Archive for the 'Incarnation' Category

Damn Christians Part II

“Because I’m a [damn] Christian.”—Will Campbell

Orlando clubI’d scarcely clicked “Publish” on my last post “Needed-Damn Christians”—when I realized I needed to say more. I’d told the story of the late Will Campbell and his unique ministry to folks on all sides of political and religious divides. I described his presence at the long-delayed murder trial of Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers. Bowers had allegedly ordered the killing of a number of civil rights activists, most notably Vernon Dahmer—in the mid-1960’s! In 1998, thirty-twoyears after the fact, Bowers stood trial again in Mississippi, this time with new evidence and a realistic chance of being convicted. Campbell spent some of the time at the trial sitting with Dahmer’s large family on one side of the courtroom–and about the same amount sitting with Sam Bowers, who sat all alone on the other side. When a reporter asked why he did this, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a damn Christian.”  I concluded that our fragmented society needs more “damn Christians” who will share the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) modeled by Jesus and pursued by Campbell, Martin Luther King, and countless others. I said, “I believe the church’s place relative to the red and blue faultline running through American society is standing tall with our feet planted firmly on both sides… with neighbors who are easy to love and with those we struggle to love.”

But I hadn’t said much about how we arrive at that conviction, or what equips us for that uncomfortable and challenging stance. Then the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened early Sunday morning. It brought folks together. It also re-opened some old wounds and re-started some old arguments:

  • Omar Mateen’s anti-gay feelings clearly informed his choice of target. Those feelings still live in many hearts and minds.
  • He was an admirer or supporter of Isis. That’s enough to reanimate both rational concern over terror and misinformed or simply mean-spirited anti-Muslim prejudice. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine the exact nature and strength of that connection in this incident.
  • His primary weapon was an assault rifle like the ones banned from sale in this country until 2004. We’re having that yelling match again.

Thirty or so hours after the shooting, before all the dead are identified and their loved ones notified, the noise around these divisive issues grows ever louder. Politicians speak out, seeking every advantage. Activists on both sides strain to shout down the opposition. But if we’re simply yelling past each other, once again we’ll generate plenty of heat but precious little light.

What if some “damn Christians” dare to love our neighbors more than our ideology? Something could change. If we behave differently, the future would play out differently. Don’t misunderstand me. I have very strong convictions about these issues. But beyond the issues are our relationships with our neighbors. “If it is possible,” Paul urges us, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18 NRSV)

So I offer here a framework within which we who follow Jesus might find ways to “live peaceably” with “all sorts and conditions of persons” while still maintaining the integrity of our convictions.

  1. We see and honor the image of God in every person.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27 CEB)

Every human being bears the divine image. No exceptions. No exclusions. No weasel words. No fudge factor. Sharing this divine DNA makes all seven billion of us family–for better or worse! That includes all those folks who post their ridiculous nonsense online (and who feel the same way about our brilliant, witty, profound posts); folks from places whose names we can’t possibly twist our tongues around; folks with whom we fit perfectly and folks with whom we clash catastrophically; folks who energize us and folks who drain us; folks with whom we feel welcome and folks who just give us the creeps. All of us, in all our glory and uniqueness, created alike bearing the divine image. All means all. “Damn Christians” practice the spiritual discipline of looking for the divine image, no matter how hidden, marred, or disfigured, in every human being.

  1. We recognize every person as someone for whom Christ died.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his…one and only Son…so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” John 3:16 MSG

Still no exclusionary clause. “…whole and lasting life” is God’s will for each of us and all our divine kin on this planet. Not exactly the message we get from our “I’ve got mine and I’ll take yours if I want it” culture. Claiming God’s gift doesn’t require a dazzling resume or a twenty-page application. It requires only “believing”–trusting with our whole being– that the way of life we see in Jesus leads away from destruction toward more and better life than we’d dared to imagine.

Easy to say, but very hard to accept. Abundant negative evidence exists, much provided by so-called “Christians” in the form of both actions and deadly silence. Our not-yet-believing neighbors want to be told less and shown more. “Believing” takes what God always knew it would take—incarnational evidence.

Orlando hug

  1. We will embody Christ for others through everything we do and are.

 “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what…When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” Philippians 2:5-7 MSG

 That’s all it takes. Just turn my back on this 21st-century  privileged, entitled, “I want it all” culture. Climb down the ladder I’ve worked so hard climbing up. Invest myself in folks from whom I thought I’d managed to insulate and isolate myself. Give up my self-important illusions and just be my created-in-the-divine-image self. All that takes is someone who …didn’t think so much of himself…” “didn’t …cling to…status…” “…set aside…privileges…took on the status of a slave, became human.” It takes some “damn Christian” foolish enough to follow Jesus to places and people most folks say aren’t worth the effort; foolish enough to believe “God loved the world…” means the whole creation and everyone who’s ever been or ever would be a part of it. Some damn Christian like Miss Velma Westbury. According to Will Campbell, Miss Velma often said, ‘”If you just love the folks what’s easy to love,that really ain’t no love at all…If you love one, you have to love’em all.”

“Of course,” Campbell points out, “some folks said Miss Velma was crazy.”

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

“How Long, O Lord??” An Advent Lament

US gun crime in 2015 (Figures up to 3 December)

353 Mass shootings        62shootings at schools

12,223people killed in gun incidents       24,722people injured in gun incidents

Source: Shooting tracker, Gun Violence Archive

  • How long will we tolerate nearly-daily mass shootings in our nation and fail to take meaningful action to stop them?
  • How long will we watch processions of victims being transported to the hospital or the morgue—and accept such tragic scenes as the “new normal”?
  • How long will we watch grieving families weep and mourn their loved ones—while praying that our community isn’t next—but do little or nothing to make a difference?

“ If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah 64:1 CEB

  • How long will politicians let their fear of the NRA keep them from enacting sensible regulations regarding gun ownership?
  • How long will we fail to require licensing and insurance for gun ownership and users similar to that required for other lethal equipment such as motor vehicles?
  • How long will we entertain the ridiculous claim that assault rifles and similar weapons of war are normal household appliances, toys, or sporting equipment?
  • How long will we believe the lethal fiction that we’re safer with more guns in more people’s hands in more crowded public places?

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  • How long will we allow the condemnation of all Muslims for the actions of a few hyper-extremists?
  • How long will we allow misguided policies and divisive rhetoric to become recruiting tools for future terrorists?
  • How long will we tolerate the cycle of mass shootings followed by universal hand-ringing followed by failure to take meaningful action?
  • How long will we talk past one another instead of with one  another and demonize those with whom we disagree?
  • How long will the words of Scripture proclaim our continuing collective insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results): “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.”? Proverbs 26:11 NRSV
  • How long will we continue to slash mental-health funding that can provide life-changing treatment for disturbed people who might otherwise become “active shooters”?
  • How long will people of faith trust everything and everyone that promises safety and security more than we trust the One who is “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”? (Isaiah 9:6 NRSV)
  • How long will our spiritual leaders remain fearfully silent or at best timidly indifferent regarding guns and the glorification of violence in our culture? (HINT—Christmas Day is too long!
  • How long will we offer “thoughts and prayers” for victims of violence divorced from any commitment to transformative action toward preventing future tragedies?
  • How long will we whine that “God Isn’t Fixing This” when the real issue is our choice (passive or active) not to collaborate with God in healing brokenness and building a new world?

God Isn't Fixing This

  • How long will we who follow Jesus mirror our society’s attitudes regarding war, violence, and the use of force rather than embodying a countercultural alternative of strong, assertive, nonviolent love in the spirit of Jesus? In other words, how long will Christians living in the USA choose to be Americans first and Christians second? Fuller Theological Seminary professor Kutter Callaway writes about renouncing his Second Amendment rights. I hereby renounce mine. It’s time for followers of Jesus to rediscover  and reclaim our peace-making tradition found in the early church, the Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren,and more recently Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, the Sojourners movement, and others. More along this line soon.
  • How long will we talk and sing about Incarnation (God’s love embodied in Jesus) while failing to become God’s instruments through whom Redeeming Love becomes physically present to all neighbors within our reach?

“The Word became flesh and blood, “and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” John 1:14 MSG

Beyond “Je suis…”

Folks like me who speak minimal French have had one phrase burned into our memory: “Je suis”—“I am”. Following the January 7 terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, millions identified with the victims: “Je suis Charlie”—“I am Charlie”. The related attack on the kosher grocery store amplified the sentiment: “Je suis juif”—“I am a Jew”. People all over the planet stood in solidarity with those victims of terrorism and anti-semitism. The following Sunday’s massive demonstration brought together world leaders who agree on little else. That day in the streets of Paris they stood side-by-side for freedom of expression and against terrorism and violence. “How long,” I wondered, “will all this solidarity last? When will this news cycle end and self-centered business as usual return to center stage?”

Then I wondered further: “Je suis—folks we usually squeeze out of our circle?” “Je suis Michael Brown? Eric Garner? George Zimmerman? Trayvon Martin? The homeless folks lined up outside the shelter waiting for it to open?  Their colleagues who hold handmade cardboard signs at busy intersections? Je suis those on the far side of our social, cultural, generational, religious, and ideological divides? You know, the folks we can’t talk to without yelling but love to talk about. (It’s always easier to talk about “them” when “them” aren’t present. Besides, labeling “them”  prevents or at least postpones the discovery that “them” are every bit as wonderfully and maddeningly human as we are! Every breach in the “them” barrier reveals how much like “us” are the dreaded “them”. Stereotyping labels don’t’ stick to folks with names, faces, and lives so much like ours.)

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, I see hopeful ripples of “Je suis…:”

  • January is a month designated for education and action to stop the global epidemic of human trafficking. Slowly but surely folks are getting the message.
  • I heard a Golden-Globe winning actor describe how the experience of making “Selma” taught him at a deep level that “I am” the marcher hit by the fire hose, the person facing excessive discrimination as he/she seeks to register to vote, the congregation whose church is fire-bombed, and all the other characters in that continuing drama.(Sorry, I don’t know his name. I’m celebrity-challenged).
  • The developed world loudly mourned the events in Paris, but paid far less attention to Boko Haram’s latest brutal attack in Nigeria. The terrorists slaughtered hundreds, perhaps as many as two thousand. The United Methodist Bishop in Nigeria affirmed that Sunday demonstration for the twenty or so victims in Paris. But when, he wondered, would he see comparable support for Boko Haram’s victims. (Not so far, have we?)
  • We just celebrated Martin Luther King Day. The next day (yesterday) our nation’s first African-American president gave the State of the Union address. That’s huge progress. But we have so far to go. Have the black-white struggles of recent months set the stage for faithful conversation and action? Will we finally move beyond the ceremonial nods-to-the-cause that politicians of all stripes have learned to deliver in mid-January? When will a critical mass emerge to follow Dr. King’s lead with bold moves toward deep and lasting healing of the racism that infects our society—and our planet?

One word—INCARNATION. The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 The Message) We celebrate Jesus’ birth because he grew up to become our window into the heart of God. That living window reveals God’s presence in every aspect of our life, and in every life. “Black lives matter” along with every other “sort and condition” of humankind. Rich and privileged lives matter. The least favored and most despised among us matter just as much. All of us who share this planet matter equally to God because every human life contains a spark of God. That’s how our Creator created us: “God created human beings; he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature.” (Genesis 1:27 The Message) That “reflection” has been dented, scratched, almost totally obscured over time. But Christmas reminds us who we are in God’s sight–“created…reflecting God’s nature”–all of us. ”Little Lord Jesus”  invites us to treat each other with appropriate respect so that reflection may be renewed in us and all within our reach.

We Christians get out that word Incarnation every December. A few weeks later we put it away  in the garage with all the other seasonal trappings. (My wife says that’s next on my to-do list.) But some rebels among us keep at least one nativity scene out all year. It proclaims “Incarnation!” 24/7/365. Incarnation affirms the sacred worth of every human life. Incarnation affirms that the God who’s moved into our neighborhood in Jesus came to heal the terminal illness (sin) that afflicts humanity and grotesquely distorts the reflection of God’s nature. That purpose may be delayed but not defeated. We see that reflection laser-clear in Jesus. That “reflectivity” is in every person, even the ones in whom we see no trace. Ask God to help you see your neighbor, your enemy, the strangers you usually ignore, with God’s own eyes. As we look deeply for that “reflecting-God’s-nature”-ness in other people, we’ll  start seeing them differently.

Soon we’ll be ready for the next step. We’ll move beyond “Je suis”—“I am…” to “Nous sommes une famille”—“We are family”. “Family” share the same DNA—the same creator, so to speak. We can choose the causes we identify with—free speech, democratic society, etc. But we can’t choose family. It’s a deeper, permanent relationship. Transformative change comes as our circle of “Nous sommes une famille” grows ever wider.

I have no master plan to get 7 billion-plus people to that point. But you and I can begin with ourselves and the people in our lives. If you’ve put all your nativities away, get one out. Keep it in plain sight all year. Teach your family and your guests why it’s there. Be an evangelist. Teach the curious a little French: “Nous sommes une famille”. Then watch and wonder as one early Christian’s witness happens before your very eyes: “The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.” (John 1:5 The Message)

Alaska Journal 3–The Power of Weakness

I intended to write this soon after Part 2, which I posted nearly a month ago. But Life intervened, first in the form of my granddaughter’s curiosity about the Frank Schaefer trial. She stimulated me to write “This Is Our Witness?” Impulses that strong usually generate some of my best writing, so I’ve learned to go with them. Life also intervened in the form of family Thanksgiving, including grandchildren, travel, and miscellaneous fun. Life’s apparent interruptions also put me in sync with God’s timing, which always trumps my hyper-scheduling and micro-managing. I think you’ll agree that this last part belongs in the Christmas season.

Two churches, Galena Bible Church (GBC) and St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, serve the 500 people who live in Galena, Alaska, the town where I worked last summer as one of 80+ United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) helping with Yukon River flood recovery. Our team worshiped with GBC both Sundays we were in town. (Some will say we went to church in order to share the potluck feast that followed worship each week.) A few of us built shelves for GBC’s community pantry one day. This church of 21 members facilitated the work of another 220+  volunteers. Their cots, sleeping bags, and luggage were stacked around the edges of GBC’s multipurpose room all week, sometimes even during worship on Sunday. One Sunday a power tool battery sat in its charger on the platform just a few feet from Pastor Chris Kopp as he preached. The Altar Guild didn’t revolt because of the unorthodox liturgical decoration. For me the “functional” décor proclaimed that worship is meaningless if it doesn’t fuel and focus the church’s ongoing involvement in the life of its community—power tools and all!

Battery charging on the platform during worship.

I wanted to know more about GBC’s engagement with its community. But our team was involved with our work and Pastor Chris was rushing madly in all directions much of the time. After returning home, I emailed him and asked him to tell me more about the church and its ministry. He described how the church had called him as their pastor three years earlier. Eighteen months into his ministry he began working with GBC’s leaders to discern the church’s future direction. Study, dialog, prayer, and fasting led them to affirm that “…our gospel goal was that in five years we wanted any long-term resident of Galena to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.”

“Those are a group of people who love and care about each other.” It’s not rocket science, folks! Our life together is our most powerful witness to our immediate neighbors. Pastor Chris led that GBC congregation beyond “liking one another” to loving each other: “Just as I have loved you, Jesus told his disciples, “you also should love one another.” (John 13:34).By the way, Pastor Chris would insist that at most he’d led folks to be open to the Holy Spirit. That in itself is huge.

The quality of a church’s common life speaks powerfully to its neighbors, for better or worse. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus continues, “if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). Tertullian was a bishop in North Africa in the late second and early third centuries. The Christians under his care generously shared food, clothing, jobs, whatever they had that others needed. Love erased boundaries between believers and non-believers. Tertullian wrote that such love moved non-believers to say with amazement, “See how these Christians love one another!”

 GBC has grown (and continues to grow) into a community of people who deeply and truly love each other.  GBC had also unknowingly positioned itself to respond to last May’s disastrous Yukon River flood. Pastor Chris says that when the flood came, “What else could we do but respond according to the burden that God had put on our hearts?”  GBC partnered with parachurch mission agencies, its supporting churches, local, state, and federal government agencies to bring help and hope into the stricken community. How did this church of 21 members, most of whom were coping with flood damage to their own homes and to the church, pull it off?   “It is impossible to explain…,” according to Pastor Chris, “other…than to say it was the power of God made evident in our weakness. “

Sounds like Christmas to me. Peel away the layers of tradition and commercialism and we find two peasants welcoming their first child into the world in a stable far from home and family. We who follow Jesus see in this story God’s limitless, world-creating love going to incredible, unfathomable extremes to heal the brokenness between God and humanity. Love empties itself, sets aside power and privilege, and takes on our human weakness in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire. Thirty years later this baby grows up and starts traveling through the countryside teaching people a whole new way to understand life, God, and one another. His enemies engineer his execution, but he doesn’t die. Jesus’ followers insist that his life continues in them and beyond them. An early Christian hymn affirms “…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) At Christmas “all the fullness of God” chose to enter our world in “…the power of God made evident in…weakness”. “All the fullness of God” focused in one human life lived in very humble circumstances: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) The people of Galena, Alaska know that as the people of GBC love and serve their neighbors day after day through “the power of God made evident in our weakness”.

“…In five years we wanted any long-term resident…to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.” It’s a worthy mission/vision for churches of all sizes, shapes, styles, and settings. It’s a great way to proclaim Good News without getting too many words in the way. It’s a way to celebrate authentic Christmas: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Your neighborhood. My neighborhood. That neighborhood we’re afraid to drive through, especially after dark. Every neighborhood. Everywhere. For ever and ever. Amen.

Death Rattles or Birth Pangs?

My wife Dianna and I went to a church meeting last night. It was a historic occasion. During my nearly two years of retirement from active ministry I’ve religiously avoided church meetings other than choir rehearsal. This one was advertised as “brainstorming” for the church’s future.  Technically it didn’t qualify as “brainstorming”, but that didn’t matter. In the course of 40+ years of pastoral ministry I led dozens of similar sessions variously identified as “brainstorming”, “goal-setting”, “long-range-planning”, “visioning”, “strategic planning”, etc. Nearly every congregation, from house-church- size to mega-mega, does this regularly on some level.

I went to listen. Would I hear death rattles or birth pangs? Even without knowing the congregation I could have written much of the script for this church meeting and thousands like it. We’d hear concerns expressed about:

  • Survival—attracting more (younger/healthier/energetic) people who’d give more money and time.
  • Attracting and serving families with children (like the children and grandchildren of the retirees who composed most of that group and congregation—now including Dianna and me!).
  • Financial stability/sufficiency/survival.
  • Maintaining and improving the building and grounds—a growing challenge (bordering on burden) for a heroically faithful but declining, aging, and increasingly-burned-out group of volunteers.
  • Increasing the volunteer base, primarily by recruiting more people to serve on existing committees and groups.  

Everyone read their lines about as expected.  I heard what I was afraid I’d hear. I heard death rattles of a church (terminally?) turned inward on itself, afraid to die and afraid to change. I’m not blaming anybody in past or present leadership. I’m just telling the truth for a disturbing number of churches in this country. They/we keep doing things the same way we have for decades and expecting different results. As you may know, that’s one definition of insanity. Institutionally speaking, it’s suicidal behavior.

But I also heard faint cries I pray are birth pangs of new life (Romans 8:18-25):

  •  Genuine concern for children in the community—not just to fill up empty classrooms, but to help them discover the wonder of being children of God and part of the Family of God.
  • Passion to care for caregivers. “Caregivers” includes anyone caring for a family member who requires significant assistance due to some physical, emotional, developmental, or other issue. This small congregation seems to have more than its share of such situations. The folks raising this issue (feeling this calling?) understood that this ministry requires us to form creative partnerships with other community resources.
  • Desire to move mission beyond arm’s-length donation to personal relationship. In the interest of full disclosure, this was my contribution. This church (like so many others) does a good job of raising and sending money and “stuff”, e.g., food for the local food bank and those well-filled Christmastime shoe-boxes. A few individuals volunteer faithfully with various organizations. But I don’t think that in its nearly forty years of existence the church has ever sent a mission team to serve beyond its local community. I believe authentic Christ-following mission means that we go in person wherever and whenever possible. The big theological word for that is “incarnational” mission–going in the flesh, the way God did in Jesus!  I identify this as a possible “birth pang” not because it was my brilliant idea but because it seemed to resonate with some other folks.

Death rattles or birth pangs? It’s far too early to tell. It depends on the follow-up from that session. It depends on the presence and practice of persistent, courageous leadership. It depends on our willingness to respond faithfully to the Holy Spirit’s gentle nudges (and less-than-gentle shoves) toward the future.  It depends also on the preponderance of the congregation that wasn’t present at last night’s meeting. They can lead, follow, or get in the way. They can choose life—the harder way, the uncomfortable way, the messier and more chaotic way. Or they can choose slow, lingering death.

God set the prophet Ezekiel in the middle of a vast valley filled with dry, parched bones. “…can these bones live?” God asked the prophet. “Master God, only you know that,” Ezekiel replied.(Ezekiel 37:3) That’s where our church and many others in North America find ourselves today. One of the church’s traditional rituals affirms that “The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time…”  Particular churches come and go. They come into being when God’s Spirit calls some people together into a new expression of the Body of Christ, the Church, in order to accomplish God’s purposes with people in a particular community. They  pass out of existence when God no longer needs that congregation in that particular setting, or when God finds other, more suitable instruments to accomplish God’s purposes in that particular setting. I think God can still use this congregation in this place. Will the congregation choose to be sufficiently responsive to still be usable by God?

 

“Our Hearts Are Broken”–Enough to Take “Meaningful Action”?

We watched the developing story, refusing to believe and unable to turn away. A gunman had invaded a Connecticut  elementary school and killed twenty six-and-seven-year-old first-graders and six adults. Earlier that morning the alleged shooter, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, had killed his mother, with whom he had lived. Finally he shot himself.We saw the President speak, wiping away tears, struggling to remain composed. “Our hearts are broken,” he said. We saw interviews with experts, first responders, clergy, teachers, assorted officials–and parents. Those parents resolved to hug their children a little tighter when they tucked them in bed–even the big ones who tuck themselves in.

Our hearts are broken at the thought of 28 people dying senselessly. Our hearts are broken for those families in their overwhelming grief. Our hearts are broken for that school that lost 5% of its student body in mere minutes. Our hearts are broken for parents everywhere who will not feel completely safe sending their children off to schoool on Monday (or ever?), and for children who now have one less “safe place” to go.

Our hearts are broken. So is the heart of God. What do you say to those families who had lost someone at Sandy Hook Elementary? “There are no words,” most television coverage concluded. Our simple presence speaks volumes. Quietly sitting with someone, helping out in simple ways, listening when someone wants to talk–or cry. If I were in that situation, I’d want them to know–with presence first, with words when the time was right–that God shares their hurt more deeply than they know. God shares the hurt of each of us and all of us who grieve this tragedy. If Christmas means anything, it means that in Christ God has entered our life more fully than we can comprehend in order to share the fullness of human life.

President Obama didn’t stop at “Our hearts are broken”. He said the time has come for “meaningful action” to stop this cycle of violence.  Our first “meaningful action”, of course, is to comfort those who grieve. The Newtown community needs time and space for memorial services and other ways to grieve its loss. We don’t need a lot of political jousting while that happens.

Another meaningful action I urge you to take is to counter a hurtful message being spread by some alleged Christians. Conservative broadcaster Bryan Fischer and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have both linked the shooting to the removal of prayer from public schools.  Fischer says, “We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen [sic].” Huckabee claims that we have “systematically removed God” from public schools and shouldn’t be surprised at the results.

THEY’RE SO WRONG I’M ABOUT TO RANT AGAIN! The God we know in Jesus isn’t sitting on the sidelines pouting because Fischer’s hyper-narrow view isn’t the only game in town. The God we know in Jesus didn’t orchestrate this and other mass killings as a wakeup call for a nation that’s moved beyond Governor Huckabee’s “good old days”. Huckabee’s God is as unspeakably cruel as the mass shooters. Fischer’s God is a big passive-agressive baby. Neither reflect the God we know in Jesus. Please use every opportunity to offer a different perspective if this comes up in a conversation you’re part of. Butt in if the conversation’s going on and you’re not part of it. This poison cannot go unchallenged. I’m positive God’s heart breaks when those who claim to know and love him take his name in vain this way and distort his purposes so blatantly.

I believe the climate of violence in our culture breaks God’s heart over and over. Gun regulation is one piece of the puzzle. Can we now finally have an honest, civil, beyond-politics conversation? Can we admit that the Second Amendment’s vision of keeping muskets in citizens’ hands in order to provide for “a well-regulated militia” no longer applies–and move on? Can we involve some gun-owning and non-gun-owning parents and grandparents of first-graders? How about some NRA members in that category?

The climate of violence in our culture goes far beyond the gun store, of course. It includes video games, movies and television, boxing and its wrestling/martial-arts hybrid cousins, and the toys we buy our children for Christmas. It includes every situation in which force is the preferred method of problem-solving, from families to foreign policy. Legislation has limited effectiveness here. Schools, religious groups, and every organization that works with families can be extremely effective if they have the will, the courage, and the love to address this complex issue.

Let us also address mental health issues. Adam Lanza apparently had mental health issues, as have many other mass shooters. Is it possible to be mentally healthy and do such a thing?? Progress will require creative public-private partnerships. How about starting by giving mental health services and research enough money to do something meaningful? The field’s been cut repeatedly in most jurisdictions. If we can send people to the moon, we can surely figure out ways to prevent mass shootings by identifying and preventively treating those who show warning signs of this behavior.

Our hearts are broken by the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So is the heart of God. It’s enough for now to comfort one another and to prepare our hearts to welcome “Emmanuel”–God-with-us who comes to us even where we think we’re beyond God’s reach. Let us invite God’s powerful Spirit to empower us for action to heal the brokenness in Sandy Hook and in our nation. Let that powerful Spirit inspire and empower “meaningful action” in our families, our communities, our churches, our schools, and in government.

Are our hearts broken enough to take meaningful action? Time will tell.

If It Isn’t Personal, It Isn’t Mission

 

“On Christmas Eve I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral….It had dawned on me before, but it really sank in: the Christmas story. The idea that…Love…would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty…I was sitting there, and…tears came down my face, and I saw the …utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this…love needs to find form…Love has to become an action…There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.”—Bono

“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”—John 1:14 (The Message)

Most churches raise large amounts of money for mission projects in their own community and all over God’s world. Money is an essential ingredient of those projects. The folks who’ve raised the money feel a genuine sense of accomplishment, both from their shared work and also from the difference their gifts make in someone else’s life.

Sending a check is a good start. But too many people and churches fail to move beyond that ‘good start”. Fundraisers evolve into annual events. Over the years “missions” becomes synonymous with “charity”. Those annual fundraisers fail to create a connection between the givers and the recipients of their generosity. They (we) gladly support a good cause at arm’s length, without getting dirty or disrupting our comfortable lives.

It does take money to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to provide clean water, to treat and ultimately eliminate diseases like AIDS and malaria, to build schools, hospitals, churches, and other institutions, to provide disaster relief and rebuilding, etc. Money is necessary, but never sufficient, for accomplishing the mission of God. Mission isn’t our “charity”, our “good works”. Authentic mission is our participation in God’s mission of healing and reconciling all people and all creation in Christ. David Bosch says that “Mission…is the alerting of people to the universal reign of God through Christ.” That’s where Jesus began: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15 NRSV)

Michael Frost  goes a step further. He says this “alerting” involves both announcement and demonstration. We tell the Good News—and we show it by acts of sacrificial love and service. These days most folks need to see some credible “showing” before they’re receptive to our “telling”. Our walk and talk are most believable when they’re seamlessly integrated.

That’s hard to do from a safe, check-writing distance. If I were leading a church today, I would challenge my people not to settle for sending mission donations. “Let’s make that ‘check in the mail’ the exception rather than the rule,” I’d say. “Let’s deliver those checks personally when we bring a team of volunteers to serve at the local food bank, homeless shelter, urban ministry center, disaster relief site, etc. Let’s not settle for collecting school supplies and backpacks at the beginning of the school year. Let’s also pray regularly for that neighborhood school’s students, their families, and for the teachers and staff. Let’s volunteer to serve in whatever ways we can be most helpful–in a classroom, an after-school event or carnival, a maintenance project. “

In other words, let’s give ourselves along with our monetary and material donations. Not everyone can go. But some of us can—many more than we might think at first. If we’re participating in God’s mission, let’s follow God’s method: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” Let’s build authentic relationships with the folks we seek to serve. Let’s live alongside them long enough to know how life feels in their shoes. Let’s work, worship, and pray together.  Let’s be willing to be grateful receivers as well as generous givers. After all, those we seek to serve also have gifts to share with us. Reread 1 Corinthians 12 if you wonder about this point.

Missions isn’t “charity”. It’s having some skin in God’s life-changing, world-changing game. The technical theological term for having skin in the game is “Incarnational Mission”. I’m increasingly convinced that’s the only kind of authentic mission. A few years ago a man in our church got excited about a mission project in Northern Mexico. Within a few months he had organized a team to go down and work during Spring Break. That team made a meaningful difference in the life of the church and community where they served. Many went back the next year.  All of them came back different people.

That’s why I urge folks to get involved serving somewhere. It changes us as much or more than those we serve—because we have some skin in the game. Folks who’ve experienced Incarnational Mission know mission isn’t merely sending checks to “worthy causes”. Mission is personal—as personal as God wrapping Love in human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. If it isn’t personal, it might be a good deed. It might be charity. But it’s not mission. Authentic mission happens wherever followers of Jesus act out Bono’s Christmas Eve insight: “…love needs to find form…Love has to become an action…There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.”  


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