delayed disciples live their whole lives expecting someone else to feed them–the pastor, the Bible class teacher, the TV preacher, the online Jesus guru. Paul wrote to some early Christians: “I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet.” (1 Corinthians 3:2 CEB) Newborn infants have to start with milk. But very soon young bodies and minds want and need much more. Strength and health come with “solid food”, not junk food. “If we’re not growing, we’re dying” is true not only for our physical bodies, but for spiritual, intellectual, and professional growth.

Our Lord freely offers us “the Bread of Life”–but we continue to choose junk food. Spiritual junk food is as easily available as the physical junk food in convenience stores and fast-food outlets. Junk food is full of empty calories. Its intentional overdose of fat, sugar, and salt overwhelms our bodies with excessive carbs and minimal nutrition. Spiritual junk food tastes good and satisfies immediately. But it leaves us empty. It provides little or no lasting nourishment. It doesn’t build us up. The empty calories of physical and spiritual junk food do us far more harm than good.

Spiritual junk food is self-centered. It’s all about what’s in it for you. It’s about what you can get out of God, rather than about what you can give to God and God’s purposes for God’s world. The seminary professor who taught us worship showed how “junk food” hymns overflow with first-person singular pronouns—“I, me, my, mine” etc. When it’s all about me, God gets squeezed out of the picture. That’s a toxic recipe for sure.

Spiritual junk food is exclusive rather than inclusive. It tells us, “Thank God we’re not like “those people”—Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mexicans, Japanese (WWII), conservatives, progressives, poor folks, immigrants, etc. If the dish set before you consistently divides humanity into a good “us” and an evil “them”, it’s almost certainly junk food: “[Jesus said]…The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.’ (Luke 18:9-14 MSG)

Spiritual junk food offers too-easy answers to hard questions. Those easy answers may satisfy us initially. But we’re hungry again in an hour. Too-easy answers ignore the consensus of contemporary knowledge. They close discussion and foreclose the possibility of additional learning. They reinforce the status quo and excuse us from the responsibility of living out our faith day by day in the real world.

Worst of all, spiritual junk food takes a too-simple approach to the Bible. Truly “nutritious” Bible reading takes seriously Scripture’s character as an inspired complex collection of writings produced over many centuries. When Jesus went into the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), the Tempter tried to trick him into a bumper-sticker approach to the Bible–“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”. Jesus wouldn’t bite. ”It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth,” he replied. Scholars have wisely suggested we do well to take the Bible seriously rather than literally (another post for another day). What did a passage say to the folks who first heard it? What was their world really like? When we go a little deeper, Scripture becomes truly Bread of Life for us.

My Methodist roots remind me of John Wesley’s term “Means of Grace”. That was his term for spiritual disciplines and practices that open spaces in our lives for God’s unlimited love to nourish and shape us. You can read his sermon on the subject here. These personal and public practices help us be sure we’re  consuming good solid food, not junk food. This illustration shows how these disciplines support our focus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) and balance both personal and public discipleship. No junk food here. More than enough solid, body-building nourishment to get us through the wilderness of another Lent.

meansofgrace diagramThis year let’s clear out all the spiritual junk food that clutters our lives and our churches. Let’s covenant together to feed ourselves well and to offer hearty, nourishing “solid food” to all the hungry folks we meet as we grow together in Christ.


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