Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How Gay Marriage and Abortion Require a Different Response

One might think that it's predictable how I (the pastor) would counsel Christians to vote or advocate on the issues of gay marriage and abortion. Both are in the public conversation: in our state, the legislators are, as we speak, voting to send a bill allowing gay marriage to the (exiting) governor. In the Congress, methods to restrict federal funds from paying for abortions as part of health care reform are being discussed.
But to my mind, these are very different issues.
It is true that there is no scriptural support for gay marriage (at least, not if you're going to avoid torturing the scriptures). From the Bible's perspective, the only reason for people to "burn" for another of the same gender have to do with idolatry. The Bible does not seem to imagine two same-gender people who wish to live in loving fidelity with each other like a married couple; when it is mentioned, it sounds much more like one-night stands than marriage. So it seems to me we have to be careful about using those passages against people who clearly want something more than just sexual satisfaction out of their union - if we'd stop yelling for a minute we could see how very insulting that is.
It is difficult for those of us who like things neat to consider that we don't have all the answers on this issue, and we perhaps should pray more and talk less for a while.
But what does seem clear to me is that legislating against gay marriage neither keeps people from pursuing homosexual unions nor brings them any closer to God (which IS my goal). Why would someone listen to how much Jesus loves them (and he does!) from me, if I've put a great deal of effort into insulting them and trying to keep them from someone they love?
I feel like I have no obligation to protect the heritage of marriage as a civil institution: what I'm interested in is advancing the purposes of the kingdom of God. Those who support gay marriage have a point: we heterosexuals (in the civil sphere) haven't done such a good job of showing that our heterosexuality has made us so very faithful to one another or able to keep our marriage vows. I have no doubt gay couples can do at least as well.
I once had a very honest conversation with a gay friend - he wanted to know why conservative evangelicals wouldn't even listen to his point of view. And I had to tell him that they "knew" he was wrong and therefore there was no point in listening. And then he asked me what I thought. In the end, I said, I believe that this is not God's first choice for you or any of us, but at the same time the world is broken and has been for so long, that perhaps first choices are unavailable on many levels. That's how I read Romans 1: things got so bad that...this is what it looked like on a macro level. I think those of us who are not "oriented" that way ought to have more humility, and on a civil level ought to let the conversation go on -- nothing about the way Christians are currently behaving on this issue is producing any light.

BUT I sure do think the issue of abortion is different!!
I believe that God creates life, and as smart as we are, we have not yet figured out how to do that on our own (and I doubt we ever will). Life is God's province, and thus we ought to have not just humility but awe when we approach it.
Abortion has been freighted with too much other stuff. I am for women to be strong, educated and having as many options as their brothers. I am certainly aware that in our history women's bodies have been considered to belong to everyone else but them, and I am in favor of overcoming that idea all over the world.
But when abortion is presented as primarily a tool for women to have control over their own bodies, I must dissent loudly!
There is another whose body is present, who cannot speak or be heard but is alive! Once that new person is alive and present, it is immoral not to protect that life. It is immoral not to speak for that life.
One often hears, on this issue, that if you are opposed to abortion, then don't have one -- but leave other people alone to make their own choice. It is considered judgmental and narrow-minded to say otherwise.
But, we would not say that about how someone else should take care of their dog or cat. We would say that even a hamster has certain rights and would take steps to protect that hamster if it were being neglected or threatened with harm! Michael Vick is not welcome in polite company because of how he treated his dogs -- but those who say that a baby, however unseen or unheard, deserves the same protection are considered rude.
I get it, that to insist that abortion is immoral, is to condemn a woman to suffer a pregnancy she does not want, and will mean she'll have to make tough choices when the child is born. I don't minimize that - but with all due respect, the better choices have to be made before pregnancy occurs.
The suffering of the woman, which I truly do lament, does not give her license to take the life of another, just because the suffering of the child can't be seen or heard. Sometimes we must do the right thing even if it's hard - but we shouldn't have to do the right thing without help or support. This is certainly the job of the church, and I lament that we have far too often failed.
And the inability of that child to protect him- or herself requires that others protect him/her. God, who consistently charged his people to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the alien, is not going to turn his face from the little one who is in danger of being eliminated because what's going on happens out of sight!
I agree that those who oppose abortion need to step up and help women trying to raise children by themselves (we can't oppose abortion, oppose birth control, and oppose supports like welfare and food stamps all at the same time!). I agree that those who oppose abortion because in the end there is a life that must be protected, must ALSO protect life in many other venues - because I protect life, I oppose the death penalty. Because life is precious and given by God, it is my obligation to be pro-life when it comes to health care reform, tax policy and war.
I don't mean to be glib. These are terrible decisions that people have to make, and I accept that often we are left with an array of bad options to choose from. I do not vilify people who have chosen abortion - I don't know what it was like for them, and I am "pro" their lives right now.

But when it comes to exercising my voice in the public square, it seems to me that the abortion issue requires my participation, as one who speaks for the voiceless ones. I don't think it has to be hateful, or shrill, or condemning: I just think we have to stand up for those we can't see but are nonetheless part of our families and community. I don't see how as a follower of Jesus I can do any less!

The difference between this issue and the gay-rights issue is, that gay folks can speak for themselves, and I am willing to listen to them and perhaps they will help me understand what those of us who believe the Bible ought to think. There is time yet for that discussion to be held. If gay people gain the civil right to marry, it doesn't change anything for me - while, if conservative Christians are successful in keeping them from marrying, it is a foregone conclusion that much of American society will feel a little more alienated from the gospel of Jesus Christ. That matters to me, and it's a strong reason for me to stay out of the debate.

But when it comes to abortion, I can't stay out of the debate, because there are living people involved whose voices can't be heard. Whether or not you're turned off to my testimony about Jesus because of my testimony on behalf of the unborn, I still must speak.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What the Christian Journey is Really About?

What is the spiritual journey about?
I used to think it was about knowledge: knowing the right doctrines, agreeing with them, believing them with all my heart. But the longer I know Jesus, the more I see that he has loved me and put up with me when I believed "wrong" content, and he clearly loves, grows, works in and is present by His Spirit in and among people who hold very different views of right doctrine. Sure, it's possible to go too far, off the rails, out in space...but within the boundaries of walking with Christ there is great diversity, and that ought to lead us to humility. Knowledge puffeth up, saith St. Paul.
Some people think it is about practice: either liturgical practice (right rites!) or ethical practice (good works). We can find biblical warrant for these things, but again, there is so much diversity that Jesus, by His Spirit, seems to put up with.
Yesterday, it dawned on me (and I'm hoping this doesn't mean I'm incredibly dense) that it has always and only been about: RELATIONSHIPS.
Think about it:
God came in Christ to demonstrate his love and compassion for us - the expected response is for us to believe in him, to put our faith in him -- and then to follow him.
Those are relationship words - it is about an I-Thou relationship with God himself! (Thanks, Martin Buber.)
And then, Jesus tells us over and over again that the nature of our new relationship with him is that it transcends all other relationships: his mother and brothers are those who do God's will; he came to set parent against child, etc. It isn't that Jesus thinks such relationships are bad -- remember when he raised the son from the dead and "gave him back to his mother"? He obviously cared for his own mother, as he arranged for her care from the cross. What he is doing, is telling us that when we enter into relationship with him, all our other relationships are now through and under him. "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ" applies, even to our families - especialy to our families!
So, with new eyes, we stop judging our parents and forgive them. We are charged not just to honor them but to love them, because we are charged to love everyone, even if in our particular case that's hard (I'm not talking about us, Mom!).
When we come to love and follow Christ, he places us within a fellowship of other believers, who we are expected to love - see 1 Corinthians 13! - not because of who they are or who we are, but because of who He is. In fact, we are told that his command is this: love one another (in the church) as he has loved us -- which was unconditionally and sacrificially, for our good and for God's sake.
The second half of most of (all of?) the epistles is a summary of ways to love one another, and ways to bolster relationships.
And then, we are sent out to be in relationship with people in the world, for their salvation, for the kingdom, in Christ's stead, for God's glory. So if you are a slave, remember who your real Master is and work as unto him!
This seems to mean that my boss, my kids' teacher, the teller at the bank and the guy driving in front of me, are all possibilities for redemptive relationships, no matter how long or short. I am always an agent of God's kingdom, looking to have right relationships for his name's sake.
Is this what it was always about?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Customer Service

We’d like a different Jesus, please.
We’d like to return this one.
This one keeps insisting that the meek will inherit the earth
And that he had come to bring good news to the poor.
By his steady gaze he reminds us
That our sins and weaknesses are known to him
And that they are not “better” than othersAnd our excuses don’t excuse.
When we declare that our people rule the world
Because we are quite naturally rulers
He tells us that those who follow him
Ought not to “lord it” over others,
And that he came to serve.
When we point out that we deserve what we have
His story reminds us that he took what we deserve
On the cross.
When we try to tell our children that He values
Hard work, excellence and family,
He interrupts and tells them that
He values love, mercy, forgiveness
And radical welcome.
We try to keep him within safe boundaries
By reading in the back of the book
And avoiding the red letters,
But the problem is He’s alive
And His Spirit keeps reminding us
Of what we already read.
We want to return this Jesus
And carry home the one
The radio voices seem to know.
That one would just go better
With our color scheme
And is easier in polite
We’d like a different Jesus.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An apology for scoffing - and an apologetic for humility

I have a confession to make. I have been a "scoffer."

Psalm 1 says, "oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with scoffers. But they delight in doing everything the LORD wants." (New Living Translation)

But it so much fun to be a scoffer! It's so pleasant to hang around with those who see things exactly the way you do, and laugh at those who disagree. We know who we are; we're the ones who are right! The more we mock our "opponents," the more sure we are that we belong. It is a satisfying feeling.

Jesus, however, asks something higher of us. He told us to "follow" Him, and He deliberately invited people who didn't hang out much with each other to be his disciples. He willingly ate with all kinds of folks, and every time he did, there was some other group of people disapproving of his dinner company. By being with them, he didn't become like them - instead, he modeled godliness in the midst of them, by loving them, listening to them, and gently redirecting them. Simon the Pharisee was a person to him (even though Simon was rude); the woman crying at his feet and wiping them with her hair was a person to him (even though she was a lawbreaker). All persons were, to him, people made in the image of God who labored under the handicap and deceit of sin - they were the "sick" for whom he had come as doctor. All persons.

So since Paul told us that our attitude should be exactly the same as Jesus', and then reminded us that Jesus "poured himself out" for us, "making himself nothing," and obeying God all the way to the cross for us, why do we think it is our obedient task to decide who is wrong and then assume the worst about them? To laugh and point and call names, which makes us feel ever so safe?

Yesterday I received an email from a Christian video web site. It invited me to watch a new video, their "staff pick." This comedy video featured a "Christian comedian" singing a well-known tune for which the words had been changed - and his version mocked a particular political point of view. Hey, it's just a joke, right? But the words accused his political opponents of thievery and worse, and most of all, of being out to get him.

Seriously? This is Christianity now?

I'm not unfamiliar with politics, and -- see my original confession - not unfamiliar with political scoffing. But seeing it done with the label "Christian" brought me up short: it's NOT Christian - Christ-honoring - to accuse others of evil intent, and evil identity, just because they don't agree with me. And when others ARE up to no good, it's not funny. And if I as a Christian feel it is my duty to point it out, I'd better be sure of it --because not only is the other's reputation at stake, so is my Lord's. He is the one whose name I bear - and what does it mean to use the name of the Lord in vain?

So I repent. I will be more careful to consider others as people for whom Christ died, and commit to praying even for those I may never meet but whose positions I disagree with. And I call others who bear the name of Jesus, to make this commitment as well - for His glory.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Health Care Reform Debate - for shame!

One of the big divisions in this country is about whether we ought to rely on, or completely mistrust, government to meet some of our needs as a society.

One side thinks that free enterprise and the motivator of ambition and reward are the most efficient motors of problem-solving, and that government unnecessarily (or perhaps diabolically) gums things up.

The other side thinks that government needs to get involved alongside business and other ways of organizing ourselves, in order to make sure some things are available to everyone -- and of course, which things those are, is another subject of great debate. (For example, we agree that the military ought not to be privatized and everyone ought to pay their fair share for that kind of protection - but the debate right now is whether access to health care ought to be one of those "social goods.")

There are good arguments to be made on both sides, and like everyone else, I like one side over the other. Like other believers, I think I can marshall the word of God on "my" side, too.

But what's become of the public debate? Now we're hearing of public meetings in which groups of people plan to show up in order to do violence? In which groups of people plan to show up to deny our elected representatives the opportunity to speak? All this in order to convey the impression that there is an angry majority -- even if, in fact, in that particular meeting room, there is not?

Christians need to hear Jesus on this kind of thing: "do not resist an evil person," Jesus said. "You have heard, love your friends and hate your enemies - but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matt 5:39, 43-45a) Hmm. Doesn't Jesus understand the stakes? Isn't his method likely to get us ignored, or worse, run over?

But Jesus' method recognizes something larger going on. Paul says, in Ephesians 6, "for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the ...spiritual forces of evil." In other words, if we belong to Jesus we ought to understand that no human is our enemy -- the real enemies are forces we don't quite understand in a realm we can't quite see, and besides, they are God's problem. Our job is to "stand" (and not fall), Paul says in Eph. 6, and to love God with our whole selves, to love our "neighbors" as ourselves (and that's anyone we can have mercy on) and to love one another in the body of Christ as Jesus loved us -- fully, sacrificially, unconditionally.

That's enough of a job for us. So I'm trying to remember all this, even as I get outraged in the midst of this whole discussion, and to pray for everyone involved -- and especially to pray for the truth to be told, for all the players to be revealed, and for a good work to be accomplished. I especially do not want to be an unwitting recruit for "spiritual forces of evil."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You want me to love WHO?

So, who, exactly, is my neighbor?

When Jesus said loving our neighbor as ourselves was the second greatest commandment, just who did he have in mind? After all, there are huge differences between the way we live now and the way that Israelites lived when that command was first given (Lev. 19:18). Does he mean my literal next-door neighbor? Does he mean the person standing next to me at church? Does he mean "those of my tribe" - after all, he was talking to a tribal nation.

Of course, that's exactly the next question asked (by the "rich, young ruler," Luke 10:29). And Jesus made things a lot tougher on us by answering him with the story of the Good Samaritan. The upshot of his story is that our neighbor is anyone we can have mercy on, even if that is someone declared to be our enemy!

That makes trouble for us followers of Jesus when we begin to negotiate in the political sphere, because of course the mandate underlying much of politics is to win, for my group to win, my people to win, my party to win (and for those others to lose). Politics, and much of our culture, advises us to look out for number 1, because you can be sure no one else is busy looking out for you.

As Jesus' people, our mandate is to make "shalom," that whole-life harmony, health and peace of Paradise, wherever and whenever we can - that's the point of that picture given us of the first church in its worship and life together in Acts 2:42-47. It will be fleeting on this earth before the Lord returns, but that doesn't take away our task to aim at it. Our job is to have mercy wherever and whenever we can. We're supposed to be looking out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). We can disagree about how to do that and whether it should or should not be done through government means, but what we cannot succumb to is the temptation to say, "I've got mine; go take care of yourself." Not even if we think the troubles of others are their own fault.
Jesus told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves - how can that not mean working for others to have the same benefits I've enjoyed?

Jesus told us that in God's kingdom the last shall be first, and the first, last; and he told us that if we have two coats, we should give one to the man who has none. These things must inform our public personas as well as our church selves. We must act with wisdom, and love sometimes calls for restraint - but it never gives us permission to bolt our door and throw up walls and begin to defend ourselves and see those in need as a threat.

I admire those who keep themselves from getting caught up in a party spirit, who work diligently to find the best solutions to our common problems, and who take a lot of fire while they're working at it. This is the best kind of situation for Jesus' people to stop and ask themselves, "what would Jesus do?"

Jesus, who touched the lepers and conversed with ostracized women and washed the disciples' feet, would surely never advocate at attitude that says, "I've got mine; you're on your own."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's wrong to be a fan of Jesus

Thanks to media overload, I'm still thinking about Michael Jackson.

And I'm noticing how the next step after idolizing a pop star, is turning him or her into whatever we want them to be. This human, Michael Jackson, is being credited with being the greatest entertainer who ever lived, the first person to transcend black/white racial identification, the first black entertainer to attract widespread white interest (really? My husband says that must have been a surprise to Stevie Wonder, James Brown, The Temptations, etc.), someone who taught us all to love the world and actually united the world, etc.

In response to all that, now comes the barrage of psychologists, philosophers and even ministers who are telling us what Michael Jackson "means." I guess what they really mean is, what the illusion/image of MJ means.

Somewhere under all that is the "real" Michael Jackson that none of us ever knew. Because we never knew him, all we can do is talk about the projection of who we think he is, and in some cases, want him to be.

It's that "want him to be" that makes a fan.

And there's the danger I never thought about before when it comes to something I know more about: Christians and Jesus.

Is it possible to be a "fan" of Jesus - to create out of our own desires and some limited information, a Jesus of our own making? To cheer for him, find other fans in that same Jesus, and get in fights with fans of some other "Jesus"? Do we wear his insignia, gather in fan conferences and sing his fight songs? Or like MJ fans, do we project on our "Jesus" all we want the world to be, all we want heaven to be, and what we find "spiritual"?

Ouch. I think there is more to this than I ever considered.

Jesus had lots of fans in the days when he walked the earth. But read John 6 - he intentionally dispersed them. Jesus doesn't want or need fans; he called us to be followers. And that asks of us something entirely different (although on some superficial levels, fandom and followership share some characteristics).

To be a follower is to let the living Jesus into your life. We become entirely aware of His presence, of His love, of His forgiveness -- but Jesus as Lord will make changes, and the long term effect should be that we are more like him. His character - his humility, his confidence, his love and welcome for all, his desire for God to get the glory - these things are immediately apparent when they grow in us, because they're so different from what we are naturally. "Followership" will make us different. Sometimes it will cause us trouble in the world. But it is also extremely welcome in a world where everyone is used to everyone else jockeying for position, power and acceptance.

Fandom, on the other hand, creates divisions, power grabs, fights for influence and striving for attention. Fans are interested in us v. them; fans want to wear the T shirt and find other fans to belong with. Fans turn the object of their interest into a larger representation of themselves, and attribute to their idol their own fears and wishes.

Perhaps we, being human, can't quite help mixing some fan-like behavior into our fumbling attempts at following Jesus. Maybe that is the sign of our need to grow further. But as a pastor it stands out to me this morning that this is a trap to be avoided. Fandom feels really good, but it is not following, and it is not the worship that the living Jesus wants from us.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Celebrating a win?

Tomorrow, a huge memorial service will be held for Michael Jackson.
And today, I’m shocked by the news stories about the “winners” of the lottery to attend to the Jackson service “celebrating.” Just what did they win?
You don’t have to travel far to find someone grousing about the nonstop TV coverage about Michael Jackson’s death, and it’s only a little farther to find someone complaining that Jackson doesn’t deserve all this adulation, what with the accusations against him and all. But that’s not my complaint today. I get it that someone could be both amazingly talented and flawed at the same time, and I’m not here to join in throwing stones at Michael Jackson.
But I guess what I am complaining about is our capacity to lose perspective when it comes to the death of a celebrity. What we ought to be noticing right about now is not only that celebrities put their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else, but also that “it is appointed unto men once to die” (Heb. 9:27 in the old KJV), no matter who you are.
In recent years I’ve been learning something about how quickly the closing parenthesis to our lives can come, and how quickly it can be that our life becomes a finished book, to be analyzed and remembered (or not) by others. This should be a sobering thought, and if we are reflective, it ought to make us think about the meaning and purpose of life itself.
That the same end comes to the “greats” among us should only underscore it.
So what is the meaning of strangers to Michael Jackson celebrating over winning a lottery to sit at his memorial service, as though it were the concert ticket to beat all? Perhaps it is a way for people to avert their eyes from what has really happened: that a person so talented came to such an end, that the very things he fought to keep secret are now known to everyone, that in the end we lose control. We don’t like to know those things – so turn the music up and let’s pretend it’s just one more concert, this one a tribute to the Michael we think we know.
I know nothing about where Michael Jackson stood with his creator, but I know that his creator knew all about him – knew about his hurts and his dreams and his fiercest loves, and the things he felt powerless before. So I hope that at his memorial service there is a hush that will finally overtake the circus atmosphere, that there will be a moment to recognize mortality, and even more, I hope there is a turning, from the best this life can offer, to a glimpse of eternity, and the One who invites us to know Him and love Him, even to the extent that He already knows and loves us (1 Cor. 13:12).
Janet Jackson spoke briefly at the BET awards last week, pointing out that though Michael was image and icon to his fans, to her, he was family – and her grief, over losing a brother that those celebrating their ticket win never knew, was visible in the lines of her face. Michael’s Maker knows a Michael no one else knows (and he knows a “you” and “me” that no one else knows, too) – and the meaning of that ought to fill up that hush at his service.
Let there be awe – not just at Michael Jackson’s footwork, but at the reality of death and the promise of an appointment with God. Let there be humility, that no matter how big the crowds are here that call your name, in the end you really can’t take much with you. And how would it be if then the celebration began, not to drown out the fearful specter of death, but instead to participate in the glory that we aren’t stuck in death, thanks be to God?
That’s what I’m praying for, when it comes to Michael Jackson’s memorial service.
Lord, thank you for the gifts and talents you gave this man – now have mercy on him. Surround his children and family with your comfort. And cause an awe to fall on all who are attentive to his death…that we would see death for what it is, and that we would value your overcoming it for us in Jesus. May we not turn our heads too soon, and so miss your grace. Amen.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

They think they're on to us

Jerod Clark at the ThinkChristian blog tells a fascinating story: apparently EA (Electronic Arts) wanted to boost attention to their new video game called "Dante's Inferno," so they hired actors to put on a mock Christian protest outside the largest video game conference in the US! (http://www.thinkchristian.net/index.php/2009/06/30/mocking-christian-protests/)

The fake mob carried protest signs ("Hell is not a video game") and even had a web site which Clark says parodied the bad design of some church web sites.

So, the publicists for EA recognized what some Christians don't: outraged protests about cultural markers often just drum up interest in the thing that outraged the Christians!

When cooler heads prevail, we recognize that Jesus just didn't act this way. In fact, the Pharisees faulted him for his lack of outrage at sinners. But the gospel writer John pointed out that Jesus didn't need anyone to tell him what was in a man (John 2:25). Instead of protesting what made sense to "sinners," he demonstrated God's love for them/us and invited us to follow Him.

Jesus sat down to eat with the folks the Pharisees were outraged at. The only time Jesus ever shows amazement in the gospels it is at the hard-heartedness of those who are supposed to be the "God-people." Why do we continually wind up acting like the wrong ones in this story?

It's not that the world doesn't come up with some outrageous stuff (and a video game about Dante's Inferno doesn't even raise a goosebump). But our job is not to rage at the darkness; it is to bring the light, in just the way that Jesus did it. So we're better off spending more time with Jesus in the Bible, and in prayer, and less time scrutinizing the culture for signs of depravity. The world will show up without us having to look for it, and we'll be much better prepared to be like Him when it does.

Jonah was a whiner; am I?

Last week I attended our denomination's annual meeting: the Covenant of which we are a part, sees itself as a gathering of members, only the members are each churches. Together, those churches pursue Jesus' work in the world, able to do more than each could by themselves.

The focus for our meetings together was "the necessity of the new birth" - this is one of our affirmations; for more info, check out www.covchurch.org -- and at one evening's worship service, our director of evangelism, was the preacher.

Her text was Jonah, and here's what she challenged us with: Jonah, we read in the Bible, was sent to Nineveh to tell the people there that they were in trouble with God and were about to be judged. But Jonah runs away (remember that whole story about the big fish?). Ultimately, Jonah accepts his assignment, goes to Nineveh and brings the message - and then he gets himself a ringside seat to watch God wipe out Nineveh.

But instead, the Ninevites take him seriously! They turn from their depravity and seek God's face and desire to be made friends with God - and God takes them up on it.

You'd think that would be good news, but not to Jonah. Jonah is put out! He wanted fire and brimstone; he wanted them to "get it."

Then we read in the Bible this strange set of circumstances; while Jonah waits on that hillside in the searing sun, God causes a plant to grow up quickly, and Jonah finds shade under its leaves. But the next night, God allows a worm to chew through Jonah's plant, and Jonah finds himself without shelter in the baking sun again, and he declares he is ready to die.

And God calls him on it: Jonah, you're so concerned about your own comfort, and you complain and argue. But there's no room in your heart for the Ninevites..."who don't know their right hand from their left." God makes it plain that God's heart always was for the Ninevites, and it sets up in stark contrast the venal, self-regarding heart of Jonah, who didn't give a fig for the Ninevites and was disappointed that they didn't get punished, but was consumed with concern for his own comfort.

Rev. Orris put the question then to us: are we more concerned with our own comfort, or have we cultivated hearts like God's, that begin to hurt for those around us who don't know their Maker and Father, who "don't know their right hand from their left"? If we aren't telling others the good news, what reason do we have for that?

I'm not sure if it was Rev. Orris who said it or if it the Holy Spirit's challenge to my own heart, but I am reminded again that my relationship with God through Jesus isn't because of my own merit or even that of my parents, but instead it was Jesus who loved me before I was even able to love him. I am, through no merit of my own, "God's workmanship," chosen to do good works which were prepared for me in advance. (Eph 2:10). The word for "workmanship" is poema, from which we get "poem" -- we are God's craftmanship, his work of art, which pleases him and makes us ready to do what he's given us to do.

So I can't sit on the hillside and wait for the world to go to hell in a handbasket. If it weren't for the grace of God I'd be in that handbasket! So am I sitting in the hot sun, deploring the lack of shade, wondering why God isn't making me happy? Or am I out there in the world, open to being used by God to help someone else find new life and hope in the One who loves us so much?
Has it become obvious to me that, instead of being poised to punish the world, God has already taken the punishment of the world on himself, that his crowning creation might be rescued?

Jonah really comes off as a whiner in the scriptures, and yet I was touched by God's continuing work with him, patiently showing him how his whining demonstrated how far he was from the heart of God. God is patient, but it would be great if I could learn from Jonah's mistakes!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"The Shack"

Finally read The Shack (by William P. Young) on a cross-country flight this week. I had heard a lot about it (I think it was on the NYTimes bestseller list for a long time last year). Some said it was a great allegory; others said it was unbiblical. I just didn't know what I was going to think about.

Well, I loved it. It's the story of a man who is angry with God after a terrible tragedy - and God actually invites him into the Trinity's relationship, to have his ideas about God reshaped. I wouldn't want to ruin it for anyone - but I sure do recommend it. I do, that is, as long as the reader remembers it is an allegory written by a mortal, not scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But it is carefully written...and for me, anyway, it was very moving. Let's put it this way: I cried so much through it, I'm sure the flight attendant thought I was headed for a very sad event on the other coast.

One of my favorite moments was when Mack, the main character, answers his host's questions about his children. As his recounting of his children's welfare is carefully attended to, it occurs to him that his hosts already know all this, yet he is still carefully listened to. Why is that, he inquires. The explanation is touching: because his hosts voluntarily limit their own "knowing" in order to hear his accounts, because God wants to hear about how he sees his children. What an enormous picture of what happens when we pray! How much God loves us, to listen to our prayers!

I was discussing the book with a friend at the Covenant Annual Meeting - he said that it just didn't move him. It wasn't that he found it doctrinally deficient, he said, but it just didn't move him. He said that he wondered if that was because he didn't have kids - and that may be true. The Shack certainly touched me in a very deep place as a parent; I don't know how I would hear it if I didn't have that experience. Love to hear more from others about the book.

Crying for Freedom

Last weekend, I was riveted by the Twitter thread and live-blogging from the streets and rooftops of Iran. It was thrilling to hear of regular people making a decision to take back the power that had been used against them; it was, however, tragic when it sank in that these voices belonged to real people who were being beat up and even killed for taking such a stand. The thrill was diminished when I considered that if my family were there, I'd probably prefer that my young adult children not participate in such high-stakes speech. And yet, guiltily, I do want the people of Iran - particularly the women of Iran - to prevail in their efforts to have their say over the powers that seem to have stolen their votes in their country.

So what would be worth such risks, if it were me and mine? What does Jesus really think about these issues?

Despite the tendency all his followers have had to co-opt Jesus for whatever their cause has been over the millennia, Jesus in the Bible seems to be relatively disinterested in the political fray of his day. It wasn't that the situation was any better - Israel was occupied by a pagan empire that regularly offended Jewish values. The people were overtaxed by the occupiers and again by their own people who collaborated with the Romans. Their local rulers didn't stand up for them against the Romans, and their local religious leaders added to their burdens.

When Jesus arrived on the scene at the start of his ministry, the zealots - the activists who were trying to undermine or overthrow the Romans - thought he might be recruited for their cause, but Jesus paid them no mind. When Roman taxes were due, Jesus paid them (however supernaturally).

Jesus just as quickly distinguished himself from the party of the Pharisees, who were trying to get everyone to obey the Jewish law meticulously, the better to encourage God to bring Messiah to overthrow the Romans -- Jesus intentionally healed unworthy "sinners" over and over again on the Sabbath, to the Pharisees' outrage, proclaiming that God had made the Sabbath to serve humanity, not humanity to serve the Sabbath.

Everyone who tried to get Jesus on their side wound up disappointed. The gospels display a Jesus who was quite clear what his cause was, and he didn't make alliances with other causes: his cause was God's "kingdom," the emerging of God's rule over a new administration and a new tribe, the beginning of a new thing that was going to endure right through the end of the world and beyond. This new thing would be made up of people who had been made entirely new from the inside out, spiritually, by him, and these people would begin to display his characteristics and to do what he did in this world. What they created together was supposed to show the world how things are when God is in charge.

That new thing is what the church is supposed to be, and it does still endure, even though it is surrounded by a whole lot of fluff and mess that Jesus' followers can't resist creating, too. The real "kingdom" of God is supposed to be our main cause, and never to be supplanted by any other. The kingdom is where earth's inhabitants are supposed to find real freedom, real healing, real acceptance, real love. From that kingdom, we earth-dwellers who belong to Jesus can also engage on issues of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, propriety and freedom - but without losing sight of the eternal big picture and for whom we always work (and why: there is no freedom while we are estranged from our Maker).

I believe in freedom; I believe in free speech and voting rights and democracy. I think that in our broken world these are the best ways for humans to thrive (and while we are at it, the best circumstances under which the church can thrive). But they are not my main cause and can never be: I'm already taken by the kingdom of God.